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Saturday, July 11, 2009

further infinity

I've been enjoying "Infinite Jest," and so decided to patch together two profiles of DFW, which offer a lot of insight into his life and struggles.

They are:

The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace
, by David Lipsky, Rolling Stone Magazine (which I have quoted in red text)


The Unfinished: David Foster Wallace's Struggle to Surpass 'Infinite Jest,'
by D.T. Max, The New Yorker (which I have quoted in blue text)

This will be long, but well worth your time I promise! Carla Gahr

The writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12th of last year. His wife, Karen Green, came home to find that he had hanged himself on the patio of their house, in Claremont, California. For many months, Wallace had been in a deep depression. The condition had first been diagnosed when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College, in the early eighties; ever since, he had taken medication to manage its symptoms. During this time, he produced two long novels, three collections of short stories, two books of essays and reporting, and “Everything and More,” a history of infinity. Depression often figured in his work. In “The Depressed Person,” a short story about an unhappy narcissistic young woman—included in Wallace’s 1999 collection, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”—he wrote, “Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Wellbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.” He never published a word about his own mental illness.

Wallace’s death was followed by four public memorial services, celebrations of his work in newspapers and magazines, and tributes on the Web. He was only forty-six when he killed himself, which helped explain the sense of loss readers and critics felt. There was also Wallace’s outsized passion for the printed word at a time when it looked like it needed champions. His novels were overstuffed with facts, humor, digressions, silence, and sadness. He conjured the world in two-hundred-word sentences that mixed formal diction and street slang, technicalese and plain speech; his prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed thought itself. “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant,” he wrote in “Good Old Neon,” a story from 2001. Riffs that did not fit into his narrative he sent to footnotes and endnotes, which he liked, he once said, because they were “almost like having a second voice in your head.”

The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is mediated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool. In the interview with McCaffery, he said, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” He also said, “All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.” Jannette Beckman / Retna

He was six-feet-two, and on a good day he weighed 200 pounds. He wore granny glasses with a head scarf, points knotted at the back, a look that was both pirate-like and housewife-ish. He always wore his hair long. He had dark eyes, soft voice, caveman chin, a lovely, peak-lipped mouth that was his best feature. He walked with an ex-athlete's saunter, a roll from the heels, as if anything physical was a pleasure. David Foster Wallace worked surprising turns on nearly everything: novels, journalism, vacation. His life was an information hunt, collecting hows and whys. "I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today," he once said, "of which maybe 25 are important. My job is to make some sense of it." He wanted to write "stuff about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live." Readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style: his comedy, his brilliance, his humaneness.

His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. Wallace was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand-page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive in the contemporary world, accepted a special chair at California's Pomona College to teach writing, married, published another book and, last month, hanged himself at age 46.

"The one thing that really should be said about David Foster Wallace is that this was a once-in-a-century talent," says his friend and former editor Colin Harrison. "We may never see a guy like this again in our lifetimes — that I will shout out. He was like a comet flying by at ground level."

His 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, was Bible-size and spawned books of interpretation and commentary, like Understanding David Foster Wallace — a book his friends might have tried to write and would have lined up to buy. He was clinically depressed for decades, information he limited to family and his closest friends. "I don't think that he ever lost the feeling that there was something shameful about this," his father says. "His instinct was to hide it."

After he died on September 12th, readers crowded the Web with tributes to his generosity, his intelligence. "But he wasn't Saint Dave," says Jonathan Franzen, Wallace's best friend and the author of The Corrections. "This is the paradox of Dave: The closer you get, the darker the picture, but the more genuinely lovable he was. It was only when you knew him better that you had a true appreciation of what a heroic struggle it was for him not merely to get along in the world, but to produce wonderful writing."

David grew up in Champaign, Illinois. His father, Jim, taught philosophy at the University of Illinois. His mother, Sally, taught English at a local community college. It was an academic household — poised, considerate — language games in the car, the rooms tidy, the bookcase the hero. "I have these weird early memories," Wallace told me during a series of interviews in 1996. "I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, holding hands and both lovin' something really fiercely." Sally hated to get angry — it took her days to recover from a shout. So the family developed a sort of interoffice conflict mail. When his mother had something stern to say, she'd write it up in a letter. When David wanted something badly — raised allowance, more liberal bedtime — he'd slide a letter under his parents' door.

David was one of those eerie, perfect combinations of two parents' skills. The titles of his father's books — Ethical Norms, Particular Cases — have the sound of Wallace short-story titles. The tone of his mother's speaking voice contains echoes of Wallace's writing voice: Her textbook, Practically Painless English, sounds like a Wallace joke. She uses phrases like "perishing hot" for very hot, "snoof" for talking in your sleep, "heave your skeleton" for go to bed. "David and I both owe a huge debt to my mother," says his sister, Amy, two years younger. "She has a way of talking that I've never heard anywhere else."

David was, from an early age, "very fragile," as he put it. He loved TV, and would get incredibly excited watching a program like Batman or The Wild Wild West. (His parents rationed the "rough" shows. One per week.) David could memorize whole shows of dialogue and predict, like a kind of plot weatherman, when the story was going to turn, where characters would end up. No one saw or treated him as a genius, but at age 14, when he asked what his father did, Jim sat David down and walked him through a Socratic dialogue. "I was astonished by how sophisticated his understanding was," Jim says. "At that point, I figured out that he really, really was extraordinarily bright."

David was a big-built kid; he played football — quarterback — until he was 12 or 13, and would always speak like an athlete, the disappearing G's, "wudn't," "dudn't" and "idn't" and "sumpin'." "The big thing I was when I was little was a really serious jock," Wallace told me. "I mean, I had no artistic ambition. I played citywide football. And I was really good. Then I got to junior high, and there were two guys in the city who were better quarterbacks than me. And people started hitting each other a lot harder, and I discovered that I didn't really love to hit people. That was a huge disappointment." After his first day of football practice at Urbana High School, he came home and chucked it. He offered two explanations to his parents: They expected him to practice every day, and the coaches did too much cursing.

He had also picked up a racket. "I discovered tennis on my own," Wallace said, "taking public-park lessons. For five years, I was seriously gonna be a pro tennis player. I didn't look that good, but I was almost impossible to beat. I know that sounds arrogant. It's true." On court, he was a bit of a hustler: Before a match, he'd tell his opponent, "Thank you for being here, but you're just going to cream me."

By the time he was 14, he felt he could have made nationals. "Really be in the junior show. But just at the point it became important to me, I began to choke. The more scared you get, the worse you play." Plus it was the Seventies — Pink Floyd, bongs. "I started to smoke a lot of pot when I was 15 or 16, and it's hard to train." He laughed. "You don't have that much energy."

It was around this time that the Wallaces noticed something strange about David. He would voice surprising requests, like wanting to paint his bedroom black. He was constantly angry at his sister. When he was 16, he refused to go to her birthday party. "Why would I want to celebrate her birthday?" he told his parents.

"David began to have anxiety attacks in high school," his father recalls. "I noticed the symptoms, but I was just so unsophisticated about these matters. The depression seemed to take the form of an evil spirit that just haunted David." Sally came to call it the "black hole with teeth." David withdrew. "He spent a lot of time throwing up junior year," his sister remembers. One wall of his bedroom was lined with cork, for magazine photos of tennis stars. David pinned an article about Kafka to the wall, with the headline THE DISEASE WAS LIFE ITSELF.

"I hated seeing those words," his sister tells me, and starts to cry. "They seemed to sum up his existence. We couldn't understand why he was acting the way he was, and so of course my parents were exasperated, lovingly exasperated."

