Out of Reach: Notes from the David Foster Wallace Symposium

May 8, 2012 | 10 9 min read

Bound copy of “Corrections of Typos/Errors for Paperback Printing of Infinite Jest” from David Foster Wallace to Nona Krug and Michael Pietsch. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

“It’s more intense every time I think of him,” said the woman in line behind me.

We were waiting to get into the opening panel at last month’s David Foster Wallace Symposium in Austin. She wore a black and white sundress (more appropriate for 90-degree Texas-in-April weather than, say, my blazer and wrinkled gray wool pants), and spoke in the elevated volume of someone who wants her private conversation to be heard by a crowd of strangers.

“The longer he’s dead,” she continued, eliciting reflex-type coughs from her audience, “it’s like he’s more dead.”

covercoverTo be honest, before the conference, I imagined that my task as an observer would consist mainly of plucking quotes like this from the air — of eavesdropping my way into conversations among Wallace devotees that would seem, both in the moment and on further reflection, cliché and naïve and, like, ten percent crazy. I think I expected to vindicate my own normal-seeming degree of Wallace fandom by exposing myself to the extremist sect of his readers — folks who wear Enfield Tennis Academy t-shirts (ETA being the fictional setting of Infinite Jest), or who are apparently in the process of trying to memorize the entirety of that 1,000-page novel (endnotes and all), or who participate regularly in the longstanding Wallace email listserv (1,200 strong, according to its creator and moderator Matt Bucher), and have ready responses to questions like “How do you characterize the influence of Lacan on Broom of the System?”

In one of the weirder moments during the proceedings, JT Jackson (who apparently makes the rounds on the circuit of DFW events) asserted to a panel that Wallace had been an un-credited writer of Good Will Hunting, and that if we wanted the truth, we should all “ask Matt about it.” Jackson has long gray hair and spindly gray mutton chops. He wore an olive green military-style jacket and introduced himself to me as a “good jarhead” that served during Vietnam. A classmate of Wallace’s in the MFA Program at the University of Arizona, he seems very invested in exposing hidden truths about Wallace’s life. [Ed. Note: Please see Jackson’s comment at the end of this piece for his responses.]

I guess this is to say that the symposium had its share of characters one might expect to find in a David Foster Wallace novel.

But thinking back to two days of talking about suicide, love, literary commitment, illness, perfection, and grief, it seems silly to sneer at the earnestness of readers who understand Wallace’s work much more deeply than I could ever hope to. I can’t report feeling any closer to a resolution about how writers should carry forward Wallace’s considerations of the constitutive struggles of ordinary life.

The symposium did repeatedly drive home the obvious fact that I don’t miss him as badly (and can’t miss him as badly) as the people who knew him personally. Not just as a spectral, textual, complex set of sometimes life-changing ideas about the world, but rather as a fleshy, six-foot-plus, pain in the ass, bandana-ed human dude who once asked Rolling Stone to provide a special caregiver for his dogs with “emotional issues” before covering the McCain campaign in 2000, and who left behind friends and family and a heap of paper that now sits in catalogued boxes for the rest us all to decipher, dissect, and translate.

More importantly, it revealed something of the motivating force behind our collective desire to discover for ourselves the ordinary humanness of writers we admire, and the ways we go about trying to do it by opening those boxes full of paper.

The event was made up of a series of moderated discussions among some of Wallace’s closest literary collaborators and friends, and was being held to consider the archive of unpublished story drafts, correspondence with editors, excised chapters of Infinite Jest, personal copies of John Barth novels, etc. It’s the kind of collection that the Harry Ransom Center — which acquired the steroidal volume of material for more than half a million dollars and meticulously prepared it for public use — will have to marshal serious ingenuity to protect against the drool of rabid pilgrims that visit their headquarters on the UT-Austin campus during the coming years.

coverAmong the conference’s participants were Bonnie Nadell (the agent who stumbled across Wallace’s work in a slush pile in 1985 and worked with him for the subsequent 23 years); Michael Pietsch (the Little, Brown editor who helped Wallace bring Infinite Jest into the world, and assembled the posthumous Pale King from pieces that Wallace left behind); critics and writers (some of whom openly expressed their intimidation at having to face a crowd of hyper-smart DFW junkies); and Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, whom I talked with after the final panel.

