352pp, Granta, £20
In his book of essays Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace says of Dostoevsky: ‘[He] wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being – that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.’i It’s not difficult to see why the Russian was one of Wallace’s heroes, as those same words could be used to describe the bandana-wearing author himself ii . For Wallace saw writing as a nigh-on moral act – one to be carried out with utmost seriousness. For him, novels were there to help readers understand themselves and to help them lead better lives.
This literary intent, coupled with his insane gifts as a wordsmith, was what set Wallace apart as something beyond a writer. The voice of a generation, for many. iii
D.T. Max’s excellent new biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, is a goldmine for those wanting to understand this take of Wallace’s on literature. We find out what Wallace read, and when, and how this shaped his writing. And, through Max’s readings of Wallace’s work, we trace Wallace’s path as he searched for a new, a better, fiction – one marrying the earnestness of certain classic literature with a style fit for the 21st century.
Max divides this literary journey of Wallace’s into two categories: aesthetic and moral. Before addressing these two core concerns, the book lays out the context from which Wallace the writer emerged.
Wallace came from a very literary family. Dad was a philosophy professor who read Moby Dick as a bedtime story to his pre-school children iv. Mum was an English teacher (and full-time grammar fascist v). Wallace looked back affectionately on the parents of his childhood, remembering them ‘lying in bed, holding hands, reading Ulysses to each other’, (although they would later split, and Wallace would have difficult relationships with both).
Much of his high-school years seem to have revolved around tennis vi, TV vii and marijuana (of course, all would go on to feature prominently in his work). He then went to the prestigious Amherst College, majoring in English and Philosophy, where he would distinguish himself as a truly brilliant A+-type student. This grounding in philosophy – with Wittgenstein and Derrida being particular favourites – would be central to his work as a writer. Max tells us that, during his early college years, Wallace believed it was theory that separated the serious novelist from the others, that without it writers were just entertainers.
During his Amherst years, Wallace started seriously reading serious fiction – while he’d long enjoyed literature he was now finding greater depth to it. Metafiction would provide the spark and the natural bridge from philosophy to fiction.
Donald Barthelme’s ‘The Balloon’ was the first story that, as Wallace put it, ‘rang his cherries’ – the first time he ‘heard a click’ in literature. Of course, Barthelme’s stories are odd. As Max says, Barthelme ‘sought to fracture the surface of fiction to show the underpinnings on which its illusions depended. As with other postmodernists, the point was not to make the reader forget the conventions of the charade but to see them clearly.’ This aesthetic stance resonated with Wallace, and is seen in his own writings, particularly his early work.
Two 0ther key influences from Wallace’s college days were Frank Norris’s McTeague and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. Norris’s novel is full of ‘the bizarre’ within a piece of realist fiction. Eliot’s poem showed there was a place for self-consciousness in the most literary of works. Other writers that Wallace read during this formative time that get particular mentions in Max’s biography include Barth, Kafka, Larkin viii, DeLillo ix and Grass x.
But, without doubt, the biggest impression made on Wallace during his college years was by Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (given to him by a friend who had two cats, the wonderfully named Crime and Punishment). Wallace reading Pynchon was ‘like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie’, remembers Wallace’s college friend and current novelist Mark Costello xi. Here now was Wallace finding someone whose work he not only had an aesthetic connection with but who provided social commentary in a way that resonated with his own outlook. For, as Max says, ‘Pynchon (was) expansive. He tried to take in the enormity of America in a way that Barthelme did not. And he showed you that the tone and sensibility of mainstream culture – Lot 49 drew its energy from pop songs, TV shows and thrillers – could sit alongside serious issues in fiction’. The seeds for Wallace’s own approach were sown, as here was a way of bringing together a modern style and a moral purpose.
For one of his two theses at Amherst, Wallace wrote what would become his debut novel, The Broom of the System. The book focuses on switchboard operator Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman and her search for love and fulfilment – and her questioning of her own reality – as she deals with the disappearance of her great-grandmother from a nursing home, an affair with her manic boss Rick Vigorous, and the TV stardom of her talking cockatiel. Things get super-weird in a style that Wallace fans would become accustomed to. His college influences are hugely apparent. As Max says, ‘If Wittgenstein was the obvious philosophical point of departure for Wallace’s book… the overwhelming influence is Pynchon: from him come the names, the ambience of low-level paranoia, and the sense of America as a toxic, media and entertainment-saturated land…the flat, echoing tone of his dialogue (comes) from Don DeLillo.’