David graduated high school with perfect grades. Whatever his personal hurricane was, it had scattered trees and moved on. He decided to go to Amherst, which is where his father had gone, too. His parents told him he would enjoy the Berkshire autumn. Instead, he missed home — the farms and flat horizons, roads stretching contentedly nowhere. "It's fall," David wrote back. "The mountains are pretty, but the landscape isn't beautiful the way Illinois is."

cargohoo:  David Foster Wallace - 1962-2008 From ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’, writing about going on a cruise ship: “I have heard upscale U.S. citizens ask the Guest             Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates             getting wet, whether the skeetshooting will be held             outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what             time the Midnight Buffet is.”

At Amherst David perfected the style he would wear for the rest of his life: turtleneck, hoodie, big basketball shoes. The look of parking-lot kids who in Illinois were called Dirt Bombs. "A slightly tough, slightly waste-product-y, tennis-playing persona," Costello says. Wallace was also amazingly fast and good company, even just on a walk across campus. "I'd always wanted to be an impressionist," Wallace said, "but I just didn't have an agile enough vocal and facial register to do it." Crossing a green, it was The Dave Show. He would recount how people walked, talked, held their heads, pictured their lives. "Just very connected to people," Costello recalls. "Dave had this ability to be inside someone else's skin."

Observing people from afar, of course, can be a way of avoiding them up close. "I was a complete just total banzai weenie studier in college," Wallace recalled. "I was really just scared of people. For instance, I would brave the TV pit — the central TV room — to watch Hill Street Blues, 'cause that was a really important show to me."

One day, though, toward the end of his sophomore year, Costello walked into their dorm room to find Wallace sitting alone, slumped over, his gray Samsonite suitcase between his legs, a Chicago Bears cap on his head. “I have to go home,” he told Costello. “Something’s wrong with me.”

He was pulling out of college. Costello drove him to the airport. "He wasn't able to talk about it," Costello recalls. "He was crying, he was mortified. Panicky. He couldn't control his thoughts. It was mental incontinence, the equivalent of wetting his pants."

"I wasn't very happy there," Wallace told me later. "I felt kind of inadequate. There was a lot of stuff I wanted to read that wasn't part of any class. And Mom and Dad were just totally cool."

Wallace went home to hospitalization, explanations to his parents, a job. For a while, he drove a school bus. "Here he was, a guy who was really shaky, kind of Holden Caulfield, driving a school bus through lightning storms," Costello recalls. "He wrote me a letter all outraged, about the poor screening procedures for school-bus drivers in central Illinois."

Wallace would visit his dad's philosophy classes. "The classes would turn into a dialogue between David and me," his father remembers. "The students would just sit looking around, 'Who is this guy?' " Wallace devoured novels — "pretty much everything I've read was read during that year." He also told his parents how he'd felt at school. "He would talk about just being very sad, and lonely," Sally says. "It didn't have anything to do with being loved. He just was very lonely inside himself."

He began to write fiction. Until then, Wallace had seen novels primarily as a pleasurable way to get information. (Even in later years, he admired the novels of Tom Clancy for their ability to pack in facts.) But he realized that fiction could order experience as well as philosophy could, and also provide some of the same comfort. During this time, he wrote several short stories, one of which was published. “The Planet Trillaphon” appeared in the Amherst Review in 1984. The autobiographical story captures the intense pain of the depression he suffered:

I’m not incredibly glib, but I’ll tell what I think the Bad Thing is like. . . . Imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick . . . intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom . . . swollen and throbbing, off-color, sick, with just no chance of throwing up to relieve the feeling. Every electron is sick, here, twirling offbalance and all erratic in these funhouse orbitals that are just thick and swirling with mottled yellow and purple poison gases, everything off balance and woozy. Quarks and neutrinos out of their minds and bouncing sick all over the place.

David Foster Wallace: adorable.

He returned to Amherst in the fall, to room with Costello, shaky but hardened. "Certain things had been destroyed in his head," Costello says. "In the first half of his Amherst career, he was trying to be a regular person. He was on the debate team, the sort of guy who knows he's going to be a success." Wallace had talked about going into politics; Costello recalls him joking, "No one is going to vote for somebody who's been in a nuthouse." Having his life fall apart narrowed his sense of what his options were — and the possibilities that were left became more real to him. In a letter to Costello, he wrote, "I want to write books that people will read 100 years from now."

Back at school junior year, he never talked much about his breakdown. "It was embarrassing and personal," Costello says. "A zone of no jokes." Wallace regarded it as a failure, something he should have been able to control. He routinized his life. He'd be the first tray at the dining hall for supper, he'd eat, drink coffee dipped with tea bags, library study till 11, head back to the room, turn on Hawaii Five-O, then a midnight gulp from a scotch bottle. When he couldn't turn his mind off, he'd say, "You know what? I think this is a two-shot night," slam another and sleep. Eric Chu

Wallace took his first creative-writing class, and began aggressively reading contemporary fiction. He was drawn to the postmodernists, whose affection for puzzles and mirrors-within-mirrors sensibility reflected his own enthusiasm for math and philosophy. Costello remembers, “Junior year, David and I were sitting around talking about magical realists—I think it was ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’—and someone said, ‘Pynchon’s much cooler.’ We said ‘Who?’ He threw a copy of ‘Lot 49’ at us. For Dave, that was like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie.” Wallace also loved Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” which came out when he was a senior.

That same year, Wallace began his novel “The Broom of the System.” A remark from an old girlfriend had stuck in his mind. He later wrote to Gerald Howard, the book’s editor, that “she said that she would rather be a character in a piece of fiction than a real person. I got to wondering just what the difference was.”

Wallace wrote most of the nearly five hundred pages of “Broom” during the second semester. He took his deadpan dialogue from DeLillo and his character names and attitude of paranoia from Pynchon. His protagonist is Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman; her boyfriend is Rick Vigorous, an Amherst graduate and the director of the publishing firm Frequent & Vigorous. Beadsman’s great-grandmother, a disciple of Wittgenstein, has mysteriously disappeared from her nursing home. The atmosphere of ontological uncertainty that pervades the book is Wallace’s dramatization of the ideas of Wittgenstein. Yet there was a tumble and urgency to his writing that broke free of this philosophical anchor. Rick Vigorous thinks about Lenore’s great-grandmother:

Apparently she was some sort of phenomenon in college and won a place in graduate study at Cambridge . . . but in any event there she studied . . . under a mad crackpot . . . who believed that everything was words. Really. If your car would not start, it was apparently to be understood as a language problem. If you were unable to love, you were lost in language. Being constipated equaled being clogged with linguistic sediment.

David Foster Wallace

After Amherst, Wallace went to the University of Arizona for an MFA. It was where he picked up the bandanna: "I started wearing them in Tucson because it was a hundred degrees all the time, and I would perspire so much I would drip on the page." The woman he was dating thought the bandanna was a wise move. "She was like a Sixties lady, a Sufi Muslim. She said there were various chakras, and one of the big ones she called the spout hole, at the very top of your cranium. Then I began thinking about the phrase 'Keeping your head together.' It makes me feel kind of creepy that people view it as a trademark or something — it's more a recognition of a weakness, which is that I'm just kind of worried that my head's gonna explode."

Arizona was a strange experience: the first classrooms where people weren't happy to see him. He wanted to write the way he wanted to write — funny and overstuffed and nonlinear and strange. The teachers were all "hardass realists." That was the first problem. Problem two was Wallace. "I think I was kind of a prick," he said. "I was just unteachable. I had that look — 'If there were any justice, I'd be teaching this class' — that makes you want to slap a student." One of his stories, "Here and There," went on to win a 1989 O. Henry Prize after it was published in a literary magazine. When he turned it in to his professor, he received a chilly note back: "I hope this isn't representative of the work you're hoping to do for us. We'd hate to lose you."

"What I hated was how disingenuous it was," Wallace recalled. "'We'd hate to lose you.' You know, if you're gonna threaten, say that."

Maybe one of the best David Foster Wallace photographs in existence (just look at that face, why don’t you, and even this is to say nothing of that shirt).  By Wendy Maeda for the Boston Globe, 1997.

