A portrait of David Foster Wallace as a midwestern author | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

A portrait of David Foster Wallace as a midwestern author 

The first full biography of the late novelist fails to bring much subtlety to how the region influenced his art

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Where were you when the first plane hit the World Trade Center? David Foster Wallace—the experimental novelist who grew up in Illinois; who wrote Infinite Jest, which established him as the most influential author of his generation; and who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46—was in the shower of his Bloomington-Normal home, listening to a Bears postmortem on WSCR.

Wallace, who didn't own a TV, ended up at the house of Mrs. Thompson—"one of the world's cooler seventy-four-year-olds," as he put it an essay about that day for Rolling Stone. Most readers remark on Wallace's page-long sentences, his rococo vocabulary, his infamous footnotes, but his best work has always depended on its smaller, more intimate details. And in writing about that morning with Mrs. Thompson and some ladies from the church they both attended, he gets the details exactly right: the way the living room was decorated with knit samplers and a mallard wall clock; the way the small-town newspaper proceeded to trip all over itself (the next day's headline: "ISU PROFESSOR: B-N NOT A LIKELY TARGET"); the way the women, whose sense of New York came entirely from TV, didn't realize how far south the Financial District was until Wallace stepped in and calmed down the one whose grandniece was interning in the Time-Life Building.

It all adds up to a terrific, tangible picture of what 9/11 felt like in a place like Bloomington-Normal. And yet, reading it today, one can't help but wonder: Why on earth was David Foster Wallace living and showering in central Illinois? The state has nurtured more than its share of great authors, from Ernest Hemingway to Richard Wright, but then they move away. There's something surprising about a writer like Wallace (and let's finish filling in his trophy case: a MacArthur "genius" grant; short stories in every magazine you can think of; and The Pale King, a posthumous novel and one of three finalists for this year's Pulitzer) living anywhere other than New York.

So how did growing up in the midwest shape Wallace's work? And what about his decision to return to it? He wrote superbly about the region, with his essay on Mrs. Thompson being a perfect example. But what if there's more to it than that?

With the publication of D. T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, the first full biography of Wallace, we can start to answer such questions. In 2009, Max wrote a very good profile of the author for the New Yorker, and his book makes it even clearer that, from the beginning, Wallace struggled with his mental health—that he was always the smartest kid in the room, and also the most troubled.

Max also makes clear that superficially, at least, Wallace's childhood resembled that of many midwesterners. Though he was born in New York, his parents soon moved to Urbana-Champaign when his father landed a job in the philosophy department at the University of Illinois. His mother would eventually become an English professor at Parkland College, and the Wallaces ran the kind of liberal, laissez-faire household you'd expect from two academics in the 60s. They limited the TV time of David and his sister to two hours per day and one "rough" show per week (The Wild Wild West, usually). When he disagreed with his parents, they encouraged him to write intrafamily memos.

But Wallace also went to White Sox games, read Tolkien and the Hardy Boys, played sports. While in middle school, he took some tennis lessons at the park and became a very competitive player. The tennis kids would carpool all over Illinois for tournaments, and he fell hard for the state's topography—for the way the corn, as he put it in one of his many riffs on the beauty of flat farmland, "starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right to the sky's hem."

By the time he enrolled in high school, Wallace was smoking prodigious amounts of pot. It made tennis and any other high-level cardio impossible, but at least it calmed him down. He had begun suffering from occasional anxiety attacks and a near-constant sense of self-loathing. "Feet too thin and narrow," he wrote in one early note dug up by Max. "Thighs squnch out repulsively."

One day, around the same time, Wallace asked his father what he did for work. The professor handed his son some Plato, and they began to work through it. "I had never had an undergraduate student who caught on so quickly," his father would later say. "This was this first time I realized what a phenomenal mind David had."

It's no surprise, then, that when Wallace got to Amherst, his father's alma mater, he won more awards and prizes than any student in the college's nearly 200-year history. Max's account of Wallace the student provides some of his book's best passages. Far from home, the young polymath began to stand out, studying with his dad's former profs and even writing a senior thesis on philosophy. But he also discovered fiction. Max tells one story about a friend tossing Wallace a copy of Thomas Pynchon's postmodern satire The Crying of Lot 49—"like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie," in the words of Mark Costello, another student and one of Wallace's two best friends. Wallace ended up writing a second senior thesis, a novel called The Great Ohio Desert, working the whole time with a picture of Pynchon pinned up on the wall.

