Six months after David Foster Wallace’s suicide, The New Yorker published a novella-length piece by journalist D.T. Max on Wallace’s last difficult years and his encompassing effort to surpass Infinite Jest. That article started the drumbeat for two books: The first, The Pale King, was released last April and pored over by critics and readers; the second, Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace, arrives next week. The biography was written with the cooperation of Wallace’s family and is the first definitive treatment of the author’s life.
What follows are the book’s opening paragraphs:
Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s. He was born in Ithaca, New York, on February 21, 1962. His father, James, was a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell, from a family of professionals. David’s mother, Sally Foster, came from a more rural background, with family in Maine and New Brunswick, her father a potato farmer. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister who taught her to read with the Bible. She had gotten a scholarship to a boarding school and from there gone to Mount Holyoke College to study English. She became the student body president and the first member of her family to get a bachelor’s degree.
Jim and Sally had their daughter, Amy, two years after David, by which time the family had moved to Champaign-Urbana, twin cities in central Illinois and the home of the state’s most important public university. The family had not wanted to leave Cornell—Sally and Jim loved the rolling landscape of the region—but Wallace had been offered a job in the philosophy department in the university and felt he could not turn it down. The couple were amazed when they arrived to see how bleak their new city was, how flat and bare. But soon, happily, Jim’s appointment turned into a tenure-track post, Sally went back to school to get her master’s in English literature, and the family settled in, eventually, in 1969, buying a small yellow two-story house on a one-block-long street in Urbana, near the university. Just a few blocks beyond were fields of corn and soybeans, prairie farmland extending as far as the eye could see, endless horizons.
Here, Wallace and his sister grew up alongside others like themselves, in houses where learning was highly valued. But midwestern virtues of normality, kindness, and community also dominated. Showing off was discouraged, friendliness important. The Wallace house was modest in size and looked out at other modest-sized houses. You were always near your neighbors and kids in the neighborhood lived much of their lives, a friend remembers, on their bikes, in packs. Every other kid in that era, it seemed, was named David.
There was elementary school at Yankee Ridge and then homework. The Wallaces ate at 5:45 p.m. Afterward, Jim Wallace would read stories to Amy and David. And then every night the children would get fifteen minutes each in their beds to talk to Sally about anything that was on their minds. Lights-out was at 8:30 p.m., later as the years went on. After the children were asleep, the Wallace parents would talk, catch up with each other, watch the 10 p.m. evening news, and Jim would turn the lights out at 10:30 exactly. He came home every week from the library with an armful of books. Sally especially loved novels, from John Irving to college classics she’d reread. In David’s eyes, the household was a perfect, smoothly running machine; he would later tell interviewers of his memory of his parents lying in bed, holding hands, reading Ulysses to each other.
For David, his mother was the center of the universe. She cooked his favorites, roast beef and macaroni and cheese, and baked his chocolate birthday cake and drove the children where they needed to go in her VW Bug. Later, after an accident, she replaced it with a Gremlin. She made beef bourguignonne on David’s birthday and sewed labels into his clothes (some of which Wallace would still wear in college).
A Salon.com piece from last week is creating a buzz among publishing industry watchers. In it, an anonymous “midlist” author bemoans the consolidation of publishing companies and the ever shallower tastes of the reading public for contributing to the demise of authors who don’t write blockbusters. Almost taunting the reader, she drops clues throughout the article, tempting diligent gossips to discover her true identity. (Were she outed, I suspect she wouldn’t mind the publicity.) First, here is the article. (Use the day pass to view the article… you just have to watch an ad first). As soon as the article was published, the gossip erupted at, where else, gawker.com. Here the speculation begins, readers begin jumping into the fray, and, finally, Gawker, wanting to put the subject to rest, guesses: Amy Bloom. As they freely admit, though, Bloom is not a perfect fit, and I’m not convinced either. I’m on the case, though. Maybe I can figure it out. As far as whether or not I agree with her: I agree that publishing industry consolidation makes for a dull literary marketplace, but I refuse to believe that quality writing, no matter how uncommercial, is unsellable. The American people are not as dumb as some like to think, but I’ll tell you one thing, they don’t like whiners. Possibly more on this later.A PunditI always enjoy hearing from people who have been willing to publicly change their opinions on things. Somehow I find them more believable than the one note folks who populate the right and the left. This is why I like reading Christopher Hitchens. He is incredibly prolific, putting out what seems like a book a year and appearing almost daily in newspapers articulately presenting his singular points of view. As an example, check out his review in Canada’s Globe and Mail of the new book by Ian Baruma (another frequently-published commentator whose writing I enjoy).