In September, 1985, Wallace mailed a chapter of “Broom” to a literary agency in San Francisco. In a cover letter, he noted coyly that he was roughly the same age as Bret Easton Ellis and David Leavitt—“whose fiction has done well partly because of readers’ understandable interest in new, young writing.” A new associate at the agency, Bonnie Nadell, loved the chapter, and took Wallace on as her first client. Three months later, she sold the manuscript to Gerald Howard, of Penguin Books, which had started a line of contemporary novels in paperback. In a letter to Howard, Wallace explained that “Broom” wasn’t “realistic, and it is not metafiction; if it’s anything, it’s meta-the-difference-between-the-two.” In the McCaffery interview, he described “Broom” as covert autobiography, “the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction . . . which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6°F calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct.”

The editing went smoothly. In a letter to Howard, Wallace had promised to be “neurotic and obsessive” but “not too intransigent or defensive.” But they disagreed on how “Broom” should end. Howard felt that the text called for some sort of resolution; Wallace did not think so. Howard urged him to keep in mind “the physics of reading”—or, as Wallace came to understand the phrase, “a whole set of readers’ values and tolerances and capacities and patience-levels to take into account when the gritty business of writing stuff for others to read is undertaken.” In other words, a reader who got through a long novel like “Broom” deserved a satisfying ending. Wallace was not so confident a writer as to simply ignore Howard’s suggestion; as he wrote to Howard, he didn’t want his novel to be like “Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’ . . . Ayn Rand or late Günter Grass, or Pynchon at his rare worst”—books that gave pleasure only to their authors. Yet when he tried to write a proper conclusion, “in which geriatrics emerge, revelations revelationize, things are cleared up,” the words felt wrong to him. “I am young and confused and obsessed with certain problems that I think right now distill the experience of being human,” he wrote to Howard. Reality was fragmented, and so his book must be, too. In the end, he broke the novel off midsentence: “I’m a man of my”

Howard was won over by Wallace’s ending, and felt that “Broom” was remarkable, a “portent for the future of American fiction.” He says, “It wasn’t just a style but a feeling he was expressing, one of playful exuberance . . . tinged with a self-conscious self-consciousness.” The dominant style of the time was the minimalism of writers such as Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney—chroniclers of disaffected youth—were an offshoot of this group. These writers were smart but withholding, their characters often bored with being bored. Wallace’s voice was different. It projected, in Howard’s words, “the sheer joy of a talent realizing itself.” There was optimism in its despair, elation in its anomie.

The Broom of the System was published in January of 1987, Wallace's second and last year at Arizona. The title referred to something his mother's grandmother used to say, as in, "Here, Sally, have an apple, it's the broom of the system." "I wasn't aware David had picked up on that," his mother says. "I was thrilled that a family expression became the title of his book."

The novel hit. "Everything you could hope for," Howard says. "Critics praised it, it sold quite well, and David was off to the races."

His first brush with fame was a kind of gateway experience. Wallace would open The Wall Street Journal, see his face transmuted into a dot-cartoon. "Some article like 'Hotshot's Weird New Novel,' " he said. "I'd feel really good, really cool, for exactly 10 seconds. Probably not unlike a crack high, you know? I was living an incredibly American life: 'Boy, if I could just achieve X, Y and Z, everything would be OK.' " Howard bought Wallace's second book, Girl With Curious Hair, a collection of the stories he was finishing up at Arizona. But something in Wallace worried him. "I have never encountered a mind like David's," he says. "It functioned at such an amazingly high level, he clearly lived in a hyperalert state. But on the other hand, I felt that David's emotional life lagged far behind his mental life. And I think he could get lost in the gap between the two."

Wallace was already drifting into the gap. He won a Whiting Writers' Award — stood on a stage with Eudora Welty — graduated Arizona, went to an artists' colony, met famous writers, knew the famous writers were seeing his name in more magazines ("absolutely exhilarating and really scary at the same time"), finished the stories. And then he was out of ideas. He tried to write in a cabin in Tucson for a while, then returned home to write — Mom and Dad doing the grocery shopping.

A particularly endearing photo of David Foster Wallace.

Back in Urbana, Wallace felt like a failure. “A lot of the trouble has to do with writing, but none of it with having stuff to send you, publications, or careers,” he wrote to Nadell. “Nothing to do, really, with anything exterior to me.” In another letter, he wrote, “My ambitions at this point are modest and mostly surround staying alive.” One night, he and Amy watched “The Karen Carpenter Story,” a maudlin TV movie about the singer, who died of a heart attack brought on by anorexia. When it was over, Wallace’s sister, who was working on her own M.F.A., at the University of Virginia, told David that she had to drive back to Virginia. David asked her not to go. After she went, he tried to commit suicide with pills. He survived, and checked himself in to a psychiatric ward in Urbana, where he was given a course of electroconvulsive therapy. The experience horrified him, but he thought it helped. Wallace’s mother remembers that David emerged as delicate as a child. “He would ask, ‘How do you make small talk?’ ” his mother remembers. “ ‘How can you know which frying pan to pick out of the cupboard?’ ”

Wallace had decided that writing was not worth the risk to his mental health. He applied and was accepted as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard. Philosophy was the only thing that had meant as much to him as writing. It, too, could trigger epiphanies. Harvard had offered him a scholarship, and academia would give him a more stable life, with health insurance.

"Harvard was just unbelievably bleak," Wallace said. It became a substance marathon: drinking, parties, drugs. "I didn't want to feel it," he said. "It was the only time in my life that I'd gone to bars, picked up women I didn't know." Then for weeks, he would quit drinking, start mornings with a 10-mile run. "You know, this kind of very American sports training — I will fix this by taking radical action." Schwarzenegger voice: "If there's a problem, I will train myself out of it. I will work harder."

Costello watched while Wallace slipped into a depressive crisis. "He was hanging out with women who were pretty heavily into drugs — that was kind of alluring to Dave — skanking around Somerville, drinking himself blotto."

It was the worst period Wallace had ever gone through. "It may have been what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis," he said. "It was just feeling as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false. And there was nothing, and you were nothing — it was all a delusion. But you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn't function."

By November, the anxieties had become locked and fixed. "I got really worried I was going to kill myself. And I knew, that if anybody was fated to fuck up a suicide attempt, it was me." He walked across campus to Health Services and told a psychiatrist, "Look, there's this issue. I don't feel real safe."

"It was a big deal for me, because I was so embarrassed," Wallace said. "But it was the first time I ever treated myself like I was worth something."

By making his announcement, Wallace had activated a protocol: Police were notified, he had to withdraw from school. He was sent to McLean, which, as psychiatric hospitals go, is pedigreed: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton all put in residences there; it's the setting for the memoir Girl, Interrupted. Wallace spent his first day on suicide watch. Locked ward, pink room, no furniture, drain in the floor, observation slot in the door. "When that happens to you," David said, smiling, "you get unprecedentedly willing to examine other alternatives for how to live."

