An Interview with D. T. Max


D. T. Max’s long-awaited biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, has been the end-of-summer book for readers of literary fiction. It has inspired countless reviews, conversations, and online outbursts (most notably, perhaps, Bret Easton Ellis’s vituperative series of tweets). Max first told Wallace’s story in 2009, in a fascinating piece in The New Yorker. In tackling the story of Wallace for this full-length biography, Max was taking on a writer whose fiction and essays have made many see him as the voice of a generation—while others blame him as the source of the prose style of the internet and the new, post-ironic sincerity of innumerable young writers and publishing organs. He was also taking on a life darkened by a decades-long struggle with depression and cut short by suicide. Max somehow manages to tell a compelling story that peels back the public image of Wallace without stripping it bare, creating a portrait of a troubled and gifted man who crafted some of our time’s best writing and giving readers a fuller sense of the relation of the work to the life.    —Samuel Cohen

THE BELIEVER: I saw a tweet tonight by Commentary’s John Podhoretz that read: “Unsurprising to me: David Foster Wallace was a voting conservative” and linked to a review of your biography that mentioned Wallace’s having voted for Reagan. There’s a lot to say about Podhoretz being the tweeter of this tweet, but for now I’m more interested in your thoughts on what has been one of the book’s more discussed revelations, and the larger question of Wallace’s politics. Was it a surprise to you to learn this about him? How significant do you think it is—to your sense of his politics and to his work? 

D. T. MAX: Everyone is surprised by this—as I think they will be by the revelation that DFW ate two lobsters at the Maine Lobster festival in the midst of writing—well at least cogitating—the dubious morality of shell fish consumption in Consider the Lobster, his 2004 essay for Gourmet. What can I say? That people are complex? That DFW contained multitudes? I think a couple of things are worth pointing out. David was not really political—at least not in the normal sense until he met Karen Green, his wife, in 2002. By which I mean he had only an ordinary interest in who ran things. But I have hundreds of his letters and I don’t remember seeing a mention of Reagan or Clinton or Monica Lewinsky or the Contract for America. Nothing.  So sometimes a vote is just a vote—his sister thinks he voted for Reagan just to irritate his family, who were conventional right-thinking Midwestern academic Democrats, dots of blue in a red Illinois sea.

Also, David in his twenties was cocky and expansive. He thought he understood the world better than you or I. So I can easily imagine that he saw in Reagan a way to unleash America’s entrepreneurial energies, to harness selfishness to productive ends à la Ayn Rand. Also note that he supported—perhaps voted for—Ross Perot in 1992. This one’s a bit more complicated, because at this point David has been through McLean and Granada House, is in a twelve-step program, and has settled into espousing the sincerity and compassion by which he is mostly known today. How could such a man vote for Perot? Again the answer is speculative. One can see how George H.W. Bush would not satisfy him. What about Bill Clinton? Interesting question—I’m working this out for the first time myself here. I have no written record of what David thought of Clinton but I’m guessing he would have recognized a fellow addict—addicted to sex and attention—a fellow needy person, someone whose appetites were not properly under control, someone lacking the focus for such a complicated task as governing America.

For what it’s worth, by the time he is writing the John McCain essay (and my guess is what Podhoretz is referring to when he says he is unsurprised is the general sympathy that essay shows toward McCain) he says he voted for Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary. So in that sense he eventually moved more toward the politics we expect of him. He went from phenom to ordinary citizen.

BLVR: In a note, you talk about what you call “the problem of how to use an innovative writing style to carry out a conservative fictional purpose.” I wonder if this is the right way to think about it. People used to have arguments about minimalism along these lines, arguing whether it was doing something new or was returning to Hemingway in a way they judged reactionary. But if postmodern fiction taught us anything it was that writers could reach into the bag of tricks collected in the eighteenth century and do new things with them. Does Wallace’s fiction make a conservative turn as his politics become more progressive? Do you really think there is a politics to form?

