The shadow of the pale king

In November 2012 Vagant interviewed D. T. Max, staff writer at The New Yorker and David Foster Wallace’s biographer, from a kitchen table in Sagene, Oslo, via an unstable Skype connection. We talked about how the biography of David Foster Wallace began, about why Infinite Jest is still a great book, and about why it is more difficult to be a literary biographer now than in the 1920s – but easier than in the 1970s.

– Let’s start with the beginning. Take us back to the moment you decided to write the biography of David Foster Wallace.

– I was always a fan, but I was a fan of the wrong novel. For me it was Broom of the System, which I thought was the most delightful, comic, hyperbolic, playful little romp in the forest of the mind that I had ever read. I had read others of David’s works, and was aware of his writing, but I certainly wasn’t a DFW groupie.

– Then came the New Yorker piece?

– Yes, after David died, the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, asked me if I wanted to write something about his death, and I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t know he had been depressed, I didn’t know he had addiction issues – I mean, you could have guessed it, probably, but I didn’t actually know it. So I set out in all innocence to learn about David.

– Yes?

D.T. Max: Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Viking, 2012.
D.T. Max: Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. A Life of David Foster Wallace. Viking, 2012.

– One of the first things that happened was that Jonathan Franzen gave me the correspondence between him and Wallace. David is writing to Jon, and he describes Broom of the System as being a book he had no affection for at all anymore. He says it could have been written by a smart fourteen-year-old. I was so surprised. I had actually reread Broom of the System just before his death, by pure chance. But as I got deeper and deeper into the New Yorker article, which appeared right after his death, and which was constrained by the sadness and the nearness of what had happened … well, it turned out to be a fairly depressing article. Ever after it ran, people told me that he had all these other qualities. He was funny, for example. People would tell me, “You don’t realize how funny he was.” I would say, “I didn’t get that into the article, but maybe there’s another opportunity …”

– You wanted to make a more complete portrait of him?

– You could say that. The second thing that happened was that I finally read Infinite Jest properly, and at the right age. And I didn’t really want to go and read anything else! I didn’t want to go and read Alice Munro or Michel Houellebecq. I wanted to read more DFW. At the same time it was clear that the article had had a big response – from the Internet you can tell these things. So I began getting together a proposal.

The last part of it was that I was just amazed, especially as I began the biography, how many people care about David’s writing and who he was. As I worked on the book, I would see people who had a tattoo that said «This is Water», from the speech at Kenyon College on their arm …[1] There was one woman who had the day she started and the day she finished Infinite Jest tattooed on her arm, still, I don’t think that’s a typical response. I mean, do you have any DFW tattoos?

– No, I’m afraid not. Not yet.

– So I was just stunned. I was floored by what was going on. Really enthralled. I never ached to be a biographer, but everything about David was interesting. Because he was more than a writer, because his artistic struggles were so acute, because they graphed relatively well onto his life. David was worried about connection with others, and his writing was worried about connection with others. He lived trying to solve the same problems he was trying to solve in his fiction: «how to be a fucking human being», in the famous phrase from the Review of Contemporary Fiction. So that’s how it started.

But the big test for me … I’m always interested in research and interviewing, but my question was, would I still want to read David when it was over? And the proof is, yeah, I’d like to go right back and read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men again. As with all really good authors, different books rise up and capture my imagination at different moments.

– So something about David Foster Wallace’s writing clearly led people to take an interest in who he was as a human being. What do you think that was?

– There are a couple of things. One is I think he sounds the way we think. It may have been that Boccaccio was the sound of thinking in fourteenth-century Florence, I don’t really know. It’s possible that’s the way people thought. But we don’t think that way anymore. We don’t think the way Dickens wrote, we don’t think the way Hemingway wrote.

And then the second thing is, with David there’s always a person behind the writing. I think one of the reasons he didn’t like Broom of the System was that he didn’t really believe in that person. I think he found someone who would be satisfied with that book shallow and showy, not committed to deeper principles. From that time on, I think that even when you read his book on infinity, David’s own presence in his writing is always very identifiable. Especially for a certain kind of younger reader. In a moment of crisis, and youth is a time of crisis – not that middle age is so free of it, either – you sense a friend beyond these texts, you sense a wise, well-disposed individual, someone whose ear is open.