Wallace spent eight days in McLean. He was diagnosed as a clinical depressive and was prescribed a drug, called Nardil, developed in the 1950s. He would have to take it from then on. "We had a brief, maybe three-minute audience with the psychopharmacologist," his mother says. Wallace would have to quit drinking, and there was a long list of foods — certain cheeses, pickles, cured meats — he would have to stay away from. Steven Gross

In December, Wallace was released and sent to a halfway house in Brighton, a run-down section of Boston. “It is a grim place, and I am grimly resolved to go there,” he wrote to Nadell. He became serious about fighting his addictions. He participated in alcohol and narcotic rehabilitation programs. He replaced pot with cigarettes and, ultimately, with chewing tobacco, which he unsuccessfully tried to quit. Before his collapse, he had written observations in notebooks. He took this up again; Amy Wallace remembers him writing in one with a Care Bears cover. But he found that he had lost his commitment to fiction. He was becoming healthy, but felt adrift. In May, 1990, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had recently become friends, “Right now, I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and [William] Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of conviction about the enterprise’s meaning and end.” He added that he considered suicide “a reasonable if not at this point a desirable option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

Slowly, normality and a pleasure in writing fiction returned to Wallace. Like all the residents of the house, he had a job. One day, he was supposed to be editing the house rules, but instead he played hooky, holing up in a Brighton library with “Flight of Fear,” a teen adventure novel. “I found it a ripping good read,” he wrote Franzen. He added, “I think back with much saliva to times in 1984, 85, 86, 87 when I’d sit down and look up and it would be hours later and there’d be this mess of filled up notebook paper and I just felt wrung out and well fucked and well blessed.” He wasn’t sure all those filled notebooks had been worth it, though; he now saw himself as having been driven by a “basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and post structural and linguistically calisthenic. This is why I get very spiny when I think someone’s suggesting this may be my root motive and character because I’m afraid it might be.”

At the halfway house, Wallace got to know people with radically different backgrounds. “Mr. Howard,” he wrote his editor, “everyone here has a tattoo or a criminal record or both!” The halfway house also showed him that less intellectual people were often better at dealing with life. They found catchphrases such as “One day at a time” genuinely helpful. To his surprise, so did he. As he later told Salon, “The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important.”

Wallace met Jonathan Franzen in the most natural way for an author: as a fan. He sent Franzen a nice letter about his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. Franzen wrote back, they arranged to meet in Cambridge. "He just flaked," Franzen recalls. "He didn't show up. That was a fairly substance-filled period of his life."

By April of 1992, both were ready for a change. They loaded Franzen's car and headed for Syracuse to scout apartments. Franzen needed "somewhere to relocate with my wife where we could both afford to live and not have anyone tell us how screwed up our marriage was." Wallace's need was simpler: cheap space, for writing. He had been researching for months, haunting rehab facilities and halfway houses, taking quiet note of voices and stories, people who had fallen into the gaps like him. "I got very assertive research- and finagle-wise," he said. "I spent hundreds of hours at three halfway houses. It turned out you could just sit in the living room — nobody is as gregarious as somebody who has recently stopped using drugs."

He and Franzen talked a lot about what writing should be for. "We had this feeling that fiction ought to be good for something," Franzen says. "Basically, we decided it was to combat loneliness." They would talk about lots of Wallace's ideas, which could abruptly sharpen into self-criticism. "I remember this being a frequent topic of conversation," Franzen says, "his notion of not having an authentic self. Of being just quick enough to construct a pleasing self for whomever he was talking to. I see now he wasn't just being funny — there was something genuinely compromised in David. At the time I thought, 'Wow, he's even more self-conscious than I am.' " Corbis

By then, he had started working on “the Project”—his name for his second novel. In March, 1991, he informed Nadell that he was now writing “daily on a schedule.” Roughly a year later, he promised her that he was “going to shoot for having at least 100 pages (roughly probably a sixth or seventh) of this long document in your hands by April.” When the pages were ready, he wanted them to go to Gerald Howard, with “the voluminous notes of explanation and defense I’ll doubtless enclose.” He was still interested in the warping power of media culture. And he had a new appreciation of addiction and its lethality: it gave him something to warn against. He created a character named Hal Incandenza, who bridged two worlds Wallace knew well—Incandenza is a pothead and a talented high-school tennis player. He goes to an academy run by his family, which his older brother, Orin, also attended. Their father, James, a filmmaker, committed suicide after making a short movie called “Infinite Jest,” recorded in a format called a “cartridge,” which is so engrossing that anyone who watches it loses all desire. Wallace writes of one viewer, “He has rewound to the beginning several times and then configured for a recursive loop. He sits there, attached to a congealed supper, watching at 0020h, having now wet both his pants and the special recliner.” The action is set in the near future: a Qué-bécois separatist group tries to get hold of “Infinite Jest,” copies of which are extremely rare, to use as a terrorist weapon.

Wallace worked quickly in the house that he shared. He filled page after page of grade-school notebooks and then typed what he’d written with two fingers on an old computer. In a letter to Nadell, he had made a promise: “I will be a fiction writer again or die trying.” Keith Bedford / Getty

Wallace spent a year writing in Syracuse. "I lived in an apartment that was seriously the size of the foyer of an average house. I really liked it. There were so many books, you couldn't move around. When I'd want to write, I'd have to put all the stuff from the desk on the bed, and when I'd want to sleep, I would have to put all the stuff on the desk."

Wallace worked longhand, pages piling up. "You look at the clock and seven hours have passed and your hand is cramped," Wallace said. He'd have pens he considered hot — cheap Bic ballpoints, like batters have bats that are hot. A pen that was hot he called the orgasm pen. Charlie Powell

By May, 1992, he had sent two hundred pages of “Infinite Jest” to Howard, who read them with amazement. He now saw Wallace’s addiction, descent, and recovery as “a ceremony of purification.” Michael Pietsch, an editor at Little, Brown who had become friends with Wallace, also read the pages. “I want to do this book more than I want to breathe,” he told Bonnie Nadell. Pietsch, who had a reputation for publishing innovative fiction, outbid Howard with an eighty-thousand-dollar offer, and Wallace changed publishers.

Wallace was pushing himself to get beyond the facile skepticism of “Broom.” In 1993, he told Whiskey Island, a literary magazine, “This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up.” He detected a pervasive sadness in the country. “It manifests itself as a kind of lostness,” he told Salon, in an interview after the book was published.

“Infinite Jest” is a story of people in pain. Near the book’s opening, Hal Incandenza is rushed to an emergency room in the midst of a breakdown:

It will start in the E.R., at the intake desk . . . or in the green-tiled room after the room with the invasive-digital machines; or, given this special M.D.-supplied ambulance, maybe on the ride itself: some blue-jawed M.D. scrubbed to an antiseptic glow with his name sewn in cursive on his white coat’s breast pocket and a quality desk-set pen, wanting gurneyside Q&A, etiology and diagnosis by Socratic method, ordered and point-by-point. There are, by the O.E.D. VI’s count, nineteen nonarchaic synonyms for unresponsive, of which nine are Latinate and four Saxonic. . . . It will be someone blue-collar and unlicensed, though, inevitably—a nurse’s aide with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses me as jou—who will, looking down in the middle of some kind of bustled task, catch what he sees as my eye and ask So yo then man what’s your story?

The passage held out a hope rarely signalled in his earlier work: the possibility that telling a story could lead to redemption. The idea had been central to the sobriety sessions he had attended. As he told Salon, “I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the A.A. model isn’t the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.”

In the summer of 1993, he took an academic job 50 miles from his parents, at Illinois State University at Normal. The book was three-quarters done. Based on the first unruly stack of pages, Nadell had been able to sell it to Little, Brown. He had put his whole life into it — tennis, and depression, and stoner afternoons, and the precipice of rehab, and all the hours spent with Amy watching TV. The plot motor is a movie called Infinite Jest, so soothing and perfect it's impossible to switch off: You watch until you sink into your chair, spill your bladder, starve, die. "If the book's about anything," he said, "it's about the question of why am I watching so much shit? It's not about the shit. It's about me: Why am I doing it? The original title was A Failed Entertainment, and the book is structured as an entertainment that doesn't work" — characters developing and scattering, chapters disordered — "because what entertainment ultimately leads to is 'Infinite Jest,' that's the star it's steering by."

Wallace held classes in his house, students nudging aside books like Compendium of Drug Therapy and The Emergence of the French Art Film, making jokes about Mount Manuscript, David's pile of novel. He had finished and collected the three years of drafts, and finally sat down and typed the whole thing. Wallace didn't really type; he input the giant thing twice, with one finger. "But a really fast finger."

