December 12th, 2012
This is a really engaging book on David Foster Wallace. Sure, people might say that Wallace’s life is what makes this book good, but it’s not. There would be too much of it to make sense of it all without a good deal of sifting, editing and moulding, which D. T. Max has done here.
It’s a chronological book that undoubtedly puts Wallace up front, even though I get the feeling that’s what Wallace would least of all have wanted, during his lifetime.
Having read “Infinite Jest” and “The Pale King” before I read this biography, I must say it was completely eye-opening at times, when it comes to his works.
Starting off with Wallace’s childhood, we learn of his connection with language and play:
No one else listened to David as his mother did. She was smart and funny, easy to confide in, and included him in her love of words. Even in later years, and in the midst of his struggle with the legacy of his childhood, he would always speak with affection of the passion for words and grammar she had given him. If there was no word for a thing, Sally Wallace would invent it: “greebles“ meant little bits of lint, especially those that feet brought into bed; “twanger“ was the word for something whose name you didn’t know or couldn’t remember. She loved the word “fantods,“ meaning a feeling of deep fear or repulsion, and talked of “the howling fantods,“ this fear intensified. These words, like much of his childhood, would wind up in Wallace’s work. To outside eyes, Sally’s enthusiasm for correct usage might seem extreme. When someone made a grammatical mistake at the Wallace dinner table, she would cough into her napkin repeatedly until the speaker saw the error. She protested to supermarkets whenever she saw the sign “Ten items or less“ posted above their express checkout lines.
Yeah, his mother was a language nazi, which he also turned into. Although Wallace seems to have been very gentle about that, except when admonishing his own work and correcting his students (and his editors and proof readers).
He was great at learning stuff that seemed finite, but in other cases he faced problems:
His teammates were more successful with girls than Wallace, and, frustrated, he would try to solve the complexity of attraction the way he solved the trajectory of a tennis shot: “How do you know when you can ask a girl out?“ “How do you know when you can kiss her?“ His teammates told him not to think so hard; he would just know.
While discovering life and earning top marks in school, he started writing.
One story he worked on, according to Costello, was called “The Clang Birds,“ about a fictional bird that flies in ever decreasing circles until it disappears up its own ass.
His literary turn to honesty as a main driving force is clearly visible throughout his growing up, partly because he was an alcoholic, but also because lying seemed to permeate society:
A typical line from an ad featuring the pathologically inaccurate spokesman: “Hi, I’m Joe Isuzu and I used my new Isuzu pickup truck to carry a two-thousand-pound cheeseburger.“ The prospect that horrified Wallace most was that Americans were so used to being lied to that any other relationship with media would feel false.
He answered letters from fellow authors – notably writing with Don Delillo and Jonathan Franzen – and was often apologising:
He made amends wherever he could, sometimes to excess. He wrote to his Arizona sponsor that “I struggle a great deal, and am 99.8% real,“ then crossed that out and wrote in “98.8%,“ noting in a parenthesis in the margin, “Got a bit carried away here.“
When writing about boredom in “The Pale King”:
As he wrote in a notebook: Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. The problem came up when he tried to dramatize this idea. How do you write about dullness without being dull? The obvious solution, if you had Wallace’s predilections, was to overwhelm this seemingly inert subject with the full movement of your thought. Your characters might be low-level bureaucrats, but the rippling tactility of your writing would keep them from appearing static. But this strategy presented its own problem: Wallace could make the characters vibrant, but only at the risk of sacrificing what made their situation worth narrating“”the stillness at the center of their lives. How could you preach mindful calmness if you couldn’t replicate it in prose? A failed entertainment that succeeded was just an entertainment. Yet Wallace had never really found a verbal strategy to replace his inborn one. In more ways than he cared to acknowledge he remained the author of The Broom of the System.
It didn’t seem like Wallace would ever fall victim to hubris:
In time these early Internet users took up Wallace for their fan communities too, a transition that particularly discomfited him (though to be fair anything that reinforced the masonry of the statue did). When in March 2003 a member of Wallace-l told Wallace about their email list at a taping of a reading for The Next American Essay, a compilation of creative nonfiction edited by John D’Agata that Wallace had contributed to, his response was, “You know, for emotional reasons and sanity I have to pretend this doesn’t exist.“
And, in the very end:
They joked about the unthinkable. Green warned him that if he killed himself she’d be “the Yoko Ono of the literary world, the woman with all the hair who domesticated you and look what happened.“ They made a pact that he would never make her guess how he was doing.
It’s a lovely book, it really is. It’s easy to draw parallels between the lives of DFW and Bill Hicks, both persons being gentle, humble, passionate, thinking and self critical.