This article is a part of the Arts b-side on Icons. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.

It was a year ago when I walked into the Dawn Treader Book Shop and squeezed past a few other patrons to reach the fiction section. On a low shelf in the Ws was a faded copy of Wallace’s debut novel “The Broom of the System.” 

I took the book to the counter and a man rang me up. I asked him if they had any of Wallace’s other books. 

“No, his stuff always sells fast.”

I said that was too bad, as I had just read “Infinite Jest” and I was looking to read more of his work. It was an admittedly pretentious brag, and he was not impressed. He smiled at me and dismissed me with a thin cheerfulness.

“Mm-hmm, well have a nice day.”

And that was that. To those that do not like his style, Wallace was an overblown mess of a writer — arrogant and too frequently labeled a genius, despite his books being bloated and forcefully intelligent. I suspect that the man at the counter at Dawn Treader was in this camp.

But I think Wallace was something else: a deeply troubled pop-hero who left his mark on the world through his art, his terror and his public presence. 

Before I say anything else, I want to present the first of Wallace’s words that I ever read, from the short story “Good Old Neon.” Keep them in mind:

“My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.”

***

As far as icons go, Wallace is one of the most quintessential. He wrote across multiple genres of literature, publishing fiction, nonfiction, speeches. His work is often unapproachable, his books so dense and overwritten that they almost feel actively averse to being read, and that’s what makes them attractive. 

Like many of Wallace’s readers, I made the mistake of jumping into his magnum opus “Infinite Jest” too quickly. I went from that first 40-page short story to a 1079-page brick of a book with little regard for the health of my corneas.

“Infinite Jest” is more a monstrosity than a book. The pages are large and imposing, their combined weight dragging your hands to the floor. Following the 981 pages of the main story is another 90 pages of  “Notes and Errata.” The endnotes are vital to the reader’s experience, though they sometimes left my head spinning as I flipped back and forth, back and forth.

The book is simply too chaotic and byzantine to summarize, but I will say this: the story mainly takes place in a tennis academy and a halfway house, and it deals with topics such as addiction, daddy issues, pervasive consumerism, a secret service of wheelchair-bound Quebecois assassins and a film so entertaining that its viewers watch it over and over again until they starve to death. 

It is as strange as it sounds, but Wallace embraces strangeness gracefully. In the mess of gaudy and sometimes grotesque language there is an undeniable humanity — Wallace touches on just about every emotion imaginable, every corner of human life from athletic stardom to copping cocaine to the loss of a loved one. And it isn’t his best work.

Don’t get me wrong, a thousand pages of wonderfully complex fiction is a fantastic achievement, one that would put any other writer at the top of 20th Century Classics lists before they retired to a villa somewhere. But Wallace wrote better stories. “Good Old Neon” is a masterclass in experimental structure and pacing, and you can read it in about an hour instead of a month. His most refined work, “The Pale King,” was published posthumously.

Before we get into that book, I want to take a look at Wallace as a person. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to his writing, but I first want to look at an interview that Wallace did with Charlie Rose.

At about three and a half minutes into the interview, Rose cuts the small-talk and asks Wallace, “Respect means a lot to you? Sort of the sense that ‘I’m taken seriously and respected for my work?’”

Wallace straightens in his chair and bites his lip before responding, “You can read this in my face? … Show me somebody who doesn’t like to be respected.”

Wallace then speaks to the public response to “Infinite Jest”, saying that he didn’t believe every reviewer finished the book before giving their verdict on it. At one point he interrupts his response to say, “… I’m sorry that I’m essentially stuttering, umm…” Rose reassures him, in a voice like that of a seasoned therapist, “No you’re not, you’re doing just fine.”

Wallace is taking the lead reluctantly in this dance. He doesn’t make much eye contact. He occasionally grimaces at his own comments. His voice sounds almost dreamy as he speaks low and quickly, like his thoughts are already loaded and he’s just letting them out. But they are just thoughts; he doesn’t try to imbue them with any special authority. Perhaps unknowingly, Wallace is acting out his every-man-but-not-just-any-man persona.

This is the person we can see in interviews, the man who flexes his talent yet at the same time seems to almost repress it. But this is not the person who woke up every day and made coffee and walked the dogs. For a glimpse of that man, I’d like to share a story from my high school English teacher, Hunter Dunn.

Pasadena, 2005. Dunn sees a flyer for a workshop on teaching writing. There are three names on the list of speakers, including David Foster Wallace. Why did such a famous author appear at a workshop in a high school classroom for 40 people? Dunn doesn’t know, but he suspects that it was a favor for a friend.