It came to almost 1,700 pages. "I was just terrified how long it would end up being," he said. Wallace told his editor it would be a good beach book, in the sense that people could use it for shade. Steve Rhodes

In Bloomington, Wallace struggled with the size of his book. He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten it. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to Pietsch, adding, “I’ve become intensely attached to this strategy and will fight w/all 20 claws to preserve it.” He explained that endnotes “allow . . . me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns . . . 5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.” He also said, “I pray this is nothing like hypertext, but it seems to be interesting and the best way to get the exfoliating curve-line plot I wanted.” Pietsch countered with an offer of footnotes, which readers would find less cumbersome, but eventually agreed.

Pietsch suggested extensive cuts, many of which Wallace accepted. Eventually, he learned to erase passages that he liked from his hard drive, in order to keep himself from putting them back in. In all, he delivered seventeen hundred pages, of which Pietsch cut several hundred. The bound galleys went out with a list of corrections that hadn’t made the printer’s deadline. Suzy Allman / NYT

It can take a year to edit a book, re-edit it, print it, publicize it, ship it, the writer all the time checking his watch. In the meantime, Wallace turned to nonfiction. Two pieces, published in Harper's, would become some of the most famous pieces of journalism of the past decade and a half.

Colin Harrison, Wallace's editor at Harper's, had the idea to outfit him with a notebook and push him into perfectly American places — the Illinois State Fair, a Caribbean cruise. It would soak up the side of Wallace that was always on, always measuring himself. "There would be Dave the mimic, Dave the people-watcher," Costello says. "Asking him to actually report could get stressful and weird and complicated. Colin had this stroke of genius about what to do with David. It was a much simpler solution than anyone ever thought."

In the pieces, Wallace invented a style writers have plundered for a decade. The unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making choices and cuts. The voice was humane, a big, kind brain tripping over its own lumps. "The Harper's pieces were me peeling back my skull," Wallace said. "You know, welcome to my mind for 20 pages, see through my eyes, here's pretty much all the French curls and crazy circles. The trick was to have it be honest but also interesting — because most of our thoughts aren't all that interesting. To be honest with a motive." He laughed. "There's a certain persona created, that's a little stupider and schmuckier than I am."

The cruise-ship piece ran in January 1996, a month before David's novel was published. People photocopied it, faxed it to each other, read it over the phone. When people tell you they're fans of David Foster Wallace, what they're often telling you is that they've read the cruise-ship piece; Wallace would make it the title essay in his first collection of journalism, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. In a way, the difference between the fiction and the nonfiction reads as the difference between Wallace's social self and his private self. The essays were endlessly charming, they were the best friend you'd ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style. Wallace's fiction, especially after Infinite Jest, would turn chilly, dark, abstract. You could imagine the author of the fiction sinking into a depression. The nonfiction writer was an impervious sun.

The novel came out in February of 1996. In New York Magazine, Walter Kirn wrote, "The competition has been obliterated. It's as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy! The novel is that colossally disruptive. And that spectacularly good." He was in Newsweek, Time, Hollywood people appeared at his readings, women batted their eyelashes, men in the back rows scowled, envied. A FedEx guy rang his bell, watched David sign for delivery, asked, "How's it feel to be famous?"

“Infinite Jest,” published in February, 1996, quickly became a totem for young people. The postmodernist heyday was long past; minimalism was in decline. There was a wide opening for Wallace’s opaque sincerity. His “impulse to second-guess every thought and proposition became something like a generational style,” as Gerald Howard says. One day, Howard was walking down West Broadway, in Manhattan, and came across a long line of people waiting to hear Wallace read at Rizzoli. “There was this adoration,” he remembers. “He had reached people in this highly personal way.”

Wallace did not like being the object of so much attention. He wrote to Don DeLillo, with whom he had begun a correspondence, that he had “tried my best to tell the truth and to be kind to reporters who hadn’t read the book and wanted only to discuss the ‘hype’ around the book and seemed willfully to ignore the fact that articles about the hype were themselves the hype (for about a week there it seemed to me that the book became the Most Photographed Barn, everyone tremendously excited over the tremendous excitement surrounding a book that takes over a month of hard labor to read).”

As soon as he could, he finished his book tour and retreated to Bloomington, to his house and to Jeeves and the Drone—a stray who had joined him and Jeeves one day when they were out running. In the wake of “Infinite Jest,” he felt anxiety about his writing. Earlier, Wallace had asked DeLillo whether it was normal. DeLillo reassured him, invoking Henry James’s words: “Doubt is our passion.” He added, “Some writers may have to do 2, 3 books, say in midcareer, before they remember that writing can be fun.”

At the end of his book tour, I spent a week with David. He talked about the "greasy thrill of fame" and what it might mean to his writing. "When I was 25, I would've given a couple of digits off my non-use hand for this," he said. "I feel good, because I wanna be doing this for 40 more years, you know? So I've got to find some way to enjoy this that doesn't involve getting eaten by it."

He was astonishingly good, quick company, making you feel both wide awake and as if your shoes had been tied together. He'd say things like, "There's good self-consciousness, and then there's toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness." He talked about a kind of shyness that turned social life impossibly complicated. "I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the point that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I'm hanging out with you, I can't even tell whether I like you or not because I'm too worried about whether you like me."

He said one interviewer had devoted tons of energy to the genius question. "That was his whole thing, 'Are you normal?' 'Are you normal?' I think one of the true ways I've gotten smarter is that I've realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I'm pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die."

It had been difficult, during the summer, to watch his sister get married. "I'm almost 35. I would like to get married and have kids. I haven't even started to work that shit out yet. I've come close a few times, but I tend to be interested in women that I turn out to not get along very well with. I have friends who say this is something that would be worth looking into with someone that you pay."

Wallace was always dating somebody. "There were a lot of relationships," Amy says. He dated in his imaginative life too: When I visited him, one wall was taped with a giant Alanis Morissette poster. "The Alanis Morissette obsession followed the Melanie Griffith obsession — a six-year obsession," he said. "It was preceded by something that I will tell you I got teased a lot for, which was a terrible Margaret Thatcher obsession. All through college: posters of Margaret Thatcher, and ruminations on Margaret Thatcher. Having her really enjoy something I said, leaning forward and covering my hand with hers."

He tended to date high-strung women — another symptom of his shyness. "Say what you want about them, psychotics tend to make the first move." Owning dogs was less complicated: "You don't get the feeling you're hurting their feelings all the time."

His romantic anxieties were full-spectrum, every bit of the mechanics individually examined. He told me a joke:

What does a writer say after sex?

Was it as good for me as it was for you?

"There is, in writing, a certain blend of sincerity and manipulation, of trying always to gauge what the particular effect of something is gonna be," he said. "It's a very precious asset that really needs to be turned off sometimes. My guess is that writers probably make fun, skilled, satisfactory, and seemingly considerate partners for other people. But that the experience for them is often rather lonely."

One night Wallace met the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose depression memoir, Prozac Nation, had recently been published. She thought he looked scruffy — jeans and the bandanna — and very smart. Another night, Wallace walked her home from a restaurant, sat with her in her lobby, spent some time trying to talk his way upstairs. It charmed Wurtzel: "You know, he might have had this enormous brain, but at the end of the day, he still was a guy."

Wallace and Wurtzel didn't really talk about the personal experience they had in common — depression, a substance history, consultations at McLean — but about their profession, about what to do with fame. Wallace, again, had set impossible standards for himself. "It really disturbed him, the possibility that success could taint you," she recalls. "He was very interested in purity, in the idea of authenticity — the way some people are into the idea of being cool. He had keeping it real down to a science."

When Wallace wrote her, he was still curling through the same topic. "I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I'm not one of the good ones. But then I countenance the fact that at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don't notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself. It's all very confusing. I think I'm very honest and candid, but I'm also proud of how honest and candid I am — so where does that put me?"

