The Conde Nast building is located just off Times Square, an uncomfortable area of NYC I try to avoid like the dickens. The flashy billboards and the noise and the crowds disturb me, and I wasn’t at all pleased to see a person in a dirty Elmo suit waving at me. I did not wave back at Elmo because I had other things on my mind, namely an appointment to talk with D.T. Max, a New Yorker staff writer, author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery (check out the Amazon.com book description and read what “prions” are; they will frighten you), and most recently the author of a biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.
The new book tells the difficult, at times joyful, but ultimately sad story of Wallace’s life, couching it in a forward-driving narrative that is difficult to put down, bridging the life and the work in a way that is sensitive to the complexity and ambition of Wallace’s literary project. All told, the book promises to do what a good literary biography should do: return old readers to the work and gain new readers for the work.
I met Max inside the Conde Nast building’s “cafeteria” where he was kind enough to purchase your interviewer a small drip coffee and chocolate chip cookie. “Cafeteria” is in quotes because the place was really more like a fine dining restaurant or night club with large twelve-person booths and low lighting and high windows and an aura of exclusivity — pretty much the opposite of my idea of “cafeteria.” Despite my confusion, Max and I settled into an hour long conversation about his book, a truncated and edited version of which follows.
The Millions: What initially drew you to Wallace? Was his work the kind of stuff you typically read?
D.T. Max: Well, I had this long love affair with David — embarrassingly enough, I loved the wrong book. I loved Broom of the System for most of my 20s and 30s. It was only when I wrote the piece after his death that I found out he had turned on the book. I didn’t know that he referred to it as written by a very smart 14 year-old. It stunned me.
TM: Well you put up a pretty good defense of Broom in your book.
DTM: You can’t take something away from me that I love! I think the book’s terrific. But I do see what he’s saying. So I grew — one of the pleasures of the book was that I grew as a reader and I grew as a Wallace reader. So where I always appreciated Infinite Jest, writing about David and reading Infinite Jest made it richer and richer. And I was also just willing to be engrossed in Infinite Jest in a whole different way. (I’m talking about now when I was working on the magazine article.) But then when I was done with the magazine article I felt I just barely scratched the surface. I felt like what I’d written was very focused on his later years. I wanted to do something that was bigger and wider and less focused. I was very affected by people who said things to me like, “He was much happier than you portrayed him as,” and, “You didn’t catch his laughter.” So let me try to do a book and catch his laughter.
TM: So what was your approach to the biography?
DTM: Well one thing I was trying to do in the book was if David wrote realistic fiction for a world that was no longer real, then I felt an obligation to write a biography for a world that was no longer real. I wanted — not to extent that it was impossible for the reader to negotiate — I wanted to in some ways strip away some of the biographical conventions, in terms of what you can know and what matters, so that his story would feel a little more consonant with who David was and how he wrote. Really the two great factors in David’s writing are an affection for the reader and a refusal to write realistic fiction, so you’ll notice that the book has an emphasis on story. It begins, “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.” And then the last line of the book is, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” And the idea is that we’re dealing with story, that every story is a ghost story, and among other things that’s a gloss on biography.
TM: Same with the epigraph from the Oblivion story “Good Old Neon” (“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant”).
TM: I was thinking about the epigraph as talking about the limits of language and storytelling, and also that your subject lived in his head to a great degree, which poses particular challenges for a biographer.
DTM: Yes well, you know, I wanted to make David live in a modern way, the way his characters live in his fiction — slightly more than a classic biography would provide. I don’t know if I achieved it or if anyone will notice it — but for instance I don’t try to do every year of David’s life. I think every year is in there, but I’m doing it more as memory would do it, almost like a memoir written by another person. It was a big effort to keep stuff out. There’s lots of wonderful things I left out.
TM: Were the decisions about what to exclude surrounding Wallace’s family hard? The relationship between Wallace and his mother seemed like delicate terrain.
DTM: It is delicate, but it’s also really hard to know. The biggest impediment to telling is knowing. And even when you think you know do you ever really know something as delicate as relationships?
TM: The relationship between Delillo and Wallace surprised me.
DTM: What surprised you?
TM: I didn’t imagine the relationship as Wallace looking for advice, bouncing his anxieties about writing off him, Delillo playing the role of the consoling father, especially in the letter where Delillo tells him he belongs to elite club of writers who suffer.
DTM: “Let the others complain about book tours.” It’s a wonderful line.
TM: The Franzen relationship, too — I was surprised that Franzen had a little more power in the relationship. I always imagined Wallace as the more domineering author, I guess on the basis of his reputation as the Big Novelist with the Big Book. But Franzen really steered him the whole moral fiction direction.
DTM: Well, Franzen caught him at a “teachable moment.” David’s just out of rehab, he feels he can’t write well anymore. I think if he met him at any other time in his life he would have bounced right off him — they knew each other before — Jon just keeps offering his ideas in a modest way — forthright way — eventually he catches David when he’s open to the ideas. He’s desperate. What’s stronger than to look for both your life and your writing? He was looking for both obviously. That’s one thing that makes him a great biographical subject is that there’s so little division between the work and the life.
TM: Part of the fun of your book is catching Wallace when he’s exaggerating and misrepresenting himself.
