November 4, 2012

A Life of David Foster Wallace

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Writer David Foster Wallace’s 46 years can be summed up in a few terms: “substance abuse,” “Infinite Jest”  and “Mary Karr.” At least according to D.T. Max, who recently chronicled Wallace’s life in Every Love Story is Ghost Story. Wallace’s life began in Ithaca. His father studied philosophy at Cornell and his mother was an English student who later taught at a community college. Wallace was always seen as an eccentric genius. He wrote senior theses in philosophy and English and graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College. At Amherst, Wallace was known for his extraordinarily sharp wit. While he dated occasionally, he did so with immense guilt — he labeled the number of girls he dated as a “body count.”

Drugs became a constant struggle for Wallace after he discovered marijuana as a teenager. He used to get high in the bathroom and blow the smoke out of the window before going off to study. This habit persisted throughout high school and college. After graduation, Wallace wound up in either university programs or psychiatric wards, miserable and frustrated everywhere he went.

Wallace was a man who hardly ever appeared at the right place at the right time. At one point, he lived in a halfway house full of people with tattoos and/or criminal records — the place inspired the creation of a character in Infinite Jest. During his stay, Wallace briefly worked as a guard at Lotus Development, although he found hired security to be a reminder of “every bad ’60s novel about meaningless authority.” He quit the job after two months, as he couldn’t bear getting up so early. Wallace then went on to work as a front desk check-in attendant at a Mount Auburn Club for Health. Things were fine until the day Michael Ryan, a poet who had received a Whiting Award alongside him two years before, came to exercise at the club. As D.T. Max wrote, “Wallace dove below the reception desk and quit that day.”

Shuttling between halfway houses, psychiatric wards and education institutions, Wallace seemed to hit stone walls everywhere he went. He never seemed to feel happy until meeting Mary Karr, a Texan poet who became the love of his life. Karr was Wallace’s missing piece; she possessed the stability and grit Wallace felt he did not have. Wallace felt that Karr was his kindred spirit, someone who would make his life come together. He even proposed multiple times that he would marry Karr had she given him the chance. Though Karr appreciated Wallace’s brilliance, she did not admire Wallace’s writing and deemed him an “unsound” character. Karr was a recovering alcoholic when she met Wallace and was struggling to salvage her collapsing marriage while rearing a young child. Increasingly, Wallace became greatly frustrated that the relationship with Karr was not moving forward. Two years after he first met Karr, even though he was no longer a substance abuser, Wallace was still dramatic, clingy and afraid of his own myriad of questions and thoughts.

Still, for “the One” of his life, Wallace gave everything he could possibly give to make Karr stay. Although Wallace’s temper outbursts and emotional dependency never changed, Karr was comforted by the fact that Wallace was good at dealing with her child Dev. Wallace liked children, for they were “drawn to him without crowding him,” leaving him enough space to himself and still providing him with adequate company. Since Karr was attracted to Catholicism, Wallace at one point tried to accept the religion, though ultimately discouraged by a priest who told him he had “too many questions to be a believer.” Through all of Wallace’s effort, he and Karr finally became romantically involved. At the best of times, they were like any other couple, watching action movies and playing tennis together. Their relationship was short-lived as conflicts between Karr’s family and Wallace’s self-centeredness ultimately deteriorated the bond. Wallace later on wrote: “Mary and I have agreed … she was my best friend in the world, and we both gave up a lot and worked very hard to try to make this work.”

D. T. Max portrayed Wallace as an unfinished work of art, much like his unfinished book, The Pale King. While Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a very detailed account of a passionate king of logic and thought, D. T. Max overdoes the tragically heroic tone of the book. The biography gave me such a vivid idea of the depressed genius Wallace was, I had to stop reading it at various points. Some may say that the book embodies the writer perfectly, but I would have preferred less of an emotional telling and more of an objective explanation. For an indecipherable person such as Wallace, extraneous emotion clouds up the character the way too much ink does to a sleekly penned portrait.

Original Author: Sally Gao