In “Infinite Jest” David Foster Wallace described clinical depression as “the Great White Shark of pain,” “a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it,” a “nausea of the cells and soul,” a sort of “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 radical loneliness in which “everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution.”
At one point, Mr. Max says, he was also interested in politics. He joined the Amherst debate team, figuring it “would look good on his transcript if he applied to law school” but decided “no one’s going to vote for someone who’s been in a nuthouse.” After college, Mr. Max writes, “it never occurred to him that he could just go somewhere and write: he came from academia and believed in the classroom” and ended up enrolling in a writing program at the University of Arizona.
In these pages Mr. Max chronicles the influence that writers like Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo and Dostoyevsky had on Wallace, as well as Wallace’s fascination with television, including everything from “Hawaii Five-0” and “Hill Street Blues” to soap operas.
Mr. Max situates Wallace’s work within a context of contemporary fiction (at a time when postmodernism, minimalism and old-fashioned realism were vying for ascendancy), while carefully charting the evolution of his views on language, on the relationship between authors and readers, and on the purposes of literature. He also shows how Wallace’s interest in Pynchonian wordplay, mimicry and metaphysics yielded to a more earnest desire to communicate and connect, how a delight in cleverness and irony gave way to a call for writers who might treat “plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”