Add David Foster Wallace to 'unlikable' pantheon

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David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace (September 13, 2012)

The last time filmmaker Jason Reitman came through town we got into a conversation about unlikable characters. He knows something about unlikable characters: "My first movie was about the head lobbyist for Big Tobacco ('Thank You for Smoking'), my second was about a sarcastic pregnant teenager ('Juno') and my third was about a guy who fires people for a living ('Up in the Air')."

I said that I've never understood audiences that decide they don't like a movie, book or TV show because a protagonist is intentionally hard to warm to or difficult to imagine being friends with. It always struck me as a failure of empathy, imagination.

"Young Adult," Reitman's most recent movie, about a young-adult author (Charlize Theron) who sets out to break up a happy marriage and experiences a single fleeting moment of self-awareness, was a perfect illustration. And probably for that reason, it tanked at the box office. Still, I liked it and patted myself on the back for being open-minded: I never not like something because a character comes off like an unrepentant creep. Besides, characters like this often speak to a larger point about alienation, desperation, culture, whatever.

Nine months later …

I've broken my pledge twice lately. The first time was surprisingly easy: "Bachelorette," a Sundance hit now playing in movie theaters, is director Leslye Headland's adaptation of her off-Broadway success about caustic bridesmaids. Their self-involvement, however easy to identify with, doesn't reveal much about obliviousness. (It also didn't help that I'd just read an interview with Kirsten Dunst. She said it's nice to play snooty for once.)

But the second time I found myself recoiling, it was more complicated. The just-released "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story" is one of the big books of the fall season, the first biography of writer David Foster Wallace, who grew up in the Urbana-Champaign area, taught for a while at Illinois State University and hung himself four years ago at 46. I offer that stuff upfront because author D.T. Max, a staffer at New Yorker magazine, begins with the familiar naivete both New York writers and politicians often exhibit toward the Midwest: Wallace grew up surrounded by people like himself, ruled by "midwestern values of normality, kindness and community," in a nice home alongside farmland "extending as far as the eye could see, endless horizons."

On the other hand, what first resembles a soft-focus postcard reveals itself to be less easy to dismiss, an unintentional portrait of the young artist as a douche, a pretentious, misleading moralist whose lifelong battle with depression often clouded a jerky nature. Even Theron's fictional home wrecker comes across more sympathetically than Wallace, who, during the cringe-inducing centerpiece, falls so deeply for writer Mary Karr ("The Liars' Club") he tries to convince her to leave her marriage. And keeps trying, brags about having perfect SAT scores, calls her "Miss Karr" in a "Charlie Chan-ish fawning kind of way," Karr recalls. Wallace goes as far as trying to buy a gun to murder Karr's husband with.

To be fair, that's one story line in a short, fraught life that Max also shows to be rich with kindness, intelligence, tenderness and, of course, undeniable literary gifts. Wallace was nothing if not self-aware: In his masterpiece "Infinite Jest," the enormously ambitious (and just plain enormous) tome that made him the most famous young author of the 1990s, his description of depression as a "nausea of the cells and soul" has the ache of someone all too aware of a chemical imbalance. And "Both Flesh and Not," the upcoming (and probably last) collection of Wallace's nonfiction, arrives in November with an essay on the fun of writing that offers the most honest consideration of both writing and the author himself that I've read:

"The fact that you can sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you'd first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn't any kind of bind at all. What it is, is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it, the reward of strangers' affection is as dust, lint."

That said, my reaction to the man hems closer to novelist and Wallace frenemy Bret Easton Ellis, himself known for the least likable literary character of the past 25 years, the killer in "American Psycho." A week ago, Easton Ellis was briefly the talk of book circles when he began tweeting out a kind of scorched-earth consideration of Wallace's legacy. Though praising Max for compassion toward an author so hard to truly like, he wrote: "Reading D.T. Max's bio I continue to find David Foster Wallace the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation." Later tweets from Easton Ellis called Wallace "needy," found "the halo of sentimentality surrounding him embarrassing," and referred to Wallace fans as "fools," a generation "trying" to read an author to feel smart.

In a Salon essay, Gerald Howard, once a book editor for both Wallace and Easton Ellis, chalked up the 140-character outbursts to a long (now one-sided) rivalry between Wallace (earnest, post-modern) and Easton Ellis (ironist, minimalist). Max, in a phone interview from his office, said he didn't know if Easton Ellis is "rattling cages" or believes it.

Not that personally liking or disliking an author should bear much weight on a literary reputation … but I asked Max if he thought Wallace was a creep. Not at all, he said. "There aren't many mistakes that he made that I or close friends haven't made," he said. He said Wallace fought hard against his demons. And indeed, in the book, Wallace's life develops a sad rhythm of productivity followed by spirals of depression.

But what of the lies Max documents? (Wallace tells a friend he has an offer to join the faculty at Northwestern University; Max writes that he could find no one at Northwestern who remembered this.) The disingenuousness? (Though his twisty, playful experiments with unusual forms is drawn directly from the influence of Thomas Pynchon, Wallace denies reading Pynchon.)

Factual fudging in his nonfiction? Max said before he began the book he hadn't thought much about whether Wallace's too-good-to-be-true moments were embellishments or pure fiction. "In retrospect, I look dumb," he said, "because any veteran writer who works in nonfiction will tell you as wonderful as David's journalism was, the sort of things he describes in some of his great nonfiction pieces" — about the Illinois State Fair, about his time on a cruise ship — "don't happen all the time. I'm not saying all of the things he wrote weren't true, but they have a distinctive smell."

Couple that with Wallace's literary gymnastics — the footnotes, the book reviews that begin with Wallace recording the book's weight in grams — and it's not hard to wonder what actually drives his enduring popularity. His cleverness? The sheer audacity of the way the type often looks on his pages? Dave Eggers, in his introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of "Infinite Jest," writes that the book "is like a spaceship with no recognizable component, no rivets or bolts, no entry points …" Which is fun, though I would bet "no entry points" is closer to how many readers (and even fans) feel. Indeed, it's not so tough to sympathize with Easton Ellis' annoyance at the ascendance of Wallace to literary sainthood. Max told me, "One of the things I noticed is how 25-year-olds have come to think David was 25 when he died." Again, he was 46, but thanks to the churning of cultural martyrdom I also picture 25.

Max adds the author's "place in the culture is highly unsettled." Which, paradoxically, is good for Wallace: As "Born Under Saturn," Margot and Rudolf Wittkower's classic consideration of artistic temperament, makes plain, "Misinterpretation is one of the great stimuli for keeping the past alive." Some think his legacy will be his nonfiction. The Chicago Reader's Craig Fehrman, whose graceful piece on Max's book was a recent cover, argues for a Midwestern interpretation of Wallace's work.

"But at the moment," Max said, "it's David Foster Wallace time on campuses. Everywhere I go, professors shake their heads: 'My students, they all sound like him.' The thing is, he was an original. You can't follow him and still be original." Which, in the end, may be the real teachable moment.

cborrelli@tribune.com

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