The workshop is held in a classroom in a high school across the street from Pomona College, where Wallace taught creative writing. The two other speakers go first, presenting their prepared materials and giving readings of their own work. Wallace has nothing prepared. He says something like, “I would never read my own work to students like that.”

At the end of the presentation, Dunn asks Wallace a question that he has since forgotten. But he still remembers Wallace’s response: “Okay, I’m going to answer your question, and then I want to know what you think.”

The workshop ends; everyone files out of the building. As he walks out, Dunn spots Wallace walking across a courtyard, probably back to his office at Pomona. He calls out, “Hey! Dave!”

Wallace turns around and sighs heavily, “Yes?”

Dunn asks him about an essay he wrote on the tennis player Michael Joyce. Wallace looks at him intently and says “Interesting player, isn’t he?”

The rest of the conversation has been lost in 15 years of memories, but Dunn recalls some key things about Wallace. He was an excellent listener, working out his thoughts before responding. But he was also curt, approaching every question as an argument, a game he wanted to win. He did not appear at all uncomfortable or self-conscious — he was a confident presence. 

Unlike in his interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace did not sound conflicted in-person. Perhaps when confronted with affirmation of the public belief in his brilliance, such as during a high-profile interview, his normal identity clashed with that expected of a genius.

That struggle is also present in his writing, but in a different way. Let’s return to “The Pale King.”

The story takes place at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, a setting as boring as one can imagine. In a cool 550 pages, Wallace breathes life into the banal and maddening world of tax return examination as if he were Tolkien constructing Middle Earth.

It was in “The Pale King” that I first started to find some clues of the real Wallace. The ninth chapter is labeled as “Author’s Foreword.” Wallace writes, “Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona.” 

He explains, “what follows is, in reality, not fiction at all, but substantially true and accurate. That The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story.” Of course, Wallace never worked for the IRS and the events in the book are completely fictional. But that doesn’t mean he is lying when he says the story is true, in a manner of speaking.

Wallace places himself in the story as a young IRS recruit who is mistaken for a high-level executive also named Dave Wallace. Scared to face the consequences of impersonating someone so well-respected, Dave Wallace (the character) goes along with the mistake and is swept into accordingly high-level meetings. 

Dave Wallace (the character) has no idea what is going on in these meetings. He sweats profusely and fumbles the few words he speaks. There is intense discussion of the tax code that the man he is impersonating should be intimately familiar with, but of course Dave Wallace (the character) knows nothing about the tax code. He stays silent so as not to reveal that he is not who people think he is. He writes down notes constantly, filling pages so that he will be perceived as a quiet but diligent observer, a focused participant in this world in which he knows he does not belong. 

If ever an author had spoken so clearly to their reader. 

***

Wallace committed suicide in 2008. He left behind many books and essays, and in the continued publishing of his work he has become an icon. The dark sides of his life, drug addiction, his struggle with depression, have only added to his impression as a tortured genius.

In his 2013 biography “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” D.T. Max briefly mentions our subject’s relationship with the poet Mary Karr. Karr volunteered in a halfway house in Boston, where Wallace was living due to addiction and a suicide attempt. There is one particularly alarming sentence: “One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car.”

Wallace’s relationship with Karr was mostly left in the dark, and it has fallen to Karr herself to speak out about it. He stalked her for years, even though she was married and had a child. He once showed up to a party with bandages on his arm, and revealed to Karr that he had tattooed her name on his skin.

It is very easy to dismiss this kind of darkness as part of the complications that come with genius. After all, is it not uncomfortable to think about the heinous acts committed by someone we like? To extend my consideration of a person past the safety of the products of their brilliance requires more emotional work than does reveling in the refined, beautiful things they gave to the world.

That is what it is to be an icon, to enjoy the luxury of near-complete separation from one’s flaws. Or, better still, for one’s flaws to be romanticized to the point that they enhance the iconic character. This symptom of the legendary condition leads us to think, he was in pain, what he must have suffered to give us these stories. He stalked and abused a woman he claimed to love, what demons must have plagued him to render his life so complicated.

Maybe I’m being too forgiving, maybe I’m not being forgiving enough. I didn’t know Wallace, all I can examine is the mystery he left behind. But I think the mystery is less confounding than we often think.

Consider how I was introduced to Wallace, in those first waning lines of “Good Old Neon.” I wonder: Was he trying to tell me a truth that he could only say behind the gossamer mask of fiction? 

Daily Arts Contributor Julian Wray can be reached at jwray@umich.edu.

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