This story was originally published October 30th, 2008, in RS 1064.
He was six-feet-two, and on a good day he weighed 200 pounds. He wore granny glasses with a head scarf, points knotted at the back, a look that was both pirate-like and house-wife-ish. He always wore his hair long. He had dark eyes, soft voice, caveman chin, a lovely, peak-lipped mouth that was his best feature. He walked with an ex-athlete’s saunter, a roll from the heels, as if anything physical was a pleasure. David Foster Wallace worked surprising turns on nearly everything: novels, journalism, vacation. His life was an information hunt, collecting hows and whys. “I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today,” he once said, “of which maybe 25 are important. My job is to make some sense of it.” He wanted to write “stuff about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.” Readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style: his comedy, his brilliance, his humaneness.
His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. Wallace was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand-page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive in the contemporary world, accepted a special chair at California’s Pomona College to teach writing, married, published another book and, last month, hanged himself at age 46.
“The one thing that really should be said about David Foster Wallace is that this was a once-in-a-century talent,” says his friend and former editor Colin Harrison. “We may never see a guy like this again in our lifetimes — that I will shout out. He was like a comet flying by at ground level.”
His 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, was Bible-size and spawned books of interpretation and commentary, like Understanding David Foster Wallace — a book his friends might have tried to write and would have lined up to buy. He was clinically depressed for decades, information he limited to family and his closest friends. “I don’t think that he ever lost the feeling that there was something shameful about this,” his father says. “His instinct was to hide it.”
After he died on September 12th, readers crowded the Web with tributes to his generosity, his intelligence. “But he wasn’t Saint Dave,” says Jonathan Franzen, Wallace’s best friend and the author of The Corrections. “This is the paradox of Dave: The closer you get, the darker the picture, but the more genuinely lovable he was. It was only when you knew him better that you had a true appreciation of what a heroic struggle it was for him not merely to get along in the world, but to produce wonderful writing.”
David grew up in Champaign, Illinois. His father, Jim, taught philosophy at the University of Illinois. His mother, Sally, taught English at a local community college. It was an academic household — poised, considerate — language games in the car, the rooms tidy, the bookcase the hero. “I have these weird early memories,” Wallacetold me during a series of interviews in 1996. “I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, holding hands and both lovin’ something really fiercely.” Sally hated to get angry- it took her days to recover from a shout. So the family developed a sort of interoffice conflict mail. When his mother had something stern to say, she’d write it up in a letter. When David wanted something badly — raised allowance, more liberal bedtime — he’d slide a letter under his parents’ door.
David was one of those eerie, perfect combinations of two parents’ skills. The titles of his father’s books — Ethical Norms, Particular Cases — have the sound of Wallace short-story titles. The tone of his mother’s speaking voice contains echoes of Wallace’s writing voice: Her textbook, Practically Painless English, sounds like a Wallace joke. She uses phrases like “perishing hot” for very hot, “snoof” for talking in your sleep, “heave your skeleton” for go to bed. “David and I both owe a huge debt to my mother,” says his sister, Amy, two years younger. “She has a way of talking that I’ve never heard anywhere else.”
David was, from an early age, “very fragile,” as he put it. He loved TV, and would get incredibly excited watching a program like Batman or The Wild Wild West. (His parents rationed the “rough” shows. One per week.) David could memorize whole shows of dialogue and predict, like a kind of plot weatherman, when the story was going to turn, where characters would end up. No one saw or treated him as a genius, but at age 14, when he asked what his father did, Jim sat David down and walked him through a Socratic dialogue. “I was astonished by how sophisticated his understanding was,” Jim says. “At that point, I figured out that he really, really was extraordinarily bright.”
David was a big-built kid; he played football — quarterback — until he was 12 or 13, and would always speak like an athlete, the disappearing G’s, “wudn’t,” “dudn’t” and “idn’t” and “sumpin’.” “The big thing I was when I was little was a really serious jock,” Wallace told me. “I mean, I had no artistic ambition. I played citywide football. And I was really good. Then I got to junior high, and there were two guys in the city who were better quarterbacks than me. And people started hitting each other a lot harder, and I discovered that I didn’t really love to hit people. That was a huge disappointment.” After his first day of football practice at Urbana High School, he came home and chucked it. He offered two explanations to his parents: They expected him to practice every day, and the coaches did too much cursing.
He had also picked up a racket. “I discovered tennis on my own,” Wallace said, “taking public-park lessons. For five years, I was seriously gonna be a pro tennis player. I didn’t look that good, but I was almost impossible to beat. I know that sounds arrogant. It’s true.” On court, he was a bit of a hustler: Before a match, he’d tell his opponent, “Thank you for being here, but you’re just going to cream me.”
By the time he was 14, he felt he could have made nationals. “Really be in the junior show. But just at the point it became important to me, I began to choke. The more scared you get, the worse you play.” Plus it was the Seventies — Pink Floyd, bongs. “I started to smoke a lot of pot when I was 15 or 16, and it’s hard to train.” He laughed. “You don’t have that much energy.”
It was around this time that the Wallaces noticed something strange about David. He would voice surprising requests, like wanting to paint his bedroom black. He was constantly angry at his sister. When he was 16, he refused to go to her birthday party. “Why would I want to celebrate her birthday?” he told his parents.
