David Foster Wallace believed in the transcendent power of writing

A review of the new biography

David Foster Wallace in 2002
David Foster Wallace in 2002. Photograph: Getty Images

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
D T Max
Granta, 272pp, £20 D T

Max’s new biography of the novelist David Foster Wallace begins with the birth and ends, sensibly enough, with the death of its subject, who killed himself in 2008 at the age of 46. This is a model biography, traditionally conceived. It tells the life story. Max has interviewed Wallace’s friends, ground through the archives, hunted down odd anecdotes.

From him we learn that at college Wallace liked to put a teabag into his cup of coffee; for exams, he upped this to two teabags. He voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and wrote with cheap biros, believing that some were luckier than others. He listened to rock songs on repeat as he wrote; he flossed and brushed his teeth for 45 minutes at a stretch; sometimes he wrote 25,000 words in a day. This is all good stuff and Wallace is almost as entertaining and moving to read about as he is to read. Yet it is precisely because this biography is so good at what it narrowly does that it is also an oddly misguided project, missing the point of the writer it so diligently tracks.

Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life. He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life; his fiction concerns the ways in which words distort or never quite fulfill the hopes we have for them. This sounds abstract and ambitious, and it was. He told his first editor that he wished “to distill the experience of being human in a human community” and wrote to his college roommate that his fiction would still be read “100 years from now”. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he said to Michael Pietsch, who edited Wallace’s novels Infinite Jest and the unfinished The Pale King.

This vaulting ambition plays out on the page – on the very great number of pages that he wrote – as an urgent intimacy. Wallace’s stories are parables of shocked connection. His “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is a series of monologues in his 1999 short story collection of the same name. In each, a man – needy, desperate, boasting, his self-confidence bruised – just talks. Occasionally, another unnamed character asks a question but this is represented only by the letter “Q”.

In the penultimate of these interviews a man explains a time he fell in love: with a girl he picked up at an arts festival. She was a hippie and he scorns her type – “the prototypical sandals, unrefined fibers, daffy arcana, emotional incontinence” – but he takes her home. They have sex and then she tells him a story about how once, while she was being raped, she managed to convince both herself and her rapist that they shared a “quote soul-connection unquote.” This redeems the moment and saves her life.

Its politics are grotesque, which both Wallace and the narrator know full well. “Don’t worry I’m aware of how this sounds and can well imagine the judgments you’re forming,” the hideous man tells us. But the story turns upon his marvel at the miracle of her narration. “I found myself hearing expressions like fear gripping her soul, unquote, as less as televisual clichés or melodrama but as sincere if not particularly artful attempts simply to describe what it must have felt like,” he recalls, and in his struggle to understand the shape of the story, now he falls in love. These hideous men are not tragic heroes, sympathetic despite themselves. But in the end they are deeply touching because they enact the drama of trying and failing to be touched. In Wallace’s short stories and throughout his fiction, there is a sense that what’s being described is taking place a little distance from here; that we are in the presence of only the account and not the happening.

In an early story, “Little Expressionless Animals”, two people confess that they like one another, and “like” is the word they use. So then: “They go together to the OEDto examine the entry for the word ‘like’.” Max describes this quality in Wallace’s work: “a passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seem ostentatiously to prohibit it”. His characters, stranded and apart, urge the reader to feel less alone. This urgency is telegraphed in the closing lines of another early story, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”, when he commands: “Listen. Use ears I’d be proud to call our own. Listen to the silence behind the engines’ noise.” It recurs in the haunting lyric fragment that opens his final, posthumously published novel, The Pale King: “Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”

He plays games and tricks, of course, and indulges himself: his novels are heavy with footnotes, digressions and repetitions. But the tricks are the sign of a very great mind trying to achieve through artifice some sincerity: to account for human connection, to register in language the possibility of real sympathy. Wallace’s point is that you can’t get there quickly – that the detours and the details stuffed into the stories are all in service of a bid for familiarity, a kind of shocked recognition, unmediated by “Once upon a time” or “I sing of arms and the man”. When people say they don’t like postmodernism or experimental fiction, what they are saying is, “Give us realist fiction because that’s like real life.” But this is a misunderstanding both of realist fiction and real life.

What Wallace was trying to do – and in this he is perhaps most like Virginia Woolf – was capture life in the living, the flow of reconsideration and memory that constitutes each day.

