Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
By David Lipsky
Paperback, 352 pages
List price: $16.99
David was six feet two, and on a good day he weighed two hundred pounds. He had dark eyes, soft voice, caveman chin, a lovely, peak-lipped mouth that was his best feature. He walked with an ex-athlete's saunter -- a roll from the heels, as if any physical thing was a pleasure. He wrote with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone's lives -- it was the stuff you semi thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes -- and readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style. His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. He was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand- page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive now, accepted a special chair to teach writing at a college in California, married, published another book, and hanged himself at age forty- six.
Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction. I was asked to write about David's death and spoke to friends (all writers, all called away from keyboards, all stunned) and family (who were smart, and kind, and nearly impossible to talk to). One thing they struggled with was how alive, how delightful, David could seem. I talked with a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who spoke in quick, lucid, emphatic phrases, as if facts were neutral but could turn sad if handled for too long. The professor did what experts do. Reminded me he hadn't treated David personally, but could illustrate the basic principles. Which are: nobody likes to take medications. "I mean, I sympathize," the doctor said. "I don't like to take any medicine myself." I told him what I'd learned: that from 1989 on, David had been prescribed a powerful first-generation antidepressant called Nardil. It came towing a boxcar of 1950s-era side effects, the worst of which was a potential for very high blood pressure. In 2007, he'd decided to stop taking the drug. The doctor made the kind of quick silence that's the telephone equivalent of nodding. "There's a pattern. When an agent has worked particularly well, people can't possibly imagine getting depressed again. So there's this false security. They feel like they're fine, they're cured, it'd be great to get off the medicine. Unfortunately, it's quite common to see people can and often do experience a recurrence of symptoms. And then they might not respond the same way to previously effective treatments."
Here's how it happened for David. Nardil comes with a long interdicted menu -- chocolate, cured meats, certain cheeses, for some reason overripe bananas. And then there are off-book ingredients waiting in dishes, to combine and catalyze. The previous half decade of David's life, everyone agrees, was the happiest. Marriage, tranquility, California -- the sunset, happy-ending coast. In late spring of 2007, David; his wife, Karen; and his parents, Jim and Sally, sat down at a Persian restaurant. Something in the food took him wrong. Terrible stomach pains, for days. Doctors were surprised to hear how long he'd been taking Nardil -- a workhorse medication, from the predigital era of leaded fuels and antenna TV. They suggested he go off the drug, try something new.
"So at that point," his sister, Amy, said, her voice sounding sober, bruised, "it was determined, 'Oh, well, gosh, we've made so much pharmaceutical progress in the last two decades that I'm sure we can find something that can knock out that pesky depression without all these side effects.' They had no idea that was the only thing keeping him alive."
The course David followed is called a washout; David would slowly taper off the old drug, then taper onto a new one. "He knew it was going to be rough," Jonathan Franzen told me. Franzen's novel The Corrections won a National Book Award; he was the best friend of the second part of David's adult life. "But he was feeling he could afford a year to do the job. He figured he was going to go on to something else, at least temporarily. He was a perfectionist, you know? He wanted to be perfect, and taking Nardil wasn't perfect."
It's something Franzen wanted to stress. (Franzen, interviewed, had a writer's not quite off-duty quality; part of him wanted to shoulder me aside and tell the story himself.) David had a level of self-criticism that sometimes made him the one person whose company he didn't enjoy in a pleasant room; now he was happy. He loved his marriage, his life. "This is the main narrative, it's reason number one among the nine. It was from that position of optimism and happiness and strength that he tried to take another step. All the signs were pointing in the right direction. Because things were going well, he thought he was in a strong enough position to make some fundamental changes. And he had bad luck, it didn't work."
Doctors began prescribing other medications, each one a failure. By October, David's symptoms had landed him back in the hospital. He began to drop weight. That fall, he looked like a college kid again: longish hair, eyes intense, as if he'd just stepped off the Amherst green.
When Amy talked to him by phone, he was sometimes his old self. She said, "The worst question you could ask David in the last year was, 'How are you?' And it's almost impossible to have a conversation with someone you don't see regularly without that question." David was very honest. He'd answer, "I'm not all right. I'm trying to be, but I'm not all right."
