Are You Sure This is Water?

D.T. Max on the legacy of David Foster Wallace

by by Drew Dickerson

On March 9, 2009, New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max published “The Unfinished,” a posthumous profile of David Foster Wallace. Wallace—who committed suicide in 2008—was the novelist behind Infinite Jest. Max’s article details the writer’s life, depression, and struggle to follow the 1,100 page masterwork. It amounts to a sort of “what do we do?” after the loss of such a huge figure in contemporary American literature. Wallace should have outlived John Updike. He should have outlived Salinger. He should have given the world another book. “The Unfinished” gives an explicit account as to this why did not and could not have happened. It isn’t an easy read. The essay prompted a book-length biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, which was put out by Viking in August of this year. Every Love Story takes the compassion and investigative acuity of “The Unfinished” and gives the David Foster Wallace narrative the time and attention it always warranted. Max and I spoke over the phone as he took a bus in from LaGuardia. Bus sounds interrupted our conversation at odd intervals.

The Independent: I understand that your biographical work on Wallace began with that New Yorker article.  What opportunities did the biography format afford?

D.T. Max: Yeah. It’s different. I mean, for one thing, within the reality that all magazine work is done, it has to be a limited lane. And book-work is not done under that reality. Anything that you think should be in your book can get into your book. And that’s not true of magazine work. It’s far more constrained. As long as that New Yorker piece was—and it was 10,000 words long—I was always aware that it couldn’t go on forever. And that’s something with biography: you could go on forever. The biography is written in a somewhat different style from the New Yorker piece. I find the way that long-form feature writing tells a story is probably the best way we have right now. And somehow it seems to me that the picture of Wallace’s life… I didn’t want to switch over into some grand, old biography stance as if he had been gone for decades. I mean my goal was, effectively, to create what a memoir might be like. You know, if David had written a memoir. That’s what the sense of immediacy is. If he was alive he’d only be 50 today. So it felt weird to make it into some long ago critical figure. It wasn’t Thomas Hardy I was writing about. And it wasn’t even Bellow. It was somebody who had lived their life distinctively in this moment.

Indy: I was watching this Big Think interview with Jonathan Franzen the other day and he mentions Infinite Jest in a list of underrated novels. The idea of Jest as an underrated work was really surprising to me. This was maybe pre-suicide. It could have been 2006. How popular was the book at the time of its release?

DM: I mean there’s something to that. There’s something to the idea that David was not as remotely on everyone’s mind as he was after his death. I was actually living in Washington when he died and I saw his name on the crawl—you know that little thing that goes along the bottom of a news program, small stories or whatever. I thought maybe he had won an award or something. He almost never won an award in his lifetime. And only when I got home and got on the Internet did I find that he had actually committed suicide. So I feel like he was out of the public eye.  But you would know better than me. I think people are always reading him on campuses.

Indy: Oh yeah, he’s huge.

DM: But was he huge in 2006?  Did you say the Franzen video was in 2006?

Indy: He had his short haircut. I know that Franzen used to have longer hair.

DM: Yeah. He had that groovy haircut. My understanding, or my guess, is that Wallace lived in a place that was sort of in between being famous and not famous. Do you know what I mean? He’s huge on college campuses where people read everything he wrote. But if you were to have asked me who the biggest writers in America were, I would not have guessed him. But all of his stuff is in print. And that’s very unusual. So if you think of all the books from 1996, they may not be read today. And Jest is in its 10th anniversary edition.

Indy: Do you think there’s a writer working today who’s filling that same niche?

DM: You know, I don’t know. Every writer makes his own niche. If the niche we’re talking about is someone who’s both a writer and someone who has something larger to say and people respond to him or her off of who they are on the page. After Wallace, it’s not like the need is going to disappear. He’ll fill it for some people for a period of time. At some point there’ll be others. I don’t know of anyone offhand, but you’re probably a better reader of young writers than I am.

Indy: How important do you think it is to read all of Wallace’s work to understand his mission or project? I know I’m sort of a snob on this point.

DM: I think it comes down a little bit to what you’re hoping to understand. You can get a certain sense of Wallace by reading just “This Is Water” if what you’re looking for is a sort of stance towards your own self, but you won’t get a deep sense of who David was. And you certainly wouldn’t get any sense of who he was as a writer. But you would get a sense of who he was as a person. I mean people go to writing and writers in some ways for a sort of remarkable immersion and there’s no shortcut. You can’t go to the biography to get that. You have to read Infinite Jest. But I think there’s a great many people who are getting more interested in Wallace and his stance in the world  and haven’t read a certain amount of Wallace. He’s a writer. He’s not a rock-star. You can’t listen to records to get Wallace. You can’t read my biography and feel that you’ve fully read Wallace. You have to read Wallace.  That’s what you have to do. I prefer to think of my book as fulfilling a different function. I try to tease out who Wallace was and relate his life to his work. And why he’s worth reading. But I think every good biography in the end—even if the biographer knows the person who was being written about, which was not the case with me and David—every good biography has got to revisit the work. Otherwise it kind of contradicts itself, its DNA. Writers aren’t dictators. You only come to them because you want to come to them. Any writer in the United States is more easily ignored than anything else.

