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As close to a biography of David Foster Wallace as you’ll get

In 1996, an editor from Rolling Stone named David Lipsky spent a lot of time with David Foster Wallace and wrote a biographical piece that was eventually not published in the magazine. When Wallace died last month, RS sent Lipsky to interview his family and friends. The resulting piece, The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace, is a unique combination of a look at a writer at the top of his game and a man at the end of his life. It was very difficult for me to read, for reasons which I may never really understand. Wallace meant a lot to me, full stop.

Here are some bits from the article that resonated with me. On the about-face that happened with his professors a University of Arizona after The Broom of the System1 was published:

Viking won the auction for the novel, “with something like a handful of trading stamps.” Word spread; professors turned nice. “I went from borderline ready-to-get-kicked-out to all these tight-smiled guys being, ‘Glad to see you, we’re proud of you, you’ll have to come over for dinner.’ It was so delicious: I felt kind of embarrassed for them, they didn’t even have integrity about their hatred.”

On expectations:

The five-year clock was ticking again. He’d played football for five years. He’d played high-level tennis for five years. Now he’d been writing for five years. “What I saw was, ‘Jesus, it’s the same thing all over again.’ I’d started late, showed tremendous promise โ€” and the minute I felt the implications of that promise, it caved in. Because see, by this time, my ego’s all invested in the writing. It’s the only thing I’ve gotten food pellets from the universe for. So I feel trapped: ‘Uh-oh, my five years is up, I’ve gotta move on.’ But I didn’t want to move on.”

On self-consciousness:

“I remember this being a frequent topic of conversation,” Franzen says, “his notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quikc enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn’t just being funny โ€” there was something genuinely compromised in David. At the time I thought, ‘Wow, he’s even more self-conscious than I am.’”

On fame:

At the end of his book tour, I spent a week with David. He talked about the “greasy thrill of fame” and what it might mean to his writing. “When I was 25, I would’ve given a couple of digits off my non-use hand for this,” he said. “I feel good, because I want to be doing this for 40 more years, you know? So I’ve got to find some way to enjoy this that doesn’t involve getting eaten by it.”

On shyness:

He talked about a kind of shyness that turned social life impossibly complicated. “I think being shy basically means self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not because I’m too worried about whether you like me.”

And I don’t even know what this is all about:

“I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones. But then I countenance the fact that at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself. It’s all very confusing. I think I’m very honest and candid, but I’m also proud of how honest and candid I am โ€” so where does that put me?”

You have to get the magazine to read the whole thing; it’s worth it. Rolling Stone also has an interview with Lipsky about the article.

[1] Oh to have been wrong about the prediction I made here. โ†ฉ