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Books under Review:

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max  
Viking 356 pp. $27.95

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, and Co. 358 pp.  $26.99

David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations  
Melville House Publishing (paper) $15.95

"To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people."

David Foster Wallace  in Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky collected in Consider the Lobster

"Masterpiece? I'm 33 years old, I don't have a 'masterpiece'," David Foster Wallace yelled into a letter to his Little, Brown and Inc. editor, Michael Pietsch. The "hype engine," apparently, was already going at full blast five months prior to the February 1996 publication of Wallace's second novel, Infinite Jest.

The hype already seemed to dwarf the generally positive reception that Wallace received in 1987 for his debut novel, The Broom of the System. Wallace surely remembered what followed that; poverty, geographic changes (including a return to his rural central Illinois home for the protection of "The Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Fund for Aimless Children") a failed attempt at graduate school, a second book, Girl With Curious Hair, that was delayed publication due to litigation issues, a stint in drug and alcohol rehab, broken relationships (and broken tables over the broken relationships!). D.T. Max records, with some meticulousness, the people, places, things, and situations that lead up to the publication of Wallace's (already) canonical and mammoth 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. The first published biography of the author since his 2008 suicide, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is an attempted expansion of his March 2009 New Yorker article on the author's struggle (and failure) to complete the follow-up novel to Infinite Jest amid mental health issues that were largely hidden from the public (in plain sight, it seems) and proved to be fatal.

David Foster Wallace was born February 21, 1962 in Ithaca, New York to James Donald Wallace (then a graduate student in the philosophy department at Cornell) and Sally Foster Wallace. Three years later, James Wallace accepted a job offer in the philosophy department at the University of Illinois-Champaign and the family (which then included David's younger sister, Amy) moved to Champaign, Illinois and, later, to Urbana. For the most part, the Wallace family lived a typical rural Midwestern background although, as both Jim and Sally Wallace were teachers (Sally Wallace attained her MA and taught at Parkland College in Champaign), it was a home where Jim and Sally Wallace read to their children and to each other and proper grammar was expected from the kids, especially by Sally. In his teens, David Wallace became a regionally ranked junior tennis player, began to smoke marijuana, watched what even he described as enormous amounts of television, and was generally a good student. After interviewing at Oberlin College (during which he had a panic attack, the scene is recreated, to an extent, at the opening of Infinite Jest), Wallace went to college at his father's alma mater, Amherst College, in Massachusetts.

At Amherst, David began to thrive as a student, specializing, at first, in math and logic. He also began to have recurring panic attacks that necessitated his taking two semesters off, during which he returned home to Illinois. It was during one of these periods that David began to write, as he noticed that literature (specifically Donald Barthelme’s short story The Balloon and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49) was also able to induce something he called "the click" within him. In his senior year, David majored in philosophy and English and completed two senior honors thesis (following in the footsteps of his roommate and friend, novelist Mark Costello). His philosophy thesis centered on modal logic (and was published after his death in Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will). His English thesis was a 500-page novel titled The Great Ohio Desert; his English thesis proved to be a first draft of his debut novel, The Broom of the System. Wallace graduated from Amherst with a double summa cum laude, possibly with more awards than any other student in the school's history.

Wallace entered the MFA program at the University of Arizona, found an agent, Bonnie Nadell, and published The Broom of the System one year into his studies at Arizona. While he did not like the MFA program at Arizona, he did manage to complete enough short stories to package them into a collection of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair. He also began to have recurring panic attacks and began abusing pot and, later, alcohol. After receiving his MFA, Wallace returned to Amherst to teach part-time then moved back to Arizona; it was in Arizona where Wallace first began to recognize that he had a problem with mood and mind-altering substances and where he began to attend 12-Step meetings. After returning home in 1989 (this would be the "Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Fund for Aimless Children" period) he decided to attend graduate school in philosophy, was accepted to Harvard (one of only six students accepted to the philosophy program that year, Max informs us) and moved to Somerville, MA and roomed with Costello (who was working as a lawyer).