Success can be as difficult to recover from as failure. "You know the tic big-league pitchers have," his mother says, "when they know that they've pitched a marvelous game — but gee, can they do it again, so they keep flexing that arm? There was some of that. Where he said, 'OK. Good, that came out well. But can I do it again?' That was the feeling I got. There was always the shadow waiting."

Wallace saw it that way too. "My big worry," he said, "is that this will just up my expectations for myself. And expectations are a very fine line. Up to a certain point they can be motivating, can be kind of a flamethrower held to your ass. Past that point they're toxic and paralyzing. I'm scared that I'll fuck up and plunge into a compressed version of what I went through before."

Mark Costello was also worried. "Work got very hard. He didn't get these gifts from God anymore, he didn't get these six-week periods where he got exactly the 120 pages he needed. So he found distraction in other places." He would get engaged, then unengaged. He would call friends: "Next weekend, Saturday, you gotta be in Rochester, Minnesota, I'm getting married." But then it would be Sunday, or the next week, and he'd have called it off.

"He almost got married a few times," Amy says. "I think what ultimately happened is he was doing it more for the other person than himself. And he realized that wasn't doing the other person any favors."

Wallace told Costello about a woman he had become involved with. "He said, 'She gets mad at me because I never want to leave the house.' 'Honey, let's go to the mall.' 'No, I want to write.' 'But you never do write.' 'But I don't know if I'm going to write. So I have to be here in case it happens.' This went on for years."

“The Pale King,” the name Wallace gave to the novel that, had he finished it, would have been his third, was one-third complete, by an estimate that he made to Nadell in 2007. The novel continues Wallace’s preoccupation with mindfulness. It is about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter, and centers on a group of several dozen I.R.S. agents working in the Midwest. Their job is tedious, but dullness, “The Pale King” suggests, ultimately sets them free. A typed note that Wallace left in his papers laid out the novel’s idea: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” On another draft sheet, Wallace typed a possible epigraph for the book from “Borges and I,” a prose poem by Frank Bidart: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”

The problem was how to dramatize the idea. As Michael Pietsch points out, in choosing the I.R.S. as a subject Wallace had “posed himself the task that is almost the opposite of how fiction works,” which is “leaving out the things that are not of much interest.” Wallace’s solution was to overwhelm his seemingly inert subject with the full movement of his thought. His characters might be low-level bureaucrats, but the robust sincerity of his writing—his willingness to die for the reader—would keep you from condescending to them.

“The Pale King” does not abandon postmodernism entirely: the novel is structured as a mock memoir. In a chapter called “Author’s Foreword,” Wallace informs the reader that he was once an employee at the I.R.S. Upon entering the bureaucracy, he reveals, agents are given new Social Security numbers; taking a job there is like being “born again.” (The conceit is pure fiction.) In the mid-eighties, Wallace announces, he became “947-04-2012.” After being caught selling term papers and suspended from his preppy college, he cast around for something to do, and applied to work at the I.R.S. The agency hired him as a “wiggler”—the first people to go over returns arriving at the agency. “I arrived for intake processing at Lake James, IL’s I.R.S. POST 047, sometime in mid-May of 1985,” Wallace writes. (A digression follows—a long footnote on the history of Lake James, followed by commentary about the confusion of having an I.R.S. office whose mailing address and building address are in separate towns.) Upon arriving at the intake center, Wallace says, he was given special treatment after being mistaken for another David Wallace—a high-powered accountant transferring to the facility from Rome, New York. For much of the chapter, everyone at the I.R.S. thinks that David Foster Wallace is the other Wallace, giving the author a double to go with his fictional rebirth.

On his undeserved V.I.P. tour, Wallace gets a glimpse of a different world—a calmer one, with a “silence . . . both sensuous and incongruous.” His chatty guide, Ms. Neti-Neti, accidentally opens the wrong door, showing him the room where agents do their silent work. Wallace portrays it as a kind of monastery: “I caught a glimpse of a long room filled with I.R.S. examiners in long rows and columns of strange-looking tables or desks, each of which (desks) had a raised array of trays or baskets clamped to its top, with flexible-necked desk lamps in turn clamped at angles to these fanned-out arrays, so that each of the I.R.S. examiners worked in a small tight circle of light. . . . Row after row, stretching to a kind of vanishing point near the room’s rear wall.” Wallace’s unquiet mind is not yet ready for this paradise. Ms. Neti-Neti quickly spirits him away. Suzy Allman / New York Times

Wallace began the research for “The Pale King” shortly after the publication of “Infinite Jest.” He took accounting classes. He studied I.R.S. publications. “You should have seen him with our accountant,” Karen Green remembers. “It was like, ‘What about the ruling of 920S?’ ” He enjoyed mastering the technicalities of the I.R.S. bureaucracy—its lore, mind-set, vocabulary. He assembled hundreds of pages of research on boredom, trying to understand it at an almost neurological level. He studied the word’s etymology and was intrigued to find that “bore” appeared in the language in 1766, two years before “interesting” came to mean “absorbing.” (He puts this revelation into the mouth of the ghost of an I.R.S. agent who comforts Lane Dean, Jr., when he despairs.)

Wallace began writing “The Pale King” around 2000. A severe critic of his own work, he rarely reported to his friends that anything he was working on was going well. But his complaints about this book struck them as particularly intense. Pietsch remembers being on a car ride with Wallace and hearing him compare writing the novel to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.” On another occasion, Wallace told him that he had completed “two hundred pages, of which maybe forty are usable.” He had created some good characters, but the shape of the book evaded him. In 2004, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen that to get the book done he would have to write “a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%, the very idea of which makes something in me wither and get really interested in my cuticle, or the angle of the light outside.”

In the summer of 2001, Wallace relocated to Claremont, California, to become the Roy Edward Disney Chair in Creative Writing, at Pomona College. He published stories and essays, but was having trouble with his work. After he reported on John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign for this magazine, he wrote his agent that it would show his editor that "I'm still capable of good work (my own insecurities, I know)."

Wallace had received a MacArthur "genius" award in 1997. "I don't think it did him any favors," says Franzen. "It conferred the mantle of 'genius' on him, which he had of course craved and sought and thought was his due. But I think he felt, 'Now I have to be even smarter.' " In late 2001, Costello called Wallace. "He was talking about how hard the writing was. And I said, lightheartedly, 'Dave, you're a genius.' Meaning, people aren't going to forget about you. You're not going to wind up in a Wendy's. He said, 'All that makes me think is that I've fooled you, too.'"

Wallace met Karen Green a few months after moving to Claremont. Green, a painter, admired David's work. It was a sort of artistic exchange, an inter-disciplinary blind date. "She wanted to do some paintings based on some of David's stories," his mother says. "They had a mutual friend, and she thought she would ask permission."

"He was totally gaga," Wright recalls. "He called, head over heels, he was talking about her as a life-changing event." Franzen met Green the following year. "I felt in about three minutes that he'd finally found somebody who was up to the task of living with Dave. She's beautiful, incredibly strong, and a real grown-up — she had a center that was not about landing the genius Dave Wallace."

They made their debut as a couple with Wallace's parents in July 2003, attending the Maine culinary festival that would provide the title for his last book, Consider the Lobster. "They were both so quick," his father says. "They would get things and look at each other and laugh, without having to say what had struck them as funny." The next year, Wallace and Green flew to his parents' home in Illinois, where they were married two days after Christmas. It was a surprise wedding. David told his mother he wanted to take the family to what he called a "high-gussy" lunch. Sally Wallace assumed it was Karen's influence. "David does not do high gussy," she says. "His notion of high gussy is maybe long pants instead of shorts or a T-shirt with two holes instead of 18." Green and Wallace left the house early to "run errands," while Amy figured out a pretext to get their parents to the courthouse on the way to the lunch. "We went upstairs," Sally says, "and saw Karen with a bouquet, and David dressed up with a flower in his buttonhole, and we knew. He just looked so happy, just radiating happiness." Their reception was at an Urbana restaurant. "As we left in the snow," Sally says, "David and Karen were walking away from us. He wanted us to take pictures, and Jim did. David was jumping in the air and clicking his heels. That became the wedding announcement."

