D.T. Max chooses as the epigraph to his altogether absorbing biography of David Foster Wallace a passage from one of Wallace’s most self-revealing stories, “Good Old Neon”: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.” The quote — with its typically untamed syntax — refers to “what goes on inside” a mind very much like Wallace’s: an artistic consciousness that, before his suicide in 2008, fired on so many cylinders and operated on such high-octane mental fuel that Wallace himself once joked that he wore that trademark bandana to keep his head from exploding. But Max may have chosen the quote for another reason: to signal the limits he was imposing on himself as a biographer. What went on in the life and mind of the author of Infinite Jest apparently was too fast and huge and interconnected for Max to do more than barely sketch the outlines of, and it’s a measure of his strong narrative sense as well as his modest reach that the outline he does offer is as focused and riveting as it is.
Growing up in the 1970s, Wallace was both an ordinary Midwestern kid — he loved TV, smoked dope, played competitive sports, worked hard to please his parents and was devoted to success and achievement — and the most extreme of outliers: His mind, though breathtakingly precocious, was afflicted by a major bipolar condition that required extraordinarily careful pharmaceutical monitoring for him to function. Max records five mental breakdowns by the time Wallace was 27, two of them so severe that he was forced to take leaves of absence from Amherst College, where he double-majored in philosophy and English and produced as one of his senior theses the novel The Broom of the System, which became his fictional debut in 1987. (His other senior thesis, for the philosophy department, was published in 2011 as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.) The fifth breakdown happened in Boston, and aborted his matriculation into Harvard’s doctoral program in philosophy. What he did then was pivotal to his life and work. He got clean — from severe alcohol and marijuana addictions (neither of which mixed well with his antidepressants, which he couldn’t do without) — and, while participating in drug rehab programs and AA, discovered some of the material that would eventually result in Infinite Jest. That behemoth of a novel, weighing in at 1,079 pages of 10-point type, was a searingly brilliant book about American addictions of all kinds (drugs, mass media, consumption, fame, mindless pleasure — anything that helps us avoid the massive dreads of postmodern life) — that became as essential to understanding millennial America as any novel since Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It was also just So Fucking Funny that reading it was, for lots of people, its own kind of addiction. The book became a sensation, Wallace was catapulted into front-line literary eminence and, had Wallace been a different kind of human being, the book would have allowed him to settle into a long and distinguished literary career.
Not that the work that followed Infinite Jest was disappointing: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion are moving, dazzling short fiction collections, and the essays gathered in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster have set a new and often unreachable bar for literary nonfiction in this country. And along the way he picked up a MacArthur “genius” grant, deepened his friendships with Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, and became a professor at Pomona College. But plagued by what must have been one of the most self-lacerating minds since Kafka, he couldn’t get untracked on a new novel. Figuring that more than 20 years of antidepressants was fatally dulling his sense and his talent, and buoyed by a marriage that made him feel as stable as he’d ever felt, he decided to get off medication. Though conducted under a doctor’s care, the results were disastrous. He went into a dreadful spiraling descent that ended when he hanged himself in his backyard patio.
In telling this often harrowing story, Max is restrained, judicious, polite — he seems to have the cooperation of just about everybody in Wallace’s life, and nobody comes off badly except maybe Wallace himself, who, as one might imagine, was obsessive and self-absorbed, and in his early years could be sort of a pretentious prick. He was also heroic, if combating such a crippling chemical makeup to create works that altered the flow of American fiction — and they have — can be called heroic. Max, I think, errs in trying to make the case that Infinite Jest is a book that takes postmodernism beyond its penchant for slippery ironies, but most of his other insights on Wallace’s work are blessedly level-headed. He also way rushes the book to its conclusion, giving a mere 50 pages to the 12 book- and incident-packed years in Wallace’s life that followed Infinite Jest. I’m guessing Max was under editorial pressure to finish the book to capitalize on the waves of interest in Wallace that came in the wake of his suicide and the 2011 publication of his pretty great unfinished novel, The Pale King. What’s clear is that the book leaves lots of major questions unanswered, even unaddressed, and that Max’s is only the first of what promises to be a long line of biographies of this infinitely fascinating writer.