David Foster Wallace’s worst friend

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He got what he didn’t want.

I wasn’t the only link with René Girard in the current Times Literary Supplement, which included a review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard  (read about it here). David Streitfeld‘s own book David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview Expanded with New Introduction was generously excerpted. Since the Pulitzer prizewinning New York Times journalist was one of the blurbers for Evolution of Desire, our co-appearance in the TLS was a pleasant coincidence.

The journalist admits that he was David Foster Wallace‘s worst friend – he says so in the first sentence, so my headline isn’t just clickbait. “He would send me letters and I wouldn’t answer them. He would send works in progress with forlorn notes.”

For the most part, he discusses a central paradox in Wallace’s life: “For twenty years, his entire career, Wallace wrestled with a question: How much of myself am I willing to give away to get what I want?”

It wasn’t a choice in the end. And David … Streitfeld, that is … describes what happened:

He got what he wanted and didn’t want. One way to measure his posthumous fame is to note an interview he did with Rolling Stone, which was never published in 1996 but became the basis for a story after his suicide that won a National Magazine Award in 2009. The interview transcript became a bestselling book in 2010 and then a very unlikely movie – who ever heard of a movie about an interview with a writer? – in 2015. The Wallace estate firmly distanced itself from The End of the Tour, noting quite accurately that it would have horrified Wallace as a trivialization of everything he believed, but Wallace was dead and what he would have thought didn’t matter anymore. The movie got excellent reviews.

I wrote about the movie here. David … Streitfeld again, that is … tells how twenty-one of Wallace’s letters were auctioned at Sotheby’s five years ago. “They were, as usual with Wallace, explicit and entertaining. … Sotheby’s estimated the package would fetch as much as $15,000. Instead, it made $125,000.”

Worst friend? Perhaps not.

He continues: “Wallace in 1996 had to reveal himself to interviewers to sell copies of Infinite Jest, and seventeen years later the auction house had to reveal Wallace to sell his letters, which in this case fetched $70,000. The guy who always cringed at publicly showing himself was having his deepest secrets divulged, not only to the winning bidder but to anyone with an internet connection. He wrote in Infinite Jest about a future in which everything was for sale – the years are rented out to corporations; part of the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment – and now, as that future was relentlessly transformed into mundane reality, he himself was for sale.”

“That, perhaps, is what happens if, instead of trusting no one, you trust everyone.”

Here’s the good news: David’s piece is fully online … unlike the review for Evolution of Desire (so far). The excerpt is here. Read it, and be glad you aren’t famous.


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