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Just Kids

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Jonathan Franzen in 1988.  

Wallace did end up in Syracuse, in a small apartment very near Karr’s place. Karr had split with her husband, and Wallace came for her. Before they even kissed, Karr writes, he had her name tattooed on his arm. He proposed marriage and wrote her ardent letters from blocks away that barely fit in the envelopes. They rented videos like RoboCop from Blockbuster because they both “loved movies where shit blew up,” Karr says. “We laughed our asses off.”

But Wallace was volatile, Karr says, and she was sharp-tongued; their fights became frequent and virulent. Karr is a charismatic raconteur, and the portrait of Wallace that she painted in speaking with me was striking. In one fight, he threw her coffee table at her; in another, he stopped the car in a bad neighborhood and pushed her out, leaving her to walk home. Then he would try to win her back. He once climbed up on her balcony, she says, to “beat on the door like in the fucking Graduate.” This is not the familiar Wallace, wounded and ever sweet. Years later he wrote Karr a letter of apology, she says, for “being such a dick.”

While they were seeing each other, he also credited her for transforming him as he worked on Infinite Jest. He once wrote to her about the “long thing I want to do” and said that when he looked at material he’d written earlier, it wasn’t as “awful” as he feared, but it was “way too concerned with presenting itself as witty arty writing instead of effecting any kind of emotional communication with people. I feel like I have changed, learned so much about what good writing ought to be. Much of what I’ve learned I’ve learned from you, more from the example of your work and your feelings about your work than from any direct advice. You’re good about not giving advice; you just live, and let me watch.”

In April, the website The Awl published an article by Maria Bustillos about Wallace’s marginalia in self-help books held with his papers at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center. Karr gave Wallace some of those books, and I told her that one of Wallace’s notes pertains to her—it uses her initials—and offered to read it to her. Karr has very good posture. At this moment it became even better.

Wallace remarks in the note that he seems better able to summon enthusiasm for something when it is secondary to something else in his life. He writes, “The key to ’92 is that MMK was most important; IJ was just a means to her end (as it were).”

“Who is IJ?” Karr said.

Infinite Jest.

“Oh!”

She did not seem flattered. I read the sentence again. “How is it a means—to capture me, is that it?” Karr said. “That’s crazy. That’s really insane.”

The writer Elizabeth Wurtzel got to know Franzen and Wallace in the mid-nineties. “Do you know how there’s some people that when it’s raining it doesn’t rain on them?” Wurtzel says. “On a sunny day it would be raining on Jon Franzen.” Wurtzel met Wallace at a reading in New York in 1995 when she was fresh from the phenomenal success of her memoir Prozac Nation, which rode a post-Nirvana wave. Wallace and Wurtzel struck up an intense extended flirtation, kicked off by a playful inscription in her copy of The Broom of the System (“Not my best thing,” he wrote) that complimented her candor and her nose stud. At the end of a letter to her about the conflict between altruism and commercialism in art, Wallace wrote, “PPS Call Jon Franzen and set him up with one of your comely friends—that would be altruism.”

In January of ’96, Franzen was due to give a joint reading with David Means as part of a series at the now-defunct Cafe Limbo. It had been four years since Franzen’s last novel was published, to poor sales, and he felt “utterly, utterly invisible.” “I’d been going through,” he says, pausing to sigh, “death of my father, collapse of my marriage, complete, yeah, just total—it had been a very bad year, a couple of years.” He was very thin at the time, with hair that hung below his ears.

Eugenides, Antrim, and Moody were all there at the Limbo, a colorfully decorated place with large windows giving out onto Avenue A. The crowd had spilled to the street the night Bret Easton Ellis read from American Psycho, and sometimes novels would sell on the basis of a reading there. Franzen had reason to be nervous.


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