A portrait of David Foster Wallace as a midwestern author | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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A portrait of David Foster Wallace as a midwestern author

The first full biography of the late novelist fails to bring much subtlety to how the region influenced his art


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Where were you when the first plane hit the World Trade Center? David Foster Wallace—the experimental novelist who grew up in Illinois; who wrote Infinite Jest, which established him as the most influential author of his generation; and who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46—was in the shower of his Bloomington-Normal home, listening to a Bears postmortem on WSCR.

Wallace, who didn't own a TV, ended up at the house of Mrs. Thompson—"one of the world's cooler seventy-four-year-olds," as he put it an essay about that day for Rolling Stone. Most readers remark on Wallace's page-long sentences, his rococo vocabulary, his infamous footnotes, but his best work has always depended on its smaller, more intimate details. And in writing about that morning with Mrs. Thompson and some ladies from the church they both attended, he gets the details exactly right: the way the living room was decorated with knit samplers and a mallard wall clock; the way the small-town newspaper proceeded to trip all over itself (the next day's headline: "ISU PROFESSOR: B-N NOT A LIKELY TARGET"); the way the women, whose sense of New York came entirely from TV, didn't realize how far south the Financial District was until Wallace stepped in and calmed down the one whose grandniece was interning in the Time-Life Building.

It all adds up to a terrific, tangible picture of what 9/11 felt like in a place like Bloomington-Normal. And yet, reading it today, one can't help but wonder: Why on earth was David Foster Wallace living and showering in central Illinois? The state has nurtured more than its share of great authors, from Ernest Hemingway to Richard Wright, but then they move away. There's something surprising about a writer like Wallace (and let's finish filling in his trophy case: a MacArthur "genius" grant; short stories in every magazine you can think of; and The Pale King, a posthumous novel and one of three finalists for this year's Pulitzer) living anywhere other than New York.

So how did growing up in the midwest shape Wallace's work? And what about his decision to return to it? He wrote superbly about the region, with his essay on Mrs. Thompson being a perfect example. But what if there's more to it than that?

With the publication of D. T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, the first full biography of Wallace, we can start to answer such questions. In 2009, Max wrote a very good profile of the author for the New Yorker, and his book makes it even clearer that, from the beginning, Wallace struggled with his mental health—that he was always the smartest kid in the room, and also the most troubled.

Max also makes clear that superficially, at least, Wallace's childhood resembled that of many midwesterners. Though he was born in New York, his parents soon moved to Urbana-Champaign when his father landed a job in the philosophy department at the University of Illinois. His mother would eventually become an English professor at Parkland College, and the Wallaces ran the kind of liberal, laissez-faire household you'd expect from two academics in the 60s. They limited the TV time of David and his sister to two hours per day and one "rough" show per week (The Wild Wild West, usually). When he disagreed with his parents, they encouraged him to write intrafamily memos.

But Wallace also went to White Sox games, read Tolkien and the Hardy Boys, played sports. While in middle school, he took some tennis lessons at the park and became a very competitive player. The tennis kids would carpool all over Illinois for tournaments, and he fell hard for the state's topography—for the way the corn, as he put it in one of his many riffs on the beauty of flat farmland, "starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right to the sky's hem."

By the time he enrolled in high school, Wallace was smoking prodigious amounts of pot. It made tennis and any other high-level cardio impossible, but at least it calmed him down. He had begun suffering from occasional anxiety attacks and a near-constant sense of self-loathing. "Feet too thin and narrow," he wrote in one early note dug up by Max. "Thighs squnch out repulsively."

One day, around the same time, Wallace asked his father what he did for work. The professor handed his son some Plato, and they began to work through it. "I had never had an undergraduate student who caught on so quickly," his father would later say. "This was this first time I realized what a phenomenal mind David had."

It's no surprise, then, that when Wallace got to Amherst, his father's alma mater, he won more awards and prizes than any student in the college's nearly 200-year history. Max's account of Wallace the student provides some of his book's best passages. Far from home, the young polymath began to stand out, studying with his dad's former profs and even writing a senior thesis on philosophy. But he also discovered fiction. Max tells one story about a friend tossing Wallace a copy of Thomas Pynchon's postmodern satire The Crying of Lot 49—"like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie," in the words of Mark Costello, another student and one of Wallace's two best friends. Wallace ended up writing a second senior thesis, a novel called The Great Ohio Desert, working the whole time with a picture of Pynchon pinned up on the wall.

The writing went so rapturously that Wallace told Costello, "I can't feel my ass in the chair." But his time at Amherst also included much despair. Wallace dropped out for a full semester not once but twice, and in the summer after graduation, in 1985, another breakdown sent him to a psychiatric unit. By this point, he had been diagnosed with clinical depression—the "festering pus-swollen c[h]ancre at the center of my brain," as he put it to one friend—and prescribed an antidepressant known as Nardil.

The patterns Wallace established at Amherst would haunt him the rest of his life: binges of incredible productivity followed by deep sloughs of sadness (and by nasty addictions to drugs, alcohol, and sex). He would win a fellowship to the University of Arizona's creative-writing program, then publish The Broom of the System, a revision of The Great Ohio Desert, before even finishing. But a breakdown would follow, with Wallace trying to kill himself via overdose in 1988. He would line up a second book, a collection of short stories titled Girl With Curious Hair, then head off to Harvard's PhD program in philosophy. But a breakdown would follow, with Wallace ending up in Boston's McLean Hospital.

After a few years of this, Wallace found himself with little desire to read fiction, much less to write it. When Pynchon's Vineland came out in 1990, he had to slog. "I get the strong sense he's spent 20 years smoking pot and watching TV," Wallace wrote to Jonathan Franzen in a typically witty letter, "though I tend to get paranoid about this point, for obvious reasons."

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