In addition to an excerpt from his final novel, the New Yorker has a long profile of David Foster Wallace online today. D.T. Max delves into the psychopharmacological shifts that preceded Wallace’s suicide in September of last year, and manages to draw an original portrait of his life without presenting the same facts that every other profile has trotted out during the flurry of posthumous hype. Some of us have been reading about Wallace and his work for years — going on a decade now — and it remains a thrill to find a previously undiscovered “chunklet” of info, to use a word coined by the man himself.
The most striking chunklet in Max’s profile, at least for some one whose all-time desert-island novel is Infinite Jest, is that the primary female character, Joelle Van Dyne, is based on the poet and memoirist Mary Karr.
In life, Karr was involved with Wallace while he was writing the book and in a fragile, newly sober state. In the novel, Joelle Van Dyne is a freebasing ex-indie film star and radio hostess, the latter under the name “Madame Psychosis” (which is also the name under which you can hit me up on Twitter, if you’re so inclined). She is, or was, also the P.G.O.A.T.: the Prettiest Girl of All Time. Throughout the novel, she wears a veil, although we never learn whether it is because she suffered a disfigurement at the hand of her jealous mother or because her beauty is so powerful as to be annihilating — an idea central to the novel.
The bulk of Max’s profile, however, focuses on the challenges Wallace faced while writing his last novel, The Pale King. Though he never wrote about his struggle with depression, it was not unknown to his fans during his life. Whether we picked up on the occasional allusion to his early quarter-life crisis in interviews, recognized something in the odd reasoning behind his bandanas, or simply assumed that such intelligence was incompatible with well-adjusted emotions, we suspected that all was not copacetic. Max’s profile provides almost excruciating detail of Wallace’s psychiatric history: more than one previous attempt to take his own life; the benefits and banes of electroconvulsive therapy; and finally, the explicit problems Nardil and other medications presented in the year or so prior to his death. It appears that he initially decided to go off the prescription drugs because he felt that they were stymieing his work on The Pale King.
Given Max’s repeated emphasis on Wallace’s dissatisfaction with the novel, it is easy to imagine that Wallace would not have wanted it to be published in its current form (apparently, Emdashes agrees). In April, Little, Brown will publish Wallace’s speech from Kenyon College’s 2005 graduation as a small book. Though this will certainly satisfy our hankerings for more words from the man, we can only imagine how he’d loathe the publicity materials referring to it as a “manifesto,” and the Life’s Litte Instruction Book-style layout. Reading Max’s profile, we applied the same cynical assumptions to The Pale King. Then we arrived at the last page, where Max reveals that “in his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it.”
Wallace may have believed that “these are dark times, man, and stupid ones,” but perhaps even in the end, he knew that his work exuded a small light of intelligence, at least for some of us.