“David began to have anxiety attacks in high school,” his father recalls. “I noticed the symptoms, but I was just so unsophisticated about these matters. The depression seemed to take the form of an evil spirit that just haunted David.” Sally came to call it the “black hole with teeth.” David withdrew. “He spent a lot of time throwing up junior year,” his sister remembers. One wall of his bedroom was lined with cork, for magazine photos of tennis stars. David pinned an article about Kafka to the wall, with the headline “The Disease Was Life Itself.”
“I hated seeing those words,” his sister tells me, and starts to cry. “They seemed to sum up his existence. We couldn’t understand why he was acting the way he was, and so of course my parents were exasperated, lovingly exasperated.”
David graduated high school with perfect grades. Whatever his personal hurricane was, it had scattered trees and moved on. He decided to go to Amherst, which is where his father had gone, too. His parents told him he would enjoy the Berkshire autumn. Instead, he missed home — the farms and flat horizons, roads stretching contentedly nowhere. “It’s fall,” David wrote back. “The mountains are pretty, but the landscape isn’t beautiful the way Illinois is.”
Wallace had lugged his bags into Amherst the fall of 1980 — Reagan coming in, the Seventies capsized, preppies everywhere. He brought a suit to campus. “It was kind of a Sears suit, with this Scotch-plaid tie,” says his college roommate and close friend Mark Costello, who went on to become a successful novelist himself. “Guys who went to Amherst, who came from five prep schools, they always dress a notch down. No one’s bringing a suit. That was just the Wallace sense that going East is a big deal, and you have to not embarrass us. My first impression was that he was really very out of step.”
Costello came from working-class Massachusetts, seven kids, Irish-Catholic household. He and Wallace connected. “Neither of us fit into the Gatsby-ite mold,” Costello says. At Amherst David perfected the style he would wear for the rest of his life: turtleneck, hoodie, big basketball shoes. The look of parking-lot kids who in Illinois were called Dirt Bombs. “A slightly tough, slightly waste-product-y, tennis-playing persona,” Costello says. Wallace was also amazingly fast and good company, even just on a walk across campus. “I’d always wanted to be an impressionist,” Wallace said, “but I just didn’t have an agile enough vocal and facial register to do it.” Crossing a green, it was The Dave Show. He would recount how people walked, talked, held their heads, pictured their lives. “Just very connected to people,” Costello recalls. “Dave had this ability to be inside someone else’s skin.”
Observing people from afar, of course, can be a way of avoiding them up close. “I was a complete just total banzai weenie studier in college,” Wallace recalled. “I was really just scared of people. For instance, I would brave the TV pit — the central TV room — to watch Hill Street Blues, ’cause that was a really important show to me.”
One afternoon, April of sophomore year, Costello came back to the dorm they shared and found Wallace seated in his chair. Desk clean, bags packed, even his typewriter, which weighed as much as the clothes put together.
“Dave, what’s going on?” Costello asked.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Wallace said. “I know I’m really screwing you.”
He was pulling out of college. Costello drove him to the airport. “He wasn’t able to talk about it,” Costello recalls. “He was crying, he was mortified. Panicky. He couldn’t control his thoughts. It was mental incontinence, the equivalent of wetting his pants.”
“I wasn’t very happy there,” Wallace told me later. “I felt kind of inadequate. There was a lot of stuff I wanted to read that wasn’t part of any class. And Mom and Dad were just totally cool.”
Wallace went home to hospitalization, explanations to his parents, a job. For a while, he drove a school bus. “Here he was, a guy who was really shaky, kind of Holden Caulfield, driving a school bus through lightning storms,” Costello recalls. “He wrote me a letter all outraged, about the poor screening procedures for school-bus drivers in central Illinois.”
Wallace would visit his dad’s philosophy classes. “The classes would turn into a dialogue between David and me,” his father remembers. “The students would just sit looking around, ‘Who is this guy?'” Wallace devoured novels — “pretty much everything I’ve read was read during that year.” He also told his parents how he’d felt at school. “He would talk about just being very sad, and lonely,” Sally says. “It didn’t have anything to do with being loved. He just was very lonely inside himself.”
He returned to Amherst in the fall, to room with Costello, shaky but hardened. “Certain things had been destroyed in his head,” Costello says. “In the first half of his Amherst career, he was trying to be a regular person. He was on the debate team, the sort of guy who knows he’s going to be a success.” Wallace had talked about going into politics; Costello recalls him joking, “No one is going to vote for somebody who’s been in a nuthouse.” Having his life fall apart narrowed his sense of what his options were and the possibilities that were left became more real to him. In a letter to Costello, he wrote, “I want to write books that people will read 100 years from now.”
Back at school junior year, he never talked much about his breakdown. “It was embarrassing and personal,” Costello says. “A zone of no jokes.” Wallace regarded it as a failure, something he should have been able to control. He routinized his life. He’d be the first tray at the dining hall for supper, he’d eat, drink coffee dipped with tea bags, library study till 11, head back to the room, turn on Hawaii Five-O, then a midnight gulp from a scotch bottle. When he couldn’t turn his mind off, he’d say, “You know what? I think this is a two-shot night,” slam another and sleep.
In 1984, Costello left for Yale Law School; Wallace was alone senior year. He double-majored — English and philosophy, which meant two big writing projects. In philosophy, he took on modal logic. “It looked really hard, and I was really scared about it,” he said. “So I thought I’d do this kind of jaunty, hundred-page novel.” He wrote it in five months, and it clocked in at 700 pages. He called it The Broom of the System.