As the room emptied, I asked her what it felt like to know she wouldn’t ever find another DFW story in her inbox.

I immediately regretted it.

Yank back the curtain around Wallace’s genius and one finds a cast of fairly normal-seeming smart literary characters — people who pull the levers of the publishing industry’s machinery and who started careers hoping to work with someone like Wallace. I don’t think they ever expected to expend publicly this kind of emotional energy to describe the loss of a friend, and the question seemed crass, insensitive, stupid.

“It’s an intense sadness,” she said, as I felt the blood come to my face, “and being here brings it back. We haven’t spent too much time talking about that today. But it’s really sad.”

I stood there, pretending to be a real-life journalist, inspecting the pattern of the carpeting and managed to capture her last sentence: “He wasn’t going to give us something easy.” She was referring to his stories and the challenges that Wallace presented his editors.

But I ended up wondering whether this could stand as an encapsulation of a sentiment that ran throughout the symposium. It’s not easy — especially not when so many readers still feel the pain of personal loss with regard to Wallace. Many found it hard enough to say the word “suicide.” They said “early death,” “untimely death,” “untimely end,” “unfortunate end,” “tragic way that he died,” and even “the way he resolved himself.” They want to get into the archive to find a personal version of an answer to “why?” or alternatively, simply want clues about his writing process and about the way that his written work evolved — to look over his shoulder.

Christopher Gordon flew down from Boston to attend the conference with his son Noah. Together, they embodied these two most prevalent reasons for wanting access to the material. The elder Gordon, a mental health professional who has read Infinite Jest three times (the number of times one has gotten through the book has become a sort of currency — everyone gives you their “number”), wants to know more about Wallace’s use of psycho-pharmaceuticals. Meantime, Noah teaches high school English in New York and told me that the archive would help him demonstrate to his students the difficulty of creative activity.

“I want to expose how much work goes into writing,” he said, adding, “When you’re a student, you only see the gift.” He was talking about the polished final products that we hold in our hands and store on our e-readers. In other words, we can too easily assume that writing “just happens.”

The party line throughout the entire conference was that this new archive would precisely help us understand the evolution of Wallace’s ideas, and that this in turn would help us comprehend his life, his work, his mind. All of this has clear academic value and it’s the kind of thing that places like the Ransom Center put in their website mission statements. But the symposium made it plain that most of us also go to archives, or attend conferences on the lives of authors, or coordinate desperately with Public Relations professionals in the hopes of meeting the friends of authors (totally hypothetically, of course) to experience a sense of enhanced emotional proximity to the person we knew only in book form.

Despite our coolly intellectual association with the “death of the author,” the freedom of the reader, the independence of the text (as a friend of mine puts it plainly: “fuck biography”), we cling to the shards of evident ordinary humanity that an archive lays out for us.

On page 30, Wallace corrects the age of one of the characters in the book. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

“Any time you go into an archive, you get this burst of excitement,” said D.T. Max, whose biography of Wallace Every Love Story is a Ghost Story will be published this September. We sat outside the Ransom Center underneath its large trees during a break in the symposium. “You see how somebody writes. You see their handwriting. There’s nothing like that moment of delight.” When I asked if he thought that Wallace fans are unique in the depth of their desire to see this kind of material, he answered unequivocally in the affirmative.

