The system in America seems to be this: bright kids go to grad school where they learn how to equivocate, while everyone else gets on with running the country into the ground. David Foster Wallace, one of the most influential novelists of his generation, was in many ways an extreme example: capable of stunning articulacy, moral insight and industry, he shunned the world and turned inward, looking to somehow metabolize consciousness and moral philosophy and the world of ideas – and ideas about ideas, he was mad for recursion – into something that would sustain him emotionally. In the end, as Daniel Max's flowing, affecting, meticulously researched biography shows, he failed.
The basic elements are: Wallace grew up in Illinois, went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, and was at the University of Arizona's graduate writing school when his first novel was published in 1987.
From that point on, his life became one long frenzied search for meaning in the life he'd chosen; or that had chosen him; or that at any rate he had. He published five books of fiction and a similar amount of non-fiction, and received a mass of critical recognition, including the MacArthur "genius" award. He also became an alcoholic, and in the process of sobering up was required to give up the marijuana he'd smoked in vast amounts since his young teenage years. After years of being a more or less toxic bachelor, when his closest relationships were with his dogs, he settled into a stable, loving relationship.
At the age of 46, in 2008, he changed the anti-depressants he'd been on for more than 20 years, and within weeks had hanged himself.
In the end, this book is the story of a man who sat in rooms writing, and as Wallace himself says at one point, "Who'd read that?" Nonetheless, there's a lot that's telling about the wider US landscape in here: the fact that on graduation, he realised that he needed to go to grad school to get a qualification to get a teaching job to get health insurance to get the prescriptions for his antidepressants. Also telling: the astonishing amount he was prescribed. These things are not discussed; at this point, mood-altering medication is just background noise in American letters. Nor is the possibility that his depression was exacerbated by his teenage marijuana use discussed. Nor the possibility that his depression was exacerbated by feeding his brain little but itself.
Wallace was insightful and wry about this problem, and not afraid to look it in the eye. As he wrote to Jonathan Franzen, 16 years before his death: "I am a pathetic and confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of … any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable – if not at this point desirable – option with respect to the whole problem." And he returned often to this idea, a prophet of suicide as a reasonable response to modern America. Or, perhaps, a canary: suicide is now the second leading cause of death among US servicemen.
One puts this book down rattled, persuaded that ars longa, vita brevis is no way to live, and clinging desperately to Woody Allen's philosophy: "I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment."
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