At Harvard, Wallace's frustrations increased and he relied on alcohol and pot to cope. He found that he couldn't continue to write fiction and pursue graduate studies at Harvard at the same time. Eventually, Wallace was admitted to the McLean Hospital drug and alcohol rehab, dropped out of school, and received a prescription for Nardil (an antidepressant that he would remain on until 2007). Wallace was released from the rehab and went to Grenada House, a home for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics and the model for Ennet House in Infinite Jest. During this time, Wallace began a tumultuous relationship with the poet and autobiographer Mary Karr; at one point, Max notes that Wallace considered hiring an acquaintance from Grenada House to murder Karr's husband. (Karr, herself, writes about her relationship with Wallace in her own memoir, Lit.) Wallace began teaching at Emerson College in Boston and then moved to Syracuse to be with Karr, who had accepted a job at Syracuse University. It was during that time in Syracuse portions of Infinite Jest was written. Later, Wallace accepted a position as a writing instructor at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Wallace moved back to Illinois, bought a home and continued to write Infinite Jest (which was 2/3s done by the time he accepted the ISU position). The initial draft of Infinite Jest was completed in 1994-95. Hundreds of pages were cut as part of the editing process, footnotes were added (partly to reduce the size of the book, partially to better incorporate the overflow of information in the book, partly to simulate the reading experience that Wallace wanted the reader to have). Max notes, for example, that the original title of the book was Infinite Jest: A Failed Entertainment but the last part of that title was dropped. In February 1996, Infinite Jest was published to good reviews (but not universally so) and people were lining the streets of lower Manhattan outside coffee shops and book stores waiting to see and to hear Wallace. The crowds replicated in book signings and events across the country and reporters from all of the major magazines flocked to Wallace's Bloomington, IL home to meet and interview Wallace; attention that Wallace did not always welcome, even and especially from students and other faculty members at ISU.

Between 1996 and his death in 2008, Wallace published two short story collections (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion), two books of collected essays (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster and a book on infinity (Everything and More). Wallace received awards and fellowships, including a MacArthur "genius" grant. He left his position at Illinois State in 2002 for what he called a "lottery-prize-type gig" at Pomona College; a position where Wallace confessed (to author Dave Eggers) that "I get to do more or less what I want." He married artist Karen Green in December 2004 in Urbana, Illinois.  Shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest, Wallace began to research and to write his third novel, a study of boredom and mindfulness. The novel was set in an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois and Wallace began auditing tax accounting courses.

But the growing reputation of Infinite Jest, Max strongly suggests, kept getting in the way of what Wallace really wanted to do; complete his third novel. The rapid growth of the Internet in the late 1990's inaugurated a number of chatrooms, message boards, and fansites dedicated to studying Wallace and his writings, especially Infinite Jest; Max notes, for example, that when Wallace's book on infinity, Everything and More, was found to contain "crippling errors," corrections were made by one mathematician through one of the Wallace listservs. Wallace wanted to write a novel very different in substance and style from Infinite Jest but was stymied and blocked at every turn. Finally, in 2007, Wallace decided to stop taking Nardil, the antidepressant that he had taken for nearly 20 years. Wallace's physical and mental deterioration was rapid; Max's account of Wallace's post-Nardil life constitutes the some of the finest most evocative passage in Every Love Story. Finally, on September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace committed suicide by hanging; his wife found him on the patio of their Claremont, California home. Wallace left behind a neat stack of roughly 200 completed pages of his third novel. These pages and a number of notes, manuscripts, and disk drives were collected, organized, edited, and published in 2011 with the title The Pale King. The Pale King was one of three books chosen as a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

In preparing Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max seems to have interviewed everyone who ever came in contact with Wallace, including Wallace's Alcoholics Anonymous "sponsors." Max accessed hundreds of letters sent back and forth between Wallace and people as varied as his college friends, the novelist (and maybe Wallace's best friend) Jonathan Franzen, novelist Don Delillo, fans, and aspiring writers (You can be sure a collection of DFW letters will be published in due course!). We learn that near the end of his life, Wallace wrote a medical summary where he identified having depressive episodes at the age of 9 or 10. Max even tracked down and revealed some of the "tall tales" that Wallace told; Max uncovered, for example, contrary to Wallace, that all available records show that Wallace never applied to Johns Hopkins for graduate study and that Northwestern University never offered him a tenure track position.