Wallace published stories in the Amherst literary magazine. One was about depression and a tricyclic anti-anxiety medication he had been on for two months. The medication “made me feel like I was stoned and in hell,” he told me. The story dealt with the in-hell parts:
You are the sickness yourself….You realize all this…when you look at the black hole and it’s wearing your face. That’s when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you just eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they’re “severely depressed;” We say, “Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!” That’s wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts….When they “commit suicide,” they’re just being orderly.
It wasn’t just writing the novel that made Wallace realize his future would lie in fiction. He also helped out friends by writing their papers. In a comic book, this would be his origin story, the part where he’s bombarded with gamma rays, bitten by the spider. “I remember realizing at the time, ‘Man, I’m really good at this. I’m a weird kind of forger. I can sound kind of like anybody.’ “
Grad school was next. Philosophy would be an obvious choice. “My dad would have limbs removed without anesthetic before ever pushing his kids about anything,” Wallace said. “But I knew I was gonna have to go to grad school. I applied to these English programs instead, and I didn’t tell anybody. Writing The Broom of the System, I felt like I was using 97 percent of me, whereas philosophy was using 50 percent.”
After Amherst, Wallace went to the University of Arizona for an MFA. It was where he picked up the bandanna: “I started wearing them in Tucson because it was a hundred degrees all the time, and I would perspire so much I would drip on the page.” The woman he was dating thought the bandanna was a wise move. “She was like a Sixties lady, a Sufi Muslim. She said there were various chakras, and one of the big ones she called the spout hole, at the very top of your cranium. Then I began thinking about the phrase ‘Keeping your head together.’ It makes me feel kind of creepy that people view it as a trademark or something — it’s more a recognition of a weakness, which is that I’m just kind of worried that my head’s gonna explode.”
Arizona was a strange experience: the first classrooms where people weren’t happy to see him. He wanted to write the way he wanted to write — funny and overstuffed and nonlinear and strange. The teachers were all “hardass realists.” That was the first problem. Problem two was Wallace. “I think I was kind of a prick,” he said. “I was just unteachable. I had that look — ‘If there were any justice, I’d be teaching this class’ — that makes you want to slap a student.” One of his stories, “Here and There,” went on to win a 1989 O. Henry Prize after it was published in a literary magazine. When he turned it in to his professor, he received a chilly note back: “I hope this isn’t representative of the work you’re hoping to do for us. We’d hate to lose you.”
“What I hated was how disingenuous it was,” Wallace recalled. “‘We’d hate to lose you.’ You know, if you’re gonna threaten, say that.”
Wallace sent his thesis project out to agents. He got a lot of letters back: “Best of luck in your janitorial career.” Bonnie Nadell was 25, working a first job at San Francisco’s Frederick Hill Agency. She opened a letter from Wallace, read a chapter from his book. “I loved it so much,” Nadell says. It turned out there was a writer named David Rains Wallace. Hill and Nadell agreed that David should insert his mother’s maiden name, which is how he became David Foster Wallace. She remained his agent for the rest of his life. “I have this thing, the nearest Jewish mother, I will simply put my arms around her skirt and just attach myself,” Wallace said. “I don’t know what it means. Maybe sort of WASP deprivation.”
Viking won the auction for the novel, “with something like a handful of trading stamps.” Word spread; professors turned nice. “I went from borderline ready-to-get-kicked-out to all these tight-smiled guys being, ‘Glad to see you, we’re proud of you, you’ll have to come over for dinner.’ It was so delicious: I felt kind of embarrassed for them, they didn’t even have integrity about their hatred.”
Wallace went to New York to meet his editor, Gerry Howard, wearing a U2 T-shirt. “He seemed like a very young 24,” Howard says. The shirt impressed him. “U2 wasn’t really huge then. And there’s a hypersincerity to U2, which I think David was in tune with — or that he really wanted to be sincere, even though his brain kept turning him in the direction of the ironic.” Wallace kept calling Howard — who was only 36 — “Mr. Howard,” never “Gerry.” It would become his business style: a kind of mock formality. People often suspected it was a put-on. What it was was Midwestern politeness, the burnout in the parking lot still nodding “sir” to the vice principal. “There was kind of this hum of superintelligence behind the ‘aw, shucks’ manner,” Howard recalls.
The Broom of the System was published in January of 1987, Wallace’s second and last year at Arizona. The title referred to something his mother’s grandmother used to say, as in, “Here, Sally, have an apple, it’s the broom of the system.” “I wasn’t aware David had picked up on that,” his mother says. “I was thrilled that a family expression became the title of his book.”
The novel hit. “Everything you could hope for,” Howard says. “Critics praised it, it sold quite well, and David was off to the races.”
His first brush with fame was a kind of gateway experience. Wallace would open The Wall Street Journal, see his face transmuted into a dot-cartoon. “Some article like ‘Hotshot’s Weird New Novel,'” he said. “I’d feel really good, really cool, for exactly 10 seconds. Probably not unlike a crack high, you know? I was living an incredibly American life: ‘Boy, if I could just achieve X, Y and Z, everything would be OK.'” Howard bought Wallace’s second book, Girl With Curious Hair, a collection of the stories he was finishing up at Arizona. But something in Wallace worried him. “I have never encountered a mind like David’s,” he says. “It functioned at such an amazingly high level, he clearly lived in a hyper-alert state. But on the other hand, I felt that David’s emotional life lagged far behind his mental life. And I think he could get lost in the gap between the two.”
