More than 10 years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, my friend Karina loaned me a copy of David Foster Wallace’s second collection of short stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I picked it up in the morning and spent the day out on the quad, skipping my classes to tear through the whole book in a single sitting. The next day, Karina passed on Infinite Jest. My experience of the book was entirely fragmented: after finishing it, I could describe individual characters (cheerful, deformed Mario, lugging his camera behind him) brief scenes (the spasms of Hal’s failed Arizona interview) and one-off jokes (The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment) but I had no cohesive grasp of chronology, theme, or plot.
Eager to fill the gaps in our understanding, over the course of that semester Karina and I began talking about taking a road trip out to Illinois, where David Foster Wallace taught. In imagining this trip, I constructed a picture of the three of us sitting outside on a lawn, rows of green corn behind us, as The Bandana Man himself explained his book to us. Despite the outright scariness of the “Interviews” and the impenetrability of Infinite Jest, I envisioned him as a soft-spoken, sympathetic teacher, honored by our interest and eager to communicate. I can’t speak for Karina, but I must admit that, for me, part of the appeal of such a trip was the possibility that at the end of our impromptu book club meeting, the author might be willing to make out.
Karina and I never made that pilgrimage, but if we had, David Foster Wallace would have had a term for us at the ready: “audience pussy.” That’s the brutal phrase that surfaces in DT Max’s recent biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, along with a series of similar anecdotes that suggest that if we’d actually found Wallace on the Illinois campus, he might not have explained Infinite Jest to us, but he may well have fucked us, in more ways than one.
Even the reviewers who didn’t much like Max’s biography tend to sound similar notes about it. Michiko Kakutani describes the book as “a sympathetic appraisal of Wallace’s life and work,” Lee Polevoi of Highbrow Magazine calls it “sympathetic and engrossing,” and even Dave Eggers blurbs it is as “deeply sympathetic.” Which is strange, because for me, the book unfolded like anything but a love story, and the sympathy Max makes evident on every page seems less for Wallace than for those he left behind. Running through the pages of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a streak of violence and cruelty, often targeted towards women, that is especially disturbing in a man that The Guardian has described as someone who, “More than any other contemporary novelist, his younger readers look to… for guidance on how to be a fucking human being.”
It starts early: “When [Wallace’s sister Amy] was three, he knocked out her front teeth. When he was in ninth grade, he got so mad at her… that he pushed her down and dragged her through the backyard through the excrement left by their dog.” But it explodes onto the page in Max’s description of his relationship with Mary Karr. The two had the kind of relationship that, back in the day, we might have written off as “tempestuous,” but reading the account today, it’s hard to justify the behavior Max describes as anything other than abuse.
Karr was married with a child when they met, in a tenuous early stage of recovery. She told him she wasn’t interested, but, as Max bluntly puts it, “Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no.” He showed up uninvited at the house she shared with her family and crashed her recovery meetings. She asked people to tell him that “his attentions were not welcome,” and he ignored her. He lied to their friends, telling them the two were involved when they weren’t — this despite the fact that she was still with her husband. He came to her office and swore at her from outside her window and as he left, he put his fist through a car window. During this period, he demonstrated violent behavior in other aspects of his life, once purposely ramming his car into the vehicle of a person who cut him off. And eventually: “One day, Karr remembers, he arrived at a pool party she was at with her family with bandages on his left shoulder.” Underneath? “A tattoo of her name and a heart.”
This may not sound as scary to you as it does to me; the difference between stalking and single-minded romance is one that our culture often has trouble keeping straight. The confusion is amplified, though it shouldn’t be, by the fact that he and Karr did eventually enter into a relationship. But Wallace’s behavior escalates beyond any ambiguity, as the actions of rage-fueled men often do. In her memoir, Karr described his “black-eyed red outs,” the way he flung things at her, “book and backpack not least,” and — in an anecdote both she and Max describe — throwing a coffee table so hard it smashes to pieces on the wall behind her. The scariest part of Max’s account, though, is one that does not appear in Karr’s memoir, because she didn’t know about it. At one point, Wallace contacted an ex-con and tried to make arrangements to buy a gun: “He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead.” (The ex-con reported him and Wallace never showed up to the meeting.)