The writing went so rapturously that Wallace told Costello, "I can't feel my ass in the chair." But his time at Amherst also included much despair. Wallace dropped out for a full semester not once but twice, and in the summer after graduation, in 1985, another breakdown sent him to a psychiatric unit. By this point, he had been diagnosed with clinical depression—the "festering pus-swollen c[h]ancre at the center of my brain," as he put it to one friend—and prescribed an antidepressant known as Nardil.

The patterns Wallace established at Amherst would haunt him the rest of his life: binges of incredible productivity followed by deep sloughs of sadness (and by nasty addictions to drugs, alcohol, and sex). He would win a fellowship to the University of Arizona's creative-writing program, then publish The Broom of the System, a revision of The Great Ohio Desert, before even finishing. But a breakdown would follow, with Wallace trying to kill himself via overdose in 1988. He would line up a second book, a collection of short stories titled Girl With Curious Hair, then head off to Harvard's PhD program in philosophy. But a breakdown would follow, with Wallace ending up in Boston's McLean Hospital.

After a few years of this, Wallace found himself with little desire to read fiction, much less to write it. When Pynchon's Vineland came out in 1990, he had to slog. "I get the strong sense he's spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV," Wallace wrote to Jonathan Franzen in a typically witty letter, "though I tend to get paranoid about this point, for obvious reasons."

And yet the conditions for Wallace to write Infinite Jest were slowly locking into place. First, and most important, he got sober by spending six months at a Boston halfway house. He also became obsessed with David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a film that showed him the importance of pairing realistic details with experimental art. (Max dispatches the film in a sentence, one of several times he glosses over Wallace's aesthetic debts—even though, in this case, Wallace would later write a 65-page essay about the filmmaker.) He also met people like Franzen, who became his other best friend, and the memoirist Mary Karr, with whom he pursued a spectacularly messy relationship. Both pushed him to move past Pynchonian cleverness, to write about something sincere—something real.

By 1991, Wallace was working feverishly on his second novel. He settled on some familiar settings (a tennis academy, a halfway house) and some new themes. Where Broom of the System was a novel primarily aware of and amused by its own novelness, Infinite Jest confronted the universal: addiction, the cultural obsession with irony, and the way that, in the end, the pursuit of pleasure could only stoke the need for more pleasure.

Wallace had completed most of his first draft by 1993, though he would need months more to revise—and to cut huge sections from what would still be a 1,000-page book. That same year, he moved back to the midwest, taking a teaching job at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal. It offered Wallace another layer of stability—of order—and he adopted a couple dogs, bought a house on Rural Route 2, and joined a local group for recovering substance abusers.

Max shows how warmly this group welcomed Wallace, with one member hanging him a stocking on the mantel at Christmas and another (the son of Mrs. Thompson) building some bookshelves in his new home. Wallace, who loved chewing tobacco and consuming cheeseburgers at Denny's, fit right in—almost. The only problem came from his trademark look: a bandanna pulling back long, stringy hair. "Here, it spells affiliation with Harley clubs," he told David Lipsky, a reporter from Rolling Stone. "And I just don't need that shit, you know? It's hard enough to get a cab as it is."

There were plenty of reporters once Infinite Jest hit. Wallace liked to call New York "Sauron's great red eye," and its gaze (and its gushing reviews) fell directly on him in the spring of 1996. Journalists flew into Chicago, then drove two hours down I-55 to interview him. He was the first Bloomington-Normal resident in a long time—maybe ever, locals told him—to appear in both Newsweek and Time. During one of his ISU classes, a student teasingly asked, "Done being famous yet?" Wallace blushed: "Two more minutes."