Wallace was already drifting into the gap. He won a Whiting Writers’ Award — stood on a stage with Eudora Welty — graduated Arizona, went to an artists’ colony, met famous writers, knew the famous writers were seeing his name in more magazines (“absolutely exhilarating and really scary at the same time”), finished the stories. And then he was out of ideas. He tried to write in a cabin in Tucson for a while, then returned home to write — Mom and Dad doing the grocery shopping. He accepted a one-year slot teaching philosophy at Amherst, which was strange: Sophomores he had known were now his students. In the acknowledgments for the book he was completing, he thanks “The Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Fund for Aimless Children.”
He was balled up, tied up. “I started hating everything I did,” he said. “Worse than stuff I’d done in college. Hopelessly confused, unbelievably bad. I was really in a panic, I didn’t think I was going to be able to write anymore. And I got this idea: I’d flourished in an academic environment — my first two books had sort of been written under professors.” He applied to graduate programs in philosophy, thinking he could write fiction in his spare time. Harvard offered a full scholarship. The last thing he needed to reproduce his college years was to reactivate Mark Costello.
“So he comes up with this whole cockamamie plan,” Costello recalls. “He says, ‘OK, you’re going to go back to Boston, practice law, and I’m going to go to Harvard. We’ll live together — it’ll be just like the house we had at Amherst.’ It all ended up being a train wreck.”
They found an apartment in Somerville. Student ghetto: rickety buildings, outdoor staircases. Costello would come home with his briefcase, click up the back stairs, David would call out, “Hi, honey, how was your day?” But Wallace wasn’t writing fiction. He had thought course work would be a sideline; but professors expected actual work.
Not writing was the kind of symptom that presents a problem of its own. “He could get himself into places where he was pretty helpless,” Costello says. “Basically it was the same symptoms all along: this incredible sense of inadequacy, panic. He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the babble in his head. He said when you’re writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re a fraud.'”
“Harvard was just unbelievably bleak,” Wallace said. It became a substance marathon: drinking, parties, drugs. “I didn’t want to feel it,” he said. “It was the only time in my life that I’d gone to bars, picked up women I didn’t know.” Then for weeks, he would qu it drinking, start mornings with a 10-mile run. “You know, this kind of very American sports training — I will fix this by taking radical action.” Schwarzenegger voice: “If there’s a problem, I will train myself out of it. I will work harder.”
Various delays were holding up the publication of his short-story collection Girl With Curious Hair. He started to feel spooked. “I’m this genius writer,” he remembered. “Everything I do’s gotta be ingenious, blah, blah, blah, blah.” The five-year clock was ticking again. He’d played football for five years. Then he’d played high-level tennis for five years. Now he’d been writing for five years. “What I saw was, ‘Jesus, it’s the same thing all over again.’ I’d started late, showed tremendous promise — and the minute I felt the implications of that promise, it caved in. Because see, by this time, my ego’s all invested in the writing. It’s the only thing I’ve gotten food pellets from the universe for. So I feel trapped: ‘Uh-oh, my five years is up, I’ve gotta move on.’ But I didn’t want to move on.”
Costello watched while Wallace slipped into a degressive crisis. “He was hanging out with women who were pretty heavily into drugs — that was kind of alluring to Dave — skanking around Somerville, drinking himself blotto.”
It was the worst period Wallace had ever gone through. “It may have been what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis,” he said. “It was just feeling as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false. And there was nothing, and you were nothing — it was all a delusion. But you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.”
By November, the anxieties had become locked and fixed. “I got really worried I was going to kill myself. And I knew, that if anybody was fated to fuck up a suicide attempt, it was me.” He walked across campus to Health Services and told a psychiatrist, “Look, there’s this issue. I don’t feel real safe.”
“It was a big deal for me, because I was so embarrassed,” Wallace said. “But it was the first time I ever treated myself like I was worth something.”
By making his announcement, Wallace had activated a protocol: Police were notified, he had to withdraw from school. He was sent to McLean, which, as psychiatric hospitals go, is pedigreed: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton all put in residences there; it’s the setting for the memoir Girl, Interrupted. Wallace spent his first day on suicide watch. Locked ward, pink room, no furniture, drain in the floor, observation slot in the door. “When that happens to you,” David said, smiling, “you get unprecedentedly willing to examine other alternatives for how to live.”
Wallace spent eight days in McLean. He was diagnosed as a clinical depressive and was prescribed a drug, called Nardil, developed in the 1950s. He would have to take it from then on. “We had a brief, maybe three-minute audience with the psychopharmacologist,” his mother says. Wallace would have to quit drinking, and there was a long list of foods — certain cheeses, pickles, cured meats — he would have to stay away from.
He started to clean up. He found a way to get sober, worked very hard at it, and wouldn’t drink for the rest of his life. Girl With Curious Hair finally appeared in 1989. Wallace gave a reading in Cambridge; 13 people showed up, including a schizophrenic woman who shrieked all the way through his performance. “The book’s coming out seemed like a kind of shrill, jagged laugh from the universe, this thing sort of lingering behind me like a really nasty fart.”
What followed was a phased, deliberate return to the world. He worked as a security guard, morning shift, at Lotus Software. Polyester uniform, service baton, walking the corridors. “I liked it because I didn’t have to think,” he said. “Then I quit for the incredibly brave reason that I got tired of getting up so early in the morning.”
