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Ghost Story: D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace

“One of the big pictures that most people have of David is, ‘Okay. Ironic guy. Pot smoker. Goes into 12-Step Program. Not so ironic anymore. Not a pot smoker anymore. Realist.’ Yes. But the problem with that is that David never stopped seeing the world as unreal.”

D.T. Max, DFW’s biographer, and author of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace says he first read Infinite Jest, a novel DFW wrote in his early 30s, when he himself was in his early 30s, and says he didn’t get it. He now sees himself  himself as one of the “morally righteous immature people” that the novel portrays.

“So his big battle is how do you write realism in an unreal world. I wasn’t writing about Thomas Hardy. I wanted him alive on the page as he was alive to so many of us.”

On reasons why people responded the way they have to his work:

“One of the things that’s so seductive about David’s writing is that he has a truly comprehensive way of seeing the world, and once you get into seeing that world it’s kind of maximalist and overwhelming and it’s full of allusions and it’s out of control but his eyes are always wide wide open and you love that. And then when you go back to being your humble self you know you feel like you’ve lost a pair of eyes that you were really enjoying having with you.”

On his powers of observation:

“I think you can really see that in Infinite Jest you can really see that where the descriptions of things that really aren’t central to the book are really just terrific. He’s not seen as a descriptive writer. He’s usually thought of as a writer writing out of the vast regions of his head, but really you know he was a very good watcher. People would again and again tell me how David would love to come along and watch. Friends of his from his 12-Step program from Bloomington, IL told me that David had asked to come along and watch the man propose to the woman, which I gotta say, there’s already been one play about David but I think that would be one of the most extraordinary three-person plays you could possibly imagine of DFW. He’s like hiding behind the banquet…I just would love to see that.”

D.T. Max’s biographical approach was to focus on story, not to detail each moment of his life. For DFW there was always the “so muchness of life” and as a biographer he was faced with a similar challenge. How to write a good story that represented who the writer was, that helps us to understand him a little more, without a Hollywood ending, and under the pressure of writing as a fan who probably didn’t understand David as well as many of his fans did.

Other ideas the interview explores: images

David was comfortable with the idea that his books could instruct. He wasn’t unaware that a lot of life is looking for models, for archetypes. Why people care so deeply about David–not just because of the struggles with the depression–it’s that he thinks we feel that David really cares about you. Which is really interesting because he was also very narcissistic. But he had this ability to make people feel a real connection with him. He had an ability to universalize his hurt. He neediness was vast. Highly successful functioning.

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