Reviewing a biography of Borges for the New York Times in 2004, David Foster Wallace took issue with “the idea … that we can’t correctly interpret a piece of verbal art unless we know the personal and/or psychological circumstances surrounding its creation”. For a writer as good as Borges, he argued, “the stories so completely transcend their motive facts that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.” Foster Wallace had no interest in the project of picking through a writer’s work to underline all the places where it seems to correlate with real events. Which must have made it all the more frustrating several years earlier when, in just this sense, he had to write a biography of himself. Legal worries surrounding his first story collection Girl with Curious Hair forced him to write a 17-page memo to the lawyers of Viking Penguin explaining the original sources of almost every detail in every story – he became, as DT Max puts it, “a writer in reverse”. The task was almost unendurable – and he didn’t think a complete account of his life would be any more fun. As he once pastiched it, “‘Dave sat in the smoking lounge of the library, pensively taking a drag from a cigarette and trying to think of the next line.’ Who wants to read that?”
This is one reason why Wallace’s complaint about the Borges biography could never apply to this one: people care about the author of Infinite Jest as a person in a way that no one ever really cared about the author of Ficciones as a person. It’s true that Wallace never intended to set himself up as some sort of generational sage. But it’s also true that, as a devotee of self-help books and Alcoholics Anonymous, he was far more hospitable than most postmodern intellects to the idea that from someone else’s advice or example you can learn specific and articulable things about how best to live your life. So it makes sense that his bereft readers would like some reassurance that Wallace’s final act was not – as Edouard Levé wrote of his own imminent suicide – “the most important thing [he] ever said”.
First posted: Thursday, August 30th, 2012.