In 1989, when I was still a novice writer, I spent the summer at Yaddo, the beautiful writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs. It’s a fairly intimidating and luxurious atmosphere (butterballs served at dinner!) for any new writer still trying to get a handle on a first novel. One feels both anointed and yet hollow, inadequate.
It was there I met—among many other writers—David Foster Wallace. Already, there was a bit of star aura around David—he was clearly brilliant, and his difficult, opaque and challenging first collection, The Broom of the System, had been published. Downstairs in the main room of Yaddo’s Victorian house was the mail table—and it was hard not notice the big packages that came for David—from publishers, from Michael Pietsch, his editor at Little, Brown. Wallace was starting to hum with a true career while many of us were simply in the shadows, figuring out who we were as writers or artists.
David was a funny mix of Midwestern earnest, well-brought up, polite, and yet sharply arrogant. He kept his cards to his chest, though one could still see the whirring, ambitious calculations within. Evenings, some of us would sit around the screened-in porch for long winding conversations about the state of contemporary fiction, and he would dominate, posing quizzical questions, conducting the conversation as if he were the professor. (Flustering a few of the more insecure young writers) I could clearly detect that he was a professor’s son, used to the analytic seminar, even in his slacker trademark bandana around his long hair. Indeed David was not teaching creative writing as many of us were—he was headed for Harvard to study philosophy.
Over the course of the month, a small group of us hung around quite a bit, shooting pool in town, or joining him as he smoked a lot of pot in his attic room. I once made the mistake of playing tennis with him—he was a ranked state player in high school—and embarrassing myself not just with the ball, but with some of the intellectual volleys, so shy was I at the time.
Lobbing the ball across the net, he asked me what I thought was the next frontier in fiction. Since I was actually trying to wean myself of the intellectual pyrotechnics of experimental fiction, I mumbled something about ‘ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ fiction and then felt completely tongue-tied and embarrassed. Somehow, I managed to say, “You know it’s mostly about writing a story that really hits you.”
He paused on the court. Something had clicked. He said quietly, “Yes, there is that. It’s hard to deliver that emotional knockout that gets you right here—“ He pointed to his chest. “That is rare.”
David would go on to write Infinite Jest, a book that was a huge achievement; as much a literary opus as it was a massive cultural event. He also battled with severe and profound depression. Shortly after he left Yaddo, I’d heard from mutual acquaintances that he’d had a severe crack up, dropped out of Harvard, and was in an institution. All that pot smoking masked his constant internal struggles with “the black hole with teeth.”
Over the next decades, Wallace moved toward the luminosity of the truly gifted and brilliant, the public. A cultish fascination grew around his maximalist work. Though I was not one of those who dared crack open the over a thousand-page-tome, David’s journalism and essays, which appeared on the pages of Harper’s, were among my favorite—funny, erudite, slangy, relaxed, genre-breaking cultural commentary, where his penchant for the extended, hilarious footnote became a genre unto itself.
To my surprise, many, many years later, the author DT Max contacted me in his research for the biography of Wallace, which began with a New Yorker article he wrote about the last days of Wallace’s life before he committed suicide in 2008. I was surprised, as I was no more than a speck in the huge number of famous figures and dear friends who populated David’s life. But it speaks to DT’s scrupulous sense of fine research that he reached out to everyone.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a kind book, for it takes up, with compassion and insight, the twin struggles of Wallace, the ambitious literary author and Wallace the person, battling severe depression.
On October 20th, at 7:30 p.m. I’ll be hosting a conversation with DT Max about his recently book at our wonderful independent bookstore, Words Bookstore, at 179 Maplewood Avenue in Maplewood. Please do join us.
Marina Budhos is a Maplewood resident. Her most recent novel is Tell Us We’re Home, and her next book, co-authored with her husband, Marc Aronson, is The Eyes of The World: The Story of a Man, a Woman, and a Camera