Max is appropriately judicious in disseminating information that may hurt Wallace's family. No parent/sibling/spouse wants to bury their child/sibling/spouse. Given the circumstances of Wallace's death and his illness, Max places a premium on allowing the Wallace family (wife, parents, sister, friends) to heal from the...the only word for Wallace's suicide is tragedy, really. It's relatively easy to spot and discern areas where either Max has more information or those close to Wallace simply aren't ready to talk (i.e. Wallace's medical summary, troubles in Jim and Sally Wallace's marriage, David's relationship with his Mom, the history of suicides on SFW's side of the family, David's relationships with women). Some of that information could shed considerable light on any number of areas concerning Wallace's work, his relationships, or his illness. The information could also be utilized as mere fodder for a celebrity feeding frenzy the likes of which Wallace personally detested. Max decides not to take that chance and is to be applauded for not "going there." Not that Every Love Story is a Ghost Story doesn't lose something in the process; it does. And, in a literary biography, a closer analysis of the pertinent texts must compensate for that loss.

Max shows himself to be a skilled interpreter of Wallace's fiction, weaving an intimate knowledge of Wallace's periods, literary styles, and literary preoccupations and relating the work to the life. Max shows, for example, that Infinite Jest would not occupy its' current place in American culture without the Internet; it was through the Internet that passages and entire sections of Infinite Jest were disseminated. Max reveals that Wallace had a penchant for "revenge fiction" and that many of his characters, including the protagonist of "The Depressed Person" and the mother figure in Infinite Jest, Avril Incandenza, were, in fact, retaliations for perceived slights. Anything that happened within Wallace's eyesight or even earshot was considered a possible subject for story fodder. Wallace's place in American literary history (and Max shows that America was Wallace's primary subject in all of his writing) remains to be determined yet Max shows that Wallace's influence on contemporary American literary culture is already huge and growing.

Max's treatment of Wallace's nonfiction, however, is disappointing, as Wallace's reputation as an essayist and observer of the American scene is growing at an even faster rate than his reputation as a fiction writer, even though Wallace's non-fiction can, at times, be as baroque as his fiction. Max analyzes the more famous pieces (the essays about David Lynch, the cruise ship, the Illinois State Fair, the lobster piece, the Federer and Joyce tennis essays) rather well but he ignores other areas. For example, he writes about the early 1990's origins of Wallace's pornography essay but completely ignores the finished product (published in Premiere magazine in 1998 and reprinted in Consider the Lobster retitled "Big Red Son").  Wallace's long reviews that he wrote for The Review of Contemporary Fiction are covered in Every Love Story. He mentions the short book reviews that Wallace wrote in the early 1990's during the early stages of his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction in Boston but only one of the short reviews, Wallace's review of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, is even mentioned. Wallace's short book reviews, published in various newspapers and journals including The Harvard Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer played a significant role in his intellectual development, as well (even though Wallace may not like doing them, as Max suggests). Nor does Max include the many textual changes that Wallace would make to his essays. In editing his essay collections, Wallace frequently restored large portions of text excised by magazine editors for various reasons. Many times, the essay text presented in a collection of essays is quite different from the essay as it originally appeared in a magazine and Max pays little attention to those differences.