DTM: Oh God, I’m sure he got some by me. I took all the letters at face value initially. And then when I began to think a little bit harder about some of the exaggerations in the non-fiction I would see similar patterns in the letters. And I began to think, you know, this seems like a very unlikely scenario. He mentions that he goes and plays a basketball game in this rough neighborhood — this is the letter to [critic] Steven Moore when he talks about his nose being broken for the second time — and so he breaks his nose, but that doesn’t really sound like David. David was sort of fearful, basically.
TM: And you say he wasn’t much of jock.
DTM: He was and he wasn’t. But playing basketball with a bunch of rough street kids is not something he would have done. And then, theoretically, he has his nose broken again during a fight with a downstairs neighbor over Wittgenstein’s Mistress, so when he writes that to the editor [of Wallace’s piece on Markson] — what better way to show your commitment to the piece? And also fundamentally David was a joke writer, he loved jokes. He began as a joke writer at Sabrina at Amherst. So then I asked Mark Costello who lived with him at the time who said, “No, David never had a broken nose.” So then I began to suspect a lot of things weren’t true.
TM: Did you feel any kind of special responsibilities writing the first biography?
DTM: Responsibilities, oh yeah. I mean, it’s a privilege. The privilege of being first is that it’s all new. You’re not glossing someone’s gloss. I’ll be glossed eventually — in the near future probably. So that’s the advantage. But the disadvantage is that you will be rewritten and new things will be found. More correspondence will surface. You can’t help that. But what’s the ultimate goal of the biography? It’s certainly to bring readers to David’s writing. And in that sense to be the first after his death to bring readers to David’s writing is a very special job. You want to do it the right way. You have to really show them how this writer can matter to them, and if the book does that I’d be very, very pleased. If you can take a reader who’s on the fence about David and whether it’s worth the effort and get that reader to really dig into Infinite Jest — I would think that’s really exciting.
TM: So that was your audience, people who had heard the name but not read the work?
DTM: Maybe one level more involved than that. Maybe people who read the cruise ship piece [“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out”] when it was offered to them or at least thought they’d like to, or who always looked at Infinite Jest, maybe given it as a present, tried 70 pages. They would be people who could come back to David — I think they’re already on their way back to him, so it’s not as if I’m starting any sort of trend that isn’t already underway. I mean, he has this quasi-readership that almost no writer has, and I would love it if that quasi-readership became a readership for him.
TM: Do you think it’s surprising he went into fiction? Wallace says he uses more of his brain when writing fiction, but with all the logic and sports in his background — he’s not a typical literary type.
DTM: George Saunders has interesting things to say about that — he comes from an engineering background. You know, on some level fiction for David was never what I think it is for an ordinary or even an extraordinary writer of the John Updike variety. David’s always seeing the seams and the struts — it’s always artificial — that’s probably why he had issues with The Pale King because he never gets past the artificiality of what he’s creating. There’s a wonderful quote by Thornton Wilder that fiction is the art of orchestrating platitudes. And I think for David that was always difficult because he had seen so far beyond those platitudes. I don’t think he was ever somebody for whom characters were really alive. The closest he comes is Infinite Jest. Of course the reader and writer see things from different perspectives, but I don’t think for David those characters were ever really alive in quite the way that other writers experience their characters as alive.
TM: Why do you think people care so much about his work?
DTM: It’s many things, but it’s not really that he had any answers for people. Because when you read the biography you have to understand how much he struggles with things that most of us have fairly compact. But he never stops taking his life seriously and he never stops taking the reader’s life seriously. And I think that’s the connection: you never stop mattering to him and he never stops mattering to himself. He never quits in that way. And I think that even non-readers of David’s books must be getting that now, given what’s gone on with his reputation, the amount of places you see his name, even how the Kenyon College speech has become so well known, deservedly so. But it’s an aspirational speech. It’s not what David achieved, it’s what he wanted to achieve. In the end you are the writer you are, and if there’s anything David teaches us it’s very hard to change the writer you are, and I had to be a writer who was interested in his efforts and difficulties. Because I never saw him as the pure joyous person that some people insisted he was.
TM: “Saint Dave.”
DTM: Well, I think the “Saint Dave” name is valid in the sense that I think what David teaches you, which is what a saint should teach you, is to take yourself and your life seriously. I don’t think he’s a candidate for the sainthood on the basis of his behavior, but many saints weren’t. So I don’t disown the saint idea. There is a way in which, faced with the massive seductions of modern culture, he did a pretty good job of pushing them away. Certainly in those later years there’s a kind of saintliness to his behavior —
TM: A kind of literary saint in his defense of fiction.
DTM: A literary martyr really. With Malcolm Lowry — who else never finished their last book?
TM: Ralph Ellison…
DTM: Another good example. I don’t remember him having agonized over his last book. David was never that way. He agonized over it. That’s what makes it so sad. So, no I don’t disregard the saint idea. I think Franzen had it right. He said at one of the memorial services that there’s nobody who seemed simpler and delightful on first meeting who grows more and more complex, yet all the same — he didn’t say appealing — but all the same endearing. In other words, as you get to know David better you just don’t like him in the same simple way that you started liking him. I think that’s got it exactly right.
TM: It sounds like you really enjoyed working on the book.
DTM: I loved thinking about him, writing about him, being in his head, reading his letters. I’d be very sad if the book makes people feel that he’s any less worthy of their love. The goal is the opposite. The quality that he has that he cares about you — that he cares about you caring about yourself. That’s very uplifting. I don’t think you get that from most writers.