It is unusual to read a biography of a famous person and then notice how your life is similar to theirs but there are certain geographic parallels between my life and David Foster Wallace’s life that were difficult to ignore. And, of course I have been obsessed with David Foster Wallace since reading The Pale King. This is his last published book and it happened to be the first DFW book that I read so I have, in fact, pretty much experienced David Foster Wallace backwards in time. I was so pleasantly surprised by The Pale King. David’s unfinished manuscript for this book was organized by a colleague who, even now, is unsure if he got this posthumous manuscript right. DFW’s genius still shines through. To write a witty book about the IRS seems next to impossible, to make the quirky characters, some given personal traits of the author, so engrossing, to add humor to this unlikely mix, and to make even boring IRS architecture come to life would a) not occur to any other author and b) could not have been accomplished by any other author. So I wanted to read more. I read a book of DFW’s non-fiction essays Like Flesh, but Not which gets its title from an article about Roger Federer.
Then I just had to tackle the major opus, Infinite Jest, and it was even more wondrous an experience than I anticipated, although I could see that it might not appeal to everyone. And finally, after working backwards, I had to read about David Foster Wallace’s life from the fairly recent biography about him, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max (who never met David Wallace). In this case, being informed about Wallace’s life helps in trying to parse his books, however the works stand alone and you don’t have to know DFW’s life to appreciate and be amazed by his writing and his talent.
David Foster Wallace was born almost in my backyard in Ithaca, NY just as I was graduating from high school. We lived in many of the same places, but our paths never crossed (the only place they could have crossed was in Syracuse, NY in 1992-93, the year of the great blizzard. DFW and I also spent time in Boston, Mass and in Tucson, Arizona. We may have been in Boston at the same time when David was at undergraduate school at Amherst, but I was not traveling in academic circles at that time. There is no significance to this other than that it is a weird coincidence and it may have increased my interest in Wallace’s books. However, it is his audacious writing that I love.
I have no connection to the Midwest and Dave’s childhood in Bloomington, Illinois. Later David returned to the Midwest to teach and write for a while. He was a pretty normal kid who was sometimes mean to his little sister Amy. He was not always happy with certain aspects of himself; he felt he sweated too much and he was not good at team sports. But he did have great success with tennis until late puberty when others overtook him. He played a thoughtful game which made him too slow. Tennis looms large in DFW’s writing, especially in Infinite Jest.
David Foster Wallace came to Syracuse, NY because he was in love with a married poet, Mary Karr, who was older than him. He knew she was having problems with her husband so he followed her and her husband and son to Syracuse and he finally won her after patient stalking and after she and her husband were divorced. Although he won her, it was a very short relationship and they soon split up; she had a child and David was too self-absorbed.
When David was 8 or 9 he had his first intimation that he might have a mental disorder but he did not have an episode of full-blown depression until his sophomore year at Amherst. He eventually was prescribed Nardil which he took for many years. When newer drugs finally came along, and when David thought his medication might be preventing his writing, his doctors began to try him on a number of drugs with which he was very unhappy. These shifts in medication and the onset of a really serious episode of depression led him to attempt suicide several times until he successfully hanged himself when his wife, Karen Green a painter (who was not part of the problem) left to get groceries. He was much too young to die.
Two more Syracuse notes – DFW wrote some of the manuscript for Infinite Jest while living in Syracuse and the dumping ground designated in Infinite Jest by President Gentle to collect American waste (once Gentle realizes he cannot afford to send it into space) begins at Syracuse, which he came to call Drearacuse and extends to the Canadian border. The bad rap Syracuse gets is due to his ill-fated relationship with Mary Karr, which began and ended in this city.
David has better associations with Tucson, whose climate and natural beauties he obviously appreciated. His two spies or government agents, one American, one Canadian, in Infinite Jest, chose the top of a small mountain in Tucson as the location for their top secret strategy session. I went to graduate school in Tucson, but Wallace was in Boston then, I believe. He taught at the University of Arizona in the Creative Writing Department. I was in the graduate program in the Reading Department.
I must say that I was surprised that our lives each took place, in part, in these three cities, but that Midwest part is strong and we don’t have that in common. I am sorry that the city of my birth made such a poor impression on Wallace. I am sorry he had his heart broken here.
Enough of the geography – read D.T. Max’s book if you want more David Foster Wallace. There is lots more to tell, including several more romances and some famous authors and lots of writer’s block and writer’s angst. I haven’t even covered David’s love for words and the deep grasp of grammar which may have started with his mom (if you read his books, watch what he does with possessives). I haven’t covered his brilliance or discussed why genius and mental illness are often found together. I haven’t discussed how the fact that his mom left his dad just as David was experiencing that first episode of full-out depression had a huge effect on the female figures in his writing (check our Avril Incandenza in Infinite Jest). This is a multilayered human and I am enriched (hokey, I know) by getting to know David Foster Wallace and his writing. Max, his biographer, also explores the themes in each of Wallace’s books and short stories and gives insight into Wallace’s complicated and evolving ideas about the nature of fiction so if you want the literary criticism aspects they are also in this biography.
I will say good-bye to DFW for now and go back to reading a variety of other authors, although his books continue to engage my brain. I understand he was one of the last great letter writers and that his letters have been collected in one place, so perhaps we will eventually have a published edition of those letters. He corresponded with the women in his life but he also corresponded with several other authors who are also important contemporary writers; something to look forward to.