GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
When the novelist David Foster Wallace committed suicide at age 46, American literature lost one of its most influential living writers. A long account of Wallace's life and what led to his suicide was published in The New Yorker in March of the following year.
Now, the author of that article, D.T. Max, has expanded the story in a new biography of David Foster Wallace. It's called "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story." And D.T. Max is in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.
D.T. MAX: Thanks for having me.
RAZ: Many critics regard David Foster Wallace as the greatest writer of his generation. Why is that?
MAX: You know, I think a number of things go into that, obviously, just the pure pleasure of his most important books. Reading "Infinite Jest" is certainly - contains more pleasure, more agony, more of American life at the turn of the millennium. I think the second thing is simply that he influenced so many people. You know, writers from Dave Eggers to Chad Harbach, you just can see that he left disciples.
I think also, something very interesting happened, which is that the Web came along. And the Web lends itself very well to the kind of writing that David really had pioneered that had nothing to do with the Web. And so now, you go on the Web, and you feel like you're reading 10,000 imitators of David Foster Wallace. There's nobody else who's changed American prose to that extent that I can think of in generations. I almost think about someone like Mark Twain.
RAZ: He was an extremely intelligent and bright child. He had a pretty stable upbringing. His parents were professors. But you write that from a very young age, he was troubled. I mean, he had anxieties and depression.
MAX: Yeah. That's right. And I think, actually, this was probably even a surprise to his family, because he was a good - he was good at hiding these things. He traces his first anxieties back, to I think, being eight or nine. He speaks about a morbid fear of mosquitoes and buzzing. By the time he's in high school, you know, David is really, I think - he's anxious all the time. There are days when he can't get up and go to school.
RAZ: You write about this college interview at Oberlin when he had an anxiety attack, because you write that at the time, life for him had the quality of performance, and being called on to perform within that performance was too much.
MAX: That's right. His father told me this story that he was so anxious that basically, you know, he - as soon as the interview was over, he threw up - and kept throwing up. And then shortly after that, he goes to Amherst, where his father went.
And in those days at Amherst, if you were the son of an alum and they liked you, they would admit you at the interview. So he was admitted at the interview, and then his response was, you know, if I go to Amherst, do I never have to do another college interview? And his father said yes. And he said, sold. And that was how he decided on the college.
RAZ: He went there to study philosophy, but he was drawn to fiction. How did that happen?
MAX: You know, it's an amazing story, because he very much assumed that he would follow in his father's footsteps as a philosophy professor. His family was an academic family. His mother was also a teacher. Who knows what they're going to do when they go to college anyway?
But he went through his first two years, and he turned out to have a knack for, you know, for sort of mathematical philosophy, mathematical logic. But David had a breakdown in college. So he goes home - ad, you know, this is a boy who wrote some in high school, but he wasn't a writer in any sense of it - and really pretty quickly, he begins to turn out extraordinarily good fiction.
So much so that by the time he is in - a senior at Amherst - and he's only been writing for about a year and a half - he begins a thesis in fiction. He does a double thesis - one in fiction, one in philosophy - but his fiction becomes "The Broom of the System," his first, I think, incredibly brilliant novel.
One of the kind of cool things, I think, about David is you can really sense that in learning how to write, what he was really doing was reverse engineering other writers. He was looking at how Thomas Pynchon wrote. He was looking at how Don DeLillo wrote. He was breaking their sentences apart, seeing if he could write them.
RAZ: You write about how after he graduates from college, he goes - he moves to Boston. He is drinking a lot. He's smoking a lot. He eventually sort of emerged from it, but of course, as we know, his life - the cycle of his life was one of addiction and recovery. And they never left him.
MAX: That's right. He always referred to himself as an addict. He becomes deeply involved in 12-step recovery programs, and his life changes. You know, I mean, he wouldn't have made it even into his mid-30s, I would think, had he not found the strength to get away from his addictions.
Now, his primary addiction was marijuana. It was not drinking. And in a lot of ways, you know, one of the things about David that's so interesting is that his life - the accidents of his life - really gave him the key to his writing. In a lot of ways, the 12-step program is what taught David how to write "Infinite Jest" or where the book should go, that it should be more than just a pretty piece of fiction.
RAZ: So the last year of his life, by all accounts, including yours, was things were going pretty well for him. He was in a stable relationship, was living in Southern California in Pomona where he had a job at Pomona College. But then on September 12, 2008, he committed suicide. And at that point, he had stopped taking antidepressants. Were you able to find out why?
MAX: I think there's a couple of reasons why. Physically, the antidepressant he was on, Nardil, is hard to metabolize. And it was kind of an outdated antidepressant. He was also just miserable that he couldn't get his novel, "The Pale King," the book that was published just last year - because David works on it for a decade - but, you know, the writing wasn't coming.
And he thought that the Nardil was perhaps interfering with his ability to write well because, you know, it made things seem a little distant, made his own relationship to reality a little bit less keyed-up. And he wondered, if he could just get rid of the Nardil, that would help his writing.
And then the third reason, which is something I discovered in working on the book, is that, you know, having been a member of this 12-step program - there's a whole group of people within 12-step programs who think you should be completely drug-free. No alcohol. No marijuana. No prescription and antidepressants.
So, poor David, who always wants to be the best student of the class, wanted to be the best possible 12-step program participant. And so, he thought, well, I'll just get off it. And once you're off one of these drugs, it can be very, very hard to stabilize yourself again. And he just wasn't able to.
RAZ: I want to ask you about the title of this biography, "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story."
MAX: Well, it's, you know, shortly after I began the book, I started to come into possession of letters that David had written to other people. But David didn't keep any letters, so all I have is David's letters out. And I noticed again and again, in different places, he would put in the phrase, every love story is a ghost story.
It starts when he's a graduate student in the mid-'80s. The phrase appears in "The Pale King." The title probably came to him through reading some correspondence of the novelist Christina Stead. But why did that phrase stick in his head for so long? It seems to me that it captures so perfectly what he always felt was the futility, the difficulty of not just writing about people but actually being with people.
He had a great deal of trouble in his relationships and a great deal of trouble, you know, understanding relationships. And then, of course, I also felt like that was really the reader's relationship with David. It wasn't really just a reference to his suicide but obviously contained a big aspect of the fact that he was gone now, and whatever love readers felt for him was now going to be a love for an absence, for a ghost.
RAZ: That's New Yorker writer D.T. Max. His new biography of David Foster Wallace is called "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story." D.T. Max, thanks so much.
MAX: Thanks for having me.