While Broom marked Wallace out as a literary star, the author would dismiss it, telling a friend (Jonathan Franzen, as it happens xii) that it read like it was written by a smart 14 year old. Too much surface and not enough feeling, for Wallace. He wanted more heart in his books.
As Wallace’s work continued, with his next fiction being the short story collection Girl with Curious Hair (1989), his literary principles hardened, and began to run contrary to his earlier, more playful, aims. His main concern was what he saw as modern writers’ obsession with irony and pointing out the flaws in society rather than suggesting ways to fix things. That wasn’t enough for the earnest – almost self-help – outlook of Wallace. By the early 1990s, he would say: ‘Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground clearing…irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.’ For Wallace, as Max explains, ‘irony was defeatist, timid, the telltale of a generation too afraid to say what it meant, and so in danger of forgetting it had anything to say’. Some that Wallace would later mark out for blame included Ellis, Leyner, Leavitt, Franzen and Powers: ‘their fictions reduce to complaints and self-pity’.
As he might, Wallace suggested ‘the next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels”, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue’. xiii
Of course, by this point, Wallace was hard at work on Infinite Jest, his masterpiece – a work showcasing the type of ‘morally passionate, passionately moral fiction’ he felt America needed. On its arrival in 1996, Infinite Jest would stun. Indeed, it still stands tall as one of the most important books of recent decades. The influence of this gigantic work xiv of genius – with its labyrinthine plot based around a halfway house and a tennis academy, and, of course, its 100pages of endnotes xv – cannot be under-estimated.
The book is an ingeniously-constructed critique of modern American culture, with concerns over the hollowness of popular entertainment and the nature of addiction to the fore (‘Infinite Jest’ being the name of a movie so enthralling that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything else). While wonderfully funny, the book is the most serious of works. It is dark and depressing, but it manages to hint at a way forward in life by preaching the values of faith and sincerity. Wallace was trying to show how to function as human beings living in difficult times. Jest showcases the earnest hostility to irony that, for both good and ill, would come to define a literary generation, said critic Adam Kirsch, acknowledging the debt to Wallace owed by those such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, and Zadie Smith.
Of course, many found Wallace’s approach problematic. Critic A. O. Scott questioned whether Wallace could have it both ways with his pursuit of ‘the questionable tactic of writing cleverly to assert the superiority of sincerity in a world wedded to cleverness’. xvi
Wallace’s writing, Scott said in an article following publication of Wallace’s second short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), was clearly connected to the self-centred self-absorbed culture of late-twentieth century America, but ‘does Wallace’s work represent an unusually trenchant critique of that culture or one of its most florid and exotic symptoms? Of course, there can be only one answer: it’s both.’ Another of Scott’s neat criticisms was that Wallace fenced off all possible objections to his work by making sure every possible criticism was already embedded in the text xvii. These being observations that hurt Wallace, largely because of the kernels of truth in them. It’s a valid position for the Wallace non-believers to hold: that Wallace’s personality led to an over-powering sense of cleverness in his work that stopped him being the completely genuine, and truly great, author he hoped to be. He certainly didn’t always practise what he preached (even if he was trying to). But he had ridiculously high expectations of himself – and literature in general – and so he was perhaps always doomed to fail by his own standards.
Whatever the criticisms, Wallace had far more supporters than detractors and so his moral quest continued. He just knew he needed to go deeper.
Next came his 2004 short story collection Oblivion: Stories xviii. These tales, like those in Brief Interviews, largely concern themselves with middle-aged, middle-class, white men in Middle America. But, as Max says, ‘though the subjects share their antecedents’ condition of total self-absorption, their pride in themselves…has now been replaced by a sullen silence. These men are aware of themselves as over-the-hill, culturally disempowered, on their way to nowhere…Even irony has lost its power to protect them. They seem able to see everything but what’s in front of their eyes and to talk about everything but what actually matters to them.’