Next, he worked at a health club in Auburndale, Massachusetts. “Very chichi,” he said. “They called me something other than a towel boy, but I was in effect a towel boy. I’m sitting there, and who should walk in to get their towel but Michael Ryan. Now, Michael Ryan had received a Whiting Writers’ Award the same year I had. So I see this guy that I’d been up on the fucking rostrum with, having Eudora Welty give us this prize. It’s two years later — it’s the only time I’ve literally dived under something. He came in, and I pretended not very subtly to slip, and lay facedown, and didn’t respond. I left that day, and I didn’t go back.”
He wrote Bonnie Nadell a letter; he was done with writing. That wasn’t exactly her first concern. “I was worried he wasn’t going to survive,” she says. He filled in Howard, too. “I contemplated the circumstance that the best young writer in America was handing out towels in a health club,” Howard says. “How fucking sad.”
Wallace met Jonathan Franzen in the most natural way for an author: as a fan. He sent Franzen a nice letter about his first novel, The Twenty Seventh City. Franzen wrote back, they arranged to meet in Cambridge. “He just flaked,” Franzen recalls. “He didn’t show up. That was a fairly substance-filled period of his life.”
By April of 1992, both were ready for a change. They loaded Franzen’s car and headed for Syracuse to scout apartments. Franzen needed “somewhere to relocate with my wife where we could both afford to live and not have anyone tell us how screwed up our marriage was.” Wallace’s need was simpler: cheap space, for writing. He had been researching for months, haunting rehab facilities and halfway houses, taking quiet note of voices and stories, people who had fallen into the gaps like him. “I got very assertive research- and finagle-wise,” he said. “I spent hundreds of hours at three halfway houses. It turned out you could just sit in the living room — nobody is as gregarious as somebody who has recently stopped using drugs.”
He and Franzen talked a lot about what writing should be for. “We had this feeling that fiction ought to be good for something,” Franzen says. “Basically, we decided it was to combat loneliness.” They would talk about lots of Wallace’s ideas, which could abruptly sharpen into self-criticism. “I remember this being a frequent topic of conversation,” Franzen says, “his notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn’t just being funny — there was something genuinely compromised in David. At the time I thought, ‘Wow, he’s even more self-conscious than I am.'”
Wallace spent a year writing in Syracuse. “I lived in an apartment that was seriously the size of the foyer of an average house. I really liked it. There were so many books, you couldn’t move around. When I’d want to write, I’d have to put all the stuff from the desk on the bed, and when I’d want to sleep, I would have to put all the stuff on the desk.”
Wallace worked longhand, pages piling up. “You look at the clock and seven hours have passed and your hand is cramped,” Wallace said. He’d have pens he considered hot — cheap Bic ballpoints, like batters have bats that are hot. A pen that was hot he called the orgasm pen.
In the summer of 1993, he took an academic job 50 miles from his parents, at Illinois State University at Normal. The book was three-quarters done. Based on the first unruly stack of pages, Nadell had been able to sell it to Little, Brown. He had put his whole life into it — tennis, and depression, and stoner afternoons, and the precipice of rehab, and all the hours spent with Amy watching TV. The plot motor is a movie called Infinite Jest, so soothing and perfect it’s impossible to switch off: You watch until you sink into your chair, spill your bladder, starve, die. “If the book’s about anything,” he said, “it’s about the question of why am I watching so much shit? It’s not about the shit. It’s about me: Why am I doing it? The original title was A Failed Entertainment, and the book is structured as an entertainment that doesn’t work” — characters developing and scattering, chapters disordered “because what entertainment ultimately leads to is ‘Infinite Jest,’ that’s the star it’s steering by.”
Wallace held classes in his house, students nudging aside books like Compendium of Drug Therapy and The Emergence of the French Art Film, making jokes about Mount Manuscript, David’s pile of novel. He had finished and collected the three years of drafts, and finally sat down and typed the whole thing. Wallace didn’t really type; he input the giant thing twice, with one finger. “But a really fast finger.”
It came to almost 1,700 pages. “I was just terrified how long it would end up being,” he said. Wallace told his editor it would be a good beach book, in the sense that people could use it for shade.
It can take a year to edit a book, re-edit it, print it, publicize it, ship it, the writer all the time checking his watch. In the meantime, Wallace turned to nonfiction. Two pieces, published in Harper’s, would become some of the most famous pieces of journalism of the past decade and a half.
Colin Harrison, Wallace’s editor at Harper’s, had the idea to outfit him with a notebook and push him into perfectly American places — the Illinois State Fair, a Caribbean cruise. It would soak up the side of Wallace that was always on, always measuring himself. “There would be Dave the mimic, Dave the people-watcher,” Costello says. “Asking him to actually report could get stressful and weird and complicated. Colin had this stroke of genius about what to do with David. It was a much simpler solution than anyone ever thought.”
In the pieces, Wallace invented a style writers have plundered for a decade. The unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making choices and cuts. The voice was humane, a big, kind brain tripping over its own lumps. “The Harper’s pieces were me peeling back my skull,” Wallace said. “You know, welcome to my mind for 20 pages, see through my eyes, here’s pretty much all the French curls and crazy circles. The trick was to have it be honest but also interesting — because most of our thoughts aren’t all that interesting. To be honest with a motive.” He laughed. “There’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am.”