Even though writing is one-directional, with David it doesn’t feel one-directional, it feels like you are having a conversation, and I think that’s hugely important – especially for readers who might not otherwise choose something as challenging to read. If you look online, you see all these comments where people write that they think the world is a lonelier place without him. It’s amazing. I can’t think of another writer, at least another English-language writer, who creates that response. It’s something that could only have happened at this moment, with this writer. Twenty years from now, I think we’ll read him, but I don’t know if he’ll sound like the sound of us thinking.

– Do you think it’s easier to relate to his voice in English than another language?

– I have no idea whether he translates. The translators always say he’s untranslatable, but no one really is. Apparently Infinite Jest is just now being translated into French, for instance. DFW’s style doesn’t seem so unusual in Italian. Italian is built on long, delicately balanced clauses whose relation to each other you have to puzzle at. That’s Infinite Jest. Whereas in English, it’s quite a dangerous style, it’s quite fractured and antagonistic.

– And in the language of sturdy woodsmen, Norwegian, it’s probably quite a challenge too.

– I don’t know enough about Norwegian – but you have two languages, as I remember? The Danish-inflected language and the true language of the ancient Norse heroes, right?

– Norwegian and New Norwegian, yes. And the New Norwegian, ironically, is the Old Norwegian.

– But is it an inflected language? Are the sentences put together so that you have to know the endings to recognize the relations? Or is it more like English, where you have prepositions that tell you the relation of clause to clause?

– I think it’s more like English in that way. But Norwegian literature is probably better known for its short sentences – think of the Norse sagas – rather than these long, extremely ornate sentences that you might find in French or Italian.

– That’s so interesting. Infinite Jest is probably not translated into Norwegian, probably only Oblivion is, right?

– Right, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. And speaking of: You talked earlier about his troubles with women. Was the misogyny of the “hideous men” at all a part of DFW’s make-up?

– Well, David could be abusive to women – he certainly was to Mary Karr.[2] He had a violent aspect to his personality. He threw things at her and so on. I’m told, by the way, that this is not uncommon in people with bipolar condition or addiction syndromes, but I’m not a health care worker. It surprised me! And it should be added David was capable of great tenderness and delicacy.

– You mentioned that DFW’s letters to Jonathan Franzen were helpful in your work with the book. Elsewhere you’ve stated that DFW was the last great letter writer of American literature. It sounds like you learned a lot from the letters. But I wonder if he was equally good at emails?

– No, the emails are more timid. They’re not bad. But he’s better in letter form where there are no locks restricting him, where there are no limits on how much he can say, or how much, socially, you’re expected to say. Something about the medium tamped him down. I don’t think he felt as much like a writer when he sat at the keyboard. He didn’t really like computers. Fundamentally computers weren’t his thing. Ironically.

– Ironically because he was such a modern writer in so many ways?

– Yes, and because he’s the patron saint of the Internet generation. Yet the notebook method was important to him. There’s a quote in the book where he talks about how he needs the process to slow down his writing so it’s a step removed from his thinking. There’s a wonderful quote, I don’t believe it’s actually in my book, but it’s in his notebooks, where he says: «Would that we scrutinize our technology the way we do our people.» I just love that. The «would that we»-form … such an old-fashioned form of the imperative! Or a subjunctive is what it really is. But it’s not common usage. It’s almost as if he’s a bit archaic and sad.

– So he’s saying that technology places limits on the way we live our lives that we’re not aware of?

– It’s tricky. David’s almost exactly my contemporary. When computers came along, he was already a guy set in his ways. If he had been twenty years younger, he probably would have found computers pretty interesting. My god, he found television interesting.

– To which he was hooked?

– Yeah, and I can see that computer games could have been deeply absorbing to him. And the quality of the computer never being off would have been quite deadly for him. We also have to remember that David wanted to be a grand man of letters. He took his pattern from Don DeLillo. And DeLillo doesn’t even have email. Some of this purity test was always part of David’s make up, I think.

– Do you think the advent of email makes the work of a literary biographer more difficult as well?