Wallace would investigate this malaise further in his final book, the posthumously-published epic The Pale King (2011). This exploration of the human condition – particularly the nature of boredom, loneliness and depression – is set in the bureaucratic world of the IRS Regional Examination Centre in Peoria, Illinois. The Pale King has been called Wallace’s most optimistic book, even if just for its dubiously-comforting suggestion that somewhere just beyond the tedium of modern life lies a kind of genuine contentment. The Pale King is certainly Wallace’s most mature and emotional work. It’s easy to see in it that Wallace was still desperately trying to achieve the total sincerity in fiction that he advocated. He was preaching the value of having values. Wallace had completed his journey from the self-interested stylist of his early years to a deeply moral writer of single-entendre fiction.
Wallace was immersed in writing The Pale King for many years, but it was still far from complete when he killed himself in 2008. Passages for the book were found in papers and on floppy disks in Wallace’s office after his death. It was expertly pieced together by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch. The novel stands up as a work of complete brilliance and its publication was a hugely satisfying event for those feeling a little emptier after Wallace’s death. xix
Max, pleasingly, avoids wild conjecture about the circumstances surrounding Wallace’s suicide. What is known is that Wallace – a depressive from a young age – had recently come off his standard medication, tried a number of alternatives (including coming off drugs altogether), and then gone back to his original medication, but without it giving him the comfort of before. Wallace’s death was the end of a writing life that changed modern literature.
Whatever reservations people have of Wallace (and Max’s book gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Wallace the man xx) and his work xxi, his faith in fiction cannot be questioned. And his standing alone merits the opportunity provided by Max’s biography to look again at what Wallace thought serious literature should be.
Wallace’s own work lived up to his own definition of good art, that being that ‘the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love’. xxii
For many, he can be placed alongside his own personal canon of ‘really great fiction writers from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ or the Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow xxiii who ‘give’ the reader something’. Fiction should reveal something deep about writer and reader, Wallace shows us. It should help us to live.
To use another of Wallace’s phrases, one with the same sentiment but rather more to the point than what he said about Dostoevsky, ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being’. Wallace’s syntactically tortuous but achingly beautiful sentences remind us of that. And, for that alone, we should be grateful to him.
i The quote comes from a Wallace piece written following the fourth instalment of Joseph Frank’s awe-inspiring series of books on Dostoevsky. Wallace’s essay serves as the definitive example of how to review a biography while simultaneously writing an essay on the book’s subject. Wallace was a truly great essayist, but that area of his expertise lies largely outside the purview of this essay.
ii It should probably be accepted that Wallace pretty much was writing about himself here. Wallace really did feel there were strong parallels between his own life and work and that of the Russian’s. This might well have been ridiculously grandiose of Wallace, but, all the same, there is something here, just about. Another quote in which Wallace could be writing about himself goes: ‘What seems most important is that Dostoevsky’s near-death experience changed a typically vain and trendy young writer – a very talented writer, true, but still one whose basic concerns were for his own literary glory – into a person who believed deeply in moral/spiritual values’.
iii If voice of a generation is too much of a stretch for you, then he at least deserves the less glamorous, but still worthy, position as the voice of people like himself, described by Wallace as “white, upper-middle class, obscenely well educated, had more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and…sort of adrift’.
iv The Dad denies this, it should be pointed out.
v See her influence in the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts of Infinite Jest.
vi Wallace really was very good at tennis. Although, in his essay ‘Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley’ he explains that his success was largely based around the unexciting skill of being able to keep the ball in play with moon-balls down the centre of the Midwest tennis courts, where the extreme wind was often the main opponent.
vii Max’s book shows that Wallace watched A LOT of ‘bad TV’, pretty much throughout his life. If much of Wallace’s work raises concerns about the passivity of modern entertainment, and the way TV has altered the way we think, then he’d certainly put the hours in to come up with his views.