The cruise-ship piece ran in January 1996, a month before David’s novel was published. People photocopied it, faxed it to each other, read it over the phone. When people tell you they’re fans of David Foster Wallace, what they’re often telling you is that they’ve read the cruise-ship piece; Wallace would make it the title essay in his first collection of journalism, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In a way, the difference between the fiction and the nonfiction reads as the difference between Wallace’s social self and his private self. The essays were endlessly charming, they were the best friend you’d ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style. Wallace’s fiction, especially after Infinite Jest, ‘would turn chilly, dark, abstract. You could imagine the author of the fiction sinking into a depression. The nonfiction writer was an impervious sun.
The novel came out in February of 1996. In New York Magazine, Walter Kirn wrote, “The competition has been obliterated. It’s as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy.’ The novel is that colossally disruptive. And that spectacularly good.” He was in Newsweek, Time, Hollywood people appeared at his readings, women batted their eyelashes, men in the back rows scowled, envied. A FedEx guy rang his bell, watched David sign for delivery, asked, “How’s it feel to be famous?”
At the end of his book tour, I spent a week with David. He talked about the “greasy thrill of fame” and what it might mean to his writing. “When I was 25, I would’ve given a couple of digits off my non-use hand for this,” he said. “I feel good, because I wanna be doing this for 40 more years, you know? So I’ve got to find some way to enjoy this that doesn’t involve getting eaten by it.”
He was astonishingly good, quick company, making you feel both wide awake and as if your shoes had been tied together. He’d say things like, “There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.” He talked about a kind of shyness that turned social life impossibly complicated. “I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not because I’m too worried about whether you like me.”
He said one interviewer had devoted tons of energy to the genius question. “That was his whole thing, Are you normal?’ ‘Are. you normal?’ I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.”
It had been difficult, during the summer, to watch his sister get named. “I’m almost 35. I would like to get married and have kids. I haven’t even started to work that shit out yet. I’ve come close a few times, but I tend to be interested in women that I turn out to not get along very well with. I have friends who say this is something that would be worth looking into with someone that you pay.”
Wallace was always dating somebody. “There were a lot of relationships,” Amy says. He dated in his imaginative life too: When I visited him, one wall was taped with a giant Alanis Morissette poster. “The Alanis Morissette obsession followed the Melanie Griffith obsession — a six-year obsession,” he said. “It was preceded by something that I will tell you I got teased a lot for, which was a terrible Margaret Thatcher obsession. All through college: posters of Margaret Thatcher, and ruminations on Margaret Thatcher. Having her really enjoy something I said, leaning forward and covering my hand with hers.”
He tended to date high-strung women — another symptom of his shyness. “Say what you want about them, psychotics tend to make the first move.” Owning dogs was less complicated: “You don’t get the feeling you’re hurting their feelings all the time.”
His romantic anxieties were full-spectrum, every bit of the mechanics individually examined. He told me a joke:
What does a writer say after sex? Was it was good for me as it was for you?
“There is, in writing, a certain blend of sincerity and manipulation, of trying always to gauge what the particular effect of something is gonna be,” he said. “It’s a very precious asset that really needs to be turned off sometimes. My guess is that writers probably make fun, skilled, satisfactory, and seemingly considerate partners for other people. But that the experience for them is often rather lonely.”
One night Wallace met the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose depression memoir, Prozac Nation, had recently been published. She thought he looked scruffy — jeans and the bandanna — and very smart.
Another night, Wallace walked her home from a restaurant, sat with her in her lobby, spent some time trying to talk his way upstairs. It charmed Wurtzel: “You know, he might have had this enormous brain, but at the end of the day, he still was a guy.”
Wallace and Wurtzel didn’t really talk about the personal experience they had in common — depression, a substance history, consultations at McLean — but about their profession, about what to do with fame. Wallace, again, had set impossible standards for himself. “It really disturbed him, the possibility that success could taint you,” she recalls. “He was very interested in purity, in the idea of authenticity- the way some people are into the idea of being cool. He had keeping it real down to a science.”
When Wallace wrote her, he was still curling through the same topic. “I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones. But then I countenance the fact that at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself. It’s all very confusing. I think I’m very honest and candid, but I’m also proud of how honest and candid I am — so where does that put me?”
Success can be as difficult to recover from as failure. “You know the tic big-league pitchers have,” his mother says, “when they know that they’ve pitched a marvelous game — but gee, can they do it again, so they keep flexing that arm? There was some of that. Where he said, ‘OK. Good, that came out well. But can I do it again?’ That was the feeling I got. There was always the shadow waiting.”
Wallace saw it that way too. “My big worry,” he said, “is that this will just up my expectations for myself. And expectations are a very fine line. Up to a certain point they can be motivating, can be kind of a flamethrower held to your ass. Past that point they’re toxic and paralyzing. I’m scared that I’ll fuck up and plunge into a compressed version of what I went through before.”
Mark Costello was also worried. “Work got very hard. He didn’t get these gifts from God anymore, he didn’t get these six-week periods where he got exactly the 120 pages he needed. So he found distraction in other places.” He would get engaged, then unengaged. He would call friends: “Next weekend, Saturday, you gotta be in Rochester, Minnesota, I’m getting married.” But then it would be Sunday, or the next week, and he’d have called it off.
“He almost got married a few times,” Amy says. “I think what ultimately happened is he was doing it more for the other person than himself. And he realized that wasn’t doing the other person any favors.”
Wallace told Costello about a woman he had become involved with. “He said, ‘She gets mad at me because I never want to leave the house.’ ‘Honey, let’s go to the mall.’ ‘No, I want to write.’ ‘But you never do write.’ ‘But I don’t know if I’m going to write. So I have to be here in case it happens.’ This went on for years.”
