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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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Arizona, though, was not a great fit. The professors were "hardass realists," and Wallace was interested in postmodernism. Broom was published during his second year, and when he handed out copies in the program, he was dismayed to find one in a used bookstore the next day. Nonetheless, at Arizona he continued writing at a furious pace. In an attempt to graduate early, Wallace took a workshop for double credit, which meant penning six stories in one semester. One weekend he wrote the 30-page story that would become "Little Expressionless Animals." By the time he graduated, he had written the bulk of the stories that would become his second book, the short story collection The Girl with the Curious Hair.

After he finished the MFA, brief stints teaching undergraduates at Amherst and Arizona followed, but he felt directionless, and his writing suffered. He was also drinking heavily. He left Arizona in shambles and returned back to his parents' house. He was twenty-six, and it was his fourth breakdown. He tried to commit suicide and had to have his stomach pumped. To his agent, Bonnie Nadell, he wrote, "My ambitions at this point are modest and mostly surround staying alive."

Wallace questioned the effect of writing on his health and thought that he might recover a sense of stability and happiness by instead pursuing a career in philosophy. He applied and was accepted to a PhD program at Harvard for the fall of 1989. He moved into an apartment in Sommerville, near Harvard, with his college roommate, the writer Mark Costello, who was working in Boston as a lawyer.

Wallace quickly realized he'd made a mistake. He was disenchanted by his professors and fellow students, and he wasn't interested in being a student anymore. He was interested in writing, which he wasn't doing much of. Costello says that Wallace was "drinking himself blotto" and "skanking around Somerville" with women he picked up. "It may have been what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis," Wallace told one interviewer. "It was just feeling as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false." When he told the staff at the student health center that he was contemplating hurting himself, he was admitted to McLean Hospital, the Harvard-affiliated psychiatric ward where Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell had once been patients. The doctors told Wallace that if he continued at his current pace, he would be dead within three years. He had been attending recovery meetings on and off for a while, but now he decided to get serious about sobriety, which Max attributes partially to Wallace's troubles with writing. If he got sober, perhaps the words would return. After McLean he checked into Granada House, a halfway house in Brighton. "It's a grim place, and I am grimly resolved to go there," he wrote Nadell.

Wallace's genius was a liability in the sobriety meetings he was required to attend, and he had to learn to accept the truth in pithy axioms like "one day at a time," which involved invoking another sobriety cliché—"My best thinking got me here." But these meetings were invaluable material for a novelist. He would sit there spellbound as the other members recounted their stories, many of which would make their way into his novel Infinite Jest: "[N]obody is as gregarious as someone who has recently stopped using drugs," he told Rolling Stone's David Lipsky.

Wallace was writing again, albeit haltingly, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. He wrote to Nadell in the spring of 1991: "Please don't give up on me. I want to be a writer now way more than in 1985 …. I will be a fiction writer again or die trying." In November, he ended up in the hospital for two weeks, and doctors increased his dosage of Nardil.

In the past, Wallace hadn't cared about nourishing readers, but now he thought of his previous work as cynical posturing. He told one interviewer, "Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness."

Great fiction, Wallace thought, should make "heads throb heartlike." His newfound commitment to "single-entendre" principles meshed well with the way of living he was learning in recovery groups:

Fiction's about what it is to be a f_ human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be.
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