D.T. Max discusses David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was the most exciting writer of his generation. A new biography examines his troubled life

Published September 3, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

Despite having published only one indisputably major novel, the late David Foster Wallace is widely considered the most important novelist of his generation. Born in 1962, Wallace established himself with “The Broom of the System,” a comic novel indebted to Wittgenstein and Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” and a series of essays and articles that mixed humor and sadness in a way that felt bracing.

In “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” New Yorker writer D.T. Max tracks the novelist from his Illinois boyhood through triumphant and troubled years as an Amherst College philosophy student to a period of wandering from school to school, city to city, searching for emotional stability and purpose.

Wallace, of course, made his boldest mark with 1996’s “Infinite Jest,” the gargantuan novel set around an addiction facility and a tennis academy. In a period in which Wallace struggled to follow up its achievement, he moved to Pomona College in California, where he taught and lived with his wife, Karen Green. Some of his efforts went into “The Pale King,” an unfinished novel finally published in 2011.

“Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story” sketches a brilliant, despairing protagonist whose life can be seen as a search for personal and literary meaning. With its appearances of figures such as David Letterman, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, the biography transforms one man’s life and death into a cultural history of our time.

The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Most biographies, I find, take longer than the writer expects. How long did this one?

It took three years, but I'd already had a head start because I did the New Yorker piece, which involved a lot of very fast research. I didn't know what to expect. It was my first biography and I thought it would be slow because one thing I'd already kind of learned is that there's a lot of grief still in people's hearts and you really can't push people when they're feeling bad. But the thing that was surprising to me, well, there were two things really: one was the amount of letters that I was able to unearth, which was really a treat.

The second was the sheer complexity of David's life. He had a tendency to tell two different stories out of the two sides of his mouth and write a third, and so a lot of that slowed me down. And that was the biggest surprise. He didn't live very long but he moved a lot. A biographer is a kind of journalist, and one thing that you find is that there are very ordinary details; you're really interested in “Oblivion,” but you spend a ton of time trying to figure out when he moved from Syracuse to Bloomington, Ill.

Did you have a model for this book, some kind of biography that served as a touchstone or guide to you?

I very much was aware of the issue of what to leave out and I made a sort of vow to myself early on that I wasn't going to put things in that I didn't personally find interesting. In other words, I was going to shape it like a story. But I think a conventional biographer is usually working a little bit harder to make sure everything is in there.

I have a lot of interest in readers and respect for readers and I feel like David's story is funny in the way he's touched so many of us; it needs to be told to a larger group. One of the things I found and I was astonished by was just how broad the number of people who cared about David was, and I wasn't willing to say, "OK, if you didn't get to Page 70 of 'Infinite Jest,' you can't read my biography.”

The book is considered the “Gravity's Rainbow” of the Gen-X generation.

Yeah, yeah, but in a way it has more valence than “Gravity's Rainbow.” It's almost more like “Catcher in the Rye.” For all that “Gravity's Rainbow” was an extraordinary book, has anyone felt moved by it? There's this weird fact that a number of kind of solitary college or high school-type gunmen had copies of “Catcher in the Rye” under their pillow, that kind of thing. I don't think “Gravity's Rainbow” has ever played that role for anyone. And “Infinite Jest,” not to put it under anyone's pillow, touches people.

So we have this extraordinary novel and I think it grows stronger on rereading with the years. A lot of people say to me, “He doesn't come off as a saint in this book; why isn't he a saint?” The point I want to make is we're not looking for exemplary people, we're looking for people who want exemplary behavior from us. And one of the really cool things about David is that he never stopped caring about how [he] lived his life. Even on a personal level, he taught us how to care about how to live our lives. And in that sense he doesn't correspond to any literary figure I can think of.

David's great quest in literature was to try to write a realistic novel for a world that was no longer real; that's his explanation. I was trying to do the same thing in biography. I was trying to write a biography that actually tracked the way we think of people today. One of David's great discussions with one of his writing teachers when he was a graduate student at the University of Arizona [was], ”What do brand names signify? What [do] cultural tastes signify?”

This can be overemphasized in a book about somebody who committed suicide, but how much a role did depression play in his life?

The real question for David, I think, isn't how large a role did depression play but how large a role did treated depression play. For most of his creative life, he's being treated. I don't think he would've survived to 30 without Nardil.

