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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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.

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