DTM: I’d make the distinction a bit differently. David’s insistence on personal responsibility and kindness to others was obviously not innovative. It was traditional, conservative, quasi-ecclesiastical. One associates it more with Burke than Barth. But the way DFW writes never corresponds to the man who would speak in this way. I mean you could argue—I do argue—that his fiction tacks back more toward some traditional mainstays of the novel (like character) post–Girl with Curious Hair, but at some point he refuses to continue in the direction that, say, Jon Franzen goes in. He insists instead that he has to write realistic novels for a world that’s no longer real. I think that tension—conventional morality and that Janus-faced style—proved hard for him to pull off. You see that not just in The Pale King but also in Oblivion. He epitomizes it best, I think, in that letter he writes to Sven Birkerts from O’Hare in 1992 when his flight is cancelled:

This long thing I’m 90% done with—I wanted to make a kind of contemporary Jamesian melodrama, real edge-of-sentimentality stuff, and instead I find it buried—like parts of “L.E.A.” [Wallace’s story “Little Expressionless Animals”]—in Po-Mo formalities, the sort of manic patina over emotional catatonia that seems to inflict the very culture the novel’s supposed to be about.

He added, “I have never felt so much a failure, or so mute when it comes to articulating what I see as the way out of the ironic loop.”

At first I didn’t understand this letter: what was so hard about Jamesian melodrama? Why bring up “Little Expressionless Animals” as the other end of the equation? I think the answer is because you can’t write Jamesian melodrama about a world that James would not have recognized.

BLVR: Much has been said concerning the factual veracity of Wallace’s nonfiction, more than seems warranted (as you note in your comments on his essay about his youth-tennis career, who is it that believed that was traditional reportage?). But what really struck me in your book was the amount of lying—good old-fashioned interpersonal lying—he seems to have done. What was it like to uncover this material? 

DTM: Well, for me it was fun. I had this moment in the midst of my research when I was reading David’s terrific 1989 letter to Steven Moore in which he claimed that he had just had his nose broken for the second time in a row, this time in a fight with his downstairs’ neighbor over the virtues of Wittgenstein’s Mistress (David pro, neighbor con), and I thought: I don’t think so. I asked Mark Costello, who lived with him at the time and he just laughed. In the end I’m sure David got a few past me. I didn’t have subpoena power.

Not that I hadn’t been warned. A relative of his had counseled me even before I wrote the New Yorker article that DFW was a “pathological liar.” That’s not actually how I experienced his inventions, though. He was more an opportunistic liar. You know, everyone tells a few and a great percent of David’s lies are just to shake things up rather than to aggrandize his own position. Plus any nonfiction writer knows that reality rarely presents itself in the desirable array. David sort of warns the reader more than once he would fix this problem his own way. Read, for instance, his interview with the Boston Phoenix in 1998: “The thing is, really—between you and me and the Boston Phoenix’s understanding readers—you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.” Colin Harrison, his editor for many of the Harper’s pieces, at an event I was at the Ransom Center earlier this year, referred to David’s writing as “literary performance.” He seemed to me on to something not yet fully articulated.

BLVR: How important to the portrait you’re painting here is this aspect of Wallace’s character? Does it complicate your sense of whether he was, as Laura Miller put it in her review of A Supposedly Fun Thing, a mensch? Does the fact that a good number of these moments revolve around his relationships with women affect your judgment of him as a person? I’ve neglected to mention that I devoured this book and that I did so not just because of my interest in the subject but because it’s so wonderfully written. When I put I down, though, I have to admit that I felt a little dirty. I couldn’t put my finger on quite what it was that was causing this feeling until today, when I read Greil Marcus recounting a story Paul Nelson tells in Scorcese’s Bob Dylan documentary about how Dylan’s fame got to the point that people would pick up his dropped cigarettes looking for meanings and, he says, “The scary part is, they’d find it.” So this is a delicate question to ask you, but I think my reservations come from my sense that there’s something akin to going through garbage about this kind of project—and from my sense that many readers of Wallace’s fiction will think that these revelations are the key to understanding it. So it’s a privacy-invading discomfort and an interpretive discomfort. The question, then, is, How am I wrong? Talk me out of my discomfort. Please.