When I was in high school, I was quite enthralled by Edgar Allan Poe. I’d been familiar with his most famous stories from a young age (I remember being particularly haunted by “The Cask of Amontillado”), but in high school I had the opportunity, poked and prodded by teachers, to delve deeper into some of the lesser known (or perhaps just less famous) stories, as well as his essays. The assigned reading begat extracurricular reading, as it sometimes did for me, and in looking for more Poe, I came across the one novel he ever wrote, an appropriately peculiar book, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It turned out to be a bizarre maritime tale rich with allegory and supernatural elements, not to mention cannibalism and geographic oddities (with particular attention paid to the mysterious Antarctica).It’s one of those books that stuck with me even though I don’t remember all that much about it, but I hadn’t thought about it for a while until Mrs. Millions asked me the other day if I’d ever heard of it. As it turns out, this is the book that Paul Theroux reads to Jorge Luis Borges in The Old Patagonian Express (as Mrs. Millions mentioned in writing about the book this week.)This juxtaposition led me to read up on the book at Wikipedia and elsewhere. I came away with a few nuggets: for example, I discovered that Jules Verne – in a fan fiction sort of turn – wrote a sequel to Pym called An Antarctic Mystery. Pym also inspired writers like H.P. Lovecraft, who drew from it in his book At the Mountains of Madness, Yann Martel, for his Booker-winning Life of Pi, and Rudy Rucker for The Hollow Earth. It also turns out that Borges once called Pym “Poe’s greatest work.” I think my copy is still tucked away at my parents house somewhere, so I’ll have to dig it up at some point. In the meantime, the full text of the book is available online.
While working on an essay, I found myself needing to use a word that meant “related to the study of proper names.” I knew exactly the word I wanted, because I’d just come across the same usage while re-reading David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In the essay on tennis player Michael Joyce, Wallace has this really cool throw-away paragraph about how the Association of Tennis Professionals’ weekly world rankings “constitute a nomological orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.” He goes on to celebrate such names as Mahesh Bhupathi, Jonathan Venison, Cyris Suk (!), Leander Paes, Udo Riglewski, and Martin Zumpft — and that’s just like a fifth of them. It truly is good reading.
Except it isn’t “nomological.” That was the word I went looking for, but I found this definition of it instead: “relating to or denoting certain principles, such as laws of nature, that are neither logically necessary nor theoretically explicable, but are simply taken as true.” For instance, the idea that two parallel lines will run forever and never touch is nomological, at least within Euclidean geometry.
But that really doesn’t sound like what Wallace was trying to say. It’s pretty clear he meant to say “the rankings constitute an [adjective related to the study of proper names] orgy.” A quick search indicated that the word Wallace was probably looking for was “onomastic,” which means “of or relating to the study of the history and origin of proper names.”
Where Wallace probably went wrong was in confusing the Greek nomos, meaning “law,” with onoma, meaning “name.” Consider that a variation of onoma was onuma; the switch from omicron to upsilon — the latter of which tends to enter English as a Y — helps form the root “-nym,” as in “synonym,” “antonym,” and “homonym.”
So the clause should read, “and the rankings constitute an onomastic orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading.”
I guess we should all take comfort in the fact that a titan like Wallace could make a mistake like this. On the other hand, it’s a testament to the late master’s genius that any of us even care.