Max's treatment of the relationship between fiction and philosophy in Wallace's short stories and novels is the most disappointing aspect of Every Love Story. In the acknowledgments, Max claims that he had conversations with James Ryerson about matters like Wallace's philosophical interests and work, the philosophy thesis, and Ludwig Wittgenstein yet there is no citation of any conversation or correspondence between Max and Ryerson in the footnotes or sourcenotes. Wallace's philosophy thesis was published as a stand-alone book early in 2011, a full year before Max's biography was published. Ryerson's supple analysis of the relationship between philosophy and fiction in Wallace's writings and his life was published even earlier. There was more than enough time to reevaluate the issue those observations in this biography. For example, what does Max think of Ryerson's observation that Wallace misread (perhaps intentionally) Wittgenstein's views on solipsism? Certainly, one way of reading Wallace's maximalist writing style is as a "thumbing the nose at the father" reaction to the spare, aphoristic style of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. What of Alexander Waugh's observation (in Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein) that "an extraordinary cult developed in the years that followed his [L. Wittgenstein's] death in 1951-a cult, incidentally, whose membership includes many who have never opened his books or tried to understand a single line of his thought;" one already hears complaints of what I've seen called "the Tupacification of Wallace." Intellectual speculation and interpretation of this type is certainly fair game and even expected in a literary biography. It seems that Max (and perhaps the publishers) decided not to go far beyond Max's 2009 New Yorker article and the "excavation" stopped soon after his tight, concise, and very well-written New Yorker article was written. The only things that were added to Max's New Yorker essay, it seems, were the footnotes, the citations, and a few more anecdotes.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is good but it is not a "great biography" (as one of the more aggravating dust cover blurbs claims). Max is to be commended for not churning out cheap, salacious "celebrity" biography and for respecting the privacy and the dignity of the deceased (and far from perfect) David Foster Wallace and the Wallace family. Perhaps if Max had allowed more time (say two to four years) for the research to go beyond mere "excavation" and deeper into interpretation. Every Love Story probably would have been a "great biography." As it stands, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story reads more like a eulogy as if it were written by Wallace himself; a four page program with the bare necessities expanded to a 356 page extravaganza with 34 pages of combined footnotes and sourcenotes (the footnotes constituting some of the best passages in the book) a program that you would look at and initially say, "WTF," but then when you read it you realize that you never cried or laughed so hard in your life. Which isn't exactly a literary "biography" but it is what we have for now. And in the case of this particular author, David Wallace, that seems appropriate.

Both Flesh and Not is a collection of fifteen uncollected essays and various notes spanning the entirety of Wallace's career. The essays are varied in terms of length, quality, and subject matter. The editors preserved Wallace's usual practice of not grouping the essays in any discernible order.

I'm not sure what the editors of Both Flesh and Not were thinking when they decided to include "Back To New Fire" in here but I wished that they hadn't. Wallace's essay on the possibilities of erotic redemption and new forms of passion as a result of the possibility of heterosexual AIDS is fifth-rate Paglia-ism at best. The writing is clunky; Wallace's handling of myth has no bite. There is none of the funhouse mirror stuff that is vintage Wallace. I see where Wallace is going with the idea but the only reason Wallace can even go there is because of the white heterosexual privilege that he acknowledges in other, much better work. And besides, Wallace handles the sexual stuff much better in his US Open essay, "Democracy and Commerce at the US Open."

Wallace's account of the third round match at the 1996 US Open between Mark Philippoussis and Pete Sampras, besides being great fun and a joy to read, is an exercise in polyamourous perversity as only DFW can do it. Wallace's description of Pete Sampras is downright ephebic; Sampras, according to Wallace, is "poor-postured and chestless...a little like a kid wearing his father's clothes" who "always sweats through his baby-blue shorts" so that you can see the print of his jock strap (I enjoyed watching Pete Sampras for years and I never noticed that!). Mark Philippoussis is described (in a footnote, naturally) as "an extremely handsome guy" who "close up, looks amazingly like Gaby Sabatini...right down to the walk and the jawline and the existentially affronted facial expression." Of course, Wallace must get in his digs at Andre Agassi (although they're not as over-the top as they were in the Michael Joyce essay), commenting on Agassi's "cybercrewcut, black sneakers, and weird new French-resistance fighter-style shorts" as he wonders why Agassi, who looks like a "runty-squishy faced guy with a weird-shaped skull" seems to be more popular with the male fans. The turnstiles of the US Open become an outdoor runway for The Beautiful People such as "a very handsome bald black man in an extremely snazzy Dries Van Notes camelhair suit." Even some of the concession workers get in on the act: "extremely attractive young people giving away Colombian Coffee." Even the concession food is described sexually: there's the "really skinny Haagen-Daz-really skinny, a five-biter at most" that goes for a "felonious $3.00" and the $4.00 krautdogs that are "really long and really good" (note that the comment about the krautdog is only available in the BFAN and not, to my knowledge, in the original 1996 article). Finally, Wallace finds a place alone to eat, another woman joins him, and he pretty much tries to pick her up and is turned down. Wallace is clearly having great fun at the US Open and allows the reader to have fun too. All of the sex (and marijuana sellers, we are told) is buzzing around amid a bombardment of advertisements and a meditation on democracy, with Wallace assigning Sampras the role of an Athenian warrior and Philippoussis the role of a Spartan warrior. And beneath this battle for democracy and all of the advertisements and all of the sexual innuendo (which is very far from the ideal of "single-entendre" writing that Wallace began to aim for; perhaps the reason that he didn't reprint it in his other two essay collections) and the weed a question arises: is all of this worth it? It seems to be too much. It's a question which recurs later in BFAN in a much more serious matter.

