Reviews

David Foster Wallace Broke My Heart

Ten years after his suicide, I marvel at his genius but mourn the crushing burdens he carried.
David Foster Wallace Broke My Heart
Image: Steve Liss / The Life Images Collection / Getty

I miss David Foster Wallace.

That may seem a strange thing to say since I never met him. When he died—ten years ago to the day, by suicide—I had barely heard of him.

But at different times, and in different ways, he started showing up in my life. And, slowly, I started paying attention.

And it was in that paying attention that I came to miss him.

‘And But So …’

First, a little background may be in order.

David Foster Wallace was born in 1962 and lived for 46 years. He published just two novels when he was alive, The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest. A third novel, The Pale King, was pieced together from an almost-finished manuscript and notes after he died, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He also published short stories and a couple non-fiction books, mostly long-form journalism collected from magazines such as Harpers and The New Yorker. That’s about it.

Not all of it was excellent. Wallace could be weird, rambly, and esoteric. But all of it was unique, distinctive, particular. Just as Terrence Malick (some say) invented a new vocabulary for cinema, Wallace invented a new form for the novel.

Take his masterwork, Infinite Jest. It’s a 1,079-page book with a hundred pages of footnotes. Despite its mammoth length, it does not have proper chapter divisions. Sentences often go on for hundreds of words. A few are more than 1,000 words long. It has so many characters that fans and critics built a website to catalog them. Some sentences are positively luminous, but one of the book’s most common phrases, used sometimes as a stand-alone sentence, is a pedestrian, colloquial, ambiguous expression that has become a catch phrase for a certain class of literary millennials:

“And but so …”

And but so … what?

Both critics and readers have trouble saying what the book is about. It has at least four interwoven plot lines, at least one of which fails to overlap with the others. Wallace himself said the book is about loneliness. But he also said it was about addiction. And modernity’s obsession with entertainment. He said repeatedly it was not autobiographical, even though it was set at a tennis academy (Wallace was a regionally ranked juniors player), and Wallace himself had various addictions, including to television, which he would sometimes sit up all night watching.

Critics do agree, however, that Infinite Jest is one of the great novels of the 20th century and the greatest post-modern novel, even though Wallace himself disdained to call it “post-modern”—except when he did. His friend Zadie Smith, herself a novelist, said Infinite Jest proved Wallace “is in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us.”

It is a massive book full of words, and it pulses with the power of those words, but it is also a book about the end of words, the limitation of words. Later, in a short story called “Good Old Neon,” Wallace would write:

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.

And but so …

Religion and Recovery

Wallace came honestly by his brilliance, his passion for words, and his melancholy. His father, James Donald Wallace, was an avowed atheist and professor of moral philosophy at the University of Illinois. His mother taught English at a nearby community college.

Despite his father’s atheism (he would not let them attend church as children, even when invited by friends), Wallace was fascinated by religion. As a close observer of American life, he understood the role religion played in shaping this country and its character. Though born in Ithaca, New York, Wallace was inextricably a son of the Midwest. His great-grandfather (on his mother’s side) was a Baptist pastor. As a child, he read voraciously and promiscuously. The mystical science-fiction novel Dune was a favorite. His best friend at Amherst College was a devout Catholic who neither smoked nor drank and seriously considered becoming a priest. (He eventually became a lawyer and co-authored one of Wallace’s early nonfiction books, on rap music.)

But religion was more than just context or background noise. Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max, said he was an avid viewer of religious programs on television. He would regularly attend church for months at a time. At least once (some biographers say twice), he went through classes to join the Catholic church, only to veer off at the last minute because he had “too many questions.”

However, it’s possible that his most meaningful relationship with religion came through the recovery programs he attended to overcome addictions to alcohol and marijuana. Wallace had started smoking marijuana in his early teens. By his late 20s, he had smoked it heavily for over a decade. His drinking was also out of control. Substance abuse had harmed virtually every meaningful relationship in his life, and he feared it was starting to affect his writing. Max reports that “he worried pot smoking had ruined his brain permanently and he would never be able to write again.”

While a graduate student at the University of Arizona, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and that brought him face-to-face with religion and religious people. AA’s 12-Step program is a far cry from a systematic and biblical theology, but for someone like Wallace—brilliant, arrogant, skeptical—its principles were humbling and eye-opening, especially the admonition to “surrender to a power higher than ourselves.”