viii A point on Larkin (the odd man out in this list): in a piece found in Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith says that Wallace once wrote to her saying that Larkin was one of his favourite-ever writers. Smith warns us off the lazy assumption that Wallace was ‘the only son of DeLillo and Pynchon’. This note is a pretty lame excuse to point you towards Smith’s wonderful essay.
ix DeLillo and Wallace would come to correspond regularly by mail. A lot of the letters from Wallace turn up in this biography. The needy Wallace seems to have treated literary titan DeLillo as some kind of agony uncle who he could spill his heart out to, and, presumably, hope for re-assurance from.
x Alongside this list of very-literary greats, it should also be noted that during his life Wallace read a lot of ‘standard’ thrillers. Wallace’s devouring of ‘lower-brow’ culture (also see note 7) would seem to be at odds with some of his pronouncements. This contradiction (?) deserves more detailed exploration in Max’s book, and, I daresay, in this essay.
xi It was with Costello that Wallace wrote Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. This presents an opportunity to highlight Wallace’s dreadful taste in music. His interest in rap appears to have simply been an academic one. Max tells us that musicians Wallace really liked included U2 and Alanis Morissette. Perhaps we see in this Wallace’s liking for unashamed passion, but I’d suggest he had a greater ability for detecting genuineness and genuine quality in books than he did in music. He, perhaps, wasn’t great on this with film either, with Good Will Hunting being a particular favourite.
xii Franzen pops up a lot in this biography, proving a slightly-surprising confidante of Wallace’s. Wallace loved Franzen’s debut novel The Twenty-Seventh City. One would hope Wallace would not have been so enamoured with Franzen’s most recent offering, the truly hideous Freedom (2010).
xiii Max’s book includes an interesting note from Wallace to the copyeditor of Infinite Jest in which he sets out some non-standard but intentional features of his writing. One point highlights his liking for sentence-fragments.
xvi My edition clocks in at 1079 pages. One of the best lines in Max’s book is when during the tortuous editing process for Infinite Jest, Wallace says: ‘maybe I have an arrogance problem – I think I’d presumed in some of this stuff that it was OK to make a reader read the book twice’.
xv Wallace’s love of footnotes and endnotes is well-known. As Ned Beauman, writing in The Guardian, has already pointed out, one grumble of this biography is when Max only part-quotes a letter from Wallace to his editor about his use of endnotes in Infinite Jest. Surely every reader wants to see the rest of the letter.
xvi To be clear, the quote is Max setting out Scott’s position, as is some of the text in the paragraph that follows.
xvii See the last six words of note 10.
xviii Although, it should be said, the critic Michiko Kakutani echoed the thoughts of many (including Scott, no doubt) when she said Oblivion ‘too often settles for…(the) cheap brand of irony and ridicule that he once denounced.’
xix A neat, but perhaps slightly pat, observation in Max’s preface is about fans who felt so unbelievably empty after Wallace’s death because Wallace was not only their favourite writer, he was their only writer.
xx This biography includes numerous tales highlighting Wallace’s, at times, deeply unpleasant personality, with his dealings with girlfriends/sexual partners being a particular concern. The book notes Wallace’s attempt to push someone out of a moving car, and his plan to get hold of a gun in order to kill a love-rival. Although if someone in America tries and fails to get hold of a gun, you have to question how much they really are trying to get hold of a gun.
xxi Bret Easton Ellis has been the most vociferous Wallace-opposer since the publication of Max’s biography. Ellis says Wallace was ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation…A fraud.’ Although, it should be said, many of Ellis’s criticisms seem to be quite-likely accurate, but unkind, and wholly unnecessary, descriptions of the personality traits of a heavily-medicated man who had mental health problems all his life and ended up committing suicide before he was 50.
xxii Wallace acknowledged this didn’t sound hip.
xxiii Wallace’s views on Pynchon are intriguing. Lot 49 seems to have been the defining influence of Wallace’s writing life, Rainbow gets plaudits here, but Wallace would say that he found Vineland ‘flat and strained and heartbreakingly inferior to his other 3 novels. I get the strong sense he’s spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV – though I tend to get paranoid about this point, for obvious reasons’. Wallace really does seem to end up referencing himself a lot when ostensibly talking about others. He wasn’t perfect, I’ll agree.
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