Eros elevates to agape in "Federer Both Flesh and Not" [originally titled "Federer as Religious Experience" in The New York Times Magazine (apparently, someone has immobilized the writing hands of most of the editors in The Year of the Gravy Train, as the Acknowledgements page says the FARE was originally in The New York Times)]. So much so that the essay opens with Wallace having a Federer Moment, "down on one knee," his communal meal, popcorn, is "all over the couch." and his eyeballs "looked like novelty shop eyeballs." The scene rapidly switches to Wallace, live at Wimbledon, "the cathedral of tennis." It's the 2006 Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal and Wallace elevates his language from the previous essay to a religious awe. That awe is further accentuated when Wallace has a One-on-One with Federer and realizes just how human he really is, flaws and all. The two tennis essays in BFAN work best as a tag-team of essays. The editors made an excellent decision in including both essays and not simply the well-known Federer essay.

BFAN includes a number of book reviews and other various booknotes that Wallace wrote over a 20 year period. The editors of BFAN, for the most part, selected readable and incisive book reviews but booknote snippets like "Mr. Cogito," "The Best of the Prose Poem" could have been left on the cutting room floor. Some of Wallace's shorter reviews from the early 1990's should have been included. For example, Wallace's review of Griel Marcus's "Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of Cultural Obseession" is a must in a book whose title is an overt allusion to Christianity. Positive reviews of Reinaldo Arenas' The Doorman and Michael Marton's Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler's List: Indiana Stories (a snippet of text in Wallace's Marton review winds up in "E Unibus Pluram") should be included as well as his negative review of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show. All but the most rabid of Wallace fans have no idea of Wallace's wide-ranging reading interests and he judges books according to the standards of the genre that they seem to occupy.

Two of the book reviews that Wallace submitted for the Dalkey Press Archive's The Review of Contemporary Fiction are included; "Ficitional Futures and the Conspiculously Young," his 1988 "peer review" of his contemporaries and his review of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. These essays are foundational for anything resembling "DFW studies." (Wallace's 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, also published in RCF, should also be included in BFAN. Yes, the McCaffery/Wallace conversation is not technically an essay but the interview is essential to an understanding of Wallace's growth and development as a writer.)

"Fictional Futures" consists, in part, of the first draft for his much-praised television/U.S. fiction essay "E Unibus Pluram". Wallace, in this sort of early draft, still leans heavily on literary theory jargon and makes at least one overly broad and absolutely wrong statement as it concerns the power of television over its' audience. Wallace asks the reader to, "consider the well-known, large, 'ignorant' segment of the population that believes on a day-to-day basis that what happens on televised dramas is 'real'." Leaving aside the sort of pretentious ivory tower sneer that Wallace already, to a great extent, abhorred, I wondered how Wallace could have possibly forgotten about "The Werther Effect?" What about the letters that (to this day, I believe) are sent to a certain detective living at 221B Baker Street in London? What of Orson Welles' 10/30/1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds? One other thing to note in Wallace's good, though flawed, essay is later in the section with criticisms of Creative Writing programs (the criticisms themselves have been repeated ad nauseum) is the occurrence of the Frankenstein motif when he writes that "the overall purpose of Creative Writing reality is to train more teachers of Creative Writing." The motif occurs later in an essay on the creative process "The Nature of the Fun" (also collected in BFAN) and actually emerges in Hal Incandenza's powerful Socratic apology in the opening scene of Infinite Jest ("I'm not just a creātus manufactured, conditioned, bred of a function.") as well as a number of Wallace's short stories.

