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

University Press of Mississippi, 2012
208 pp., 110.0

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David J. Michael

Capacities of Spirit

The life and work of David Foster Wallace.

"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.

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.

These themes would find their way into Wallace's masterwork, Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest revolves around a tennis academy, a drug-recovery house, and a video so entertaining that viewers can't stop watching until they die of exhaustion. Wallace told David Lipsky that "the things that ended up for me being most distinctively American right now, around the millennium, had to do with both entertainment and about some kind of weird, addictive, um … wanting to give yourself away to something. That I ended up thinking was kind of a distorted religious impulse." One character in Infinite Jest remarks, "Choose with care. You are what you love. No?"

Pieces of Infinite Jest date back as far as 1986, but the full idea didn't blossom until after his time at Granada House. As the book's complex structure—that of a Sierpinski gasket (Google it … or maybe don't)—started to gel, he began writing with remarkable speed. By April 1992 he had submitted 250 pages of Infinite Jest for an advance. In May he moved to Syracuse, living in an apartment so small that if he wanted to write, he'd have to move his books from his desk to his bed. When Illinois State called about a job teaching fiction, he readily accepted and moved to Bloomington in the summer of 1993, where he continued to work on Infinite Jest.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace had found his mature style, which Max characterizes as "a passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seemed ostentatiously to prohibit it, as if only by passing through all the stages of bureaucratic deformation can we touch each other as human beings." Wallace used a mix of high and low style—the kind that is now a mainstay of websites like Grantland and The Awl—and employed footnotes to include various anecdotes and facts. The footnotes, he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch, allowed for a "discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story" and mimicked "the information flood and data-triage I expect'd be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence."

Despite hundreds of pages of cuts, the book weighed in at 1,079 pages, 96 of which were dedicated to endnotes. It was published in February 1996 to much hoopla. The following year, Wallace received a grant from the Lannan Foundation and a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant. His nonfiction was also in demand with editors and was at least as popular as his fiction.

Wallace, however, wanted to concentrate on fiction. In the course of his career, he went through periods of creative mania where the pages seemed to pour out of him like sweat. Now, the words weren't flowing. He wrote to friends that he was mostly feeding his wastebasket, managing to complete only a few rather complicated short pieces that he struggled to publish. (They would eventually find their way into Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.) He sometimes attributed his perceived lack of creativity to teaching, other times lack of discipline. On a note, he scrawled a list of "What Balance Would Look Like":

2-3 hours a day in writing
Up at 8-9
Only a couple late nights a week
Daily exercise
Minimum time spent teaching
2 nights/week spent with other friends
5 [recovery meetings a] week

He wrote to Don DeLillo around this time, "I have to tell you I don't enjoy this war one bit. I think my fiction is better than it was, but writing it is also less Fun than it was."

In his 1998 essay, "The Nature of Fun" (recently republished in the new essay collection Both Flesh and Not: Essays), Wallace refers to the kind of writing he'd first experienced as "writing almost wholly to get yourself off." It is fun, he says, but hollow and empty and eventually "gives way to attempted seduction …. At some point you find that 90 percent of the stuff you're writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked." The solution, Wallace tells readers, is to move back to a concept of writing as fun, only now the fun has been transfigured. It is "a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun." The essay reads as though as if he'd found his way past vanity as a motive, but he had not, and he was painfully aware of it as he struggled to move ahead with his fiction.

Of course, this egoism was not peculiar to Wallace. In "Why I Write," George Orwell gave as his first answer: "Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death." Writers share this with what today we might call "professionals," and what Orwell calls "the whole top crust of humanity." But most of Wallace's friends were part of the substratum, friends from his recovery group, and he could not ignore their virtues. He wrote a friend in 1999: "You're special—it's O.K.—but so's the guy across the table who's raising two kids sober and rebuilding a '73 Mustang. It's a magical thing with 4,000,000,000 forms." Further, he knew that his ego, and his love of praise, had not helped him. To a friend, he wrote that it was a daily battle to figure out "how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his (her) loving me." In one the many self-help books he read, next to a claim that low self-esteem can lead to "believing your worth and happiness lie outside of you," Wallace wrote "Writing Success Fame Sex."

Wallace had struggled with the publicity he'd received after the publication of Infinite Jest. Journalists had flocked to Bloomington to interview him. To one, whom he insisted on meeting at Cracker Barrel—he had stopped inviting reporters into his home after one of them rifled through his medicine cabinet and wrote about the contents—he said, "I just want to be left alone to eat my meatloaf." Yet though he claimed to loathe the interview form, saying, "no truly interesting question can be satisfactorily answered within the formal constraints (viz. magazine-space, radio-time, public decorum) of an interview," he gave over seventy interviews during his lifetime. His was a complicated relationship with fame; he liked the attention and hated himself for liking it.

