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Everything and More

D. T. Max
"Yes, he did aspire to a sort of sainthood."
05/13/10 at 14:15

Jason asked at some point in his post if I learned anything new from Lipsky’s book, positing that it might well be too late for me to use it anyway with the biography “in the can.” Alas, Jason, the can is only part filled. Biography is slow work: The interviews pile on; letters come to hand and are read and placed against other information. The truth is out there somewhere, but the dog needs to be walked. Did Wallace really, as he tells Lipsky, write a story in Old English? Is it even possible to write a story in Old English? Does it have the requisite parts of speech? How I wish I’d paid more attention in college. And don’t I hear the dog whining at the door again?

So what did I learn? Humdrum things, in part: that Wallace switched from Diet Coke to Diet Pepsi and Diet Rite at a friend’s suggestion; what he had on the walls of his Bloomington, Illinois house—useful to me, useful to readers only if I use them usefully. And one bigger thing (this relates to something Garth wrote): I was surprised to see Wallace say that his earlier, Broom-writing self would have dismissed Infinite Jest because that earlier self would have felt that fiction based on characters was too easy, not “front of the head” enough. That perked my ears up. Here’s why: I’ve thought quite a lot about how dislike of his earlier work drove Wallace to try to reinvent himself both as a writer and a person (though of course you end up becoming…), and how his desire to reinvent his style was partly responsible for his decision to go off the anti-depressant Nardil that was keeping him alive. The sad, sad thing that happened next is known to all of us. But it never occurred to me that just as the later DFW disliked the earlier, the earlier disliked the later. That quadruples the pain he must have felt, puts him back in the hall of mirrors. For whom was the fun house fun? Not for the poor Waller.

I’m going to enter here on the question of St. Dave. I embrace the notion. I’m not saying that in his personal life Dave was a saint, but just because he didn’t behave as a saint doesn’t mean he can’t function like a saint for us. It’s his abnegation I love, his refusal to worship status, to seek out the renowned for their renown, to palpate the pleasure centers daily. "Non serviam," he seemed to cry out against the lineaments of modern life. Yes, he did aspire to a sort of sainthood. Looked on this way, the time he spent with Lipsky (or any journalist, academic presenter, movie producer, magazine editor) was time in the wilderness. And each time—ten by Garth’s count—the Devil tempted Wallace, asking him, “Isn’t it cool to be you?” thus many times spake St. Dave, instead, of modesty, work, sadness, regret, addiction, missteps, rigor, perturbations, and pain. Ten times he refused to put down the long spoon. To do otherwise, he knew, was to risk a return to the hell Infinite Jest was the proudest proof he had escaped from.

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