In 2000, ‘Wallace wrote a letter to his friend Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone contributor: “I know about still having trouble with relationships. (Boy oh boy, do I.) But coming to enjoy my own company more and more — most of the time. I know about some darkness every day (and some days, it’s all dark for me).” He wrote about meeting a woman, having things move too easily, deciding against it. “I think whatever the pull is for me is largely composed of wanting the Big Yes, of wanting someone else to want you (Cheap Trick lives)…. So now I don’t know what to do. Probably nothing, which seems to be the Sign that the universe or its CEO is sending me.”
In the summer of 2001, Wallace relocated to Claremont, California, to become the Roy Edward Disney Chair in Creative Writing, at Pomona College. He published stories and essays, but was having trouble with his work. After he reported on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign for this magazine, he wrote his agent that it would show his editor that “I’m still capable of good work (my own insecurities, I know).”
Wallace had received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1997. “I don’t think it did him any favors,” says Franzen. “It conferred the mantle of ‘genius’ on him, which he had of course craved and sought and thought was his due. But I think he felt, ‘Now I have to be even smarter.'” In late 2001, Costello called Wallace. “He was talking about how hard the writing was. And I said, lightheartedly, ‘Dave, you’re a genius.’ Meaning, people aren’t going to forget about you. You’re not going to wind up in a Wendy’s. He said, ‘All that makes me think is that I’ve fooled you, too.'”
Wallace met Karen Green a few months after moving to Claremont. Green, a painter, admired David’s work. It was a sort of artistic exchange, an inter-disciplinary blind date. “She wanted to do some paintings based on some of David’s stories,” his mother says. “They had a mutual friend, and she thought she would ask permission.”
“He was totally gaga,” Wright recalls. “He called, head over heels, he was talking about her as a life-changing event.” Franzen met Green the following year. “I felt in about three minutes that he’d finally found somebody who was up to the task of living with Dave. She’s beautiful, incredibly strong, and a real grown-up — she had a center that was not about landing the genius Dave Wallace.”
They made their debut as a couple with Wallace’s parents in July 2003, attending the Maine culinary festival that would provide the title for his last book, Consider the Lobster. “They were both so quick,” his father says. “They would get things and look at each other and laugh, without having to say what had struck them as funny.” The next year, Wallace and Green flew to his parents’ home in Illinois, where they were married two days after Christmas.
It was a surprise wedding. David told his mother he wanted to take the family to what he called a “high-gussy” lunch. Sally Wallace assumed it was Karen’s influence. “David does not do high gussy,” she says. “His notion of high gussy is maybe long pants instead of shorts or a T-shirt with two holes instead of 18.” Green and Wallace left the house early to “run errands,” while Amy figured out a pretext to get their parents to the courthouse on the way to the lunch. “We went upstairs,” Sally says, “and saw Karen with a bouquet, and David dressed up with a flower in his buttonhole, and we knew. He just looked so happy, just radiating happiness.” Their reception was at an Urbana restaurant. “As we left in the snow,” Sally says, “David and Karen were walking away from us. He wanted us to take pictures, and Jim did. David was jumping in the air and clicking his heels. That became the wedding announcement.”
According to Wallace’s family and friends, the last six years — until the final one — were the best of his life. The marriage was happy, university life good, Karen and David had two dogs, Warner and Bella, they bought a lovely house. “Dave in a real house,” Franzen says, laughing, “with real furniture and real style.”
To Franzen’s eye, he was watching Wallace grow up. There had been in David a kind of purposeful avoidance of the normal. Once, they’d gone to a literary party in the city. They walked in the front door together, but by the time Franzen got to the kitchen, he realized Wallace had disappeared. “I went back and proceeded to search the whole place,” Franzen recalled. “He had walked into the bathroom to lose me, then turned on his heels and walked right back out the front door.”
Now, that sort of thing had stopped. “He had reason to hope,” Franzen said. “He had the resources to be more grown-up, a wholer person.”
And then there were the dogs. “He had a predilection for dogs who’d been abused, and unlikely to find other owners who were going to be patient enough for them,” Franzen says. “Whether through a sense of identification or sympathy, he had a very hard time disciplining them. But you couldn’t see his attentiveness to the dogs without getting a lump in your throat.”
Because Wallace was secure, he began to talk about going off Nardil, the antidepressant he had taken for nearly two decades. The drug had a long list of side effects, including the potential of very high blood pressure. “It had been a fixture of my morbid fear about Dave — that he would not last all that long, with the wear and tear on his heart,” Franzen says. “I worried that I was going to lose him in his early 50s.” Costello said that Wallace complained the drug made him feel “filtered.” “He said, ‘I don’t want to be on this stuff for the rest of my life.’ He wanted to be more a member of the human race.”
In June of 2007, Wallace and Green were at an Indian restaurant with David’s parents in Claremont. David suddenly felt very sick — intense stomach pains. They stayed with him for days. When he went to doctors, he was told that something he’d eaten might have interacted with the Nardil. They suggested he try going off the drug and seeing if another approach might work.
“So at that point,” says his sister Amy, with an edge in her voice, “it was determined, ‘Oh, well, gosh, we’ve made so much pharmaceutical progress in the last two decades that I’m sure we can find something that can knock out that pesky depression without all these side effects.’ They had no idea that it was the only thing that was keeping him alive.”
