David Foster Wallace is not here. In the absence of a physical body there is an idea—the concept of two Davids. One sincere and troubled, the other manipulative and self-aggrandizing. The Davids are brought to life by biographer D.T. Max and author Jeffrey Eugenides, who sit in front of a rapt audience in the James Stewart Theater.
I’d sent a reminder about this talk to the Nass listserv, but everyone ditched me. One didn’t skip her writing seminar, another chose to see a play, another attended a faux Shabbat, one had lab…
“How was it???” they all text me later. “Amazing,” I gush, each time, still bitter about being forced to sit next to a townie who smelled so strongly of fish that I considered leaving. He brought a printed-out copy of Wallace’s Wikipedia page. Others held Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Pale King on their laps, offerings to a literary god.
D.T. Max is here to plug his new biography of Wallace, and Eugenides was meant to serve as a personal connection to the troubled author. He quickly dissolves this association. He met the man he calls “Dave” only twice, once at a literary gathering and again for a week in Capri. Unqualified to be a bosom buddy, he picks up the role of comic relief, a natural. When Max thanks him for coming even though he has papers to grade, Eugenides casts this supposition aside with a hand, explaining, “Creative writing is pass/fail.”
As Eugenides explains his relationship with Wallace, it sounds more and more like an old-fashioned love story. Eugenides describes how he would constantly reach out to Wallace when he knew he was nearby, but he always declined to meet. Eugenides received snippets of information about Wallace through their mutual friend Jonathan Franzen. Wallace and Eugenides also kept up a mail correspondence about religion. “He told me my letters were ‘keepers,’” says Eugenides, the delusional lover. “He said he kept them by his bedside.” His fantasy is shattered by Max, who says that those letters were never found among Wallace’s possessions. “He kept very little,” Max consoles, as Eugenides hangs his head in mock-dismay.
They jump around David’s accomplishments and illness with irreverence—refreshing, given the writer’s saint-like status. They talk about David’s exaggeration, David’s lies. How one David was very genuine and troubled, but the other David knew how to manipulate this inner being to his best advantage. They talk about David publishing The Broom of the System (his senior thesis at Amherst) and becoming the golden boy at 24.
And then, his depression. At 28, Wallace entered Harvard as a graduate student of philosophy. He started failing classes. He went to medical services and said he was going to kill himself, and was placed in a mental hospital.
The speakers don’t seem to take this seriously, at first. They see it as a side effects of his status as the Next Big Thing. Max asks Eugenides, “Were you published at 28?” and he replies, “No. I was depressed in a different way.” Everyone laughs.
Max hints that Wallace’s time in rehab and a halfway house might have been a career move. He acknowledges that Wallace’s demons were real, but suggests that, in the back of his mind, he might have also been looking for material.
The men discuss letters David wrote while in rehab, noting that many of them may be false. Wallace spun his own legend, even to friends—blurring the line between fact and fiction in his own life. “We don’t know,” D.T. Max says, constantly, over facts as mundane as whether or not Wallace worked as a night watchman. “We can’t be sure,” he says, explaining that he may have developed the idea in a short story he wrote years before.
They skirt the topic of Wallace’s suicide, assuming that the audience is familiar with the intimate details. The only tidbit that is offered on the topic is when Max quotes Jonathan Franzen, who claimed that Wallace’s suicide was a method of self-cannonization. In repeating this, Max seems to endorse it.
I almost reach the end of the lecture before I realize that I am in love with David Foster Wallace. I should have anticipated this danger, of course. He’s kind of my type—brilliant, literary, liberal-arts preppy. Almost fictional in his accomplishments. And, of course, entirely unattainable, in any physical sense.
But it’s not just that he’s my type, or that I fall in love too easily. It’s an effect of the two men onstage, who also loved and were hurt by David. You don’t write a biography of someone, or sit on stage citing letters from memory, without loving some small part of that person. You are not haunted by two meetings—barely a week of time together—without being drawn to that ghost.
Yes, they tear down his fantasy image, they heap disbelief upon his claims of illness, they contradict his claims. But they do not do this because they hate him. They do it because they ache for him, because they expected so much from him and he failed them. In the end, he did not measure up to the fantasy he created. He was only 46. He wrote a few books. He was able to manipulate language but could not change the facts of his life and true limitations. This, proving most clearly, that David Foster Wallace was just a writer—not a god. And yet, in this packed lecture hall, with the congregation clutching his books, hanging on to every word, it’s hard to tell the difference.