According to Wallace's family and friends, the last six years — until the final one — were the best of his life. The marriage was happy, university life good, Karen and David had two dogs, Warner and Bella, they bought a lovely house. "Dave in a real house," Franzen says, laughing, "with real furniture and real style."

To Franzen's eye, he was watching Wallace grow up. There had been in David a kind of purposeful avoidance of the normal. Once, they'd gone to a literary party in the city. They walked in the front door together, but by the time Franzen got to the kitchen, he realized Wallace had disappeared. "I went back and proceeded to search the whole place," Franzen recalled. "He had walked into the bathroom to lose me, then turned on his heels and walked right back out the front door."

Now, that sort of thing had stopped. "He had reason to hope," Franzen said. "He had the resources to be more grown-up, a wholer person."

And then there were the dogs. "He had a predilection for dogs who'd been abused, and unlikely to find other owners who were going to be patient enough for them," Franzen says. "Whether through a sense of identification or sympathy, he had a very hard time disciplining them. But you couldn't see his attentiveness to the dogs without getting a lump in your throat." Marion Ettinger

Green had a son, a teen-ager named Stirling, from a previous marriage, and he sometimes visited. Wallace, who never felt that he was cut out to be a father, bonded with the boy. They played chess together, with Stirling usually winning. Wallace was growing tired of teaching, but he continued to enjoy the contact with students. One student, Kelly Natoli, remembers Wallace introducing himself on the first day of a creative-writing class: “He said, ‘It’s going to take me, like, two weeks to learn everyone’s name, but by the time I learn your name I’m going to remember your name for the rest of my life. You’re going to forget who I am before I forget who you are.’ ”

Wallace was thrilled that his personal life was in order: he took it as evidence that he had matured. He teased Green about what a good husband he was. She remembers him saying, “I took out the garbage. Did you see that?” and “I put tea on for you when you were driving home.” Green was a good partner for Wallace, too—supportive and literate, but not in awe of her husband. “We used to have this joke about how much can you irritate the reader,” Green recalls. He could be needy. At night, he would beg her not to get sick or die.

At Pomona, Wallace published “Oblivion”; the last story is about a man for whom great art comes so easily he can defecate it. He also wrote essays, published his book on infinity, and went to Wimbledon to write about Roger Federer for the Times. To DeLillo he wrote, “I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do, but it does, and now I’m back here flogging away (in all senses of the word) and feeding my own wastebasket.”

“The Pale King” had many ambitions. It would show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic freneticism of American life. It had to be emotionally engaged and morally sound, and to narrate boredom while obeying the physics of reading. And it had to put over the point that the kind of personality that conferred grace was exactly the kind that Wallace did not have. In 2005, Wallace wrote in his notebook, “They’re rare, but they’re among us. People able to achieve and sustain a certain steady state of concentration, attention, despite what they’re doing.” It did not escape him that his failing to write the book was rising to a meta level—that he could not write it because he could not himself ignore the noise of modern life.

Wallace made a considerable start, though. He found a style that was amusing and engaging, that captured mindfulness without solemnity. Perhaps someone else reading the novel—Wallace would show it to no one—might have been satisfied. But his own past brilliance stalked him. In his “Author’s Foreword,” he assures the reader, “The very last thing this book is is some kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher.” He also writes, “I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too—at least now that I’m over 30 I do.” And yet there he was, writing about “David Wallace” in long, recursive sentences with footnotes.

“The Pale King” slowly came into being. In one of Wallace’s notebooks, there is a sentence suggesting that he had hit on the framework of a plot: an evil group within the I.R.S. is trying to steal the secrets of an agent who is particularly gifted at maintaining a heightened state of concentration. It was a witty notion, an echo of the Québécois villains in “Infinite Jest.” It is not clear that Wallace followed up on it, but if he did it did not satisfy him. “The individual parts of this book would not be all that hard to read,” he wrote Bonnie Nadell, in 2007. “It’s more the juxtaposition of them, the number of separate characters, etc.”

At times, Wallace put “The Pale King” aside, then picked it up again. He polished the sentences over and over. A few sections achieved what he was aiming for, or came close. In 2007, he published in this magazine a small part of the novel, which dealt with Lane Dean, Jr.,’s earlier decision to have a baby with a woman he was dating. A picture of the infant on his desk comforts Dean when he considers suicide. Another scene, in which an I.R.S. agent’s calm is disturbed by a colleague’s menacing baby, found its way into Harpers, as “The Compliance Branch.”

Wallace was aware that he did not have to keep working on “The Pale King.” He had become a vocal critic of the Bush Administration. “I am, at present, partisan,” he had told The Believer in 2003. “Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration. . . . My own plan for the coming fourteen months is to knock on doors and stuff envelopes. Maybe even to wear a button. To try to accrete with others into a demographically significant mass. To try extra hard to exercise patience, politeness, and imagination on those with whom I disagree. Also to floss more.” Green, in an e-mail, told me that “mostly what he (we) did was rant and give $, rant and give $.”

Wallace and Green discussed his quitting writing. “He talked about opening up a dog shelter,” she remembers. “Who knows,” he wrote to Franzen about the idea. “Life sure is short though.” He considered focussing on his nonfiction. The Federer piece had brought him joy. He stopped the nonfiction for a period, to see if it made the fiction come easier—was the magazine work dissipating his ability to finish “The Pale King”? “It just made him crazy to think he had been working on it for so long,” Green remembers.

Wallace tried to keep things in perspective. In July, 2005, he wrote an e-mail to Franzen: “Karen is killing herself rehabbing the house. I sit in the garage with the AC blasting and work very poorly and haltingly and with (some days) great reluctance and ambivalence and pain. I am tired of myself, it seems: tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic. It’s a dark time workwise, and yet a very light and lovely time in all other respects. So overall I feel I’m ahead and am pretty happy.”

Six months later, in another e-mail to Franzen, he spoke of “many, many pages written, then either tossed or put in a sealed box.” He wrote, “The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t,” adding, “I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore. Maybe the answer is simply that to do what I want to do would take more effort than I am willing to put in. Which would be a bleak reality indeed, if that’s all it is.” In the same note, he says how much he admired Philip Roth, who was enjoying, as he saw it, “a Dostoevskian golden period.”

In his final major interview, given to Le Nouvel Observateur in August, 2007, he talked about various writers he admired—St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky among them—and added “what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit—rather than technical abilities or special talents.” He was no longer sure he was the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write.

Around this time, Wallace wrote Nadell, telling her that he needed “to put some kind of duresse/pressure on myself so that I quit futzing around changing my mind about the book twice a week and just actually do it.” He prepared a stack of about a hundred and fifty pages of “Pale King” to send to Pietsch. There were plenty of equally finished pages—among them the story of the levitating Drinion—which, for whatever reason, he did not include. “I could take a couple of years unpaid leave from Pomona and try and finish it,” he wrote to Nadell. When she encouraged him, he responded more hesitatingly: “Let me noodle hard about it. It may not be until the end of summer that I’d even have a packet together.” In June, he e-mailed Franzen: “I go back and forth between (a) working to assemble a big enough sample to take an advance, and (b) recoiling in despair, thinking . . . I’d pitch everything and start over.”

Meanwhile, Wallace was becoming more convinced that Nardil might be getting in the way of “The Pale King.” The distorting effect of being on antidepressants was something that had long bothered him. In “The Planet Trillaphon,” the story he wrote while at Amherst, his character says, “I’ve been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I’m pretty qualified to tell what they’re like. They’re fine, really, but they’re fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn’t be good old Earth.”