DTM: Sam, I’m not sure I want to. I mean, I didn’t go through anyone’s garbage. People brought what they felt I needed to know to me. It was his friends and family trying to reconstruct a person who was gone. There were so many people in deep grief when I began and talking to me was in part a way to begin to deal with that grief. The book gains some of its energy from an exercise in communal remembering. Of course the memories are not always so wonderful and indeed I was often shocked by DFW’s behavior. Hell, sometimes people were shocked by the stories they told me, you know stories about behavior they had been a part of. I have no reason not to want you to be shocked in turn. Shock equals discovery, and if I narrated my past, you’d be pretty grossed out too, I bet—same as if you narrated yours. Aren’t we all composed of our past mistakes? Isn’t that part of emerging into an adult awareness of the world?

BLVR: I am very attached to the notion, which you put quite well, that the end of Infinite Jest is not to be found at the end of the book but at the beginning, and that Hal’s attempts to respond to the man asking “So yo then what’s your story?” is hopeful. You call this “the possibility that telling a story can heal.” Do you think your book shares in that hope? I was one of many, many readers who felt personally bereft when Wallace died. Do you think people who felt that way will gain some measure of healing from having his story told? 

DTM: I hope so. I’d certainly be glad if the book provided some comfort, although I suppose I hope even more the book leads people to DFW’s fiction and the fiction does that job. I mean, I believe Infinite Jest will last or I wouldn’t have written a biography of its author. Interesting is great but you don’t build your house on a foundation of sand. And comfort and solace come about differently for different people. As a writer I’m not an explainer, really. I’m a narrator. I mistrust explanation. So if what you need is to have someone tell you that DFW’s suicide was the result of getting off his anti-depressant or failures on the part of his mother in her early parenting, you know, I’m just not your man really. During DFW’s brief stint at Harvard as a graduate student in philosophy he used to pass through the portal of Emerson Hall above which was a quote from the Psalms: “What Is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him?” In a way, this book is meant to answer that question.

 BLVR: Today I was reading Don DeLillo’s 1973 Great Jones Street and his recent story “Baader-Meinhof” (which became part of Falling Man) and the juxtaposition made me think of what seems to me a similar movement (which you also note) in Wallace’s work to a cooler, more spare and direct style. One of the many things I learned from your book is just how much of an influence DeLillo was on Wallace. Were there lines of influence that you turned up in your research that surprised you?

DTM: David took a lot from DeLillo stylistically—especially the cleanness, that quality of conversation rattling in an empty room. He also borrowed some scenes for Infinite Jest, especially the ESCHATON scene and wrote DeLillo before publication asking if he had done anything wrong (DeLillo graciously said no). But DeLillo, as I see it, only took Wallace so far. There are a lot of DeLillo imitators. What I think made Infinite Jest special was the debt to Dostoevsky, to the idea of a soul and the burning need of that soul to be cleansed. I don’t remember that having much of a place in DeLillo’s writing.

BLVR: I have to ask a Franzen question. What do you make of their love story? In the book you seem to come around to the position that Wallace himself came around to what you call Franzen’s more conservative, moralist position on fiction.

DTM: As above, David never really bought Jon’s idea of fiction—he bought his idea of the function of fiction. But he found the world too disjointed, too frenetic, too stressful and new and media-saturated, to pursue anything as conventional as, say, The Corrections. His idea of giving comfort to the reader was always more jagged than Franzen’s.

They were friends though, truly. They started with a sort of towel-slapping locker-room dynamic; they were a couple of literary athletes. “Best of friends and lit combatants” is how Wallace told Franzen he thought of them.  As the years went by they grew closer. DFW really confided in Franzen in those later years—I’ve read the emails—and I’m certain that if anyone had asked DFW in the ‘00s what his feelings were for Jon, had he been in a huggy moment he would have said he loved him.

Samuel Cohen teaches American literature at the University of Missouri. He is the author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s and co-editor (with Lee Konstantinou) of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. He has also written an essay on Wallace, “Future Tense,” for Cedars: A Literary Journal.