This brings us back to biography: the story of his own days. He was born in a college town, where his father was at graduate school and when he was seven the family moved to Illinois when his father got a teaching job at another university. “Every other kid in that era, it seemed, was named David,” writes Max. “Wallace’s childhood was happy and ordinary.” He teased his sister, read fantasy books and in his teenage years grew cleverer and less happy. He went to college at Amherst, where he got perfect grades, and got stoned, and studied all night; in early 1982, at the start of his second year, he returned home with terrible depression. After Amherst, he was offered an $8,000 scholarship to the creative writing programme at the University of Arizona, and then from a publisher a $20,000 advance for his first novel, The Broom of the System. He returned to Amherst to teach creative writing; he published another collection of short stories and began a graduate degree in philosophy at Harvard. In June 1992, the publishing house Little, Brown bought his novel Infinite Jest for $80,000 and that summer he also began a new teaching job at Illinois State University at Bloomington. Infinite Jest was published in 1996 and Wallace won grants, including a MacArthur “genius” award of $230,000. In 2000, he was offered a new job at Pomona College in California, where he was required to teach very little.

Max is good on the economics of a successful writer’s life but alongside this narrative of sums and achievement runs another story: of the anti-depressant Nardil and electroconvulsive therapy, of attending AA meetings with a hangover and vomiting in his sleep. What these two stories share is the central role played by institutions. After one breakdown, Wallace went from Harvard to the McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institute outside Boston, where he spent four weeks in the ward for addicts in November 1989. He went on from here to a halfway house called Granada House, which appears in Infinite Jest as Ennet House, and he returned to teaching: he commuted daily from the halfway house to teach courses in creative writing at Emerson College. Infinite Jest is a novel of institutions: the tennis academy and the halfway house. The Pale King considers another great American institution, the Internal Revenue Service.

Wallace was fed and nurtured by institutions: by the hospitals and Alcoholics Anonymous circles that tried to cure him of his addictions and depressions; the publishing houses and foundations that paid him to write; and the universities that employed him to teach and provided the educated readers required to enjoy his books. His writing life coincided with the huge growth of the industry of creativewriting workshops in the US, and in an age of corporate writing his is precisely a necessary and attractive myth, for his life suggested that writing is real and wild. His dangerousness, despair and early death were all proofs of a romantic ideal that otherwise might have been obscured by the reminder that this was also a responsible teacher, on the payroll with health insurance, grading student papers.

This is not to diminish his talent but it is to say that his celebrity did not wholly depend upon that talent. Wallace offered something to readers and publishers, to book buyers and Achingly sincere: Wallace was always deliberately shabby in his author photos tlovers: he came at a useful moment, after the generation-long hold of minimalism over American fiction. The best sections of Max’s biography are about the shifting patterns of the American fiction market. He describes the style of minimalism – simple direct sentences suggesting misery and limitation – as an “exhausted realism”. This gave rise to the popular quietly realist novels of the early 1990s by writers such as Richard Ford, E Annie Proulx and Jane Smiley. Wallace, however, was doing something very different. Infinite Jest was published in February 1996, and Max, in a rare moment of what I hope is playful excess, attempts to describe the novel’s ambitions in a startlingly mixed metaphor: “Wallace was proposing to wash Pynchonian excess in the chilling waters of DeLillo’s prose and then heat it up again in Dostoevsky’s redemptive fire.” Readers made a fuss of him. He perfectly anticipated the mid-1990s hipster turn, the longing for the real in an age of wealth and excess. He was associated with something called the “New Sincerity” or “Grunge Fiction”.

He was achingly sincere – this sells well. He had a trademark, a bandana knotted round his head, which suggested both carefree style and very intense commitment. In his author photos –he was often photographed – he is deliberately shabby. That he was genuine in this pose made it all the more attractive, and is precisely why after his death his fame continues to grow and he remains the object of increasingly cultish devotion. A college commencement speech he gave in 2005 was published after his death as a little self-help book called This is Water, packaged for sale just next to the till in bookshops. In 2011, The Pale King was published in fragments loosely edited together and met with fuss and fanfare.

What remains – and what remains most moving – is the spectacle of care. “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies,” he told an interviewer, “in be[ing] willing to die in order to move the reader, somehow.” Max describes a fight that Wallace had with the New York Times over his insistence upon using serial commas in a piece about Roger Federer. Serial commas are contrary to the newspaper’s house style, but he insisted and eventually the executive editor decided to let him have his way. He cared about grammar because he cared about writing and he cared about writing because he believed in its offer of transcendence, community and touch. In the end, he arranged the pages of his final novel into neat piles in his office, so that his wife would find them and so that others might be able to make sense of them, and he hanged himself.

Daniel Swift is the author of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers”, which will be published in November by Oxford University Press