Some of these fans will be disappointed because not all of the material will be available. Wallace’s personal collection of self-help books has been quietly removed. Shortly after the appearance of an online article analyzing the marginalia in those books, they were closed off. It seems understandable — though I identify with the frustration of researchers who contend that the self-help books would offer insights into Wallace’s own reflections on his mental illness. The archive will tell an incomplete story and this fact reminds us that its contents are contingent on raw and real emotions: that there’s a hierarchy in which readers come second (personal bias here, having met Wallace’s wife Karen Green and having observed the rigidity of grief in her posture as she patiently answered an attendee’s questions about her husband’s views on religion: rightfully so).

I’m not an expert on Wallace’s work. But I remember sitting on the curb outside an aquarium-themed bar in Washington, DC (one of the five worst establishments in the world) on a September night in 2008. I’d just learned about his death via text message from an ex-girlfriend. It was awful. I was blubbering with disbelief and shock and an unexpected sense of loneliness and stupidity that I’d be this upset about the death of a stranger. I remember thinking that there were other people out there who deserved to be more upset — people who knew him as more than a dust-jacket picture.

Yet as it turns out, even for some of the people who knew Wallace personally, the most difficult memories to talk about are the ones dealing with his writing.

Pietsch choked up when he described the process of editing The Pale King. He told his audience that Wallace was trying to unlock the “hallucinatory possibilities of boredom” — to explore ecstatic human freedom in desolate-seeming moments of mental life. It was tough to watch him characterize the almost unfathomable difficulty of this challenge, and to describe the degree to which his friend fought it. He had to cede the floor to Nadell, looking down at the stage as she picked up the thread of the conversation.

Over breakfast the next morning, Pietsch told me about reading the first 250 pages of the manuscript, which began from the perspective of a character named David Wallace.

“Reading those first words,” Pietsch said, “I was able to forget he wasn’t alive for a little while.”

How strange this moment must have been: the aliveness of the character and the realness of the voice strong enough to overshadow actual death (though one hesitates to concede that he was less dead). Isn’t the achievement of this kind of togetherness the motive force behind reading itself? Don’t we hope to connect at an irreducible level with the consciousness of another person in this way? And doesn’t fiction offer us the promise that this kind of experience can help us understand how to live?

To his fans, Wallace struggles more mightily in his work with these kinds of questions than any author of his generation, though they’re certainly at the heart of a lot of fiction that Wallace didn’t write. He was, as Pietsch puts it, “an extraordinary mind struggling with the challenge of ordinariness.” But what we seem to be searching for in an author’s archive (or even in a biography, a memoir, or whatever) is precisely an indication of the ordinariness of their struggle. So although we say we go to fiction for what we think is a unique set of experiences, we still crave the tangible evidence that an author was a person: that Wallace made sometimes-unreasonable demands of his editors, that he hid in hotel rooms while on assignment, that it was harder for him than the effortlessness of his prose would suggest.

When I asked Pietsch about the challenges of working with Wallace in everyday life, he responded with a tennis anecdote, telling me about a time when David had ask him to play a few sets.

“I demurred,” he said, “but David said ‘trust me, it’s great. What I’m really good at is putting the ball just outside your range.’”

I grew up on tennis courts (and sometimes think I’m doomed to forever find the overlaps between tennis and literary life). I know from experience that these kinds of players — torture-experts who can, at will, place a crosscourt forehand or down-the-line backhand just two inches beyond your panting body — are the worst people to play. Their befuddling facility with your personal limitations gets inside your noggin. You feel as though they have elemental knowledge, not only of your athletic ineptitudes, but your moral and intellectual shortcomings. They know about the time you peed your pants in first grade, about your unreported short-term capital gains, about your secret belief that recycling is bullshit. Yet to duel against this kind of brain can also provide the best and most fulfilling kind of joys, both on the court, and on the page.

Perhaps this tennis-like skill marks the unique quality of Wallace’s genius and explains the unique fervor of his readers. He rarely overwhelms us or bludgeons us into submission with the sheer force of his intellect. He uses big words and asks us for patience, and drives us nuts with the freaking footnotes. But the fact that his work is so addictive to so many arises from the tantalizing closeness of his observations of ordinary life to our own experience.