In June of 2007, Wallace and Green were at an Indian restaurant with David's parents in Claremont. David suddenly felt very sick — intense stomach pains. They stayed with him for days. When he went to doctors, he was told that something he'd eaten might have interacted with the Nardil. They suggested he try going off the drug and seeing if another approach might work.

"So at that point," says his sister Amy, with an edge in her voice, it was determined, 'Oh, well, gosh, we've made so much pharmaceutical progress in the last two decades that I'm sure we can find something that can knock out that pesky depression without all these side effects.' They had no idea that it was the only thing that was keeping him alive." Gary Hannabarger / Corbis

There were other important reasons to get off Nardil. The drug could create problems with his blood pressure, an increasing worry as he moved into middle age. In the spring of 2007, when he went to the Persian restaurant and left with severe stomach pains, the doctor who told him that Nardil might have interacted badly with his meal added that there were better options now—Nardil was “a dirty drug.”

Wallace saw an opportunity. He told Green that he wanted to try a different antidepressant. “You know what? I’m up for it,” she remembers answering. She knew that the decision was hard for him. “The person who would go off the medications that were possibly keeping him alive was not the person he liked,” she says. “He didn’t want to care about the writing as much as he did.”

Wallace would have to taper off the old drug and then taper on to a new one. "He knew it was going to be rough," says Franzen. "But he was feeling like he could finally afford a year to do the job. He figured that he was going to go on to something else, at least temporarily. He was a perfectionist, you know? He wanted to be perfect, and taking Nardil was not perfect."

That summer, David began to phase out the Nardil. His doctors began prescribing other medications, none of which seemed to help. "They could find nothing," his mother says softly. "Nothing." In September, David asked Amy to forgo her annual fall-break visit. He wasn't up to it. By October, his symptoms had become bad enough to send him to the hospital. His parents didn't know what to do. "I started worrying about that," Sally says, "but then it seemed OK." He began to drop weight. By that fall, he looked like a college kid again: longish hair, eyes intense, as if he had just stepped out of an Amherst classroom.

When Amy talked to him on the phone, "sometimes he was his old self," she says. "The worst question you could ask David in the last year was 'how are you?' And it's almost impossible to have a conversation with someone you don't see regularly without that question." Wallace was very honest with her. He'd answer, "I'm not all right. I'm trying to be, but I'm not all right." Suzy Allman / New York Times

He continued to write in a notebook, but he rarely returned to his massive manuscript. “The Pale King” had once referred to the I.R.S., or possibly to the state of contentment and focus the book advocated; but now, as he wrote in a notebook, it was a synonym for the depression that tormented him.

Not every day was bad. He taught. He e-mailed friends. He and Green tried to maintain their lives. Always self-critical, Wallace would rate good days as “B-plus” or “cautiously optimistic.” They joked about the unthinkable. Green warned him that if he killed himself she’d be “the Yoko Ono of the literary world, the woman with all the hair who domesticated you and look what happened.” They made a pact that he would not make her guess how he was doing.

During the spring of 2008, a new combination of antidepressants seemed to stabilize him. When GQ asked him to write an essay on Obama and rhetoric, he felt almost well enough to do it. The magazine reserved a hotel room for him in Denver. But he cancelled. That June, the annual booksellers’ convention was in Los Angeles, and Wallace drove there to have dinner with Pietsch, Nadell, and a few others. Pietsch was amazed at how thin Wallace was. Nadell, at Wallace’s request, explained to magazine editors that he had a stomach malady. “It had to be severe enough to explain why he couldn’t travel,” she remembers.

About ten days after the dinner, Wallace checked in to a motel about ten miles from his home and took an overdose of pills. When he woke up, he called Green, who had been searching for him all night. When she met him at the hospital, he told her that he was glad to be alive. He was sorry that he’d made her look for him.

Caring for Wallace was exhausting. For one nine-day period, Green never left their house. In August, her son suffered an athletic injury, and she wanted to be with him. Wallace’s parents came to look after David. “It’s like they’re throwing darts at a dartboard,” he complained to them about his doctors. They went with him to an appointment with his psychiatrist; when the doctor suggested a new drug combination, Wallace rolled his eyes. Eventually, Wallace asked to go back on Nardil. But Nardil can take weeks to stabilize a patient, and Green says that he was too agitated to give it time to work.

No medications had worked; the depression wouldn't lift. "After this year of absolute hell for David," Sally says, "they decided to go back to the Nardil." The doctors also administered 12 courses of electroconvulsive therapy, waiting for Wallace's medication to become effective. "Twelve," Sally repeats. "Such brutal treatments," Jim says. "It was clear then things were bad."

Wallace had always been terrified of shock therapy. "It scares the shit out of me," he told me in 1996. "My brain's what I've got. But I could see that at a certain point, you might beg for it."

Wallace worried that he had been driven by a “basically vapid urge to be avant-garde . . . and linguistically calisthenic.” Philip Burke

In late June, Franzen, who was in Berlin, grew worried. "I actually woke up one night," he says. "Our communications had a rhythm, and I thought, 'It's been too long since I heard from Dave.' " When Franzen called, Karen said to come immediately: David had tried to kill himself.

Franzen spent a week with Wallace in July. David had dropped 70 pounds in a year. "He was thinner than I'd ever seen him. There was a look in his eyes: terrified, terribly sad, and far away. Still, he was fun to be with, even at 10 percent strength." Franzen would sit with Wallace in the living room and play with the dogs, or step outside with David while he smoked a cigarette. "We argued about stuff. He was doing his usual line about, 'A dog's mouth is practically a disinfectant, it's so clean. Not like human saliva, dog saliva is marvelously germ-resistant.'" Before he left, Wallace thanked him for coming. "I felt grateful that he allowed me to be there," Franzen says.

Six weeks later, Wallace asked his parents to come to California. The Nardil wasn't working. It can happen with an antidepressant; a patient goes off, returns, and the medication has lost its efficacy. Wallace couldn't sleep. He was afraid to leave the house. He asked, "What if I meet one of my students?" "He didn't want anyone to see him the way he was," his father says. "It was just awful to see. If a student saw him, they would have put their arms around him and hugged him, I'm sure."

His parents stayed for 10 days. "He was just desperate," his mother says. "He was afraid it wasn't ever going to work. He was suffering. We just kept holding him, saying if he could just hang on, it would straighten. He was very brave for a very long time."

Wallace and his parents would get up at six in the morning and walk the dogs. They watched DVDs of The Wire, talked. Sally cooked David's favorite dishes, heavy comfort foods — pot pies, casseroles, strawberries in cream. "We kept telling him we were so glad he was alive," his mother recalls. "But my feeling is that, even then, he was leaving the planet. He just couldn't take it."

One afternoon before they left, David was very upset. His mother sat on the floor beside him. "I just rubbed his arm. He said he was glad I was his mom. I told him it was an honor."

At the end of August, Franzen called. All summer long he had been telling David that as bad as things were, they were going to be better, and then he'd be better than he'd ever been. David would say, "Keep talking like that — it's helping." But this time it wasn't helping. "He was far away," Franzen says.

Green believes that she knows when Wallace decided to try again to kill himself. She says of September 6th, “That Saturday was a really good day. Monday and Tuesday were not so good. He started lying to me that Wednesday.” He waited two days for an opportunity. In the early evening on Friday, September 12th, Green went to prepare for an opening at her gallery, Beautiful Crap, in the center of Claremont, about ten minutes from their home. She felt comforted by the fact that he’d seen the chiropractor on Monday. “You don’t go to the chiropractor if you’re going to commit suicide,” she says.

After she left, Wallace went into the garage and turned on the lights. He wrote her a two-page note. Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself. When one character dies in “Infinite Jest,” he is “catapulted home over . . . glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”

Green returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband. In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages. He had made some changes in the months since he considered sending them to Little, Brown. The story of “David Wallace” was now first. In his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it. Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel. This was his effort to show the world what it was to be “a fucking human being.” He had not completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.

Rest in Peace David