Footnote to a Life

Sometime in late 1994 I opened The New Yorker and saw a new story by David Foster Wallace. I had read his first two books, a novel and a collection of short stories, and I was a fan of his work. But it had been years since I’d seen anything new from him in print and I was thrilled the way I still am when I open up The New Yorker and find a story by a beloved author who hasn’t published anything in a while. I don’t know why, but I was so thrilled and happy to see this particular story that I wrote David Foster Wallace a fan letter, care of the magazine. And that would be the end of my silly, youthful story of booknerddom if not for one thing: David Foster Wallace wrote me back.

cardI found his letter recently in my parents’ basement, in a stack of old correspondence. It’s a card with a colorful reproduction of a painting by a Native American painter of the figure of Kokopelli, which I now know was something DFW was into at that time. Inside is a folded piece of white paper with a typed message with handwritten addenda and corrections. It’s a very sweet note to a fangirl, thanking me for my letter, which made him “feel good” during the difficult process of editing a long manuscript that must have been Infinite Jest. He writes a chattily about work; Boston, where I was living at the time; and his dog. I can hardly bear to re-read the letter now, partly because it embarrassingly reminds me of my younger, nerdy, insecure self (and also that I am older, but still pretty nerdy and sometimes insecure), and partly because it feels like an artifact of a terrible tragedy. My 96-year-old grandmother died in November, and I joyfully wear the few pieces of jewelry she left me, remembering her fondly as I do. Perhaps because I didn’t really know him, or because his death violated the natural order in the way that all suicides do, looking at this letter, even handling it, feels like a desecration.

ELSIAGSAll this is just a preface to establish the deep, abiding, and long-term interest in DFW that led me to D.T. Max’s (relatively) new biography of the writer, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. As I read, I found myself increasingly irritated by certain seemingly minor but actually major structural problems, like the unnecessary endnotes that seem like a heartless and failed parody of the work of the man who elevated the endnote to an art form; the second layer of citations, for sources, mystifyingly listed by page number just after the conclusion of the endnotes, which make the endnotes look skillful after all by comparison; the shockingly high number of typos and grammatical, if not errors, then awkwardnesses in a book about a guy who worshipped at the altar of grammar and for whom language was god; the strangely detached voice that left me somewhat cold for the first half of the book. I was also appalled to find details like excerpts from DFW’s elementary-school poetic efforts, which I just think should be off limits to anyone, especially the entire reading public of the whole wide world.

But soon I realized that my irritation probably lay largely in the genre of biography itself. I don’t read many biographies – or any biographies? I think the last one I read might have been a profile of Winnie Mandela when I was twelve, and to give you an idea of how long ago that was, it was at a time when Winnie Mandela was still a person you would want to read a biography about – but after reading this one I have realized that I hope never to be well-enough known or influential enough that someone might want to posthumously publish excerpts from my kindergarten literary oeuvre or dissect my high-school and college friendships to a degree that could only be described as microscopic (and to anyone who ever spent a late night in my parents’ kitchen or in the common area of a Canaday-D dorm room: your lips are sealed, right?). Despite all this intimate investigation, it felt to me as if I knew DFW less and less as the pages wore on, but I don’t think this is Max’s fault. Biography just reminds us of that truism of human relationships and life on earth, which is that you can never – although you can come really, really close in certain instances, like in a long, happy marriage or a mostly functional family – really know another person.

What you can learn from the biography of a writer is the fascinating machinations of composition and publication that you might call literary history. Every Love Story is particularly strong in this area, and the book got better as it passed into the era of DFW’s major work. It is also strong, and grows stronger toward the end, at explicating the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of DFW’s fiction, and the transformation in his thinking about literature and life over time. Max writes insightfully about a commencement address DFW delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, later widely circulated on the Internet, “The truth behind banalities always excited and embarrassed Wallace, filling him with the wonder that, as he wrote in Infinite Jest, ‘cliched directives are a lot more deep and hard to actually do.’ Over the past twenty-five years his mental life had run a huge circuit through the most astonishing complexities to arrive at what many six-year-olds and nearly all churchgoers already understood.” Max understands perfectly what DFW’s contribution, his masterpiece, really was: not a single book or body of work, but the way that he increased the range of contemporary fiction, its warmth and humanity, with an expansiveness of spirit that was courageous and genuine.

Alas, the worst thing about reading a biography about a figure you like and admire who is also a relatively young suicide is that you first have the creeping and then the galloping sensation of being carried along with increasing anxiety toward an inevitable and unbearable conclusion. D.T. Max himself recognized this, and wrote of the title he chose that it “captures the particular, morbid work of the biographer, who doesn’t open up his or her laptop until the casket shuts.” That quality made this particular biography, for me at least, more difficult than most. As I approached the end of the book, I was increasingly filled with dread, and only partly because I knew it meant that DFW would die, which, since he’s already dead, could hardly have been the source of all of my anxiety, but because it caused me to reflect, at every moment that I was reading, and even when I wasn’t, on the quality of my own days – or the water I was swimming through, as DFW had it in his Kenyon speech – which, after all, was what he spent his own life trying to get the rest of us to see.

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