So the question then becomes treated depression, you know; here's the question I think is really complicated and interesting. An individual [who’s] treated for depression is in some ways kind of well, but I don't think he ever stopped being the kind of peculiar person who was David. You know you'd never mistake him through all those years for anyone other than the very upset, anxious high school boy whom I describe in some of the early pages.

You know he had a set of symptoms, agoraphobia. He's very sensitive to social rejection, [but] he snaps back very quickly. It's amazing to me. This is a man who attempts to commit suicide and then he's writing again two or three days later. It's astonishing. And so I think the feel of depression and memory of depression is always there for him. But there are certainly years in there where he must feel essentially well. I think in the Illinois years, which is '93 through 2002, I don't have the book in front of me, I think he's a pretty well person. I think he's most identifiable for the reader in those years …

He’s so damn absorbing, so fascinating. It's one thing for you to sit there and have someone tell you David was extremely intoxicating or extremely seductive, but it's another thing, letters I've read, where he is trying to seduce, trying to be intoxicating, and then of course the letters where he hates himself for trying to be so seductive and intoxicating, and then there's the question of, “Is he writing these letters to the same woman in an even more meta attempt to be seductive and intoxicating?”

Which writers do you think most shaped David Foster Wallace? Pynchon? DeLillo? Lester Bangs?

I think for the Wallace I care about the real answer is Dostoevsky, [though] not stylistically.

Interesting, OK.

For me the person who makes David want to be a writer is Thomas Pynchon. So much so that I discovered in the letters that he lies about whether he's read "Lot 49." You know, it just becomes endless, people say, "Oh, you write a lot like Pynchon," so what DeLillo teaches him, I think, is a kind of elegance that he doesn't have, a kind of classy detachment from your words that he carries forward for the rest of his writing life: a certain kind of poise, a certain kind of dialogue, especially.

The thing you have to remember about David, which I learned writing the biography, is he really begins as a gag writer, If his life had been different, he could've been completely happy as one of those Harvard kids who write for "Saturday Night Live." He started writing on Sabrina which is a sort of Amherst answer to the Harvard Lampoon, and they tried to be clever in the same way. I don't know how much of a reader you are of Wallace’s; ever read “The Broom of the System”?

Yeah, I love that book. It's not "Infinite Jest" but it's …

I love it, too. It's a dirty secret to go around loving “Broom of the System.” You know, it's a book he refuted but that doesn't mean, I think, we have to refute it.

But, anyway, that book's a book of gags and parodies. So I think DeLillo taught him restraint. You can even see it in his letters he writes DeLillo, when he asks, “How do you become an author?” There are a lot of those sorts of questions. And when he meets DeLillo he finds that DeLillo looks and talks a lot like his father, so it's almost like the ending to "The Wizard of Oz," you know, the answer's at home all the time.

What Dostoevsky gives him is what he's really searching for in the late '80s and early '90s, which is purpose: “What are my gifts for?” I found there's a note in the archives about Dostoevsky having “balls,” and I feel it's a very important statement. He names a number of other writers, every contemporary writer he knows, the difference between them and Dostoevsky is Dostoevsky had balls. And I think balls for him means really an almost spiritual commitment to the craft, to its importance and its ability to affect people's lives, which I think is very much lacking in the late '80s, when he's sort of foundering around trying to figure out: Why am I working? What am I working toward? Am I working toward more girls? Am I working toward money? Am I working toward having my name on the cover of the book review? No. Those are not satisfactory answers to him already, when he's just 27. I'm working toward changing people's souls. And in that sense, I think Dostoevsky's really responsible for that aspect of “Infinite Jest” and I think it certainly kind of takes over in the late '80s. “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” strike me as having a very Dostoevsky hue to it.

The part of the story you're telling is a sort of intellectual or literary journey. That's one of the big arcs of this life and it points at a contradiction and a paradox: He was a frequent and obsessive TV watcher who also worried, to use Neil Postman's phrase, we were amusing ourselves to death. How did that tension work in his life and his writing?

I think a lot of it worked as self-hatred. Not in the writing, but in the life. He said somewhere that TV was the only real addiction in his life. And that was said years after he stopped smoking pot, because I think pot was a pretty real addiction for him. But I think the way David needed TV is not like the way most of us need TV. He almost didn't really watch it, he almost connected to it intravenously. It steadied him and stabilized him, his anxiety.

