The Unfinished — (The New Yorker)

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The New Yorker

By D. T. Max

March 9, 2009

David Foster Wallace’s struggle to surpass “Infinite Jest.”

The writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12th of last year. His wife, Karen Green, came home to find that he had hanged himself on the patio of their house, in Claremont, California. For many months, Wallace had been in a deep depression. The condition had first been diagnosed when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College, in the early eighties; ever since, he had taken medication to manage its symptoms. During this time, he produced two long novels, three collections of short stories, two books of essays and reporting, and “Everything and More,” a history of infinity. Depression often figured in his work. In “The Depressed Person,” a short story about an unhappy narcissistic young woman—included in Wallace’s 1999 collection, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”—he wrote, “Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Wellbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.” He never published a word about his own mental illness.

Wallace’s death was followed by four public memorial services, celebrations of his work in newspapers and magazines, and tributes on the Web. He was only forty-six when he killed himself, which helped explain the sense of loss readers and critics felt. There was also Wallace’s outsized passion for the printed word at a time when it looked like it needed champions. His novels were overstuffed with facts, humor, digressions, silence, and sadness. He conjured the world in two-hundred-word sentences that mixed formal diction and street slang, technicalese and plain speech; his prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed thought itself. “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant,” he wrote in “Good Old Neon,” a story from 2001. Riffs that did not fit into his narrative he sent to footnotes and endnotes, which he liked, he once said, because they were “almost like having a second voice in your head.”

The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target…“Infinite Jest,” which came out almost a decade after “Broom,” was a vast investigation into America as the land of addictions: to television, to drugs, to loneliness. The book comes to center on a halfway-house supervisor named Don Gately, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who, with great effort, resists these enticements. “What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all,” Gately thinks near the end. “But he could choose not to listen.” Through the example of Gately, “Infinite Jest” offered readers an oblique form of counsel, but Wallace had mixed feelings about the book. The critic James Wood cited “Infinite Jest” as representative of the kind of fiction dedicated to the “pursuit of vitality at all costs.” At times, Wallace felt the same way. “I’m sad and empty as I always am, when I finish something long,” Wallace wrote to Franzen, shortly before the book’s publication. “I don’t think it’s very good—some clipping called a published excerpt feverish and not entirely satisfying, which goes a long way toward describing the experience of writing the thing.”…

From 1997 on, Wallace worked on a third novel, which he never finished—the “Long Thing,” as he referred to it with Michael Pietsch. His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. The partial manuscript—which Little, Brown plans to publish next year—expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration. Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests. As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

In the late eighties, doctors had prescribed Nardil for Wallace’s depression. Nardil, an antidepressant developed in the late fifties, is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that is rarely given for long periods of time, because of its side effects, which include low blood pressure and bloating. Nardil can also interact badly with many foods. One day in the spring of 2007, when Wallace was feeling stymied by the Long Thing, he ate at a Persian restaurant in Claremont, and afterward he went home ill. A doctor thought that Nardil might be responsible. For some time, Wallace had come to suspect that the drug was also interfering with his creative evolution. He worried that it muted his emotions, blocking the leap he was trying to make as a writer. He thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse. Of course, as he recognized even then, maybe the drug wasn’t the problem; maybe he simply was distant, or maybe boredom was too hard a subject. He wondered if the novel was the right medium for what he was trying to say, and worried that he had lost the passion necessary to complete it.

That summer, Wallace went off the antidepressant. He hoped to be as drug free as Don Gately, and as calm. Wallace would finish the Long Thing with a clean brain. He entered this new period of life with what Franzen calls “a sense of optimism and a sense of terrible fear.” He hoped to be a different person and a different writer. “That’s what created the tension,” Franzen recalls. “And he didn’t make it.”

“Girl with Curious Hair” came out in August, 1989, to mixed reviews and little attention. Wallace was heartbroken. “He thought he’d written a better book than ‘Broom,’ and then the publication was this big fat zero,” Nadell recalls. And when Wallace began his studies at Harvard that fall, he was immediately disappointed. “The students did their professors’ laundry and clustered around them, and he thought that was just ridiculous,” James Wallace remembers. “He was a published author and expected to be treated as an equal.” About a year after he had his breakdown in Tucson, Wallace called Costello from the psychiatric-services unit at Harvard, telling him that he had to go to the hospital again. An ambulance took Wallace to McLean, the psychiatric facility in nearby Belmont. There he was prescribed the drug Nardil for the first time. “We had a brief, maybe three-minute audience with the psychopharmacologist,” his mother told Rolling Stone.

