New Yorker Gives New Perspective On David Foster Wallace

D.T. Max has a heart-wrenching piece about David Foster Wallace in this week's New Yorker, including a description of his unfinished novel and new insight from friends and loved ones about his life and death.

Wallace had been writing The Pale King since 2000 — an excerpt also appears in The New Yorker. Max writes,

It is about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter, and centers on a group of several dozen I.R.S. agents working in the Midwest. Their job is tedious, but dullness, "The Pale King" suggests, ultimately sets them free.

Unsurprisingly, Wallace had trouble writing about the transcendence of boredom — his editor Michael Pietsch says he "'posed himself the task that is almost the opposite of how fiction works,' which is 'leaving out the things that are not of much interest.'" Wallace described the project at one point as like "trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm." He had suffered from depression and anxiety since high school, but he stopped taking his antidepressant, Nardil, in part because, according to Max, "he thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse."

As we now know, it didn't work. Wallace had to be hospitalized for depression, and when he got out, he was too anxious to give any new antidepressant time to work. Max's article is the first to quote Karen Green, Wallace's wife. She says she knows when her husband decided to kill himself. Of the week before his death, she says, "That Saturday was a really good day, Monday and Tuesday were not so good. He started lying to me that Wednesday." He hanged himself on Friday.

A lot of people (including myself) have written about David Foster Wallace's death, and a lot of them have used him as an example of how difficult it is to be a creative person. I now think this is misguided. While Wallace's writing troubles caused him great anxiety and sorrow (of The Pale King, he wrote, "the whole thing is a tornado that won't hold still long enough for me to see what's useful and what isn't" [...] "I've brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore."), anxiety and sorrow are far from unique to writers or artists or intellectuals or people who achieve success (as Wallace did with Infinite Jest) and then worry about topping it. What we can learn from his life — insofar as it's possible or even right to learn anything from anyone else's life — comes not from the fact that he wrote and died young, but from the actual stuff that he wrote. It's possible that his depression gave him special insight into the despair that many people sometimes feel about having to live in the world, but it was the value he placed on both moral rightness and moral nuance that made him want to do something about it.

"Look, man," he said in a 1991 interview, "we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?" Quite the contrary, he believed that fiction should help people "become less alone inside." It's a tall order, but it's also the best and, oddly for Wallace, the simplest explanation of what art can do that I've ever heard.

It's difficult — or at least it's difficult for me — to write about David Foster Wallace without writing like him. Perhaps this is because, for all the annoyingness of his digressive, footnote-heavy style (especially as he got older, he himself was aware of this annoyingness), his writing encourages the constant questioning and revising of every single thought. It's not, perhaps, the healthiest way to live your mental life, but once you've had a taste of it, it's hard not to feel that it's the most just and correct way. In a now-famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, Wallace said that being free "means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct
meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed." I don't agree that you will be hosed if you don't make your life a series of conscious cognitive choices. But I believe that only if you do this, and only if you are willing to examine those choices again and again and again, will you come even close to understanding the way the world and other people work — to being the kind of person who can make other people become less alone.

The Unfinished [The New Yorker]
Wiggle Room [The New Yorker]
New Yorker Publishes Part Of Unfinished Wallace Novel [Washington Post]