Both Flesh and Not includes "a selection" of words from vocabulary lists that Wallace maintained; the vocabulary selections serve as dividers to the volume's essays. The vocabulary listings are a great idea, poorly executed by the volume's editors. For one, the essay "Twenty-Four Word Notes," a selection of usage notes Wallace wrote for the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, is pretty tepid by Wallace standards and should have been either omitted in its' entirety as a stand-alone "essay" or should have been incorporated (with proper attribution) into the vocabulary lists. Secondly, the word-definition selections are arid; Wallace's deployment of language in strange and humorous and generally awesome ways is a big part of what makes him a beloved writer to many. The vocabulary listings that include some of Wallace's own usage are some of the funnier moments in BFAN; for example, there's "bistre- yellowish-brown color (unpleasant underwear)" and "pasquinade- lampoon posted in public (used in tabloids: 'story of O.J.'s trial served as lurid pasquinade.')." It was also surprising to find words like androgyne, akimbo, arrant, and epigraphy on these vocabulary lists as I thought that these words were a) used somewhat commonly or b) easy to discern from the Latin and Greek roots (really, they're words that you would think a SNOOT like Wallace knows) I also learned that "anaclitic" is actually a word as opposed to the misspelling of analytic (or something), as I assumed when I first saw the word in FN 269 of Infinite Jest (p.1048).

The last two essays in BFAN explicitly concern electoral politics and, as this is The Great Orange Satan, a blog that exists in order to elect more and better Democrats, I would be remiss if I didn't include some info regarding Wallace's growing discontent regarding the Bush administration.

In Decideration 2007: A Special Report, Wallace's introductory essay to The Best American Essays 2007 (Wallace served as editor), Wallace stated that "the disasterous harm" that the Bush Administration inflicted "in almost every area of federal law, policy, and governance" required that he, as a citizen, select a fair share of essays that detailed those harms as opposed to selecting "more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese." Wallace, though, laid the bulk of the responsibility on "a polity and culture" that demanded little to no accountability of its government and its' "for-profit media." In part, Wallace proposes a "special subgenre" he calls the "service essay." The service essay (Wallace uses Mark Danner's NYRB essay "Iraq: The War of the Imagination" as an example), which refers to "both professionalism and virtue" and which he defines as "an immense quantity of fact, opinion, confirmation, testimony, and onsite experience...that is clear without being simplistic, comprehensive without being overwhelming, and critical without being shrill." In the closing essay of BFAN, "Just Asking," Wallace asks whether the "2,973 innocents" that were killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks is, in part, the price that we have to pay for "the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious." More importantly, Wallace asks whether we really trust or leaders to answer these questions for us (a polity and culture) in lieu of having "a serious national conversation about sacrifice." For the most part, these questions are really an extension of the questions that Wallace asked in "E Unibus Pluram," his essay on television and American fiction, but here we have the beginnings of a fusion of civic polemic with moral purpose reminiscent of George Orwell or James Baldwin.

D.T. Max credits Wallace's wife, artist Karen Green, for Wallace's increased willingness to speak out on political matters but Wallace's 2003 interview with author Dave Eggers, collected in David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, Wallace, himself seems to identify the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary battle between Bush and John McCain (which Wallace covered for Rolling Stone) as another turning point:
"In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff...about our current president, his inner circle, and the primary campaign that prompted certain reactions..."

These "certain reactions" included a "deep, visceral antipathy" toward the Bush Administration such that he was unable to "think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way" about the Bush administration. In the Eggers interview, Wallace was even more explicit about the collusion of the politics and the political media:
"As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political now polluted by the very politics it's supposed to be about. Meaning it's become totally ideological and reductive."

David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is a slight volume that is in no way a replacement for the more comprehensive Conversations with David Foster Wallace (University of Mississippi Press) but it does offer a few additional insights: in a 1996 interview with Salon's Laura Miller, Wallace talks about the range of stuff that "rung my cherries" literary-wise; selections include a broad range of philosophy, fiction, poetry, and more work by women than one would suspect. Wallace discusses quite a bit about his end of the editorial process in the 1998 Boston Phoenix interview with Tom Scocca. The 2003 interview with Dave Eggers exemplifies Wallace's preference for "dialogue" or "conversation" as opposed to "interviews." One trick that Wallace used with Rolling Stone's David Lipsky he uses with Eggers; he begins asking the interviewer questions. Depending on the answers, a good Wallace "interview" (and think of interview in an etymological sense) becomes a dialogue and it is in dialogue that Wallace was most comfortable. Unfortunately, The Last Interview is too heavy on the "interview," not heavy enough on the dialogue, and most of the interviews are readily accessible. David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is only for the most devoted of DFW fans.