The fame lasted a bit longer than that. Through that year and the next, which saw the release of a book of essays called A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Wallace was probably the most envied author in America. But he kept living in Illinois—and working with his students. He read their papers three times, marking each pass with a different color pen, and hosted classes at his home, in a messy living room where every hard edge had been chewed by his dogs. "My best kids are farm-kids," he wrote to Playboy's fiction editor, "who didn't even know that they liked to read until I persuaded them they did."

Wallace clearly influenced the farm kids. But how did the farm kids influence him? To consider this question, we might move past Max's biography to a theory of Jonathan Franzen's. Franzen grew up in a suburb of Saint Louis, and an interviewer once asked him about his own relationship to the midwest. He replied that it had offered him "a prolongation of innocence." "Something about not having had a clue when other people the same age were already getting a clue," he continued, "produces both a sense of optimism and a kind of reactive curdled cynicism. You become more worldly in response to not having been worldly enough."

While Franzen's theory ignores a big part of the midwest—the part that struggles with addiction, with broken families, with poverty, the part that becomes cynical earlier, and in a much different way—it can help us understand the region's influence on Wallace. In fact, it can help us understand his essay on Mrs. Thompson. Near the end of that piece, he writes that "what these Bloomington ladies are, or start to seem to me, is innocent." Wallace doesn't argue that everyone in Bloomington is innocent and sweet. (Indeed, he mocks one of the ladies' sons, a late-20s loafer who doesn't remove his Slipknot hat inside.) But he does contrast their sincerity with his cynical urge to note the day's many ironies, even in the middle of something as terrible as 9/11. And one of the things he finds terrible is "knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America . . . than it was these ladies'."

Wallace returns to this binary again and again in his work. ("I don't know how keen these sullen farmers' sense of irony is," he writes in an essay about the Illinois State Fair, "but mine's been honed East-Coast keen.") But Franzen's theory of midwestern experience has three steps: innocence, then backlash, then a blending of the two. And this last step explains much about Wallace. He seemed less alienated from pop culture than many writers; at ISU, he assigned his students Kafka's short stories and Stephen King's Carrie, and he enjoyed both without irony.

That same diversity informed his personal life. Wallace went to a big public high school and interacted with students from all sorts of backgrounds in a way the son of two professors in a larger city might not have. And at Amherst, at Arizona, and on his return to Illinois, he deliberately re-created this mix. One of his neighbors in Bloomington-Normal worked at a lumberyard; another repaired Xerox machines. Wallace even engaged with the midwest Franzen ignores—especially through his recovery group, which drew most of its members from the working class. "You're special," he wrote to another author in 1999, six years after settling in Bloomington-Normal. "But so's the guy across the table who's raising two kids sober and rebuilding a '73 Mustang. It's a magical thing with 4,000,000,000 forms. It kind of takes your breath away."

Of course, the midwest isn't the only place one can learn these things. But it's where Wallace learned them. Max realizes this on some level, and in his book he offers a few pieties about how Wallace grew up surrounded by "midwestern virtues of normality, kindness, and community." Yet it's not clear that a single one of those virtues took: Wallace was mostly a loner, he was certainly a creep (his relationships with women make Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, his second collection of short stories, seem almost autobiographical), and nothing about him seemed normal. The midwest influenced him on a more abstract level, in his philosophical and artistic orientation toward the larger world. Max might have explored these ideas. Instead, he chooses to alternate between dismissing and sentimentalizing the midwest—two gestures that, in the end, amount to the same thing.

Max's treatment of the midwest hints at a larger problem with his book. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story fails to bring much subtlety to its issues of interpretation—not just Wallace and the midwest, but Wallace and religion and Wallace and literary history. It also fails to tell a story of its own. Most biographies begin with a key moment or idea before flashing back to the beginning and later revisiting that turning point. Even Max's New Yorker profile centers on Wallace's struggle to follow up Infinite Jest. But his book starts at Wallace's birth and simply plods along. It rarely pauses to explain what unifies Wallace's life or why we should care, and the result sometimes reads like a book-length Wikipedia entry.

This seems all the more strange since Wallace's life offers such a compelling story. During the marketing of Infinite Jest, he explained to Rolling Stone's Lipsky that "there's good self-consciousness. And then there's this toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness." Everything in Wallace's life, surely in part because of his mental illness, came in both a good version and a raped-by-psychic-Bedouins version. This dynamic—with its mix of love and hate, ambivalence and conviction—could make his day-to-day existence excruciating. Then again, it also animated his best work. With Wallace, there was always another side.

