As D.T. Max’s March 9th “New Yorker” profile on David Foster Wallace (and the excerpt from his upcoming posthumous novel “The Pale King”) demonstrate, the word “genius”–when naming a person and not a piece of them–always fails to do the subject justice. Following his suicide last year, Wallace’s name has been in the news frequently, and it’s rare to find it introduced without “genius” as qualifier. But is the word really so crucial to our understanding of Wallace as a man and his accomplishments?
The works of authors labeled geniuses are expelled to a dry and stiff land of books we will never read. It is only when one finally descends upon one of these books–out of necessity or a nagging curiosity–that one discovers those boring old Tolstoys, Melvilles, and Woolfs are actually alive and uncomprehendingly vital. Before the cape of “genius” is thrown off, it’s almost as if we expect to find ourselves reading the work of monuments.
Wallace doesn’t deserve to be called a genius, but one gets the sense there is more than a little genius in his work. He struggled through an at times paralysing depression which focused his attentions on finding and demonstrating a cure for modern living’s symptomatic depression and ennui, and he believed good writing should help readers “become less alone inside”. His prose evokes Pynchon: rich, manic, and dense (the first paragraph in the New Yorker excerpt runs over seven columns)–yet contrary to what one might expect from a writer whose work seems, at first glance, so deliberately difficult, Wallace always kept his audience in mind. As he put it, one must be “willing to sort of die in order to move the reader”, and “all of the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit, it’s got to be for hers.”
“The Pale King”, unfinished at the time of his suicide, is “about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter.” The main characters all work at the IRS. Their jobs involve tasks that are mind-numbingly tedious and boring, but require just enough mental work to keep them from shutting their minds off entirely. Their job is to push past this boredom, to embrace it until just beyond the breaking point, where the work, because of the endless repetition, becomes transcendent and meditative. One of the workers, reaching this state, levitates.
What strikes me most about the profile, and about Wallace himself, is his overwhelming sincerity. In him there is nothing of the pompous or pretentious, only the very real doubt of one struggling to come to terms with oneself as a writer and a person. He displays a child’s innocence and excitement once he is married and feels that his personal life is in order, even if his writing is going poorly.
He teased Green about what a good husband he was. She remembers him saying, “I took out the garbage. Did you see that?” and “I put tea on for you when you were driving home.”
The account is definitely at odds with the regularly understood conception of “genius as brute”, or “genius as single-minded automaton”. To be a genius in those terms means that one sacrifices everything else for the sake of some Platonic higher-calling, but one gets the sense that Wallace, throughout his life, was more concerned with being human. Perhaps it is more satisfying to think of Wallace’s suicide in terms of his failure to complete “The Pale King”, as if he was a modern-day Gogol driven insane by “Dead Souls”, but this interpretation ignores everything that Wallace stood for. “I only want adult sanity,” he once said, “which seems to me the only unalloyed form of heroism available today.”
Wallace’s death, ultimately, was one by “bad days” rather than fatal artistic nihilism. He had been taking Nardil, an antidepressant, for twenty-two years when his doctors convinced him to switch to something else for health reasons. But nothing stuck. Eventually Wallace decided to go without an antidepressant entirely. His wife, Karen Green, was worried. She believed it would take “a Jungian miracle” to get him functioning again. He wrote e-mails to Jonathan Franzen, constantly revising and pushing back his expected recovery time. “GQ” hired him to do a profile on Barrack Obama for the 2008 election, but he cancelled. In the summer he drove out to a motel, hired a room, and took an overdose of pills, though he called his wife in time to get him to a hospital. He told her he was glad to be alive. But Wallace’s life remained precipitous. Green believes she can pinpoint the exact moment Wallace decided to kill himself. “That Saturday was a really good day. Monday and Tuesday were not so good. He started lying to me that Wednesday.” Two days later, he was dead.