In the meantime, I'm pretty sure that the D.F. Wallace Gravy Train will continue chugging along in this New Year. Already, the rap book that Wallace published with his friend and Amherst roommate, Mark Costello, Signifying Rappers, is being reissued in a few months. The book, quite frankly, has received horrid reviews for over 20 years (go online and read them for yourself) and even Wallace said at the time it published in 1990 that "if you're reading this book, it's already too late"...and twenty years later is supposed to make a difference? Also, there's the meatier, more academic, and academically-priced A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies by Stephen Burn and Marshall Boswell. Not to mention blurbs on books, and even more memoir-type thingies. I'm half expecting one of those cheesy Infinite Jest and Philosophy books to arrive on the shelves of your book superstore soon (and why not, there are already titles like that deal with subjects like Jeopardy, The Sopranos, and The Atkins Diet, hell, a book titled Infinite Jest and Philosophy book just can't be far off...and it can't be any more insipid than at least 85% of the __ & Philosophy titles already out there, even though one of the booksellers at my local B&N tells me that those titles don't sell very well "at all"). No, I don't anticipate that the DFW Gravy Train will be slowing down any time soon. At some point in the future, though, perhaps we will be able to stop and simply say, after Hamlet (and a certain anonymous 1996 Illinois State University student), "I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of Infinite Jest, of most excellent fancy" and leave it at that.

Originally posted to Chitown Kev on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 05:53 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Yes, i know there are some grammar (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JoanMar, cfk

    errors here and ther. And yes, they will be fixed, maybe tonight, more likely tomorrow.

    But exactly what I think about things is basically here.

  •  This is a hell of a meaty analysis, (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev, JoanMar, turdraker, Portlaw

    so I need to book mark this for later.  I'm curious about the two demerits against Max's book: philosophy and nonfiction.  I can't imagine a really thorough analysis of fiction without the former, though I also can't imagine a more better exploration of the issue than Zadie Smith's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace", which frames the Wittgensteinian stuff very well even without the newly-published thesis.  As for the nonfiction... I much prefer Wallace's nonfiction, so that's just a disappointment if Max gives them the short shrift, especially since his odd contradictions as a writer really pop in his nonfiction essays.  Without even touching on the more recent accusations of outright fabrication; I know Glenn Kenny has discussed how he left pertinent information out of "Big Red Son" because he had a preset agenda for writing the piece.  It's a bit disappointing, but it also highlights some important aspects of what he saw himself as doing as a writer, etc.  Blah blah blah.

    Anyway - very much appreciate this diary.  Things are percolating in my head.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 06:20:51 PM PST

    •  I'm aware of Zadie Smith's analysis (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, Portlaw

      and I browsed through it a bit...well, since this is my first book review, I tried to keep a lot of stuff in the back of my mind.

      I actually did research the Wittgenstein stuff very heavily ( in fact, I was going to attach some of that research as a sort of 3 page footnote-tribute od DFW)...let's just say that, IMHO, if Wallace patterened himself after anyone, it wan't his dad or even Thomas Pynchon, it was Ludwig Wittgenstein (well, except for the gay thing, which is extremely problematic for me as a gay man that likes DFW).

      •  Also gay, also a fan of his, with asterisks. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Chitown Kev, turdraker, Portlaw

        Definitely worth reading Smith's analysis: she tries to locate the Wittgensteinian element as the the most essential key for understanding his fiction.  It's a very good, very thoughtful essay.

        I found it interesting (after recently rereading that Glenn Kenny interview) that Kenny basically had to force Wallace to read Perec, who he'd dismissed as a "formalist" (and also shines a light on Franzen's dismissal of Perec, who I doubt he's read).   The way elite literary culture calcifies around schools and slogans is a major pain in the ass.

