My piece about D.T. Max’s DFW bio Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is up over at Capital New York. I had a chance to interview Max before his first New York reading, and there was a lot of stuff I couldn’t fit into the Capital piece. Below are some lightly edited chunks of the interview. Enjoy.
Mark Sussman: One of the things to me that was one of the great pleasures of reading it, were your readings of Wallace — I found them really admirable. There was a sentence in which you’re describing his transition to the style of his later fiction: “a passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seem ostentatiously to prohibit it, as if only by passing through all the stages of bureaucratic deformation can we touch each other as human beings.” It’s interesting to me, in that it sets out the problem of the biographer as much as that of being human.
D.T. Max: I hadn’t thought about that. What’s the problem that you see for the biographer?
MS: I’m wondering if you had to go through these stages of bureaucratic deformation.
DM: In my own writing?
MS: Yeah, or in putting yourself through the paces of his thought.
DM: The way I understand what I wrote is more … it’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about that sentence in a long time. There’s almost a question in that statement. Why would he think that was the way to get at true encounters? Why would he feel that you need to clear out the morass of insincere speech? I don’t know if that would have applied. It’s a first biography. What’s really, really intriguing and exciting and difficult is simply to create a portrait where no portrait has existed before. You do a second biography and your challenges are I think almost entirely different. You have to make room between yourself and the first biography. Interpretation becomes terribly, terribly important. Or finding a new cache of letters. But I had like 700 pages of letters that people gave me, and I had a couple hundred interactions with friends. For me it was which David do you choose? It’s which David do you trust? Which David do you think is real? Because every David was presented to me, from this monastic Thomas Merton figure to the wastrel, the manipulator. He thought of all of this. It’s all in there, all in his stories, all in his self-image. One of the things you realize as a biographer of David is you can never out-David David. As many times as I indicate in the biography that there’s a quality of recursion in David’s mind, to really live that quality, it would be impossible to really write a biography that replicated just how uncomfortable and active David’s mind was. In some ways my goal in this book was to write a memoir written not by the person who experienced the events. That’s one reason why the book is shorn of the rigamarole and regalia of biography. I don’t know if you noticed that. There’s no introduction, there’s no afterword. The moment of David’s death is the end of the biography. Saul Bellow said death is where the picture stops. Where the picture stopped for David, the book stops. The thing I was trying to do there … well, a bunch of things. But one thing is, without imitating him … he died so recently that it would be a false step to make it as if he had lived in the 1920s. He was alive in 2008, almost exactly 4 years ago. So in some ways I was trying to get you close. I was a little bit imitating the technique in TV where one show ends and they throw you right to the next show without advertisement or pause. You can’t physically read it in a sitting but it’s written like a book that’s meant to be read in a sitting. It’s different from the quasi-reference biography. It has an index but I do not intend it particularly as a reference work. It’s a story. The whole emphasis is on story.
MS: There is almost this pellucid quality to it that, as I was reading, and thinking back on my own experience of reading Infinite Jest and David’s other work, I was thinking wow, I could not imagine a less Infinite Jesty approach to this writer’s life.
DM: You’re a Wallace reader? Which works?
MS: When I was in high school I read A Supposedly Fun ThingI’ll Never Do Again and also The Girl with Curious Hair and I had read around in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. And then at a party in college, a friend and I sort of drunkenly challenged each other to an Infinite Jest reading contest. Which I won.
DM: Where’d you go to college?
MS: I went to the University of Arizona, actually.
DM: Oh, you were in the footsteps.
MS: I was. And I had classes with Charles Sherry as well.
DM: Oh you did?
MS: I did. And when I was reading the book and saw the thing about [philosopher Hans-Georg] Gadamer, I was like, oh, that’s Sherry.
DM: Did you take that class?
MS: I didn’t take that one. I took a version of the theory class he taught, which was much more about phenomenology. But before I realized that [he had taught David], I was waiting outside his office reading Infinite Jest because I was trying to cram in as much as I could whenever I could. And he was like “David …”
DM: I didn’t realize he had consciousness of David. I knew when I interviewed him that he knew who David was, but I wasn’t aware that he knew who David was in a bigger …
MS: No, he did. Because when he saw it, he said how do you like that? I said I really like it. And he said, that’s his best one.
DM: I didn’t realize that. This is one of the frustrations of biography. Someone told me a story about David dropping out of a class because a professor said he hadn’t had enough footnotes in his paper. I just thought that was the most delicious small-i irony ever in the history of scholastics. But I could never run down the anecdote. I knew it was true but I couldn’t find the class. He audited a lot of classes in Arizona. When you audit you don’t really leave much of a trail.
MS: What’s a good story about David that you wish you had been able to fit into the book?
