I first encountered David Foster Wallace my freshman year of college, beginning, like so many others, with the easy introduction: the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It was 1997, and my then-boyfriend Matt had somehow come out of small town South Dakota with this yellow and grumpy covered book and the decidedly intimidating-sized Infinite Jest. Though I admit I could never make it through Everything and More, the math book, and didn’t bother with Signifying Rappers, I’ve devoured most everything else he published, including reading IJ 3 times. When I first heard about DFW’s suicide, it was the most personally wrenching “celebrity” death I’ve ever experienced. I was surprised at the strength of my heartache.
I knew that DT Max’s biography would be a personal must-read as soon as I heard about it, though it took me a few months to get to it: first I had to get over my trepidation about ruining an idol, and then I had to wait for the holds list at the library. Finally it arrived and I could begin.
Wallace’s writing’s brilliance for me was always in the specificity. He could capture precisely emotion and situation, in a way that resonated with my own experience. I’ve never struggled with mental illness or drug addiction (or international espionage), but he could always put me in the places like I was there, feeling the existential dread or anguish or anhedonia or whatever. The challenge in his biography would be for Max to find that same kind of entrée into the life of a clearly effed up individual, which he did with manifest care, sourcing from DFW’s many letters, his papers in various archives, and interviews with friends and family. DFW’s relationships, addiction, teaching career and mental illness are intertwined with his creative process and his doubts and successes. Wallace was a notorious exaggerator (creative nonfiction, emphasis on the creative), and Max is careful to separate what can be verified from what Wallace self-reports.
There are a satisfying amount of footnotes.
As I was reading, I really wanted to revisit each of Wallace’s works as Max covered their creation process. How long has it been since I dove into BIWHM or SFTINDA, Oblivion or Consider the Lobster? Is it time to start my 4th read of Infinite Jest? Now that I’m done, though, the emotional gut-punch at the end of Wallace’s life, and thus of his biography, has made me feel a little too fragile to attempt that, at least right now. Instead, I think I’ll try one of the Wallace-l list serv’s favorite’s I’ve never gotten to, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Or maybe a complete left turn to some of the ALA’s 2013 Youth Media Award winners and honorees. Or maybe I should read some DeLillo; I’ve never done that.