When David Foster Wallace took his life in 2008, among other painful echoes he left behind a gaping void in the American literary landscape. He was arguably the brightest star in that roughly defined gaggle of writers like Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, and Jeffrey Eugenides who broke through in the 1990s with styles that were entirely different and yet felt of a piece with all their emotional chaos and stylistic verve. (Check out Evan Hughes’s fantastic piece on that group here.)
For many readers, of that group, Wallace was the guy who people would still be reading in a hundred years. As one of Wallace’s editors said afterwards about the devastation so many people felt, “A lot of people are really sad for all the books we’re not going to get to read.” That’s not an entirely selfish thought, it’s more of a mourning for the beauty and intelligence that had gone out of the world with that shocking act.
D.T. Max’s biography on Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, is coming out later this year. There’s an excerpt from the book over at The Daily Beast, which includes this vivid scene about Wallace’s courtship of the memoirist Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), when he was wracked by writer’s block and indecision, and was just coming out of rehab:
Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no; he knew only one way to seduce: overwhelm. He would show up at Karr’s family home to shovel her driveway after a snowfall, or come unannounced to her recovery meetings. Karr called the head of the halfway house and asked her to let Wallace know his attentions were not welcome. Wallace besieged her with notes anyway…. One day, she remembers, he arrived at a pool party she was at with her family with bandages on his left shoulder. She thought maybe he had been cutting himself and wouldn’t show her what was underneath—a tattoo with her name and a heart. He clearly felt he had made a commitment there was no retreating from. The details of the relationship were not clear to others though: Wallace told friends they were involved; Karr says no. She too steered Wallace to a new course in his fiction. “His interest in cleverness was preventing him from saying things,” she remembers. She told him not to be such a show-off, to write more from the heart. One time when he told her that he put certain scenes into his fiction because they were “cool,” she responded: “That’s what my f–king five year old says about Spiderman.”
Later, Wallace would write Infinite Jest and many other novels and shorter pieces in which he showed off as much as possible, but still managed to write from the heart.