He puts the ball just out of reach. When we go up against him, we push our capacities for attentiveness to their limit. We want to see the world the way he does, and feel like we almost do — and maybe an archive suggests that by seeing the remainders of his ordinary life, we might get closer. It might reveal that his effortless-seeming performance requires an enormous amount of effort.

But we might have to come to terms with the fact that he’ll remain out of reach.

splits his time between Chicago and New York. His most recent work appeared in The New Ohio Review and he has written online for publications that include the Paris Review and Tin House. He is working on his first book.


  1. Wow. What a great article. Thanks for that.
    I’m a big fan of DFW (anxious to read the forthcoming bio), and my grief at his loss means that I regret that I will never read another novel from him ever again. Yet I can reread his work. And I agree with the belief that fiction teaches us about life, and that a book can serve to connect its readers. I am always in awe when I hear that an admired author of mine appreciates The Divine Comedy, for example. I think of all the people over time who have read those same words. It has to connect us.
    DFW taught me a lot about life. About emotions and the intellect and how they conflict sometimes and at other times connect.

  2. As a writer, I just wanted to mention that others might be interested in Jonathan Franzen’s book of essays Farther Away, which has a major piece reflecting on his friendship with Wallace and his feelings about the death.

  3. @Shelley – Yes, seconded. I guess my brain did some kind of weird short-circuit thing when I called this piece “Out of Reach” — certainly not consciously aware of the overlap of titular sentiments.

  4. a.j.
    corrections first:
    there was no claim of service in vietnam; the time spent in the Marine infantry was 79-83,
    second the shirt worn, not a jacket, was a forest green Van Husen picked up at a Goodwill store for six bucks, with a thought to tone down the usual dark styling of my normal apparel
    the suggestion, not assertion, that Dave had “something” to do with Good Will Hunting, deserves an airing on co-incidence alone, and I did not say “ask Matt,” I suggested one should ask Mark (Costello) with whom Dave was infinitely more close than I was to the lad when we hung out together in Tucson from ’85 to ’88, especially during the difficult periods when they shared housing in Boston (the moment for these co-incidences in the development of the script and the placement of the principals).

    your article’s shallow appreciation of my purpose at the conference should cause you to rethink your assessment of your place there. A good journalist might have tried to factcheck his quotes and characterizations,as one like DT Max has done diligently. And one might actually confess to the publishing project when engaged in conversation. These things I share are not secrets, to those who were there at the time as the biography will most likely attest, but aspects of Dave’s life and struggles that enlighten his climb.

    please update your post to reflect these concerns.

    semper fi

    other than those silly things
    the piece is present and honest
    in its reassessment of your project
    and well written

    while at the conference (the 3rd wallace event I’ve been at since his death, all in hopes of meeting some others who might share my respect for him and help me resolve the issues this sudden departure left as jagged ends),
    I spent Thursday evening out with Chris and Noah Gordon
    and found their uses of Wallace’s inspirational work
    motivational and sincere
    and their company and conversation most healing and helpful in the resolution of my ongoing grief
    hope you understand
    it’s a human thing

    lighten up
    wallace wonder is a good thing

  5. AJ, thanks for this piece. You captured the conference well, and the sense of engagement that a reader feels (I think) when reading Wallace. It feels like a conversation, with an extraordinarily, sometimes scarily, gifted partner — one so gifted, in fact, that one is kind of grateful for the distance and anonymity that being a reader provides, but still the experience holds a kind of conversational intimacy. I still can’t believe the incredible accesibility of the treasures at the Ransom Center; to be able to hold in your hands the progressive drafts of a masterpiece, and to see the process of crafting and care, is just astonishing. And JT — thanks for your words. We have fond memories of our evening together, too. Chris Gordon

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