Wallace would have to taper off the old drug and then taper on to a new one. “He knew it was going to be rough,” says Franzen. “But he was feeling like he could finally afford a year to do the job. He figured that he was going to go on to something else, at least temporarily. He was a perfectionist, you know? He wanted to be perfect, and taking Nardil was not perfect.”
That summer, David began to phase out the Nardil. His doctors began prescribing other medications, none of which seemed to help. “They could find nothing,” his mother says softly. “Nothing.” In September, David asked Amy to forgo her annual fall-break visit. He wasn’t up to it. By October, his symptoms had become bad enough to send him to the hospital. His parents didn’t know what to do. “I started worrying about that,” Sally says, “but then it seemed OK.” He begar to drop weight. By that fall, he looked like a college kid again: longish hair, eyes intense, as if he had just stepped out of an Amherst classroom.
When Amy talked to him on the phone, “sometimes he was his old self,” she says. “The worst question you could ask David in the last year was ‘how are you?’ And it’s almost impossible to have a conversation with someone you don’t see regularly without that question.” Wallace was very honest with her. He’d answer, “I’m not all right. I’m trying to be, but I’m not all right.”
Despite his struggle, Wallace managed to keep teaching. He was dedicated to his students: He would write six pages of comments to a short story, joke with his class, fight them to try harder. During office hours, if there was a grammar question he couldn’t answer, he’d phone his mother. “He would call me and say, ‘Mom, I’ve got this student right here. Explain to me one more time why this is wrong.’ You could hear the student sort of laughing in the background. ‘Here’s David Foster Wallace calling his mother.'”
In early May, at the end of the school year, he sat down with some graduating seniors from his fiction class at a nearby cafe. Wallace answered their jittery writer’s-future questions. “He got choked up at the end,” recalls Bennett Sims, one of his students. “He started to tell us how much he would miss us, and he began to cry. And because I had never seen Dave cry, I thought he was just joking. Then, awfully, he sniffled and said, ‘Go ahead and laugh — here I am crying — but I really am going to miss all of you.'”
His parents were scheduled to visit the next month. In June, when Sally spoke with her son, he said, “I can’t wait, it’ll be wonderful, we’ll have big fun.” The next day, he called and said, “Mom, I have two favors to ask you. Would you please not come?” She said OK. Then Wallace asked, “Would your feelings not be hurt?”
No medications had worked; the depression wouldn’t lift. “After this year of absolute hell for David,” Sally says “they decided to go back to the Nardil.” The doctors also administered 12 courses of electroconvulsive therapy, waiting for Wallace’s medication to become effective. “Twelve,” Sally repeats. “Such brutal treatments,” Jim says. “It was clear then things were bad.”
Wallace had always been terrified of shock therapy. “It scares the shit out of me,” he told me in 1996. “My brain’s what I’ve got. But I could see that at a certain point, you might beg for it.”
In late June, Franzen, who was in Berlin, grew ‘worried. “I actually woke up one night,” he says. “Our communications had a rhythm, and I thought, ‘It’s been too long since I heard from Dave.'” When Franzen called, Karen said to come immediately: David had tried to kill himself.
Franzen spent a week with Wallace in July. David had dropped 70 pounds in a year. “He was thinner than I’d ever seen him. There was a look in his eyes: terrified, terribly sad, and far away. Still, he was fun to be with, even at 10 percent strength.”
Franzen would sit with Wallace in the living room and play with the dogs, or step outside with David while he smoked a cigarette. “We argued about stuff. He was doing his usual line about, ‘A dog’s mouth is practically a disinfectant, it’s so clean. Not like human saliva, dog saliva is marvelously germ-resistant.'” Before he left, Wallace thanked him for coming. “I felt grateful that he allowed me to be there,” Franzen says.
Six weeks later, Wallace asked his parents to come to California. The Nardil wasn’t working. It can happen with an antidepressant; a patient goes off, returns, and the medication has lost its efficacy. Wallace couldn’t sleep. He was afraid to leave the house. He asked, “What if I meet one of my students?”
“He didn’t want anyone to see him the way he was,” his father says. “It was just awful to see. If a student saw him, they would have put their arms around him and hugged him, I’m sure.”
His parents stayed for 10 days. “He was just desperate,” his mother says. “He was afraid it wasn’t ever going to work. He was suffering. We just kept holding him, saying if he could just hang on, it would straighten. He was very brave for a very long time.”
Wallace and his parents would get up at six in the morning and walk the dogs. They watched DVDs of The Wire, talked. Sally cooked David’s favorite dishes, heavy comfort foods — pot pies, casseroles, strawberries in cream. “We kept telling him we were so glad he was alive,” his mother recalls. “But my feeling is that, even then, he was leaving the planet. He just couldn’t take it.”
One afternoon before they left, David was very upset. His mother sat on the floor beside him. “I just rubbed his arm. He said he was glad I was his mom. I told him it was an honor.”
At the end of August, Franzen called. All summer long he had been telling David that as bad as things were, they were going to be better, and then he’d be better than he’d ever been. David would say, “Keep talking like that — it’s helping.” But this time it wasn’t helping. “He was far away,” Franzen says.
A few weeks later, Karen left David alone with the dogs for a few hours. When she came home that night, he had hanged himself.
“I can’t get the image out of my head,” his sister says. “David and his dogs, and it’s dark. I’m sure he kissed them on the mouth, and told them he was sorry.”