The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace

He was the greatest writer of his generation - and also its most tormented. In the wake of his tragic suicide, his friends and family reveal the lifelong struggle of a beautiful mind

DAVID LIPSKYPosted Oct 30, 2008 12:31 PM

Wallace spent eight days in McLean. He was diagnosed as a clinical depressive and was prescribed a drug, called Nardil, developed in the 1950s. He would have to take it from then on. "We had a brief, maybe three-minute audience with the psychopharmacologist," his mother says. Wallace would have to quit drinking, and there was a long list of foods — certain cheeses, pickles, cured meats — he would have to stay away from.

He started to clean up. He found a way to get sober, worked very hard at it, and wouldn't drink for the rest of his life. Girl With Curious Hair finally appeared in 1989. Wallace gave a reading in Cambridge; 13 people showed up, including a schizophrenic woman who shrieked all the way through his performance. "The book's coming out seemed like a kind of shrill, jagged laugh from the universe, this thing sort of lingering behind me like a really nasty fart."

What followed was a phased, deliberate return to the world. He worked as a security guard, morning shift, at Lotus Software. Polyester uniform, service baton, walking the corridors. "I liked it because I didn't have to think," he said. "Then I quit for the incredibly brave reason that I got tired of getting up so early in the morning."

Next, he worked at a health club in Auburndale, Massachusetts. "Very chichi," he said. "They called me something other than a towel boy, but I was in effect a towel boy. I'm sitting there, and who should walk in to get their towel but Michael Ryan. Now, Michael Ryan had received a Whiting Writers' Award the same year I had. So I see this guy that I'd been up on the fucking rostrum with, having Eudora Welty give us this prize. It's two years later — it's the only time I've literally dived under something. He came in, and I pretended not very subtly to slip, and lay facedown, and didn't respond. I left that day, and I didn't go back."

He wrote Bonnie Nadell a letter; he was done with writing. That wasn't exactly her first concern. "I was worried he wasn't going to survive," she says. He filled in Howard, too. "I contemplated the circumstance that the best young writer in America was handing out towels in a health club," Howard says. "How fucking sad."

Wallace met Jonathan Franzen in the most natural way for an author: as a fan. He sent Franzen a nice letter about his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Franzen wrote back, they arranged to meet in Cambridge. "He just flaked," Franzen recalls. "He didn't show up. That was a fairly substance-filled period of his life."

By April of 1992, both were ready for a change. They loaded Franzen's car and headed for Syracuse to scout apartments. Franzen needed "somewhere to relocate with my wife where we could both afford to live and not have anyone tell us how screwed up our marriage was." Wallace's need was simpler: cheap space, for writing. He had been researching for months, haunting rehab facilities and halfway houses, taking quiet note of voices and stories, people who had fallen into the gaps like him. "I got very assertive research- and finagle-wise," he said. "I spent hundreds of hours at three halfway houses. It turned out you could just sit in the living room — nobody is as gregarious as somebody who has recently stopped using drugs."

He and Franzen talked a lot about what writing should be for. "We had this feeling that fiction ought to be good for something," Franzen says. "Basically, we decided it was to combat loneliness." They would talk about lots of Wallace's ideas, which could abruptly sharpen into self-criticism. "I remember this being a frequent topic of conversation," Franzen says, "his notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn't just being funny — there was something genuinely compromised in David. At the time I thought, 'Wow, he's even more self-conscious than I am.' "

Wallace spent a year writing in Syracuse. "I lived in an apartment that was seriously the size of the foyer of an average house. I really liked it. There were so many books, you couldn't move around. When I'd want to write, I'd have to put all the stuff from the desk on the bed, and when I'd want to sleep, I would have to put all the stuff on the desk."

Wallace worked longhand, pages piling up. "You look at the clock and seven hours have passed and your hand is cramped," Wallace said. He'd have pens he considered hot — cheap Bic ballpoints, like batters have bats that are hot. A pen that was hot he called the orgasm pen.

In the summer of 1993, he took an academic job 50 miles from his parents, at Illinois State University at Normal. The book was three-quarters done. Based on the first unruly stack of pages, Nadell had been able to sell it to Little, Brown. He had put his whole life into it — tennis, and depression, and stoner afternoons, and the precipice of rehab, and all the hours spent with Amy watching TV. The plot motor is a movie called Infinite Jest, so soothing and perfect it's impossible to switch off: You watch until you sink into your chair, spill your bladder, starve, die. "If the book's about anything," he said, "it's about the question of why am I watching so much shit? It's not about the shit. It's about me: Why am I doing it? The original title was A Failed Entertainment, and the book is structured as an entertainment that doesn't work" — characters developing and scattering, chapters disordered — "because what entertainment ultimately leads to is 'Infinite Jest,' that's the star it's steering by."


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