In December, Wallace was released and sent to a halfway house in Brighton, a run-down section of Boston. “It is a grim place, and I am grimly resolved to go there,” he wrote to Nadell. He became serious about fighting his addictions. He participated in alcohol and narcotic rehabilitation programs. He replaced pot with cigarettes and, ultimately, with chewing tobacco, which he unsuccessfully tried to quit. Before his collapse, he had written observations in notebooks. He took this up again; Amy Wallace remembers him writing in one with a Care Bears cover. But he found that he had lost his commitment to fiction. He was becoming healthy, but felt adrift. In May, 1990, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had recently become friends, “Right now, I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and [William] Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of conviction about the enterprise’s meaning and end.” He added that he considered suicide “a reasonable if not at this point a desirable option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

Slowly, normality and a pleasure in writing fiction returned to Wallace. Like all the residents of the house, he had a job. One day, he was supposed to be editing the house rules, but instead he played hooky, holing up in a Brighton library with “Flight of Fear,” a teen adventure novel. “I found it a ripping good read,” he wrote Franzen. He added, “I think back with much saliva to times in 1984, 85, 86, 87 when I’d sit down and look up and it would be hours later and there’d be this mess of filled up notebook paper and I just felt wrung out and well fucked and well blessed.” He wasn’t sure all those filled notebooks had been worth it, though; he now saw himself as having been driven by a “basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and post structural and linguistically calisthenic. This is why I get very spiny when I think someone’s suggesting this may be my root motive and character because I’m afraid it might be.”

By May, 1992, he had sent two hundred pages of “Infinite Jest” to Howard, who read them with amazement. He now saw Wallace’s addiction, descent, and recovery as “a ceremony of purification.” Michael Pietsch, an editor at Little, Brown who had become friends with Wallace, also read the pages. “I want to do this book more than I want to breathe,” he told Bonnie Nadell. Pietsch, who had a reputation for publishing innovative fiction, outbid Howard with an eighty-thousand-dollar offer, and Wallace changed publishers.

Wallace began the research for “The Pale King” shortly after the publication of “Infinite Jest.” He took accounting classes. He studied I.R.S. publications. “You should have seen him with our accountant,” Karen Green remembers. “It was like, ‘What about the ruling of 920S?’ ” He enjoyed mastering the technicalities of the I.R.S. bureaucracy—its lore, mind-set, vocabulary. He assembled hundreds of pages of research on boredom, trying to understand it at an almost neurological level. He studied the word’s etymology and was intrigued to find that “bore” appeared in the language in 1766, two years before “interesting” came to mean “absorbing.” (He puts this revelation into the mouth of the ghost of an I.R.S. agent who comforts Lane Dean, Jr., when he despairs.)

Wallace began writing “The Pale King” around 2000. A severe critic of his own work, he rarely reported to his friends that anything he was working on was going well. But his complaints about this book struck them as particularly intense. Pietsch remembers being on a car ride with Wallace and hearing him compare writing the novel to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.” On another occasion, Wallace told him that he had completed “two hundred pages, of which maybe forty are usable.” He had created some good characters, but the shape of the book evaded him. In 2004, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen that to get the book done he would have to write “a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%, the very idea of which makes something in me wither and get really interested in my cuticle, or the angle of the light outside.”

Wallace’s literary frustrations contrasted with his growing personal happiness. In 2002, he began dating Karen Green, a visual artist. She had asked him for permission to turn his story “The Depressed Person” into a series of illustrated panels. “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain,” the story begins, “and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.” Through the course of “The Depressed Person” the unlovable, self-absorbed girl shuttles between friends and therapists, looking for a sympathetic ear. Only with real human contact can she improve. Wallace’s story ends without a resolution. Green wanted to rewrite Wallace, so that in her last panel the depressed person would be cured. Wallace gave her permission. When he saw what she had done, he was happy. He told her that it was now a story that people would want to read.

They fell in love. Wallace put a strikeout through Mary’s name on his tattoo and an asterisk under the heart; farther down he added another asterisk and Karen’s name, turning his arm into a living footnote. In 2004, Wallace and Green were married in Urbana, in front of his parents. Wallace had by then accepted a new teaching appointment, at Pomona College, in Claremont, California. “I have a lottery-prize-type gig at Pomona,” he bragged to The Believer in 2003. “I get to do more or less what I want.”

Wallace was thrilled that his personal life was in order: he took it as evidence that he had matured. He teased Green about what a good husband he was. She remembers him saying, “I took out the garbage. Did you see that?” and “I put tea on for you when you were driving home.” Green was a good partner for Wallace, too—supportive and literate, but not in awe of her husband. “We used to have this joke about how much can you irritate the reader,” Green recalls. He could be needy. At night, he would beg her not to get sick or die…

“The Pale King” slowly came into being. In one of Wallace’s notebooks, there is a sentence suggesting that he had hit on the framework of a plot: an evil group within the I.R.S. is trying to steal the secrets of an agent who is particularly gifted at maintaining a heightened state of concentration. It was a witty notion, an echo of the Québécois villains in “Infinite Jest.” It is not clear that Wallace followed up on it, but if he did it did not satisfy him. “The individual parts of this book would not be all that hard to read,” he wrote Bonnie Nadell, in 2007. “It’s more the juxtaposition of them, the number of separate characters, etc.”

