So Painfully Fragile, A History Boy, 13/09/2015

After writing my week-long series of posts about two of the most esoteric and difficult writers in the last century of European philosophy, I realized that I actually missed something I said I’d talk about in the beginning. Why I stopped reading D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace to pick up Spectres of Marx instead.

1. Simply put, it was getting dull. This is the clearest reason why I lost interest in Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.* Wallace’s own writing is much more interesting than his life was. And it didn’t take much to be more interesting than Wallace’s life.

* Curious that I’d drop a book whose title purposely evoked ghosts in favour of a book that explored in detail the human experience of ghosts and spectral memory. 

Wallace poured his own life into Infinite Jest, which,
along with literary tropes, was really all he had.
2. Wallace’s young adult life was spent going back and forth between graduate school programs (whether as a student or a teacher) and mental health programs and facilities. The chapters I read in Max’s biography described how several harsher critics of Wallace’s early fiction found it disconnected from the gritty details of life.

Frankly, that’s because Wallace himself was disconnected from how most people actually lived their lives. Max is a sympathetic biographer, and Wallace is nothing if not a person deserving of sympathy (except when he isn’t). So he concentrates these early chapters on what Wallace was trying to do formally with fiction. 

Wallace got his MFA in a program dominated by the minimalist realism of the Iowa school of writing. But simplicity was not his cup of tea. Wallace spent the early part of his career pushing meta-fictional techniques and post-modern aesthetics to their breaking point, and combining these playful methods with an emotional heart that’s absent from a lot of what had come before.

That’s an admirable mission for art. Wallace succeeded, powerfully, and we should be grateful for that. But despite Max’s charity and sympathy for Wallace, simply describing the events of his youth paint a picture of a malignant person who was at best a wreck and at worst a tumour. 

3. I think what disturbed me most was his “relationship” with Mary Karr. I remember reading accounts of this period of Wallace’s life written shortly after he died, which described their relationship as genuinely romantic, but volatile and tense. Max’s biography reveals what these other articles, published in the immediate aftermath of Wallace’s suicide, didn’t have the guts to say.

Wallace never dated Mary Karr. He stalked her obsessively, pressuring her to divorce her husband and abandon her child to be with him. He created a fantasy life of meaning in their limited correspondence, and when he confronted her with his delusions, she rightly reacted with fear.

Some of the biggest regrets in my personal life come from the way I’ve treated some women in my life. I sometimes displayed such awkward, awful behaviour that I now know appeared horribly creepy. And at the time, I’d spin narratives of my own motivations and emotions that validated my disrespectful, off-putting behaviour. 

To see Wallace, a person I generally admired, engage in an even more offensive, manic, obsessive form of this behaviour, blasted to a ridiculous intensity by his bipolar disorder, leaves a disgusting taste in my mouth.

4. The last reason why I put down Max’s biography – and why I may never go back to Wallace’s own writing – is because of how strangely his own mental illness feeds back into his writing. Max, at one point, mentions how Wallace accepted an op/ed journalism job with a 1000 word limit that ballooned into an enormous project.

And I realized that was at the heart of Wallace’s maximalism. It wasn’t a conscious style choice. It was all he could do to bring some kind of order and purpose to his manic tidal waves of expression. 

Yes, he happened to be a genius, and that made his manic bipolar word vomit conceptually interesting and beautifully crafted. But that can’t disguise what it really was.

So that’s why I can’t go back to Wallace now that I know more about his writing, his life, and his personality. I see enough similarity between myself and Wallace (middle-class writers from an intellectual family who’ve struggled to different intensities with depression) that he no longer inspires me.

He makes me feel sick.

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