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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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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