Choosing Not to Be: On David Foster Wallace

By Laurie WinerNovember 25, 2012

Choosing Not to Be: On David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max

Photograph: Fireflies in Niimi, Japan (detail)  Tsuneaki Hiramatsu

I PRINTED OUT Michiko Kakutani’s review of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, and I took it with me to my therapist’s office. I’m not seeing her all that much these days, once a month, and I plan to stop altogether at the end of the year. These days, we talk leisurely about what it means to live a worthwhile life. I am holding on to her a little longer than I need to, after slowly emerging in June from three months of what Wallace calls “The Bad Thing.”

“The Bad Thing.” I like this phrase because the state it describes doesn’t deserve a more nuanced name. The Bad Thing is not nuanced. The Bad Thing is a compassless darkness; it is the bottom of a foul deep well whose view of sunlight exists only to taunt. But even as I say this I know it’s too poetic. There’s nothing poetic about depression. This is why, most of the time, it’s no fun to read about. No matter how gifted the writer, nothingness — not the philosophical kind, but the experiential — is not much of a subject.

Wallace hanged himself in 2008, at age 46. Kakutani, who had not been generous to Wallace while he was alive, tacitly acknowledged the tragedy of his death by quoting liberally from his O.E.D.-length novel Infinite Jest, curating the sentences in which Wallace described the weatherlessness we call clinical depression.

A level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it

a double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible

 a nausea of the cells and soul

Descriptions as powerful as these stand apart from most other writing on this subject. Wallace’s mind was quicksilver; it animated everything it touched, no matter how lifeless or unloved. The author’s staggering acuity contributes to the almost absurd length of his novels, and thus, in turn, probably the antagonism of some professional book reviewers.

Wallace’s short stories are what first won me over. One of his best, “Forever Overhead,” takes place at a crowded swimming club, mostly inside a boy’s head as he waits in line at the diving-board ladder to attempt his virgin plunge. Having decided that fear is caused by thinking, the boy is determined to keep his mind blank, but his senses vibrate with awareness. Eventually he is on deck, one foot on the ladder, a stocky woman above him, preparing to jump. A bald muscular man waits behind him. The boy knows there is no going back. He starts to climb.

The rungs are very thin. It’s unexpected. […] You taste metal from the smell of wet iron in shadow. Each rung presses into the bottoms of your feet and dents them. The dents feel deep and they hurt. You feel heavy. How the big woman over you must feel.

Near the top of the ladder, he is eye level with “the red, hurt-looking callus on the backs of her ankles.” He watches her go:

In no time she’s at the end of the board, up, down on it, it bends low like it doesn’t want her. Then it nods and flaps and throws her violently up and out, her arms opening out to inscribe that circle, and gone. She disappears in a dark blind. And there’s time before you hear the hit below.

Listen. It does not seem good, the way she disappears into a time that passes before she sounds. Like a stone down a well. But you think she did not think so. She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too. The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.

As in much of Wallace’s writing, this passage pulses with anxiety about the nature of existence and how we come to oblivion, and, everywhere, Wallace wonders how much or how little all of our thinking about it matters. If we are all fated to march just as insects do through their lives, how much thinking is too much?

In another short story, “The Depressed Person,” his female protagonist is a monstrous, hilariously self-obsessed mess, unable to frame anything or anyone outside of the context of herself. When her psychiatrist dies, an apparent suicide, she is annoyed at the inconvenience. But this is just half the story. In a comic show of his own compulsive over-thinking, Wallace dots the tale with multitudinous footnotes that grow so long they threaten to overtake the main story, and, in a way, do.

Wallace was blessed and cursed with the ability to explore so many areas of cognition that it was perhaps inevitable he would turn to Substances for relief. The capital S, like the ones in “The Bad Thing,” signifies an almost superstitious respect for these powerful forces in his life. “Most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking,” he wrote in Jest. “Addiction,” he noted, “is either a disease or a mental illness or a spiritual condition.” Whichever, he had it.

In 2006 Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech stood out for what was missing: the shots of optimism and inspiration traditional for this kind of event. Wallace wanted to keep it real. He exhorted the graduates to pay attention to what is happening in front of them in life, instead of what is happening in their brains. “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head,” he told them. He then outlined ways of thinking that might help his listeners make it “to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

About Wallace his friend and literary rival Jonathan Franzen said, “There was something genuinely compromised in David.”

Depression was part of Wallace’s psyche, and so it was part of his job to describe it. He knew that profound isolation is one of its chief tortures. He also saw how natural it was for observers to find the depressive unbearably self-obsessed. Perhaps that’s why Wallace worked so hard to make communicable the inchoate fragments he managed to pull out of himself while he was suffering. In Jest, he gives this struggle to a character named Kate Gompert.

There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. […] If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution.

Kate Gompert has an even shorter name for “The Bad Thing.” She calls it “It.”

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence.

You can almost hear Wallace thinking, “How else to make you people understand It?”

Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy — happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love — are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideals. […] Everything becomes an outline of the thing […] The world becomes a map of the world.

In Wallace’s attempt to limn what his character claims is un-limnable, he was notably preceded by William Styron, who published Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness in 1990. Styron is also much concerned with the problem of description.

