The Limits of David Foster Wallace

I have spent so much of my life wanting to kill myself it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine others haven’t. I’m only sort of wrong: a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says that in 2020, 11.3 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25 had “serious thoughts of suicide;” among all adults aged 18 or older, the number was 4.9 percent; among adolescents aged 12 to 17, 12 percent. Suicidality in a randomly selected American, then, would be an uncommon, but not exceptional, trait; in certain groups I belong to, it is common: Clinician’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder gives a wide range of 14 to 59 percent; one survey of trans people puts it, lifetime, at 81.7 percent. While more people think about suicide than attempt it, and more people attempt it than die by it, suicide is nevertheless the second leading cause of death among people aged 20 to 34 in the United States. Insofar as something as complex and heterogeneous as a human life can be said to have an organizing principle, mine has a simple one: do not kill yourself. A secondary one is writing.

These principles do not always harmonize. My ambitions for this essay were for something longer and better researched: the plan was to reread everything David Foster Wallace had ever written; read everything that had been written about everything David Foster Wallace had ever written; read Theory; read History; and, eventually, synthesize all of this with my own personal experience of reading Wallace as a mentally ill teenager. The result would be something titled “Sane People Explain David Foster Wallace To Me.” It would be emotionally affecting. It would be smart. It would make you think about the mentally ill in a different way.

I let go of these ambitions when I realized I cared more about the essay than I did about David Foster Wallace. He is no longer one of my favorite writers. I reread Infinite Jest a year and a half ago when I was recovering from a vaginoplasty; I figured there was no funnier time in my life to do so; I was right. I found the novel impressive and flawed. Here’s a good part:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

My argument would begin here. I would start by close reading one of Wallace’s stylistic tics, the blending of written and spoken speech, here seen in the phrase “quote ‘hopelessness,’” which, since things in the passage are already quoted, only makes sense if you imagine the work being spoken aloud. I would use this to introduce what makes Wallace interesting as a literary theorist: his investment in the reader-writer relationship, something he once described as “a late-night conversation with really good friends, when the bullshit stops and the masks come off.” I would point you to the Salon interview, where he says there’s “a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that’s very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about,” and then I would show you that the relationship isn’t actually that hard to talk about, you just need to read Karl Marx and misunderstand commodity fetishism to see that it’s one reason everyone’s so invested in the Death of the Author. Novels aren’t the only things produced by labor, so with commodity fetishism on the table, we could take a look at the sublimity of the global supply chain, something captured by more contemporary novelists Ben Lerner and Sally Rooney, the latter of whom has a character freak out about it in a grocery store, which is how we’d get back to Wallace, since he happened to set much of his famous commencement address, “This is Water,” in one. Though Wallace is unusually tuned in to how atomizing late capitalism is, I’d point out that he’s missing the other side of the dialectic: that, able to consume the products of labor spread out across the globe, we’re actually entering into more social relations than ever. And isn’t that a clever contradiction? We’d ride that high into an argument about the situation in Wallace’s grocery store being not a crisis of empathy but a crisis of social reproduction, which, it turns out, is also in part responsible for the crisis of mental illness, which would take us back to me having spent a lot of time wanting to kill myself, which is where the essay would get intelligible; it’s where we would talk about the Box.

Talk to enough people about David Foster Wallace, and you will inevitably hear his suicide explained along the lines of “he was sick.” It’s an interesting rhetorical move. Otherwise the paradigm of cisheterosexual white male authorship, here Wallace is Other. I think this is supposed to be reassuring: it’s supposed to reassure you, the person presumed not to be sick, that an author who explicitly positioned his work as an antidote to loneliness, who said that thing about good fiction disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed, who in the very commencement address mentioned above used suicide as a way to emphasize the importance of being able to choose what to think, killed himself because that’s what sick people do; the latter safely ensconced in the Box, his work is protected from his life. Of course, my question is what to do if you’re also in the Box? How do you read Wallace then?

I think one reason people have such a strong reaction to Wallace’s writing is that he thought literature should do things. He liked to reanimate clichés, so let’s try it out: one word I’d use to describe Wallace’s writing is urgent; he seemed to think that a piece of writing should be as important to the reader as it is to the writer. I don’t really think there’s a way to read Wallace without taking the idea that literature should do things seriously. And I think if that’s true, you have to take his suicide seriously. In his Cool Characters, Lee Konstantinou does: “The idea that writing is a means of overcoming loneliness and the crippling effects of radical individualism is, as we’ve seen, a major motif of Wallace’s writing, both in his fiction and his nonfiction. In these terms, his suicide might be taken not as a gesture or message but as an emblem of the failure of literature to solve certain kinds of problems.” This is what I took away when I read a lot of Wallace as a teenager: literature will not save you; neither will therapy, medication, a loving partner, or a successful writing career—Konstantinou points out that Wallace didn’t seem interested in “remaking society along any particular institutional or political economic lines,” but even then, the most generous thing I can say about the idea that ending capitalism will end mental illness is that it seems ahistorical. It goes without saying that it’s the best thing we could do; I just don’t think we should be deluded.

Yes: community helps; medication helps; therapy helps; money helps; even literature helps. But nothing guarantees.

People like to say there is nothing even remotely glamorous about the fight with mental illness. It’s a fight fought mostly in banal, everyday battles; managing your mental illness is just dull, tedious work—the work of your life. Putting it in these terms is, of course, self-defeating: like most dull, tedious work, those who don’t do it are susceptible to believing it noble; those who do aren’t paid enough. Then we have the question of banality: banal problems require banal solutions; an adequate response to the crisis of mental illness would require, at least, total societal restructuring, plus exercise, plus therapy, plus everything else.

