I have a confession: I’ve never understood David Foster Wallace, that literary figure of monumental proportions who delighted readers with no small output of essays, short stories and novels, including the 1,079-page tome Infinite Jest (1996). On Sept. 12, 2008, he hanged himself. He was 46.
It’s not Wallace’s suicide that gets me—it’s not for you or me to decide why a person takes his own life. It’s the amazing complexity of his work, the multifaceted nature of his life and personality, and the paradoxes that exist therein. I read Consider the Lobster (2005); I tackled Oblivion (2004); I marveled at Infinite Jest, and although I’m guilty of a certain degree of the requisite literary fibbing, 1,2 I came away impressed and confused. Who was this person, at once confident and self-doubting, enlightened and confounded, talented and tortured, among us one day and gone the next? Who was Wallace? I journeyed to the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center to find out.
The Ransom Center, home to an impressive collection of authors’ archives, acquired Wallace’s early last year. The archive contains 42 boxes of research, notes and draft manuscripts; teaching materials and juvenilia; and 302 books from Wallace’s personal library—more than 20,000 items all told. Curator Molly Schwartzburg gives me a private tour.
In the discrete collections room, standing before the five shelves that hold the fiction, philosophy and critical theory that Wallace owned, I discover the intimate, unprejudiced relationship he enjoyed with his books. He read widely and without pretension—a Mary Higgins Clark mystery alongside Kant—and was a devoted student of every author he read.
Schwartzburg selects a book: a tattered paperback of James Crumley’s seedy detective novel The Last Good Kiss (1988). She opens the front cover to reveal heavy annotations in Wallace’s compact hand. He’s made notes throughout the book on what appears to be plot and character development for The Pale King, Wallace’s unfinished novel recently published by Little, Brown. The editorial files are to be donated to the Ransom Center as the final addition to the archive. On certain pages, the printed text is indecipherable. Book after book, page after page, Wallace makes his mark.
“He didn’t just read these books. He digested them,” says Ransom librarian Jacqueline Muñoz.
In addition to notes directly related to his work, Wallace used his books to record movie quotes, words he liked, even driving directions. “I’ve Googled a few,” Schwartzburg admits. “I’m just curious to see where he was going.”
A quick elevator ride later, I’m in the basement with Wallace’s papers examining drafts of “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” an essay he wrote for Tennis Magazine in 1996.
Indeed, archivist Stephen Cooper notes the maddening editorial process that Wallace underwent for Everything and More: A Complex History of Infinity (2003). An abundance of mathematical symbols complicated production. “Draft after draft,” Cooper says, “you could see his frustration growing and growing till the final draft, he’s writing with huge exclamation points, several of them in a row. ‘Why is this not fixed already?!!! I can’t believe this!!!’ And strangely enough, at one point, he writes, ‘Please fix this. Author is feeling suicidal,’ which is a very eerie thing to read, considering.”
Wallace was an exacting writer, contrary to the opinion of one Michiko Kakutani. In a New York Times review of Infinite Jest, Kakutani faulted Wallace for producing “a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed [his] mind.” During a 1996 interview with Rolling Stone contributor David Lipsky, Wallace lamented Kakutani’s perception of his creative process: “But the fact that she would think that this was just every thought I seemed to have for three years put down on the page, just made my bowels turn to ice. Because that was of course the great dark terror when I was writing it. Is that that’s how it would come off.” This serves as testimony to his exacting tendencies and demonstrates his often-paralyzing self-doubt. Despite his success, he was suspicious of his talent,4 fearful of disappointing his readers and, perhaps more pressingly, himself.
In the reading room where the public views the Ransom collections, Schwartzburg leaves me to my own devices. Free to pore over material at will, I come as close to understanding Wallace as I ever will. I find a childhood poem that demonstrates the insightfulness, sensitivity and humanity Wallace possessed even at a young age: “My mother works so hard so hard and for bread … She bakes the bread. And makes the bed. And when she’s threw she feels she’s dayd” [sic]. I identify with a note scrawled in the margin of an “Oblivion” (2004) draft: “I feel awful w/o nicotine,” Wallace writes. “ANGRY.” I’m moved by a touching comment on a sentence in Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”: “In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy one another’s company.” Wallace wants to know, “So what’s the difference?” These findings are, at least, scribblings of note, and at most, relics of a life, facets of a personality, rare glimpses into Wallace’s mind and an opportunity to know him, even in death.
But this is a complex issue, the illusion of closeness between author and visitor. Schwartzburg says it’s a temptation that should be resisted. “It’s dangerous to believe that you know the person by knowing the materials,” she warns, “and with Wallace, I think there’s even more danger of that. So many of our visitors feel such a personal connection to him, and I do think there’s a wish that you can have some kind of personal connection to him through the papers, and you just can’t. It’s really sad, but you can’t.” A work of art is not a person despite the humanity we find therein.
Maybe when it comes down to it, the question is not what we can understand about Wallace from the archive, but what we can’t. People are not single things, but many, a fact Wallace’s partial record makes abundantly clear. This particular person was a son, a brother, a husband, a student, a teacher, a near tennis pro, a depressive and a dog lover. He was a prolific author who made it his life’s work to describe the human condition in order to make sense of his own. He was all of this and more, much more than 42 document boxes and 302 volumes can hold, infinitely more than my own paltry notes, interviews and imitations, 5 or the result of these efforts—the 1,461-word article you’re now reading—can ever capture. Did I find David Foster Wallace? Yes and no. I don’t know. I do know this: Returning Wallace’s papers to their meticulously labeled folders, inside their hard, protective boxes, something like sadness took hold because I was there and he was not and, beyond the marks he made on the page and on the world, that’s the way it would always be.
Justine Tal Goldberg is a freelance writer and editor. She runs WriteByNight LLC, a writing center and writers’ service in Austin.
1 “Oh yes, Finnegans Wake,” I might coo at a book party. “I’m on my tenth read now. Fascinating, simply fascinating.”
“And what say you, Ms. Goldberg, to Derrida’s Hegelian approach to Joyce’s seminal work?” some houndstooth-suited bibliophile asks.
I clear my throat, examine my cocktail and excuse myself to the bar.
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2 A footnote on footnotes: Wallace made frequent use of footnotes in his work. Here, I adopt this aspect of his unique style in order to approach the author more closely.
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3 Schwartzburg handles these materials with great care, turning pages with two fingers only, and smoothing the opposite folio. Each document box, she cradles close to her chest like a baby.
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4 Wallace’s college roommate and friend Mark Costello tells Lipsky of a conversation they shared in 2001: “‘He was talking about how hard the writing was. And I said, lightheartedly, ‘Dave, you’re a genius’ [referring to the MacArthur ‘genius’ award he received in 1997]. Meaning, people aren’t going to forget about you. You’re not going to wind up in a Wendy’s. He said, ‘All that makes me think is that I’ve fooled you, too.’” (“The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace,” Rolling Stone)