DM: There’s a great story that’s somewhat come out. It was in the book and somehow fell out. I don’t even remember cutting it. It was that Antonin Scalia had lunch with him. And the thing that hasn’t come out, I mean, the whole thing has come out from Brian Garner’s point of view, so I don’t know. But according to the guy who invited Scalia, who’s an academic at Pomona, Scalia was a huge fan of Infinite Jest. I find that interesting. And I find it possible too. You know what I mean?
MS: What do you mean?
DM: I could see Scalia loving Infinite Jest. Politically, David, as you probably know, the fact that he voted for Reagan has gotten a lot of web attention. But frankly, his whole stance in the world, once you get past the Jerry Garcia look, in his later life he was pretty conservative. It was culturally conservative. It was Burkean, in a way. He was conservative in the lowercase sense: let’s be careful before we take a step forward. Politically he was liberal. He didn’t like Bush, he liked Bill Bradley, he was fairly conventional. Anyway, I thought that was a great story. I don’t know why it isn’t in the book, but it’s not there. I must have cut it at some point in the interest in the ending having more of a focus than it would have had otherwise. He was also a member of some sort of secret society at Pomona that used to pull pranks. He financed this group of girls who pulled Harvard Lampoon-style pranks. That was fun too. I wish that was in the book to capture that side of him. There are plenty of stories if you want to turn off the tape recorder. Those didn’t all get into the book. Most of them didn’t. Look, I’m a journalist. I’m on the side of information. Acknowledging that these aren’t ordinary circumstances, the book has an enormous amount of information that I think you don’t usually get in a first biography, from letters to trying to kill Mary Karr’s husband.
MS: That to me was one of the genuinely shocking moments in the book.
DM: Shocking. Because you don’t really think of intellectuals as being in the sphere of action. You just don’t think we do that. We know that we write well about it. We know that we cogitate it. We know that we can imagine it and write about it in our diaries and our fiction. But we don’t think we’d do it. We’re not doers like that. It would be equally surprising in a way if he could rewire his own stove. It wouldn’t be as morally surprising but it would be as practically surprising. I think living at Grenada House put him in touch with a whole world of people he never would have met otherwise. The other thing: buying pot will put you in touch with a whole world of people. Buying pot was his passport. There’s a wonderful line in Casablanca where Major Strasser asks Humphrey Bogart what his politics are, and Bogart says I’m a drunkard. And then Captain Renault pipes up and says, That makes you a citizen of the world! So I think by the same token David was a citizen of the world. There are a lot of people he never would have met. All these figures in the book like Charlie McLagan can be in part explained by substance abuse. Not totally explained, but partially explained. They were friends as well, but that was the connection.
MS: It’s interesting, especially after reading The Family That Couldn’t Sleep, I wonder if you had the temptation to get into the science of David’s addiction, his depression, whatever it was.
DM: I know, I know. Someone said they wished the book had more psychoneurology and less biology. Less hormones and more deep structures. I wasn’t overwhelmed by what there was to learn from the hardcore scientific approach to depression. I found that the terms got very murky very quickly. I don’t think he was ever correctly diagnosed, so that was the other part of the problem. It was pretty clear to me that he had manic depression, or some sort of bipolar depression. And I don’t know, I did ask a number of psychiatrists what they would think about this and the Nardil he was treated with. John Franzen at one of the memorials said most people who believe David died of a neurochemical imbalance don’t read the stories David wrote. And I sort of felt that way. I felt like that’s a simplification. One difference I found between the magazine piece in the New Yorker and the book is that I’ve come to believe more and more that the reason he came off the Nardil wasn’t anything physical, but that he was just so frustrated with his life and his inability to write. I would have thought when I started out the book that I’d be going the other direction, that I’d find a long train of physical ailments that the Nardil was causing, but I didn’t find them. In fact, I think that he maybe had a panic attack in the restaurant in Claremont when he was hospitalized, an anxiety attack. His wife points out that they had eaten many times there. That was interesting. I was surprised and interested to find that the so-called “softer” interpretation was gaining more force. I’m glad because we need stories like David’s story. I would have been a little disappointed if it turned out he had a duodenal cyst that the Nardil was causing.
MS: Right. I was talking to a friend about it, and I told her that it didn’t seem like there was anything really conclusive about it. And she was quiet for a second, and she said well it would be a lot more comforting if it were that.
DM: I understand that sentiment, and I understand why people would reach for that. No one wants David to have made that mistake. I don’t want David to have made that mistake. Every time I reread the drafts, I would cry at the end. I would cry during the copy edit. You don’t want this ending to be the ending of the book. I don’t want this to be the ending of the book. He’d only be 50 today. We all feel there was work ahead of him to do, and we all liked having him on the planet. People notice that most of all now that he’s gone. But even then people liked having him on this planet. The powers of the biographer are limited. You can’t change the ending.