– I don’t know. You have to remember that decades ago, people declared the biography dead because the letter was giving way to the phone call. And now the phone call has, blessedly, been replaced by the email. So I’d say that on balance literary biographers are slightly ahead. Remember all those oral biographies of the 1970s – did you have those? That trend in biography where you just ran the tape on various people, made a group of interviews, one after the other, and that was the biography. Since there were no letters, and since life was now conversation, the hope of using more substantive and enduring materials like letters was gone. And then email comes along, confounding everybody’s expectation that there’d be less and less to be written. David was unusual in that he was a letter writer before he was an emailer. But I certainly didn’t write letters, and now I write emails. So if you want to biographize me, I’d leave a much longer paper trail than I ever did before.

– So the literary biographer is better off in the age of the email than the age of the telephone, but worse off than in the age of the letter?

– Yeah, I think that’s absolutely the right understanding of things. I think those 1970s writers, the 1980s even, will be the hardest to write biographies of. The 1920s writers who were writers before they would pick up the phone, they were wonderful.

– Do you still think that in twenty or thirty years DFW will be part of the literary canon?

– Yes, I think that’s more likely that anything else. Once professors start scribbling notes in their books … I mean, here in America, Pearl Buck was huge. Do you know Pearl Buck?

– Ehm, no.

– Well, Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize in literature. And you go to high schools in America and Pearl Buck is still taught. And Pearl Buck should not be taught. I mean, she probably wrote okay novels, but …

– So once canonized, it’s hard to de-canonize her?

– Yeah. But with David, I think once academics begin to work into the books, with their deep and complicated cross-meanings … The real question is: Will he still be vital? Will he matter to young people? And that’s tricky. I think we can’t predict. I certainly hope that my children in their teens will read him. I certainly think he should be taught as a writer. I think whether he’ll be looked on as a relevant human being is a harder question.

– What will be most interesting to the youth of today and of tomorrow – his fiction or his non-fiction?

– That’s a great question. The non-fiction is what we’d call a gateway drug to the fictional universe. My issue with the non-fiction as a journalist is that much of it is inaccurate. It’s tricky. It’s hard to recommend inaccurate non-fiction, but it seems pedantic not to recommend wonderful, yet somewhat inaccurate non-fiction.

– Are fiction writers like DFW bound by a different code of ethics than journalists when writing non-fiction, then? Is accuracy not as important?– Well, I was surprised by the fact that the nonfiction deviated from literal accuracy, though I’m not sure how much it bothers me. Intuitively you know this isn’t supposed to be, say, a transcription of events.

– How did you discover that the non-fiction could be inaccurate?

– Of course when I first read the travel pieces I suppose I took them as real, as happening. There were some disclosures of inaccuracies before I started the book, but I think I first understood it when I wrote on «Ticket to the Fair», the essay on the 1993 Illinois State Fair,[3] where David does a certain amount of transposing his girlfriend Mary Karr onto the “Native Companion”.[4]

– Some say his non-fiction is more interesting – and more read?

– I do not believe, personally, that his reputation rests on his non-fiction. I don’t see, if Infinite Jest doesn’t survive, how David survives as a writer. That doesn’t mean that I don’t foresee that people still won’t start with the non-fiction. I think they almost certainly will. There are terrific pieces there.

– So for a new reader of David Foster Wallace, the non-fiction is a good and natural place to start?

– Yes, I suppose you could start with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Or – a small pitch for myself here – the biography really tells you which DFW reader you are. It’s a bit of a Rorschach test. Are you the fiction DFW? Are you the Infinite Jest DFW? I fear that the number of Broom of the System DFW readers is quite small.

– Did your conception of who DFW was change in any way from you started this project?

– I learned a ton when I did the New Yorker piece, and the knowledge deepened considerably by the time I wrote the book. I don’t think I knew how desperate he was throughout so much of his life, how desperate for love, how desperate for contact. I had no idea of his difficulties with women at all until I started the book. I don’t think I quite got how intensely he was committed to the written word and from how early, because the New Yorker piece focused very much on the last book. So that was a bit of a surprise as well. His brilliance grew on me. When you read something a third time, like I read Infinite Jest a third time, and you’re still just getting up to speed, that’s an impressive moment. I think I got a much more complete portrait of him.

One of the more local surprises: I didn’t know until I had worked on the book how early he had started Infinite Jest, that he had started it in graduate school, effectively, nor how long he had been working on The Pale King. He had actually been working on it from the day he finished Infinite Jest. Those were not things I knew when I worked on the original New Yorker piece.

