DFW's Life Story

David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Museum in L.A. with fans 
Claudia Sherman and Amanda Barnes (Jan. 2006)
Great picture, huh? The image to the left was uploaded by Claudia Sherman, featured in said photograph, with the file name 'The_best_people_you_will_ever_know.jpg' which, I found pretty amusing when I scooped it up from Wikimedia Commons. Check out the body language, too—I've seen a cropped headshot version of this picture elsewhere on the tubes, but the left hand crossing torso and holding right arm really completes the image of the author as shy but personable dude. 

I just finished reading D.T. Max's biography of DFW, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (2012), the title of which is taken from DFW's short story "Tri-Stan, I sold Sissee Nar to Ecko," from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and shows up elsewhere in DFW's writing and, less expectedly, in the writing of Christina Stead, a pre-Wallace writer. As a fan of Wallace, I completely recommend the biography, which reads incredibly easily but generally does well in avoiding contentious editorializing, as far as I could tell. At times I wish the editor let Max include even more detail, but it's concise and feels completely, and the rest of Wallace's stuff is available at UT Austin anyway. 

Rolling Stone published a short article about interesting things you probably didn't know about DFW when the biography came out in August, but it took me a semester to get around to reading it (although I did re-read IJ in that time, so I wasn't completely slacking!). I had the chance to check out D.T. Max in conversation with James Wood a month ago at Harvard, which also yielded some info I thought worth sharing.

At the talk, Max stressed how academically-oriented Wallace was, but particularly as a means for him to work out his anxiety, to fulfill his need to "be the smartest person in the room," to use Max's words. I found the sections about Wallace's time (on and off—he took not one, but two separate stretches of time off) at Amherst to be some of the most interesting stuff in the book—I guess not unexpectedly, considering where I am right now, lifewise—but Max's characterization of the author as a young student reminded me of an article a friend had sent about contrasting mindsets, which the author describes as "fixed"—trying to look like you're good and putting yourself in those kinds of situations—and "growth"—not fearing mistakes and external perceptions, putting yourself into situations that will force you to address your weaknesses. There's a point that Max notes, which has to do with Wallace writing his analytical philosophy thesis: he didn't yet have the sufficient knowledge of formal, math-like notation to write out his arguments, which was related to the fact that 
He had avoided straight math classes at Amherst, afraid they might lower his grade point average. 
Of course, when he got out of school and had to write, he tried out plenty of different approaches and discarded a great deal, but it's striking to see that he had this sort of an anxiety about his grades, which might have limited him in the long run if he didn't get over trying to be perfect, at least partially (I think Max wouldn't necessarily say that he did get over this perfectionist tendency in the end). Max did emphasize that he thought Wallace really wanted to prove himself in academia more than to impress others in the literary world, that academics mattered more to him than signing books. A statement from Wallace to a friend even echoes Joyce, where he mentions how he'd like to write a book that people would be reading 100 years from now, just as Joyce said he wanted to write a novel that would keep academics busy for years (and did just that).

It was gratifying to learn to Wallace had learned some Old English in college, which I started picking up last semester to fulfill the foreign language requirement of the Honors English track. I had opted to do Old English also very partially after reading that Joan Didion had studied Middle English at Berkeley (I remembered her mentioning she had studied Old English, but I don't think that happened). So, hurrah for Old English, I suppose.
But Wallace was still interested in the ideas behind fiction, so he signed up his first semester for a class on the history of the English language, which prompted an attempt to write a story in Old English, and another class on literary theory that focused on Derrida’s Of Grammatology
I also didn't realize before reading the biography how strongly Wallace felt towards theory, especially w/r/t Derrida:
In the last [seminar on literary theory at Arizona], when another participant called Derrida a waste of time, Wallace got so mad that everyone thought there would be a fight. 
Maybe the most satisfying part of reading the biography was getting a bit of a sense of Wallace's personality—I'd imagine the feeling would be akin to reading stories written about a famous relative who was before your time or who passed before you could appreciate him or her aside from being related to you in some biological way. It's not all pretty by any means, but there were plenty of moments that just made me think "that's so him!" For instance, on his initial feelings towards teaching University of Arizona undergrads:
His scholarship having ended, that fall Wallace had to teach. The prospect did not delight him. In his audio letter to his Amherst friends on arriving, he had declared the undergraduates at UA to be “roughly of an intelligence level of fairly damaged person.”
And as a teacher, he sounds like he'd get a high Q score, reading through students' submissions 3 times and marking them with different colored ink each time: once for first impressions, another for how it stands as a fiction piece, and the third as an editor, like the piece were soon to go into print. He also could be really tough, but in ways that seem fitting for his style:

In his undergraduate class, Wallace was kind to the clueless but cruel to anyone with pretensions. When a student claimed that her sentences were “pretty,” he scribbled lines from her manuscript on the blackboard and challenged, “Which of you thinks this is pretty? Is this pretty? And this?” He continued to battle any young man who reminded him of his younger self. When one student wowed his classmates with a voicy, ironic short story, he took him outside the classroom and told him he had “never witnessed a collective dick-sucking like that before.” Wallace promised to prevent the “erection of an ego-machine” and strafed the student with criticism for the rest of the semester.
There are plenty of less than flattering moments, though; at the talk, Max mentioned how an eager fan approached Wallace once (at a book signing?) and started telling him how life-changing reading Wallace was after he had bought a used copy of one of Wallace's books, to which Wallace replied: "Don't ever tell a writer you bought their book used!"

The story of how he came to get his first major job at Illinois State is also particularly noteworthy. It sounds a bit exaggerated, but reading about successful displays of arrogance from people you admire is pretty gratifying:

He was unusually self-confident, perhaps buoyed by a sense that Infinite Jest was on target. “You should know I am really really smart,” he told the English department members who met him. He sent a résumé with his publications and on the second page added entries for “REVIEWS IF ANYBODY CARES…” and “PRIZES &c (IF ANYBODY CARES…).”…During a question-and-answer session, when  a faculty member asked why they should hire him, he responded, “Who else?” Then the faculty committee went out with him to a local Chinese restaurant, where he told the department char, Charlie Harris, a Barth expert, that Barth was dead.
I was also gratified to read that he admired Camus, who also occupies a place in my pantheon next to DFW and Batman, writing in a letter:

He’s [Camus's] very clear, as a thinker, and tough—completely intolerant of bullshit. It makes my soul feel clean to read him.
Moments of silliness and humanity that might seem banal if about any random person are poignant when they're about such a beloved writer:
When he told her [Mary Karr] he had put certain scenes into Infinite Jest because they were “cool,” she responded, “that’s what my fucking five year old says about Spiderman.”
I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who includes certain things in my writing and music because they're cool. I've been pretty out of the loop, DFW-wise, in recent times, partially because of school and other interests, but also because I felt at one point that I was outgrowing him—that I had absorbed enough or even too much of his writing and had to move on. I ended up revisiting him this semester in my junior tutorial, which was on "Encyclopedic Novels in English," e.g., Infinite Jest, and ended up writing a +20 page paper on depictions of memory in the novel (not wholly successful, but a learning experience!). Since then, I've been going through his shorter fiction, which I largely skipped the first time around, and I'll be starting Girl with Curious Hair (1989) shortly after I finish up Oblivion (2004), which Wood characterized as being "hard to read." I think that's completely true considering the recursion and neuroticism in these stories, but they definitely feel like things that need a re-read to start appreciating. 

One of the strangest parts of the biography, I thought, was how uneventful the last 6-7 years of Wallace's life seemed—those pages seemed filled with lots of everyday-type stuff as Wallace settled into a routine and found brief happiness while married to Karen Green. It does seem like Wallace ran out of steam or just lost the source of motivation that enabled him to write a doorstopper like IJ, and Max, when asked about the last years of Wallace's life by Wood, gave his hypothesis that Wallace never fully developed a 'craft of writing' in the sense that he didn't learn to harness his creative energies to create a productive routine. I definitely got that sense reading about all the starts and stops of Wallace's attempts to write The Pale King and his frequent recourse to correspondence with people like Don DeLillo when fiction writing wasn't going well. Max put it this way: DFW insisted that he needed inspiration and relied on inspiration to get him through his work and to sustain him, so as he got older and youthful bursts of inspiration came around less and less, he couldn't find a way to productively write for sustained periods.

Just to wrap up with one last point: the biography also highlights the depth and commitment of the Wallace fan community, which exists in various forms as the "Wallace-l" email list and www.thehowlingfantods.com, which I haven't bothered keeping up with but may eventually check out when I'm ready. On that note, the story behind how Wallace's famous "This is Water" Kenyon College commencement speech was disseminated is pretty telling:
The speech, transcribed from a recording made by a member of the Wallace-l email list, moved around the Internet quickly, to Wallace’s surprise. When an acquaintance mentioned seven months later that he had read it, Wallace wrote back, “I never gave Kenyon a transcript of it. Much of it was handwritten. I don’t get it.”