Still, there is some truth to the banality idea. One funny thing about being bipolar is that it can help you create great things: in the short but powerful Strictly Bipolar, the psychoanalyst Darian Leader writes about the supposedly common patient experience of being handed a list of wildly successful bipolar people. I have never been handed a list like this, but I don’t think I’m the first bipolar person to have sought one out. It can be comforting to imagine you have the potential to be one of these people; it can also be delusional. We are, almost definitionally, people well-acquainted with grandiosity. Growing up, you learn to recalibrate what you consider success. The bipolar people I should admire are the ones that wake up every day and go into a job they hate, come home to someone they love, live a life that is imperfect and flawed, persist. That is admirable. That is noble.

But wouldn’t it be nice to do all that, and also write Mrs. Dalloway?

In “This is Water,” Wallace observes that besides religion, “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” So what happens when you worship literature? Don Quixote went crazy, but Don Quixote was fiction: the idea that you shouldn’t model your life on chivalric romances is an idea you can only accept by implicitly affirming the idea that you should model your life on novels. More than literary genrecide, this is literary suicide: the novel self-implicates. But it also traps you. Either you reject the idea that you shouldn’t model your life on fiction, and thus it’s ok to model your life on fiction, or you accept the idea that you shouldn’t model your life on fiction, and thus it’s ok to model your life on fiction. The literary may be dying, but everyone’s a Quixote about something. Like Wallace says, “[t]here is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

When it comes to Boys Who Write Big Books, I like Roberto Bolaño more than I like Wallace. This is in part because, as the editors at n+1 have observed,

[n]othing is so consistent across Bolaño’s work as the suspicion that literature is chiefly bullshit, rationalizing the misery, delusions, and/or narcissism of various careerists, flakes, and losers. Yet Bolaño somehow also treats literature as his and his characters’ sole excuse for existing. This basic Bolaño aporia—literature is all that matters, literature doesn’t matter at all—can be a glib paradox for others. He seems to have meant it sincerely, even desperately, something one would feel without knowing the first thing about his life.

I suspect that if you’ve made it this far into the essay, it’s because something like this is true for you, too. It is for me. Like Wallace, I believe because I have to: how can I claim literature cannot save me when it already has?

Reading Wallace as a teenager was important to me because it let me have late-night conversations no one else would. But Wallace was a flawed writer, and he did horrific things. Respecting his belief that literature is a real relationship between reader and writer, it’s hard to read him without contending with that fact. The same is true of thinking about his suicide. It’s probable that most of Wallace’s readers are not seriously mentally ill. But one of the paradoxes of Wallace is that his most serious readers read because they want something more than literary pleasure; they read because they want to know how to live.

Mine is an edge case, but so was his. Of a literary tradition largely shaped by the demands of bourgeois leisure, we ask everything. Wallace thought a lot about the infinite. He wrote a “compact history” of it, Everything and More, a strange book where he gives the following definitions of a mathematical limit: for a sequence, “‘limit’ refers to the number you never actually arrive at but do get closer and closer and closer to as the number of terms in the sequence grows;” for a function, it’s “the value that the dependent variable approaches as the independent variable approaches some other value.” That other value is often infinity, if not in math, then in Wallace’s writing. He liked to take things to their limits. Take, for example, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way,” the novella at the end of his first short story collection, Girl with Curious Hair, a novella that tries to critique metafiction using metafiction, a sort of infinite, metafictional regress, one he would revisit in “Octet,” a story in his second short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, where he uses what feels like an infinite number of fourth-wall-breaking addresses, each somehow more desperate and self-defeating than the last, to try and establish a genuine connection with the reader. This story will take you to your limit; as you watch Wallace asymptotically approach genuineness, you will be forced to decide if he can reach it—like Zadie Smith says, “Wallace wanted faithful readers.”

Should I have faith in Wallace’s project? I find it hard. Read on his own terms, there are enough compelling reasons not to. But I guess that’s what faith asks you to do, doesn’t it? Believe in the face of reason? Reach asymptotes.

I was 12 the first time I seriously considered killing myself, 17 when I accepted that I was mentally ill, 21 when I was formally diagnosed; I am 27 now. I have thought a lot about killing myself; I do not know if I am thinking the right things. To explain the purpose of serious fiction, Wallace gives the evocative metaphor of a reader “marooned in her own skull.” My mental landscape often feels like the opposite: it feels as though I am in the middle of a lake, one that is just small enough for me to see the shore, and just large enough for me to know that I would never make it there. In this inverted solipsism, it is the outside world that is real, my thoughts and my perceptions that are not. Unreality is the water I swim in.

But I still swim. One thing about having come very close to suicide is that there are days when I find it easy, as Wallace said in “This is Water,” to experience my mundane adult life “as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down;” there are days when it feels like I am swimming victory laps. And there are days when I still want to die. I have much to learn about living this way. I am closer to the Kenyon graduates listening to “This is Water,” clapping and laughing at the wrong moments, than I am to Wallace. That’s probably one reason I kind of hate that speech, why I think it’s myopic and reactionary, limited. But there are parts I love, moments that are so profoundly relevant to my sick life that I still think about them, a decade later. This is one: “It is unimaginably hard…to stay conscious and alive in the adult world, day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really is the job of a lifetime.” Stop swimming, and I will drown. So I swim, day in, day out.

Isabel Pabán Freed