Recovery ultimately took several years and involved multiple relapses, time in a residential rehab facility (brilliantly fictionalized in Infinite Jest), and at least one suicide attempt. But when Wallace came out the other end, he was a different, humbler man. As Max puts it,

To do well in recovery required modesty rather than brilliance. It was not easy for him to accept humbling adages like “Your best thinking got you here.” How smart could he be, the other program members would remind him, if here he was in a room in the basement of a church with a dozen other people talking about how he couldn’t stop drinking?

If these experiences did not lead Wallace to religion, or Christianity in particular, they did lead him to admire and respect Christians, many of them “ordinary Joes” he met in these church basements. In 1999, to one of his writer friends, he wrote, “You’re special—it’s OK—but so’s the guy across the table who’s raising two kids sober and rebuilding a ’73 Mustang.”

That respect showed up in his work, and despite his background and education, he became something of a “blue-collar intellectual.” He often wore jeans, flannel shirts, and unlaced Timberland boots. In the heat of Arizona, he would pull his long hair back with a bandana, and the look became his trademark. Wallace would skewer the pompous and the hypocritical without a trace of pity, but he developed a quiet and profound respect for the humble and sincere Christians who often led these AA meetings and served as his sponsors—people who desperately, unironically talked about a God he wanted to but could not quite embrace.

Old-School Moralist

Another reason many Christian readers have joined the Wallace cult is this: They have embraced his co-belligerency on issues such as the corrosive effects of television, advertising, and addiction of all types on American culture.

In fact, for all of Wallace’s postmodern street cred, drug use, and self-disclosed sexual promiscuity (at least until he settled down, in his early 40s, and got married), Wallace aged into something of an old-school moralist, an artist who was to postmodernism what T. S. Eliot was to modernism: a writer who drank from the fountain of the zeitgeist, only to spew it out as a warning to others.

Eliot and Wallace were alike in other ways. They were both sons of the Midwest whose parents were accomplished and set expectations high. Both experienced literary success early in life, and both felt the burden of that early success. Both faced crises of vocation and depression. Both became voices of their generation.

Wallace read and taught Eliot. He was especially moved by The Waste Land, an elegy to Western culture regarded as one of Eliot’s masterworks. Just like Wallace’s work, the poem is famous for being allusive, abstruse, and full of unusual footnotes. For the past century, Christian readers have resonated with Eliot’s diagnosis of Western malaise, a diagnosis taken up in different ways by Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. (Percy’s The Moviegoer and O’Connor’s collected stories were among the surprisingly few books of fiction in Wallace’s library at the time of his death.)

Infinite Jest offers a similarly bleak diagnosis, depicting an American mind addicted to entertainment. Indeed, the book’s title is also the title of a fictional film, often called The Entertainment, that lulls anyone who watches it into a comatose state. If Infinite Jest has a plot (a question debated by critics and deflected by Wallace himself), it revolves around finding the film’s master copy, lest it fall into the hands of tyrants who could use it to subjugate the world.

It is easy to hear echoes of Orwell and Huxley in Infinite Jest. Cultural conservatives may see resemblances to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, particularly in the chapter on electronic media that Weaver called “The Great Stereopticon.” Weaver said our entertainment culture necessarily and inevitably “decomposed reality.” That was essentially what Wallace said in an interview soon after Infinite Jest came out: “The American generation born after, say, 1955 is the first for whom television is something to be lived with, not just looked at. We quite literally cannot imagine life without it.”

Wallace also attracted admirers of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, published about the same time as Infinite Jest. (This book was also in Wallace’s library when he died.) When WBUR radio interviewer Christopher Lydon asked Wallace if “amusing ourselves to death” might be a way to describe Infinite Jest, he answered:

To an extent, although really the book is strategically set in the future. It’s not really supposed to be a reflection of the way things are now but a kind of extrapolation on trends. I remember seeing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where everybody has TVs coming on rods out of their foreheads and everybody’s watching TV all the time … it’s not quite that. When you think about how first HDTV’s going to come, then there’s going to be virtual reality, and then there’s the prospect of things like virtual reality porn… we’re going to have to come to some sort of understanding about how much we’re going to allow ourselves, because it’s probably going to get a lot more fun than real life.

