Depending on what I have to accomplish on my grocery runs some days, I’ll walk past a Book City about a block east of Jane subway station. They have a bargain bin outside, and as I pass, I always scan to see what they have. I usually find nothing too interesting to me, so I go on my way.
But a little while ago, they had D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. I bought it for $8, and I’m reading it now.
A detail from an article that Max wrote in the New Yorker found its way into Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. Max describes Wallace’s experience in rehab, feeling vastly uncomfortable in a therapy session shared with men who weren’t nearly as ridiculously erudite or overeducated as he was.
I know something like what he felt, because I’ve been in that kind of environment before, where you’re the most educated person in a room. I’m not like those grad students, who can only write in ways that most people can’t understand anymore. Max describes a moment where Wallace sees how his erudition gets in the way of his own thinking.
Wallace finds those cheesy slogans like “One day at a time” do little to help him with his addictions, because he sees through them. But their simplicity lends them a power to become mantras that can help his partners in the therapy session build a new order in their lives. He comes to see his deconstructive intelligence as an obstacle to recovery. The solution isn’t to throw away his brain, but to learn to see the simple with the same depth and detail of understanding that he sees the overly complicated.
Max’s story about Wallace’s rehab session makes for a beautiful illustration of the power of simplicity, a reminder that the most immediately effective idea is one that can be simple. The challenge lies in making sure your simple idea is expressed in just the right way to keep people on the intended path.
• • •
I’ve always had a complex relationship with Wallace. Or maybe it’s actually very simple. I first bought Infinite Jest because I saw it in a bookstore. I was 16 and had read very little postmodernist literature at this point. I loved Vonnegut, but also enjoyed the simple styles of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I’d grow beyond all these writers, eventually seeing too much that I thought was arid (Arthur), pessimistic (Kurt), or stagnant (Isaac) for them to inspire me.
Wallace was different, or so he was at the time. I bought the book simply because it was enormous – the hefty softcover edition with the calmly clouds all over the cover. The first time I tried to read it, it was too intimidating. Huge, complex, maddening, too much going on. Bloody endnotes.
Infinite Jest was the first book I read with two bookmarks, one for the main text and the other for the endnotes. It became a regular practice for me whenever I read a book with substantive endnotes.
The second time, I spent the summer working through its dense sprawl. If the term ‘dense sprawl’ seems to be self-contradictory, then you haven’t read Wallace.
Once I read the book, I admired its depth of detail and research, its wild inventiveness, beautiful imagery, and prose that could bring you inside not just a character’s perspective, but his personality and soul. You could experience the torment for yourself.
I bought Max’s book this month because Wallace as a person has fascinated me for a long time. I found the intensity of his personality intriguing, like watching from orbit a bubbling volcano spread enormous cracks in the Earth’s surface, but slowly, over many years.
His work affects me strongly when I read it. His life is fascinating. Thinking about him and how he approached his depression and the wider world is an exquisite existential puzzle. I once tried to include a reading of his commencement address “This Is Water” in a set of readings for an introductory philosophy class for which I was a teaching assistant. But the professor in charge wouldn’t allow it because it didn’t have an argument.
Yet for all Wallace has mattered to me over the years, and still matters, I can’t say that his writing style has affected mine at all. Wallace’s maximalism is an amazing achievement, as is his skill at depicting mental illness and the way he weaves biographical details into his fiction.
But when I read and think about his work, I realize that it’s impossible for anyone but Wallace to write like Wallace. I’m not sure how you can pick up a Wallace-type story and run with it in your own fashion, with your priorities. I could do that with a lot of other writers, like how Under the Trees, Eaten picks up the themes and tropes of a Lovecraft story in a new direction, with new focus.
No one can do a Wallace story like Wallace. He’s wonderful, and I’m glad he existed and his works exist. But his art, no matter how beautiful, is a dead end. There’s nowhere to go from him.