Meanwhile, Wallace was becoming more convinced that Nardil might be getting in the way of “The Pale King.” The distorting effect of being on antidepressants was something that had long bothered him. In “The Planet Trillaphon,” the story he wrote while at Amherst, his character says, “I’ve been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I’m pretty qualified to tell what they’re like. They’re fine, really, but they’re fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn’t be good old Earth.”

There were other important reasons to get off Nardil. The drug could create problems with his blood pressure, an increasing worry as he moved into middle age. In the spring of 2007, when he went to the Persian restaurant and left with severe stomach pains, the doctor who told him that Nardil might have interacted badly with his meal added that there were better options now—Nardil was “a dirty drug.”

Wallace saw an opportunity. He told Green that he wanted to try a different antidepressant. “You know what? I’m up for it,” she remembers answering. She knew that the decision was hard for him. “The person who would go off the medications that were possibly keeping him alive was not the person he liked,” she says. “He didn’t want to care about the writing as much as he did.”

Soon after, he stopped the drug. At first, he felt that the process was going well. “I feel a bit ‘peculiar,’ which is the only way to describe it,” he e-mailed Franzen in August. “All this is to be expected (22 years and all), and I am not unduly alarmed.” A month later, he was more concerned: “I’ve been blowing stuff off and then having it slip my mind. This is the harshest phase of the ‘washout process’ so far; it’s a bit like I imagine a course of chemo would be.” He remained “fairly confident it will pass in time.” Three months later, he wrote to Nadell, “Upside: I’ve lost 30 pounds. Downside: I haven’t even thought about work since like September. I’m figuring I get 90 more days before I even remotely expect anything of myself—the shrink/expert says that’s a fairly sane attitude.”

Ever since he ended his addiction, drugs had been anathema to Wallace; Don Gately’s refusal to take narcotic painkillers after he is shot makes him the hero of “Infinite Jest.” At one point after getting off Nardil, Wallace decided he should try to do without any antidepressant. Given his psychiatric history, Green was worried. Her husband, she remembers thinking, would need “a Jungian miracle.” In the fall, Wallace had to be hospitalized for severe depression.

When he came out, doctors prescribed other antidepressants. But, according to Green, he was now too panicked to give them time to work. He took over the job of keeping himself sane, second-guessing doctors and their prescriptions. If he tried a new drug, he would read that a possible side effect was anxiety, and that alone would make him too anxious to stay on the drug. He was in a hall of mirrors of fear.

He continued to write in a notebook, but he rarely returned to his massive manuscript. “The Pale King” had once referred to the I.R.S., or possibly to the state of contentment and focus the book advocated; but now, as he wrote in a notebook, it was a synonym for the depression that tormented him…

During the spring of 2008, a new combination of antidepressants seemed to stabilize him. When GQ asked him to write an essay on Obama and rhetoric, he felt almost well enough to do it. The magazine reserved a hotel room for him in Denver. But he cancelled. That June, the annual booksellers’ convention was in Los Angeles, and Wallace drove there to have dinner with Pietsch, Nadell, and a few others. Pietsch was amazed at how thin Wallace was. Nadell, at Wallace’s request, explained to magazine editors that he had a stomach malady. “It had to be severe enough to explain why he couldn’t travel,” she remembers.

About ten days after the dinner, Wallace checked in to a motel about ten miles from his home and took an overdose of pills. When he woke up, he called Green, who had been searching for him all night. When she met him at the hospital, he told her that he was glad to be alive. He was sorry that he’d made her look for him. He switched doctors and agreed to try electroconvulsive therapy again. He was terrified at the prospect—in Urbana, it had temporarily taken away his short-term memory—but he underwent twelve sessions. They did not help.

Caring for Wallace was exhausting. For one nine-day period, Green never left their house. In August, her son suffered an athletic injury, and she wanted to be with him. Wallace’s parents came to look after David. “It’s like they’re throwing darts at a dartboard,” he complained to them about his doctors. They went with him to an appointment with his psychiatrist; when the doctor suggested a new drug combination, Wallace rolled his eyes. Eventually, Wallace asked to go back on Nardil. But Nardil can take weeks to stabilize a patient, and Green says that he was too agitated to give it time to work. Still, in early September, Nadell spoke with him and thought that he sounded a bit better.

Green believes that she knows when Wallace decided to try again to kill himself. She says of September 6th, “That Saturday was a really good day. Monday and Tuesday were not so good. He started lying to me that Wednesday.” He waited two days for an opportunity. In the early evening on Friday, September 12th, Green went to prepare for an opening at her gallery, Beautiful Crap, in the center of Claremont, about ten minutes from their home. She felt comforted by the fact that he’d seen the chiropractor on Monday. “You don’t go to the chiropractor if you’re going to commit suicide,” she says.

After she left, Wallace went into the garage and turned on the lights. He wrote her a two-page note. Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself. When one character dies in “Infinite Jest,” he is “catapulted home over . . . glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”

Green returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband. In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages. He had made some changes in the months since he considered sending them to Little, Brown. The story of “David Wallace” was now first. In his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it. Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel. This was his effort to show the world what it was to be “a fucking human being.” He had not completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.