One might argue that it is precisely his ability to overcome such destructive behavior, through his dedication to the recovery process that would come to define him, that makes Wallace so admirable. This behavior occurred post-recovery, though; he moved to Syracuse to be with Karr with the money he got as an advance from Infinite Jest. It’s true that the level of violence and fury he displayed toward Karr never recurred. Instead, it “mellowed” into a casual cruelty that’s easily dismissed as nothing more than writerly dickishness but strikes me as something more. He refers to the women he sleeps with as the “bimbo brigade.” (This phrase appears in Karr’s book, not Max’s.) He goes home with Elizabeth Wurtzel only to turn “furious” with her when she changes her mind about sex. He takes full advantage of the “audience pussy” that becomes available to him after the publication of Infinite Jest; telling Jonathan Franzen he wonders whether his only purpose is “to put [his] penis in as many vaginas as possible.” He dismisses one woman he’s slept with by telling her, “I told you not to come here,” as she approaches him after a reading, and refers to another one (“unchivalrously,” Max notes) as “A three-day weekend I’m still paying the credit card bill on.” In New Orleans, he sleeps with a fan who is “underage,” though whether this means someone who is under 21, or under 18, or under 17 (the age of consent in Louisiana) is unclear. He tells one single mother he’s dating that he is jealous “her breasts [are] ‘no longer public property.’” He sleeps with his graduate students. He sleeps with his undergrads. He cruises recovery meetings for hookups, preying on the newly sober despite the fact that no one has ever written so eloquently about the damage such encounters can do.
Maybe it’s crude to note all of this — insensitive, shrill. After all, no one was more aware of his own failings than Wallace, and for that he paid the price. He eventually got married to a woman, Karen Green, who comes off very well in the biography — thoughtful and sensitive, although inevitably in enormous pain.
And writers can be assholes. We all know that. It’s a fact of life that their books are almost always better than they are. Wallace’s treatment of women does not alter our understanding of his fiction any more, or less, than the fact that he was once an alcoholic, or that he ultimately committed suicide, or that apparently Avril Incandenza strongly resembles his mother.
But when I closed Max’s biography, the feelings I had didn’t have anything to do with the quality of Wallace’s fiction. They were deeply, weirdly personal. I did not feel sorrow for Wallace and his too-short life, nor even pity for people he’d treated badly or left behind, but instead a mixture of sadness and embarrassment and relief for dumb, deluded, easily exploitable 19-year-old me, who’d imagined she could wander out to Illinois and sit down on the green and be treated with respect and affection by a man who, by the end of the book, had come to seem like a monster.
I don’t think this is as selfish as it sounds. The only David Foster Wallace you (probably) and I (certainly) can know is the one we made up in our heads, so we are entitled to feel about him in any way we like. But compounding my sadness was a kind of loneliness, because for a long time, my idea of David Foster Wallace was the same one most other people had, that of a sensitive, brilliant mensch. This imagined personality is indisputably a central part of the David Foster Wallace cultural phenomenon, and it seems obvious to me that Max’s book ought to blow the David Foster Wallace cult — a cult that is as heavily based on our collective belief about who he was as an individual as it is on the strength of his writing — to pieces. Hey, the world should ruefully be saying right about now, so, unfortunately, despite how good he looked in a bandanna, it turns out that this guy sucked. Stalking a woman and throwing books and backpacks and furniture at her, trying to buy a gun so that you can shoot her husband, calling women “bimbos” and sleeping with teenagers and students and other vulnerable people… someone like that cannot be our model for how to be a ‘fucking human being.’ And I feel lonely because — to state the obvious — this doesn’t seem to be happening. Most reviews I’ve read address the incident with Karr’s husband in isolation, if at all, and they treat it as a juicy piece of gossip, nothing more.
I don’t expect people to be angry at Wallace, or even to spend time condemning him. Obviously, he had a lot of shit on his plate, and he struggled mightily with the burdens he had. All I expect is a quiet, un-showy disqualification for the role of hero, mentor or saint. I would like the “statue” (Wallace’s word) of his public image to be carefully dismantled, for the overblown ideas we have of him and what his life meant to slowly begin to deflate. I would like him to become just another writer, imbued with no moral authority beyond what is contained in his words on the page. In other words, I would like our generational role model not to be another selfish genius of a guy who, in exchange for doing his job unusually well, got away pretty much his whole life with treating other people as though they were disposable. There are a lot of these people in the world, but as Wallace himself said, “We get to choose what to worship.” We don’t have to worship this.
But because as a culture we value what we value and worship what we worship, I have little doubt that the David Foster Wallace juggernaut will continue to roll on. Brainy undergraduates will continue to idolize him; ambitious writers will continue to imitate him, and young female fans reading Max’s biography might feel a flash of discomfort, imagining the way Wallace might have treated them if they had encountered him on the green Illinois lawn, but they will tell themselves it doesn’t matter and in a way they will be right.