Indy: What are your thoughts on the slew of posthumous Wallace publications? I would argue that your own book is interesting and probably necessary. But do you think that the book of essays coming out in November from Little, Brown—Both Flesh and Not— will be at all worthwhile?

DM: They’re sort of different questions. His death left a huge question-mark. The manuscript of The Pale King—it’s an incomplete work, but it’s a finished work. It’s weird. It just never quite becomes a novel. But there’s things in there…I think that opening scene when Silverstein is on the airplane landing in Peoria…Have you read the book?

Indy: I have. And they’re in those Mr. Squishy ice-cream trucks from Oblivion.

DM: Yeah. Right. I mean I think that scene is just superb. I think that’s a different kind of writing than David had done before and it’s absolutely spectacular. Do we need Both Flesh and Not? Both Flesh and Not fulfills a totally different function. They’re previously published essays. An active undergraduate with a decent grasp of the Internet could probably put together that collection on his or her own. But it’s convenient that it puts you in a position where it’s nicely bound into one book. Does it tell us anything we don’t know about David? It’s complicated because the essays in there span such a long period of time. I mean, “Fictional Futures” is just a whole other era. That’s David before he went to rehab. Yeah, it’ll be interesting actually. It’ll be an unusual moment where you can see all of David’s brain on display: early-David, mid-David, and late-David. There’s really no easy way to do that otherwise.

Indy: I hadn’t thought of that.  Some of the other minutiae I’m less sure about. I mean the symbolic logic thesis was nice but it’s not like we’re seeing publication of that kind of work from somebody like William H. Gass who also does philosophy.

DM: You know, David’s name was put on the cover but the book was really about a particular issue in philosophy carried out in a handful of papers over time. I was always told that David wrote his philosophy pieces at school the way he wrote fiction, that it was full of voice... I thought the introduction was excellent. But I think the thing that’s kind of interesting about Both Flesh and Not is that probably the most surprising piece in there is going to be “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.

Indy: What year is that?

DM: He’s writing it right after graduate school, so maybe ’88. I think he actually starts it when he’s teaching at Amherst. But what’s cool about it is that it’s David showing off. Really David’s only show-offy writing is his early work like “Broom of the System,” a book I happen to love. But it’s a show-off book. And this is a show-off essay. You’ll see it. You can see the weird pheromones he’s throwing out. David developed later on, for all his paradoxical self-searching and meta-layers of personalization, a very strong sense of himself in regard to the reader.

Indy: I know there’s a preoccupation with Wittgenstein in the earlier works.

DM: You don’t find much mention of it in his work after a certain point. He treats Wittgenstein as kind of an early lark. A lot of what I don’t know about David, still, is really to what extent literary criticism and philosophy bring his pieces to life. There’s much academic inquiry still on whether David abandoned post-structuralism, deconstructivism, and similar things. I don’t personally know the answer, though it’s my job to know absolutely everything. Some more work will need to be done for sure. He writes a letter to Jonathan Franzen which I don’t quote in the book where he says—this is about 1990, still pretty early—something like: “You know, people always think I’m obsessed with these guys. And I’m not. I like them fine. I find them useful sometimes and less useful other times.” But the impression one gets after his rehab stay is of someone who is rejecting that as if they were an allergen. And I don’t know what the answer is. I think there’s a lot of information to be found in the earlier stories which we’ve not yet read with the right tools. Why is that one story named after the Richard Rorty book? “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.” I can’t pretend to understand why that’s the title of the story.

Indy: What was David’s relationship to comedy?

DM: David came up as a gag writer.  David was a joke-teller. He began at Amherst with their literary magazine, their version of the Harvard Lampoon. And before that he’s writing…He’s a parodist. He’s a precocious, dorky kid in Champaign-Urbana in the 1970s. And the thing you do when you’re precocious is you peek behind the scenes in whatever way you can. This is all long ago. But he had fairly small revelations about how TV was really made. He writes those fake jingles that are in my book. There’s a lot to focus on. He likes to make people laugh. I’ve always thought that if  two percent of David’s DNA were different, he would have wound up writing for Saturday Night Live. But he got a bad gene which totally changed his entire outlook on the world and that’s huge. And until his anxiety and depression are established facts in his life, he certainly could have been a comedy writer. To me that’s enormously touching. One of the things I find so interesting about David, among many other things, is how quickly he became a writer from not being a writer. And—boom—after that he’s writing Infinite Jest; he’s writing “Broom of the System” in six or nine months when he’s 23. Look around at Brown and I don’t think you’re going to see that kind of development. You’ll see talented writers and talented readers, talented critics and so on. But that still just baffles me.