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The weird, happy accident of David Foster Wallace

The prose and ever-present footnotes of David Foster Wallace rang throughout Emerson Hall on the evening of December 10. Philip Gillen ’12 and Hana Bajramovic ’12 theatrically read two excerpts — one fiction, one non-fiction – to convey the self-described “oralish” quality of Wallace’s prose. This served as the introduction to the night’s main affair, a rich conversation between D.T Max, Harvard alumnus and author of the Wallace biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism, put on by the Mahindra Humanities Center in a cosponsorship with The Harvard Advocate. The conversation mapped the jagged course of Wallace’s short life and assessed his place in English letters — a place, Max made clear, all his own.

The first line of Max’s biography combines the specific and the generic: “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.” However, from Max’s brief synopsis at the start of his remarks, most parts of the Wallace story cannot be found anywhere else. “David never did anything by halves,” Max said. As a result, his life could barely pass as fiction, taking sudden improbable turns that most editors would cut out of a novel’s first draft.

Despite the fact that he was “not a particularly literary kid,” Wallace was already a successful published author by the age of twenty-four. With a comet’s tail of Amherst College academic awards behind him, Wallace enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard. After what Max dubbed a “whopping” three weeks, alcoholism, chronic pot use and assigned philosophy readings brought Wallace to a halfway house. He would spend much of the rest of his life sitting in 12-step programs and writing ravenously, until committing suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. Everyone has an end, and this, sadly, was David Wallace’s.

In the meantime, Wallace’s novels, nonfiction, and short fiction gained increasing recognition as some of the best works of American writing of the last 20 years. Most of the resulting well-deserved buzz — and nonsensical blather — revolves around his tremendous second novel Infinite Jest, as did much of Monday night’s conversation. The nonsense often comes peppered with opaque phrases like “post-ironic” and “ironizing irony,” the true irony of which is the fact that Wallace was an emphatic defender of clarity in writing.

Max weighed in on this situation with refreshing matter-of-factness: “To be honest, I don’t understand what the phrase ‘post-ironic’ means,” he said. “It doesn’t strike me as rich enough to be a literary stance.” He views Infinite Jest outside of the grand critical genealogies with Wallace in the topmost bracket. “Infinite Jest is this weird, happy accident,” he said.

Author D.T. Max and Harvard's James Wood PHOTO: Patrick Lauppe

One theme of his remarks was how much of Wallace is nothing but Wallatian: the characters he plucked straight from his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the “fictional” college interviews that left him sweaty and petrified, and of course the extreme grammarian mother who punctiliously edited his, and his characters’, childish chatter. In this respect, charting out the David Foster Wallace story puts it in satisfyingly simple terms, a world apart from post-anything: David Wallace was a gifted writer with a life of extremes to put to the page. What resulted is history.

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