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Conversations with David Foster Wallace (Literary Conversations)
Conversations with David Foster Wallace (Literary Conversations)

University Press of Mississippi, 2012
208 pp., $65.00

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David J. Michael


Capacities of Spirit

The life and work of David Foster Wallace.

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"One of the things you two will discover, in the years after you get out of school, is that managing to really be an alive human being, and also to do good work and be as obsessive as you have to be, is really tricky." It is 1993, and David Foster Wallace is talking to a couple of Cleveland State MFA students who are interviewing him for the literary magazine Whiskey River. "It's not an accident when you see writers either become obsessed with the whole pop stardom thing or get into drugs and alcohol, or have terrible marriages. Or they simply disappear from the whole scene in their thirties or forties. It's very tricky." He is speaking from experience. In addition to publishing three books, the thirty-one-year-old has already survived a couple of suicide attempts, attempted to buy a gun to kill a love-interest's husband, and is a recovering drug and alcohol addict. One of the interviewers greenly responds, "I think you have to sacrifice a lot." Wallace would sacrifice his mental health and eventually his life in the pursuit of writing works that would illuminate for others—and for himself—what it meant to be "an alive human being."

This interview is collected in the recently released Conversations with David Foster Wallace, edited by Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn. The interviews vary in scope and length, but what emerges from the collection is a picture of a writer who was deeply concerned with the state of both contemporary fiction and the American psyche. Yet Wallace was a notorious exaggerator and not always honest with interviewers. (He had learned to keep his private life private after he started gushing details about his past drug and alcohol abuse to one reporter from The Washington Post, who turned off the tape and gave him some tips.) With a few exceptions, it would be possible to read his interviews without learning that much about Wallace's life, how hard he worked and how hard he struggled.

Enter the other recent addition to thriving DFW cottage industry: D. T. Max's much-hyped biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, a sympathetic account of Wallace's difficult life and his constant struggle "to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff." It is also a tragic story of genius and depression, which function like counterpoint, two alternating melodies forming the score to his life and writing.

Wallace's genius emerged early. At five years old, an age when many still struggle with the alphabet, he penned:

My mother works so hard
And for bread she needs some lard.
She bakes the bread. And makes the bed.
And when she's threw
She feels she's dayd.

Wallace's battle with mental illness also began early, he believed as early as nine or ten. In high school, he suffered from anxiety and crippling panic attacks. He was on the high school tennis team, and he took to carrying around a tennis racket and a towel; if he should break out in a panic-induced sweat, he could say he'd just come from tennis.

When he went off to college he quickly distinguished himself as "the smartest kid at Amherst." But he also struggled with depression. He withdrew from school twice and went back to Illinois to recover for a semester each time. It was during one of these stints that he started writing fiction. He captured his experience with depression—"The Bad Thing," as he called it—in his first published story, "The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing," which appeared in the Amherst Review: "Imagine feeling really sick to your stomach …. Now imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick like that, sick, intolerably sick … [Y]ou are the sickness yourself." He told one interviewer he "had kind of a mid-life crisis at twenty, which probably doesn't augur real well for my longevity."

Wallace wrote senior theses in creative writing and philosophy, both of which were concerned with the nature of language and reality. The creative writing thesis would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, and he found he greatly preferred working on it to philosophy. He wrote manically, often while high, and in one three-hour session, he wrote 24 pages. He told his advisor the story was a "scroll unwinding in his head." When he graduated, he received a double summa for his efforts.

Wallace was comfortable in academia, and after he graduated he chose to pursue an MFA at the University of Arizona. But back home in Illinois for the summer, he lapsed into depression and ended up in the hospital for several weeks. He underwent ECT, and the doctors prescribed Nardil, a first generation anti-depressant. It stabilized him, and he arrived at Arizona ready to write.

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