Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sisyphus, the Mountain and the Boulder: On the Life of David Foster Wallace

Biographies of writers are strange beasts. A biography of an athlete tells the life story of a person who then goes on to do something you can actually narrate. The story of an athlete's life leads to athletic actions; in a warrior's life to fighting, sometimes with explosions and stuff; in a leader's life to a momentous decision. But with a writer, their life all leads to a moment when they sit down alone and write. The most important aspect of what a writer does, the reader of the biography can go and experience directly by reading the book that made said writer interesting in the first place. “Writer sits down at the desk and cranks out a good grand of words,” generally doesn't make for good reading. This challenge is intensified when writing about David Foster Wallace. Unlike some well biographied writers who either did interestingly-narratable things in addition to their writing, or had such things happen around them, the story of David Foster Wallace happened almost entirely in his brain. Whether it was his brilliance or his depression, the conflict, the action, the point of the life was interior rather than exterior. To call Every Love Story is a Ghost Story an intellectual biography is almost redundant; no other biography of David Foster Wallace is possible.

I'm not going to review Every Love Story is a Ghost Story in my usual manner because, unlike nearly every other genre, it's hard to know how good a biography is when there's only one. You can say if it's well-written or not, but you can't know how well the story is captured until someone else tries to capture it. Instead, I'm going to share the thoughts I had in response. (Which is a review in a way, of course, as a bad book would have left me thinking very little at all.)

There is one writer who I've read and who's life story I am familiar with who is a very, very close analog, and for entirely forgivable reasons, this writer was not mentioned once in the entire book. Though the British post-modern writer B.S. Johnson was older than Wallace, they both grappled with virtually the same questions and the same problems. Johnson was essentially a direct heir of Beckett in the way Wallace saw himself as an heir to Pynchon and DeLillo and, just as with Wallace, Johnson saw as his greatest challenge, finding a way to tell the truth about the world in a meaningful way. If there was any major difference it was that Johnson was able to make a few more experiments before mental illness combined with circumstance drove him to suicide. He wrote darkly comic novels that played with structure, form, and voice, building on the freedom of narrative forged by Joyce and Beckett and going so far as to write a beautiful, heartbreaking, moving story about a close friend dying of cancer that is composed of individual unbound chapters that can be read in any order. (If you've never read him, start with his brutally funny Christie-Malry's Own Double Entry.) He experimented with television. He struggled to find a way to make a living while writing, including trying to forge a publishing contract that worked almost like a traditional salary. He was occasionally the darling of the literary media. And one day, he drew himself a bath, drank a bottle of red wine and slit his wrists in the tub. I wonder where Wallace would have gone with The Pale King if he'd read The Unfortunates, the book of individually bound chapters. What might have happened if Wallace's brain of Wittgenstein and Taylor, infinity and tennis, Pynchon and DeLillo had he realized you could be sincere in any order of event and actually break the binding of your story into a work unlike anything anyone had written or read before.

The most interesting and difficult aspect of Every Love Story for me was the conservative turn Wallace took in his aesthetics before writing Infinite Jest, It wasn't that he sought emotional connection with the reader or to transcend the irony of the era for a productive sincerity, but that he saw those goals as primary and mutually exclusive with cleverness, intellectual athletics, and irony, essentially agreeing wholeheartedly with his friend Jonathan Franzen's absurd, reactionary idea of the “contract writer,” a concept susceptible to the kind of obsessive recursive thinking at the root of so much of Wallace's own anxiety; is your writing only concerned with meeting a contract with the reader or are you writing so it seems likes your only concerned with meeting a contract with the reader, which is way more dishonest than writing in service to your own ideas in the first place, but, I digress. One of the repeating phrases of this era in Wallace's life was “Make the head beat like the heart,” but somehow he didn't seem to understand the broad implications of the image. But that is the magic behind great works of fiction; they are independent of their root philosophies, they contain more, extend beyond, have conversations with strangers, have substance that frees the reader to think about other things than what is written, and allows the reader to appreciate aspects of the work the original author might despise or disagree with. He did not seem to truly understand the potential of making the head beat like the heart, but, in Infinite Jest, he met that potential nonetheless.