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 06:44:29 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  On Big Red Son (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, Portlaw

      AVN dinged wallace for that, big time. There's a very long response to that from several people at AVN

  •  litigation issues? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev, pico, Portlaw

    Do you happen to know what the "litigation issues" were that delayed The Girl with Curious Hair? Wallace's editor, Gerald Howard, has an article that mentions it, too, but only says it's a long story.

    Also, in the minor factcheck department, I should note that Illinois State University is in my hometown of Normal, not its twin city, Bloomington.

    And I always wonder why people regard college towns of 100,000 like Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana as "rural," but I suppose that's a standard big city viewpoint.

    The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh's Assault on Reason (

    by JohnKWilson on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 06:29:12 PM PST

    •  It was the David Letterman story (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, Portlaw

      apparently, Wallace got the idea from an actual Letterman interview with Susan St. James...the publisher was worried that the Letterman people or the Susan St. James people would sue.

      After that, the publisher went over every story in GWCH for fact checking purposes to pave the way for it's publication.

      I'll get you exact info on that tomorrow (I'm tired now) as well as correct any errors (and I'm sure they'll come up).

    •  Oh, the litigation had nothing to do (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, Portlaw

      with Bret Easton Ellis.

      In fact, the title story of Girl With Curious Hair is a parody of Ellis.

      That had more to do with the fact that Wallace had some not so complementary things to say about Bret Easton Ellis and his writing.

    •  Well, I was born and raised in (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Detroit and I've lived in New York City, Washington DC, Boston, and, for the most part, Chicago.

      So yeah, a city of 100,000 does seem kinda sorta rural to me...but I get your point.

      One of my appreciations of Wallace is as a writer of the Midwest; two of his three novels are set in the Midwest and one of the best set pieces in Infinite Jest, the Luke Clipperton with a Glock episode, was based on a character from the Midwest.

      Max was criticized by the Chicago Reader's Craig Fehrman for not writing more about the influence of the Midwest on Wallace.

      I wholeheartedly agree with Fehrman but Fehrman sells the Midwest short too. I mean, I'm as Midwestern as they get. So is Toni Morrison. And I submit that Wallace's version of the Midwest is probably a little different from Jonathan Franzen's suburban-St. Louis Midwest.

  •  Thanks for the diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, Chitown Kev, Portlaw

    I've never read him, now maybe i will.

    "Let us never forget that doing the impossible is the history of this nation....It's how we are as Americans...It's how this country was built"- Michelle Obama

    by blueoregon on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 06:46:04 PM PST

    •  I'd start with the nonfiction essays. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      turdraker, Chitown Kev, Portlaw

      I think there's growing consensus that they represent his best, most accessible work.   He's not a flawless writer, and I have some real problems with some aspects of his work, but he's become central to conversations about contemporary literature, because he asks a lot of important questions in his work.  I'm curious what kind of long-term impact he'll have.

      Last year I wrote a fairly lengthy diary about his last, unfinished novel.  I'm not surprised it didn't win the Pulitzer (parts of it are a mess, and it's not even a third of the way into its story), but there's no doubt it causes readers to talk about what they're reading, and that's always a good thing.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 07:38:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is just plain terrific! Many (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev

    thanks.  Have bookmarked it and printed it out. Very valuable My head is spinning.

  •  Well done, CK (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chitown Kev

    Have never gone out of my way to read Wallace, but now I will.  Although I enjoyed your take on the Max book and the  last interview, it is your analysis of Wallace's non-fiction that I find the most intriguing.   I am an avid tennis fan (the Australian Open commences in a few days), so I was delighted to read about Wallace's essays.  The description of the Sampras and Philippoussis match is rather apt: I am loving the description of Pete as a young, chestless man in his father's clothes, and Wallace sending up the match as  Athens vs. Sparta.  

    Thanks for all  the effort you put into this essay.  I am bookmarking it for future reference.

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 06:29:17 PM PST

    •  Yes. (0+ / 0-)

      The Federer essay is a clasisic.

      But the editors made both essays even better by pairing them in the same volume and creating the compare-contrast (U.S. Open vs. Wimbledon)

      Also, I did note that it was live performances that induced these types of emotions in Wallace, not television. Considering what Wallace has written about television, that says something.

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