People often ask me what he would have made of the Internet? Well, he was around for the Internet, but what would he have made of it if he'd really come of age in the Internet? My personal opinion is that David would not have been addicted to the Internet. What addicted him about TV was the ease of entry and the voyeurism, and the facility. He liked pulp novels, the ability to get into stories that presented no obstacles. I'm different; I can't read a pulp novel because the obstacle it presents is a lack of complexity, the lack of layers. For David, if you got rid of the layers, your characters go even faster on a highway. I feel very strongly that the narrative of TV, those little sitcom stories, filled some absolutely yawning void in him in a way that we can't really imagine.

He watched other stuff, but I'm convinced that it was those strange, voyeuristic vignettes of fake lives that really captured him. I bring this up because it meant that he had an incredible fear of narrative at the same time that he was obsessed with narrative.

It's not just television that I'm struck by, but the tone of television. He was a real critic of Letterman. But at the same time his writing, especially his early writing, was very similar in style to the combination of Midwestern earnestness and sort of winking knowingness that you get in Letterman; that sense of irony was something he both needed and realized was also kind of corroding the culture.

I think he was probably enormously attracted to Letterman in those years. I think it all goes back to “Infinite Jest”; “Infinite Jest” used to have the subtitle “A Failed Entertainment,” and it was incredibly important for David to put obstacles in the way of his own enjoyment, but also enjoyment of his writing. You know it had to be hard. To some extent that was because he was a child of academia. He always located his sort of virtuous self in the big, hard novels, the big, hard, white novels, you know, Richard Powers, Pynchon, for sure, William Gaddis. It's funny, later he sort of casts off the theory of the sort of importance of the big, white hyper-educated male, but he never stops trying to write it.

In some ways "Infinite Jest" is in that line.

Yeah, it's in that line and it's set along its seam. He certainly wanted it to stand up with them.

His concern with values is something that he didn't start out with. It was something he grew into with all those years in academia, mental institutions and so on. It seems like that concern, after being a philosophy student, a theory-driven writer and a sort of son of the metafictionists, that interest in values kind of took him by surprise, came out of nowhere, in a sense.

I feel like it kind of comes out of his 12-step stuff. It's a kind of church for him. In that church he becomes interested in all these things. The TV interest predates that, I would guess, because his addiction is so intense.

Did having a deceased subject make this book harder or easier to write?

David had died young, he'd died recently, and a lot of the people I talked to were still sort of processing the fact that not only was I there, but he wasn't there. And I think they're still processing that and trying to understand how a book about David can muscle out the David they knew. It's just a very different experience than if you're trying to write about Thomas Hardy. The plus side is people are sort of literally constructing their memories of him in front of me.

One of the things about writing a first biography is, for better or worse, it has enormous power. I don't like to rewrite other people; I've always wanted to learn and find new things and so David was a real opportunity for that. In the critical world, there's more work on him than any of his contemporaries, but he's still pretty much an open field and I very much wanted that. I didn't want to be a person who wrote another biography of Virginia Woolf. I didn't want the body of knowledge to be so settled. I wanted some fresh territory. I realized it would be harder in some ways but also that it would give me a lot of freedom.

On the downside, obviously, it's hard; it's hard because people's memories are new and David left a lot of mysterious misdirections.

A real challenge for a biographer to have to sort that out.

Yeah, he sort of got me on a couple of them. You can't be so radically mistrustful of a subject that you do a frantic analysis of every time they said they went and had coffee.

I think David did it more and either that or a slightly more naked need to be loved. Be loved, be lovable. I don't think he really felt he was lovable.

He had to prove it to himself.

Yeah, over and over, every day. A lot of people have said I've never met anyone more full of self-hatred than David.


I know, it's weird. Because he doesn't read that way when you read the nonfiction, but when you interview people who knew him, you come away believing that.

Besides “Infinite Jest,” what do you think was his greatest achievement as a writer?

Well, I think that's a pretty big achievement right there. “Infinite Jest” is his greatest achievement.

You can start with the fun essays, the fun experiential essays, the travel pieces. I mean, I think "Tennis, Tornadoes and Trigonometry," which is renamed "Derivative Math in Tornado Alley" in "Supposedly Fun Thing" is just a fabulous piece of writing. He wrote it in an afternoon. Certain kinds of things can only be written quickly. You know, things like Harper's columns ... and two days later he's like, "Oh, I had this in my drawer."

- - - - - - - - - -

One of the hopes for the biography is that, there is no easy starting point for David, you know, and this book might do that for some people in some ways. It can lead them to the work, and help them understand which piece of the work they want to be led to.