Did Michiko Kakutani ever like something that took a risk or ever like the risky aspect of a book she was generally positive about? I bring it up, because she apparently really liked the biography of David Foster Wallace and yet she only shows up in the book in quotes of negative reviews of Wallace's work, reviews that, in my humble opinion, reflected her unwillingness to put a shred of her own fucking effort into understanding the book and not any kind of obtuseness or intractability of Wallace's work itself. Sure, it doesn't lend itself to review deadlines, but we need (or at least I love) books that need more than one reading to understand.

Perhaps the most personal, autobiographical image Wallace ever wrote, was of the contortionist, the young man who committed himself to touching every part of his body with his lips. Add a level of manic intensity and speed up the iterations of effort, and you have, what I suspect, is the most accurate image of Wallace's mind. Another version of this kind of self-flagellation occurs in The Pale King in a character who sweats a lot, who is then anxious about sweating a lot, whose anxiety increases the likelihood of an attack of perspiration and then who sculpts his entire life around managing and coping with these attacks. Other stories talked more directly about mental illness, but these images I think were portraits of his brain.

If there is any new tragedy revealed by Every Love Story, it's that Wallace was never able to transfer the lessons of recovery, that were so vital to both his survival and his progression from the author of Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair to the author of Infinite Jest, to coping with his mental illness. There is a limit, of course, to thinking your way out of dangerous neuro-chemicals, but given that addiction is usually treated as a mental illness and given Wallace's exploration into Buddhism, mediation and Zen, one has to wonder if a recovery mantra like “Your best thinking got you here,” might have saved Wallace from the recursive thoughts that seemed to cripple every aspect of his life. Of course, this might be less a limitation of Wallace's imagination and more a limitation of the culture of treatment at the time. I'm told by someone in the profession that it is only very recently that the fields of addiction recovery and psychological therapy are beginning to share their ideas and techniques.

The Pale King and the forthcoming essays collection will not be the end of Wallace's published work. He was a prolific letter writer and we will see a “selected” and a “complete” collection of his letters at some point. Pay attention to that moment, even if you don't plan on reading them, because it is quite likely that the collection of Wallace's letters will be one of, if not the, last major collection of letters ever published unless something drastic happens in our culture.

We should understand Wallace's suicide as a death deferred. Many times over his life he almost didn't climb back out of the hole he fell in. It is a miracle he survived his time in Cambridge, and the fact that he lived long enough to write Infinite Jest, is a gift we should appreciate as such. (So go read it.)

I'd like to circle back to my introduction with a quote from Jonathan Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant, his biography of the previously mentioned B.S Johnson, and one of the best literary biographies I've ever read. One bit of context for the quote, Johnson made graphs of his days' writing outputs. Emphasis in original.
And here we come up against the chief problem with literary biography: the thing that makes me, essentially, mistrust the genre...Take 17 August 1965, for instance. Johnson got involved in no literary bust-ups that day, wrote no fiery letters for me to quote. He did not go out and get hilariously drunk with a fellow author, to provide me a spiky anecdotal. He did not have a secret tryst with a beautiful journalist, leading to a torrid but eminently disclosable affair. (He was not, you will have gathered by now, the sort of person who had affairs.) No, he sat at his desk for six and a quarter hours, and wrote 1,700 words of Trawl. Boring, or what? But this is what writers do. Not only is it what they do, but it is what they do best, it is when they are happiest, it is when they are most themselves. If they did not do it, none of the other, superficial, gossipy stuff that fills up books like this would matter in the slightest. It is the essence of the thing. But this is the one thing I cannot write about, that I cannot make interesting. It shows up the whole process I am engaged upon for the potentially dishonest enterprise that it is...
All I can say is this. I know—from my own experience of writing—that 17 August, 1965 would have been a great day in B.S. Johnson's life. At the end of those six and a quarter hours, he would have felt exhilarated. He would have felt a degree and a quality of satisfaction that he felt in his short life only very rarely.” (p194-5)

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Wallace's life is that he never had a day like 17 August 1965, even when he had a day like that. Doubt. Anxiety. Depression. Arrogance. Intelligence. It all swirled, coiled, and combined into a state of being that needed to be surmounted, for Wallace to simply go on. His life was Sisyphean, except that he was Sisyphus, the mountain, and the boulder.

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