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect — as to verge close to being beyond description.

He goes on:

That the word “indescribable” should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physician) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.

Styron claims that “since antiquity — in the tortured lament of Job, in the choruses of Sophocles and Aeschylus — chroniclers of the human spirit have been wrestling with a vocabulary that might give proper expression to the desolation of melancholia.” We have to wonder where he would have put Wallace in the pantheon. I myself would place him at the top. He didn’t literally live and die to help us understand this specific kind of agony, but in a way he did. The Passion of the Wallace.


Except in rare cases, we feel ambivalence toward suicides because they have betrayed the pact of the living. They have said that when you see life without any of our illusions, or diversions, it is unacceptable.

That means that the most beautiful experiences of existence — falling in love, taking care of someone, achieving something you strove for, pleasures aesthetic or physical, loving of any kind — are not worth what we think they are. The suicide places the ultimate bet that they won’t happen again tomorrow. And that is declaration of war, a war against meaning, against life.

A friend of a friend committed suicide a few years ago. I knew her passingly, seeing her at group dinners and such. Patty (we’ll call her) struck me as vivacious and smart. She always wore her blonde hair long with a thick, anachronistic headband, a trademark that set her apart from others. She reminded me of Sally Rodgers, the writer Rose Marie played on The Dick Van Dyke Show. I knew vaguely of a broken love affair, of a feud with a once esteemed brother, and looking back I don’t know if Patty seemed to have a hint of tragedy about her or if I see that only retroactively. When Patty took her life my friend Betsy (we’ll call her) said she was shocked but not surprised.

Patty carefully ensured her suicide’s success — she lined a small room with plastic wrap and brought in two gas grills as her final companions — and she divided up the labor that her death would cause with great precision. Three of Patty’s friends received detailed instructions as to how to execute the jobs she had bestowed on them. Each one received a personalized suicide note; Patty felt she owed them an explanation and a glimpse into her state of mind. She also let them know she had put aside a fund so that they could go see her psychiatrist who, despite the circumstances, she recommended. “I’ve requested that he tell you anything you want or need to know about me, anything that can help you work through this,” she wrote.

Betsy had been shipped several large boxes of Patty’s clothes — to wear, or give to friends, or donate to charity. If brown cardboard can have an aura, these boxes did. Silent on the outside, they seemed to have been touched by all of the pain of the person who wore the clothes and then methodically and apparently calmly packed them up, transported them to the trunk of her car, schlepped them to the UPS store, and paid to ship them first class. Betsy had opened one of the boxes and unpacked it, and then stopped. A row of dresses and jackets lay across one bed. She wasn’t going to wear any of them.

Patty’s letter to Betsy pissed me off. She started by quoting, in italics, from one of my favorite songs, “Pick Yourself Up,” written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in what may be the best scene they ever filmed together, in Swing Time (1936):


Nothing’s impossible
I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up
Dust myself off
Start all over again.

I still can’t listen to that song with the same unalloyed pleasure I once did. Each suicide produces ripples of unease that seep into unexpected places.

Then Patty started her explanation. She wrote:

The problem was, I didn’t want to start all over again. You are receiving this package because I am dead. I done myself in. Death by bar-b-que.

First I registered the strangeness of reading the words “I am dead.” Then, my heart squeezed shut. She’s sending Betsy this awful news, and she is flippant, I thought.

Betsy read it completely differently. She was grateful for the little joke. She saw it as Patty’s way of letting her, Betsy, know that Patty was in her “right mind” when she made her decision, that she was herself. This was comforting to Betsy.

Patty saved her most devastating line for an addendum to her letter, a page called “Eleventh Hour Ramblings.” Even looking at this page is hard for me, because I imagine she wrote it when all of her other chores were done, when she had put her last missives in their envelopes, when the grills had already been rolled into the Saran-wrapped room; perhaps they were even turned on. Here is the line that stayed with me:

I will not be anyone’s burden. And I will not live the life of mediocrity that my mother planned and hoped for me.

Here was the bitterness and contained rage I had been looking for. I started to allow myself to feel for Patty. But it was not entirely cathartic. I was still angry.


Like Virginia Woolf, Wallace rehearsed his ending many times in his fiction. He thought it over; he weighed it. Sometimes he even seemed to be talking himself out of it.

In Jest, for instance, Wallace provides a long list of lessons and exotic facts that one acquires from hanging around a “Substance-recovery facility,” a list that goes on for four pages. You will learn, he writes:

That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do.

That most nonaddicted adult civilians have already absorbed and accepted this fact, often rather early on.

That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.

A few pages later he sneaks in the line:

That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.

That, apparently, was not the case.

Biographer D.T. Max shows remarkable restraint in describing that terrible day in 2008 when Wallace could take it no longer. The only words he allows himself after Wallace’s death are these: “It was not the ending anybody would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.”

Riding in the car the other day I heard a report of a new anti-depressant, not yet released on the market. It was said that this drug could offer relief in hours. If only Wallace could have held on, I thought. But he couldn’t. He did what he could, and that will have to be enough.


LARB Contributor

Laurie Winer is a Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor.


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