The year ran good and bad, fast then slow, ascents with sudden pits, the sky looking very distant overhead. In early May, he sat down at a cafe with some graduating seniors from his fiction class. He answered their jittery, writer's-future questions. At the end, his voice went throaty, he choked up. Students assumed he was joking -- some smiled, a memory that would cut later. David sniffled. "Go ahead and laugh -- here I am crying -- but I really am going to miss all of you."
No medications had worked. In June, David tried to kill himself. Then he was back in the hospital. Doctors administered twelve courses of electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment that had always terrified David. "Twelve," his mother repeated. "Such brutal treatments," his father said. "And after this year of absolute hell for David," his mother said, "they decided to go back to the Nardil."
Franzen, worried, flew to spend a week with David in July. David had dropped seventy pounds in a year. "He was thinner than I'd ever seen him. There was a look in his eyes: terrified, terribly sad, and far away. Still, he was fun to be with, even at ten percent strength." David could now make skinny jokes: he'd never before noticed, he said, "how hard certain chairs in the house were." Franzen would sit with David in the living room, play with his dogs, the two would step outside while David lit a cigarette. "We argued about stuff. He was doing his usual line about, 'A dog's mouth is practically a disinfectant, it's so clean. Not like human saliva, dog saliva is marvelously germ- resistant.' " When he left, David thanked him for coming. "I felt grateful he allowed me to be there," Franzen told me.
Six weeks later, David asked his parents to fly west. The Nardil wasn't working; the great risk with taking time off an antidepressant.
A patient departs, returns, and the medication has boarded its doors. David couldn't sleep. He was afraid to leave the house. He asked, "What if I meet one of my students?" His father said, "He didn't want anyone to see him the way he was. It was just awful to see. If a student saw him, they would have put their arms around him and hugged him, I'm sure."
The Wallaces stayed ten days. David and his parents would get up at six in the morning and walk the dogs. They watched DVDs, talked. Sally cooked David's favorite dishes, heavy comfort foods -- pot pies, casseroles, strawberries in cream. "We kept telling him we were so glad he was alive," his mother said. "But my feeling is that, even then, he was leaving the planet. He just couldn't take it."
One afternoon before they left, David was very upset. His mother sat on the floor beside him. "I just rubbed his arm. He said he was glad I was his mom. I told him it was an honor."
In the middle of September, Karen left David alone with the dogs for a few hours. When she came home that night, he had hanged himself. "I can't get that image out of my mind," his sister told me -- and said another smart, kind, impossible thing. "David and his dogs, and it's dark. I'm sure he kissed them on the mouth, and told them he was sorry."
Writers tend to have two great topics, on heavy internal rotation, a very abbreviated playlist. Their careers, their ailments. There's a famous story, about the party where James Joyce ran into Marcel Proust. You expected heavyweight-champion banter. Joyce said, "My eyes are terrible." Proust said, "My poor stomach, what am I going to do? In fact, I must leave at once." (Joyce topped him: "I'm in the same situation, if I can find someone to take me by the arm.") David wasn't like that. For one thing, he never told anyone, beyond the tiniest audience, that he'd been diagnosed as a depressive. For another, he didn't much look the way you imagine a writer; he looked like a stoner, a burner. (The writer Mark Costello was the best friend of the first part of David's adult life; the Illinois term David taught him, he said, was "dirt bomb." "A slightly tough, slightly waste-product-y, tennis-playing persona," Costello said.) David looked like someone who'd played a little varsity, then proceeded to too-cool his way off the squad. A big guy, with the bandanna and flop of hair, someone who was going to invite you to play Hacky Sack, and if you refused, there was a possibility he was going to beat you up.
Which was on purpose. As a student, David had been put off by the campus-writer look -- creamy eyes, sensitive politics. He called them "the beret guys. Boy, I remember, one reason I still don't like to call myself a writer is that I don't ever want to be mistaken for that type of person."
Which didn't prepare you for the company -- which was astonishingly ample, gentle, comic, overflowing. It makes sense. Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you'd like to hang out with. Chapters, pages, novels, articles are the next best thing. Even when it's just a good factual writer, you want to hang around them to get the facts, the way you'd sit next to a brainy kid at a test to copy off their answer sheet. David's writing self -- it's most pronounced in his essays -- was the best friend you'd ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style.
Excerpted from Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip by David Foster Wallace. Copyright 2010 by David Lipsky. Reprinted by Permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.