This moralistic streak showed up most publicly, perhaps, at Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address in 2005. Here, according to Max, the world discovered that underneath “a slacker exterior hid an intense moralist, someone whose long experience in recovery had made him into an apostle of careful living and hard work.”

A linchpin of the speech is a story about God and belief.

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

Wallace goes on to explain the point of his own parable: The atheist is just as dogmatic as many religious people. “Plus,” Wallace adds, “there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help.” That kind of close-mindedness, Wallace concludes, “amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for religious faith, but it is an acknowledgment that belief in God cannot be ruled out. Wallace concludes his speech with a more direct argument for faith.

[I]n the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. … Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

As he recites this laundry list of things not to worship, he interjects a telling comment, born of wisdom gained during substance-abuse recovery. “On one level,” he observes, “we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

He concludes his speech with a simple and heartfelt benediction: “I wish you way more than luck.”

Broken in Two

One of Wallace’s best essays is “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” It was ostensibly a review of tennis star Tracy Austin’s autobiography, but it ended up being a meditation on living as a gifted prodigy, enjoying success at an early age but inevitably disappointing the world and oneself for not being as gifted in other areas of life.

In other words, he was almost certainly writing about himself, his readers’ relationship to him, and his relationship to his work and life when he wrote:

So we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: Watching the performance is not enough. We want to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them. We want The Story.

But, he concludes, “Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.” It’s not that they lack intelligence. “Anyone who buys the idea that great athletes are dim should have a close look at an NFL playbook, or a basketball coach’s diagram of a 3-2 zone trap…or at an archival film of Ms. Tracy Austin repeatedly putting a ball in a court’s corner at high speed from seventy-eight feet away, with huge sums of money at stake and enormous crowds of people watching her do it. Ever try to concentrate on doing something difficult with a crowd of people watching?”

Such athletes, Wallace concludes, “can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-consciousness in two.”

It is, of course, the most foolish of fool’s errands to speculate what might have happened to Wallace had the forces of biology, celebrity, genius, and distraction not broken him in two. But such speculation is almost impossible to resist for anyone who has caught even a glimpse of what Wallace was trying to do with his work.

It is interesting to note that some of the people in Wallace’s orbit converted to Christianity. One of them was Mary Karr, the poet who served as the inspiration for Joelle Van Dyne—or PGOAT, for the “Prettiest Girl of All Time”—in Infinite Jest. (The pair had a tumultuous relationship in the 1990s, during which, Karr has said, Wallace stalked and abused her. Max’s biography reports that Wallace threw a coffee table at her and once tried to push her from a moving car.) To another girlfriend, he gave a copy of C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a book he once included on a list of his ten favorite books.

It is also interesting to note that, after Wallace got his alcohol and drug use under control, he developed a passion for Dostoyevsky, whose Christian vision was central to his work. Wallace read everything Dostoyevsky wrote, plus Joseph Frank’s four-volume biography, which he reviewed in The Village Voice. It is impossible to read Wallace’s description of a crisis in Dostoevsky’s early adulthood without wondering if he was actually sharing a bit about himself:

What seems most important is that Dostoevsky’s near-death experience changed a typically vain and trendy young writer—a very talented writer, true, but still one whose basic concerns were for his own literary glory—into a person who believed deeply in moral/spiritual values.

This insight gets to the core of why I miss David Foster Wallace, and why his death—even 10 years later—breaks my heart much like Tracy Austin broke his: Because it confirms that even the most brilliant of us fall short of the glory we seek. It is our sickness and theirs that leads to worship of great tennis players, great writers, and other would-be heroes. The genius of such people is real and marvelous, but too often we ask of it more than it can deliver, and those who possess it delude themselves into imagining it can deliver them from our shared human brokenness. We ask too much from artists like Wallace. He asked too much of himself. It “broke him in two.”

Still, I miss him. I miss him because he was enormously gifted at articulating what it means to be a flawed human in a beautiful but broken world. And he’s gone. We have what he left us, and it is great enough to last a 100 years, maybe 1,000. But it still feels truncated, incomplete, not enough.

In short, I miss him because I need him—or someone—to finish what he began.

We all do.

Warren Cole Smith is vice president of mission advancement at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is the co-author, with John Stonestreet, of Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan to Change the World through Everyday People (Baker).

November
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Read These Next
Christianity Today
David Foster Wallace Broke My Heart
close