Grown-Up Stories: David Foster Wallace Biography Puts Life and Works in Perspective

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When Don Gately, the Demerol addict at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” hits rock bottom, he blacks out: “And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.” For Gately, recovering is about connecting to other people, at AA meetings and at a halfway house, telling his story and listening, escaping the prison of his head through words. This is Wallace’s story, too, now told by D.T. Max in his new biography “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.” Wallace, the iconic author of ten books and many shorter pieces, struggled with anxiety, depression and addiction—of many forms—until he hanged himself in 2008, leaving behind a stack of nearly 200 pages of an unfinished novel. He was 46.

Max, a staff writer for “The New Yorker,” writes in that magazine’s famously straight-laced journalistic style (the book came out of a lengthy 2009 article Max wrote about Wallace), and the result is a very informative book that doesn’t have much of a story arc and is on its own surprisingly not very moving. “Every Love Story” works best as a companion to Wallace’s books: it paints a portrait of Wallace quite different from the one he painted of himself and it puts the difficult and irritating parts of Wallace’s writing in a personal context where they start to make a lot more sense.

Photo courtesy of http://www.raccontopostmoderno.com.

David Foster Wallace, born in 1962, grew up in central Illinois, where he played tennis and did exceptionally well in school, but something wasn’t right. “By senior year, with college nearing, the anxiety that had been shimmering just below the surface of his life grew into full-blown panic attacks,” Max writes. “From these experiences he would derive a lifelong fear of the consequences of mental and, eventually, emotional isolation.” Wallace went on to Amherst College, where he was a veritable academic prodigy, but twice had breakdowns that sent him back home. When he returned to Amherst after the second of these, he published his first serious piece of fiction, in the Amherst Review. Titled “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” it tells the harrowing story of a 21-year-old boy struggling with clinical depression (“the Bad Thing”): “Everything in you is sick and grotesque. And since your only acquaintance with the whole world is through parts of you—and since these parts are sick as hell, the whole world as you perceive it and know it and are in it comes at you through this filter of bad sickness and becomes bad.”

The boy takes the antidepressant Tofranil (the same one Wallace was prescribed after one of his breakdowns), which he nicknames Trillaphon and compares to a planet: “Even the sound of your brain-voice when you think thoughts to yourself on the planet Trillaphon is different than what it was on Earth; now it sounds like it’s coming from a sort of speaker connected to you only by miles and miles and miles of wire.” Here is Wallace’s verbal dexterity, his writing loaded with feeling. The story, like the best of Wallace’s later fiction, is not just technically impressive but also deeply personal.

Certainly it’s better than the novel that followed it, “The Broom of the System,” which was Wallace’s senior English thesis. It’s not a bad book, but it feels excessive and show-offy, and all too frequently substitutes clever philosophical referentiality for real characters and emotion (it’s not interesting enough to get a summary here).

“Broom” may have been the first piece of Wallace’s writing damaged by his academic bent, but it was not his last—his next story collection, “Girl with Curious Hair,” is similarly uneven: it’s frequently funny and clever but it’s too self-conscious and tricked out to be affecting or powerful. After it was published, Wallace felt unsure of where his fiction could go next. He drank and smoked pot more and more, and decided to go to graduate school in philosophy at Harvard. But soon he had another breakdown, his worst, his Gately-on-the-beach moment. “The four weeks Wallace spent at McLean [Hospital] in November 1989 changed his life,” Max writes. Wallace was then placed in a halfway house, where he underwent quite the change of heart: he came to believe intensely in twelve-step recovery programs, in the cliché-driven practices the old Wallace would likely have sneered at, and in the importance of the sincere and personal in fiction. Later he would say that “Broom” seemed like the work of a “very smart fourteen-year-old.”

His recovery inspired much of “Infinite Jest,” a wild 1,100-page novel about entertainment, addiction, youth tennis, advertising, America and worship, among lots of other stuff. “Infinite Jest” consists mainly of two parallel-ish stories: Gately’s, of recovery, and that of Hal Incandenza, a youth tennis prodigy who reads dictionaries in his free time and who’s addicted to pot and who increasingly cannot communicate with anyone around him. “Infinite Jest” is a paean to the power and importance of meaningful human contact; the book itself, which is too long and too disparate and at times incredibly frustrating, feels like Wallace’s own attempt to open his brilliant and pained mind to the world.

“Infinite Jest” falters most in its insistence on making some sort of grand point about entertainment in America, how we’re all giving ourselves away to the monster that is mindless entertainment and how that’ll be the end of us. The parody feels brittle and the point worn-out; mostly the sections that focus on this are just really boring. “Every Love Story” is helpful here: Max writes of how Wallace struggled with his own television obsession and how much that embarrassed and frightened him. Wallace’s questionable diagnosis of U.S. culture seems like an accurate personal one, and his attempt to universalize it seems to come from his desire to be normal and to empathize, to get out of his own head.

The novel’s strongest section is a list of “exotic new facts” you acquire “if, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility,” a selection of which I’ve put right here:

That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.

That different people have radically different ideas of basic personal hygiene.

That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking.

That pretty much everybody masturbates.

That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn’t necessarily perverse.

Here, and in a few other parts of “Infinite Jest,” the book really does do what Wallace wanted it to: it communicates deeply.