The Pale King was, in many ways, his attempt to tell the other side of Infinite Jest. Where his second novel had diagnosed a set of problems, his third would offer a cure: boredom. Or not boredom, exactly, so much as the idea that embracing boredom might force us take control of our own attentions and energies. The goal was "being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to," he argued in a commencement speech at Kenyon College. "Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

It was a rich and difficult idea, and Max shows how much Wallace struggled with it. He first had to write about boredom without being boring, and for him that meant creating a motley team of IRS agents based in Peoria. But Wallace found it easier to focus on other work—another book of short stories (Oblivion), another book of essays (Consider the Lobster)—and on his personal life.

And his personal life had achieved a new stability. In 2002 he left Illinois for California and a prestigious job at Pomona College. He was unsure about leaving the midwest—"What kind of zip code starts with '9'?" he quipped to Don DeLillo—but fell quickly for California. One of his first visitors was Karen Green, an artist who'd once made a series of images based on his fiction, and he fell quickly for her, as well. Wallace wrote Green a series of letters—he labeled them Grim Letter I, Grim Letter II, and so on—outlining his psychiatric past and his history with women. They began dating, and in 2004 Wallace wrote to Franzen (they'd switched to e-mail by this point) that he was "more and more sure KG and I will get married. Now it's a matter of getting her to be more and more sure." It didn't take much, because at the end of that year they were wed at Urbana's courthouse.

But while these years were Wallace's happiest as a person, they were his most frustrating as an artist. During the marketing of Infinite Jest, his publisher had sent out postcards announcing it a "masterpiece." "'Masterpiece'?" an annoyed Wallace had replied. "I'm 33 years old; I don't have a 'masterpiece.'" As he entered his 40s, and as he continued to grapple with The Pale King, Wallace began wondering if he would ever top his previous novel. He also wondered if the Nardil, which he was still taking, was holding him back, and Wallace's inner dialectic guaranteed that here his motives were far from pure. "The person who would go off the medications that were possibly keeping him alive was not the person he liked," Green tells Max, in one of his book's most revealing quotations. "He didn't want to care about the writing as much as he did."

In 2007 Wallace and Green decided he should wean himself off Nardil, a process they knew would be brutal. And it was. "I'm not all right," Wallace told his sister on the phone. "I'm trying to be, but I'm not." His doctors tried several new medicines, tried Nardil again, tried 12 rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. But by the summer of 2008, Wallace was shutting down. He made at least one unsuccessful suicide attempt, and on the night of September 12, after Green had left for work, he wrote her a two-page letter, then went into his office and neatly stacked some pages from The Pale King. Then he walked out to the patio and hanged himself.

Wallace's influence always loomed larger than his book sales, something you could see in the tributes and eulogies that poured out after his death. One came from Joshua Ferris, a terrific young novelist who wrote about the time he interviewed Wallace, just before the publication of Infinite Jest. Ferris was still a college student, someone who loved Wallace's books and badly wanted to become a writer himself. So when he met Wallace in the small office he shared with another ISU professor, Ferris asked him why he still lived in Illinois—why he hadn't moved to New York like everyone else. In Ferris's essay, Wallace gives a short reply: "I love the midwest." But Ferris is also an Illinois author—he grew up in Danville and now lives in New York—and I suspected there might be more to the story. So I e-mailed him to ask.

"It was an interesting exchange and not one that redounds much to my credit," Ferris wrote back. "As a 21- or 22-year-old kid I thought whenever you're on the map, the first thing you do is move to NYC. So I asked him why he lived in Normal and sort of disparaged the Midwest." Wallace handled the question graciously, Ferris said, explaining that he liked midwestern people and that he got more work done there than in New York.

It was a simple answer, but it left an impression on Ferris: "I have the distinct memory of feeling, not rebuked exactly, but as if, for the first time in my life, someone I respected gave dignity to something I customarily dismissed," he wrote. "He made me see the place differently."

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