In the summer of 2002, Wallace moved to Claremont, California where he'd accepted a chair in creative writing. "I have a lottery-prize-type gig," he told the novelist Dave Eggers in an interview for The Believer, "I get to do more or less what I want." He settled into the new position, becoming a favorite of the students. He also fell in love. Shortly after moving to California, he met Karen Green, a visual artist who had turned his story "The Depressed Person" into a series of panels. Several of Wallace's relationships had failed because he was a more committed writer than partner, but this changed with Green. The two were married in Illinois, Christmas 2004, very happily by all accounts, and Wallace seemed to have finally grown into himself.

After Infinite Jest, Wallace had quietly set to work on "a long thing." In Infinite Jest, he had dramatized our addiction to entertainment as an effort to escape our malaise. Now he would examine what lay behind the addiction: boredom. "I think that in a country where we have it as easy as we do, one of our big dread vectors is boredom," he remarked to one interviewer.

The new book was to be set at an IRS processing center in central Illinois and would follow around a group of low-level IRS examiners tasked with auditing tax returns. To prepare, he took several classes in accounting, and assembled hundreds of pages of research on boredom. One of the characters describes the boredom of this work as "boredom beyond any boredom he'd ever felt," another as "soul murdering." But Wallace wanted to show what lie on the other side of boredom:

Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it's like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

If such bliss after boredom does exist, Wallace wasn't able to find it. The writing was dragging on without end. Unsurprisingly, a book dramatizing boredom was difficult to write, more difficult than he'd imagined. He said that writing the novel was like "wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind." A few of the chapters were published as short stories, but Wallace struggled to finish it. He told Jonathan Franzen that he needed to compose "a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%, the very idea of which makes something in me wither and get really interested in my cuticle, or the angle of the light outside."

Wallace was being too hard on himself. Since the publication of Infinite Jest, he'd published two anthologies of non-fiction, two books of short stories, an eBook on John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, and a history of the mathematical concept of infinity—a very good output for any writer. But he wanted to write novels. He would have done well to compare himself to a writer like Marilynne Robinson, who took 24 years between Housekeeping and Gilead. Still, his personal life was going well: "It's a dark time workwise," he wrote Franzen, "and yet a very light and lovely time in all other respects. So overall I feel I'm ahead and am pretty happy."

In the spring of 2007, Wallace experienced terrible stomach pain after eating at a Persian restaurant. His doctor thought it might be an effect of the Nardil. Wallace thought the drug might have been clouding his emotions and affecting his writing. He and his wife agreed that he would go off the anti-depressant, which he'd been on for about 20 years. It did not go well. Wallace's doctors tried other combinations of anti-depressants and ECT, but nothing seemed to work. He fell deeper and deeper into depression, attempting suicide in early summer. In mid-September 2008, he succeeded. He was forty-six years old.

His wife returned from her gallery to find him hanging in the back yard. In the garage, she found a stack of nearly 250 pages, as well as hundreds of pages of notes and drafts of other chapters. At Green's invitation, Michael Pietsch flew to California to collect the material. What he assembled was The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel, released in April 2011.

Wallace's popularity has grown steadily since Infinite Jest, but it has reached fever pitch in the past two years. Max's biography was one of the publishing events of 2012. Wallace seems to satisfy the desire for greatness in American letters. His writing was Big with a capital "b"—complex, ambitious, and generation-defining. Further, his life, marked by both genius and tragedy, has the mystique that Americans tend to associate with the vocation of the writer.

One of the problems is that it is almost impossible to read Wallace's work without the specter of his suicide hanging over the text—particularly since depression and suicide are recurring topics in his work. People seem more eager to read about Wallace than to read his work, particularly his fiction. However sympathetic Max's biography may be, there's something alarming about reading 300 pages largely devoted to a man's sad psychological history, the frenzy created over a life whose genre is tragedy.

To judge his life is not our responsibility. But how should we think of Wallace the writer? In his last major interview, given to a French newspaper in 2005, the reporter asked him what qualities of other writers he envied. His answer is telling of how far he'd come: "As far as I can see, at age forty-three, those vestiges of envy and desire for appropriation that survive in me have to do with larger, more amorphous qualities. The abilities of writers like St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, and Camus to render so fully, passionately, the spiritual urgencies they felt as, saw as reality continue to fill me with an awe that is almost despair: To be able to be such a person! But what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit—rather than technical abilities or special talents." By this reviewer's measurement, Wallace needn't have been envious.

David J. Michael is the editor of Wunderkammer, a web-based journal of cultural criticism. He lives in New York City.

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