Look, Wallace has become one of those people about whom a certain kind of person has to have an opinion. How much better if that opinion was based on knowing things and having actually read David, because he's going to keep coming up and he should. I think there's no figure like David from my generation. There's no one else who can reach so far and show things as clearly as he did, both in his life and in his work. More and more I feel like “Infinite Jest” stands alone from that period from all the books that came out at the turn of the millennium.


Yeah, that's the one I was thinking of. I really thing that “Infinite Jest,” with its odd levels of confidence and dissonance, really does it extremely well, better than the others. It really answered the question of how to write in a new way, and yet show some concern for the reader. If you write in a new way without any concern for the reader, you really write for yourself and he didn't want to do that. It's kind of the social function. He was very aware of it.

His last years were spent teaching at Pomona. He was married. And for the first time in a long time he was in the same place for several years in a row. What were those times like for him? Were they as stable and happy as people might assume?

What I think is that he was happy in every area except his creativity. If he had only been an accountant or a professor, rather than a fiction writer, then I think those years would've been occasion for the most extreme and well-deserved happiness, but he wasn't. He was somebody who was dying to write an important novel that really mattered to him and to others. I just think that thing was following him everywhere, and every time he had a good time, he was reminded he should've been working; every time he sat and worked, he was reminded by himself that he wasn't working well. I just don't think he was ever far from that, and it's a shame.

Who knows what would've happened if David had actually given up on the novel. He and Karen Green discussed opening up a dog shelter. He actually thought about being a speechwriter for Obama. He thought about being a nonfiction writer. But I don't think those were challenging enough for him. I think part of the brilliance, the ambition and the self-hatred was that he constantly had to challenge himself.

That’s not a new message but it's the way he understood the very particular qualities of expectation that highly talented, highly pressured young people have in our time. He understood what it was to have both enormous internal expectations, and a kind of perpetual lull of unhappiness that was never quite enough to start their productivity or their functioning. He really captured the high-functioning, unhappy individual.

David had a lot of troubles with women, but somehow I think he also had a lot of understanding, not just of women, but more accurately of humanity, of people.

He’s online now. Take a look and you'll see how many women post about David, how many women have tattoos with “This is Water.” I don't think 10 years ago we would be saying this to each other.

Right, I remember thinking it was kind of a guy thing.


There's a lot of pain in the book for Wallace. Every few years something in his life seems to flip over when it seems to be going well. Did it seem like an early death was inevitable for him?

Gosh, I don't know. That may be beyond what a biographer is given to know. No, I'm an optimist. There is this pattern he has of pulling apart his life when it gets too comfortable, but I don't think he was ever quite as comfortable as he was with Karen, so he almost was in unknown territory. I guess if I was going to, I'd say no, if he had stayed on Nardil, he could've been some sort of old man. Don't know what kind of old man, but I wish he had been for Karen Green's sake.

Yeah, for a lot of people's sake. I think that loss was taken very personally by a lot of people.

Yeah, but even if he'd stopped writing, he would've been there for Karen and his family, his nieces.

Finally, you talked about some possible direction that he'd considered going at the end of his life, and he had the anxiety of influence in a sense of trying to top or at least match “Infinite Jest.”

The New Yorker called it the panic of influence.

In what direction did his writing or his thinking seem to be going in those last few years?

It's a tricky question. I think the question that you're asking is what was the novel after "The Pale King."

I think it's a question that has so many different parts to it. He did end up becoming more interested in politics, partially through Karen Green. He really was essentially apolitical. Everyone wants to give him more politics than I think he had. He voted for Reagan; everyone's very surprised by the revelation that he voted for Reagan. But I have all these hundreds of pages of correspondence, I don’t think there's a single political mention in there until he's with Karen. These things don't matter for him. I think he might've become interested in politics and therefore in narrating politics in a really interesting way. It touches on something in "The Pale King," which is societal obligation: Do we pay taxes because we have to or because of the common good we wish to advance?

I guess it's just one of those questions that will have to remain unanswered.

I think that, in the end, that unending passion to write a novel was flagging in him. I think that comes up a lot with “The Pale King,” especially as it becomes harder and he becomes happier, you know why put yourself through this? Why sit in this room for eight hours? Why subject yourself to the full gale force of your self-hatred. But I think by then he was so deeply into writing and so connected to the pleasures it had given him.  So that never really left him. You've got to think, this guy was so competitive, so full of a lack of self-esteem within, that he had nowhere to land really. You know, he had the love of an extraordinary person in Karen Green, a unique connection, but I think he never left off wanting to be a novelist quite enough.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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