– You’ve worked on his life for a quite a few years. How long did it take to research and write the book?

– He died in September 2008. I started March 2009. So it took three and a half years, I’d say.

– And after those three and a half years, do you think there are any stones unturned? Any letters unopened? Is there room for another biography of DFW in the foreseeable future?

– I don’t think I’ve written the last word. I don’t think the first biography is ever the last word.

– But there is more source material out there?

– Sure. Among the things that are worth asking is: Where are all the notebooks? I only had access to three or four notebooks. The notebooks for the whole middle period of his life have never surfaced. Certain bits of the correspondence will surface. I had 200 or so letters from maybe a dozen, two dozen correspondents. I think future letters will reveal information, but they won’t reveal parts of his personality we don’t know.

But certainly there is information we don’t have. I’d like to know a bit more about his childhood. I feel like there’s somewhat more to be said about that. Probably with time some of the people who were reluctant to talk will make an appearance. I had an embarrassment of riches, and people were very, very generous. But still, there are always more people you’d want to hear from.

And then I think our critical take on him will be a little easier to obtain. A biographer can’t be everything. I tried to be both biographer, literary critic, researcher, sleuth … but you can’t be terrific at all those all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t mind a bit of critical help on, say, the question of some of the stories in Oblivion. There are certain books I felt very firm and secure writing about, especially Infinite Jest, which was probably what mattered most to me. But with Oblivion, I don’t know … Certainly «Good Old Neon» is readable with the tools most of us have, but «Mr. Squishy», with that shifting narrative focus and its truncated plotline, is not one I feel I’ve gotten everything I can out of. Wyatt Mason did a wonderful exegesis of the title story in, I think, the London Review of Books that made me think, «Jeez, I wish I had that guy working with me!»

I think someone will come around and assert that The Pale King is a great success and actually the crowning achievement of David’s life, and not the unfinished book that killed him. I don’t know if I will ever be converted to that point of view, though there are certainly wonderful things in it. But the correspondence and the interviews just speak too strongly of someone who was really uncomfortable with what he was creating and unable to continue going forward.

That said, there’s a wonderful early set piece where a man named Sylvanshine arrives at an Internal Revenue Office in Illinois, and I think it’s one of the loveliest scenes David ever wrote. But I don’t think you can conceive of The Pale King as having the size and ambition of Infinite Jest. There’s something about Infinite Jest that sits there in that strange space where really brilliant books that could not have been foreseen sit. Whereas The Pale King is a more foreseeable book, I think, even if he had finished it successfully.

– What made Infinite Jest so timely, when it was also unforeseeable? It captured something of its time, yet created something entirely new?

– Yeah, like all great fiction, it both captured a moment and also gave us the tools to understand that moment, and I think many writers since then have used those tools. The DFW style is everywhere at this point. Perhaps even to excess. The speed of the world as we live in it today doesn’t require or invite short sentences or full stops, but rather clause after clause … and like most strong styles, it’s easily done badly. It’s the joke about Hemingway too. It’s easy to almost do DFW, but to actually be him is extremely difficult.

[1] Wikipedia: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life is an essay by David Foster Wallace, first published in book form by Little, Brown and Company in 2009. The text originates from a commencement speech given by Wallace at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005. Before Little, Brown’s publication, a transcript of the speech circulated around the internet. The essay was also published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006. This essay covers subjects including ‘the difficulty of empathy,’ ‘the importance of being well adjusted,’ and ‘the essential lonesomeness of adult life.’”

[2] Mary Karr is a poet and professor who dated DFW in the 1990s.

[3] Reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again as “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All”.

[4] In the essay, Karr is the model for the “Native Companion”, a colorful local with the tendency to swear a lot, who accompanies DFW to the fair. In “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”, Max writes that, “drawing on his gift for comic exaggeration and not particularly worried about veracity”, “he put a layer of myth over his experience” at the fair. “And when it was time for Native Companion to speak, Wallace gave [her] the voice of the woman whose star still twinkled over his head. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ Native Companion reproofs the upset Wallace after being exposed during the Zipper ride, “it was fun – son of a bitch spun that car sixteen times … Buy me some pork skins, you dipshit.’”


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