The story of my own introduction to Wallace is probably relevant here. About halfway through my senior year of high school, when I was increasingly sick of pedantically over-analytical English classes and as a result tired of books in general, a good friend showed me a two-page excerpt of the Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (Wallace wrote nonfiction, something of a side project to his fiction, for most of his career). The essay, about a luxury cruise on a ship called the M.V. Zenith and nicknamed by Wallace the M.V. Nadir, is hilarious (the excerpt I first read chronicled Wallace’s attempt to shoot skeet at sea) and stunning and also very serious. It has great running gags—e.g. after reading the cruise brochure’s description of the “vast lapis lazuli dome of the sky,” Wallace uses that phrase whenever he references the sky—and meaningful analysis of what it is that’s so disturbing about a company promising to manage all your fun for you. I went and read the whole eponymous essay collection, and honestly that book is the number one reason I’m leaning toward trying to become a writer myself.

Wallace’s nonfiction was written mostly for magazines and was collected in that 1997 book and also later in 2004’s “Consider the Lobster.” (This November, a third collection, titled “Both Flesh And Not” and consisting mostly of uncollected magazine essays, will be released.) His best journalistic essays, even though they were never a big deal to their author, are amazing: “Getting Away From Being Pretty Much Already Away From It All,” about visiting the Illinois State Fair; “Up, Simba” about following John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign; “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” about 9/11; I’ll cut it there but know that there are many more.

One of the disturbing truths revealed in Max’s “Every Love Story” is that much of Wallace’s reporting was exaggerated or invented: for all of Wallace’s desire to really communicate and for all his incredible verbal facility, he was unable to do so honestly. And the lies chronicled by Max go far beyond the writing. Wallace told people he had taken time off college because a friend had committed suicide. He bragged of perfect SAT scores and exaggerated his tennis skills. He lied to women and to friends and to his parents. And lying wasn’t his only disturbing behavior: there was his aforementioned television obsession, a hygiene obsession, incredible promiscuity (Wallace at one point had sex with his own undergraduate students), behavior that verged on stalking, an inability to sustain relationships. “Every Love Story” makes it chillingly clear just how disturbed Wallace was.

After “Infinite Jest” was published to acclaim in 1996, Wallace continued to write nonfiction and published two short story collections: “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” (1999) and “Oblivion” (2004). Many of the stories pick apart a single line of thought or moment in time; Wallace seems uncomfortable here with the limit of the degree to which his words could represent the contents of his mind. The quote Max uses as “Every Love Story” ’s epigraph, from the story “Good Old Neon” in “Oblivion,” sums this up well: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.” The stories tend to be tedious and repetitive; in a few cases, they’re ultimately unreadable.

Again, Max’s biography comes to the rescue here: it helps to understand Wallace’s fears and obsessions when reading these stories. But understanding doesn’t change the contradictions that are so unsettling about Wallace and his work: the way the later stories are somehow so true to life they make for poor fiction; the way his nonfiction was so fantastic as a result of telling lies; the way the frustrations of “Infinite Jest” seem so closely tied to its joys, the way Wallace’s tremendous intellect made his writing great but could also bring it down; the way antidepressants made Wallace feel disconnected from the world but let him live in it. Since around 2000, Wallace had been working on another novel, “The Pale King” (it was published posthumously in 2011 in unfinished form). But he worried his antidepressant was stopping him from really connecting with the reader, from bringing his writing to the next level, and so in 2007 he decided to stop taking it. At first he felt fine, but then things took a sharp turn for the worse. Wallace became gaunt; he got sadder and sicker. Like everyone else, he died alone. The ultimate contradiction was that for Wallace, words were both too much and not enough.

At this point Wallace’s story seems just so totally and unbearably sad that I find myself thinking back to the best of his writing. Back to Don Gately refusing painkillers in the hospital after being shot, just to stay clean. Back to Hal Incandenza and his friends and their wild and complex nuclear-apocalypse-simulated-by-lobbing-tennis-balls game Eschaton. Back to the Illinois state fair, where Wallace, afraid to try a real ride but compelled by journalistic responsibility to try something, rides the Kiddie Kopter: “I get kicked off the ride when the whole machine’s radical tilt reveals that I weigh quite a bit more than the maximum 100 pounds, and I have to say that both the carny in charge and the other kids on the ride were unnecessarily snide about the whole thing.” (Maybe it doesn’t really matter so much that it may not be true…)

Back to escaping the Bad Thing: “Even during the day, the resident of the planet Trillaphon is a sleepy little soldier. Sleepy and tired, but too far away to be super-troubled.” And back to skeetshooting on the good old M.V. Nadir: how “the trim bearded guy in aviator glasses currently shooting is perpetrating absolute skeetocide in the air over the ship”; how “a certain level of displayed ineptitude with a firearm will cause everyone in the vicinity who knows anything about firearms to converge on you all at the same time with cautions and advice and handy tips passed down from Papa”; and how Wallace wants us to remember “that an unshot skeet’s movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean’s sky is sun-like—i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left—and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.”

“Every Ghost Story is a Love Story” is published by Viking and is available on Amazon for $18. 

Slider photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune. 


  1. This is an incredibly well-written book review – comprehensive, cohesive, and creative. I especially love your use of that quote at the end of the article.

  2. Thank you for writing this, it was a fantastic read. I’m a big DFW fan, and I think you captured his complicated turmoil well.

    Well done!

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