The Fraught Task of Describing Life with David Foster Wallace
Zan Romanoff on Adrienne Miller's In the Land of Men
My first encounter with David Foster Wallace came via a copy of his 1997 essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which I pulled off a bookstore’s display table a couple of weeks before my college graduation in the spring of 2009. It was exactly the kind of thing I’d spent four years saying I would read if only I had the time—and now, just a few weeks away from unemployment, I was about to have nothing but time on my hands.
I did not expect to like the book, but that didn’t bother me: I’d spend my education dutifully reading Important Books I didn’t really like in order to pass my classes and impress my peers. A Supposedly Fun Thing, though, managed to take me by surprise: I tore through it in a week, in a house on the Connecticut coast that my parents had rented for a post-graduation vacation.
I was, at the time, nursing an extraordinarily bad heartbreak, and desperate for anything else to absorb my attention. A Supposedly Fun Thing and the deeply engaged world of Wallace’s writing turned out to be the perfect escape from myself. So much of the literary theory I’d been reading for my degree felt old and stolid, but this was relentlessly modern: the essays were antic and passionate, and Wallace cursed volubly and creatively. He was crude and specific; he wrote absolutely endless sentences; he was conversational and digressive and so fucking smart. Wallace also offered me a new perspective on the pain I’d been wallowing in, by introducing me to I didn’t know then to call the literature of recovery.
Until that point, I had been a card-carrying member of what Leslie Jamison recently termed, in an essay for The New York Times, “the cult of the sad literary woman”: a cultural taste for female suffering that glamorizes and valorizes women’s pain and unhappiness, drinking problems and eating disorders. I had unconsciously absorbed the idea that women were most interesting when we were fragile and done my level best to cultivate my own fragility, dallying with disordered eating and depressive episodes that I hated—and felt bad for hating. How would I ever be interesting if I couldn’t find it in myself to stay eternally haunted, hurt and sad?
For some people, these kinds of mental health issues are unavoidable realities; I would later be diagnosed and medicated for an actual anxiety disorder that comes with sides of depression, so I don’t mean to suggest that female-associated illnesses like anorexia or depression are always or even often a shallow, attention-seeking pose. I only mean that they were sometimes that for me: an Interesting Smart Girl costume I wore when I was certain that my actual self, hearty and voracious, was unacceptable and inappropriate.
Wallace was the first person I read who wrote honestly about how much harder it is to work towards happiness than to just let yourself be sad. After A Supposedly Fun Thing and Consider the Lobster I tackled Infinite Jest, where Don Gately’s description of the simultaneous courage and despair, hope and submission required by recovery programs felt like permission: at last, here was someone everyone agreed was a genius, saying that getting better might be more difficult and interesting and worthwhile than staying sick.
Of course, by the time I was reading these books, Wallace was dead by suicide, his legacy inextricably bound up in the depression that had finally killed him. This didn’t mar his message for me: later, I would find The Pale King uneven, but still be deeply moved by its insistence on paying attention, on the profound and even ecstatic possibilities of coming through the other side of boredom to find focus and engagement with the world’s mundanity.
Wallace’s work changed my life when I was in my early twenties. And then what happened is that years passed, and I grew up, and he didn’t. Occasionally I would dip back into one of his books and be surprised to find a sentence, a tone, a whole essay that had become hard to read. His work wasn’t aging well for me.
Then came the allegations of abuse. They had been there all along, of course—and certain of his tendencies are visible if you knew how to read his books, which, I admit, I didn’t. They became increasingly unavoidable, as when they were detailed in D.T. Max’s 2012 biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, which depicts Wallace, among other things, trying to throw his then-girlfriend Mary Karr out of a moving vehicle.
By the time all of this came to my attention, when Karr tweeted about it in late 2017, the intensity of my love affair with Wallace’s work had long since faded. I missed the passionate engagement I had felt with his writing, but I was also, in some respects, grateful that it didn’t exist anymore. This meant that I didn’t have to decide how to feel about a book I had loved and a man I could no longer countenance. I put Wallace on the shelf along with a lot of bad ideas I’d had in my early twenties—most of them, not incidentally, also men—and tried to imagine that I’d moved on.
Adrienne Miller first encountered David Foster Wallace around the same age I did: at 23, she reviewed Infinite Jest for GQ before having a brief, ignominious encounter with the man himself at the book’s release party. Two years later, working as the fiction editor at Esquire, she edited a short story of his, and the two fell into a phone correspondence which developed into a romance that eventually fell apart—though she still kept editing his stories for several years after their breakup.
Miller details the contours of their relationship—often coercive, sometimes apparently abusive (though she never explicitly applies that term), always fraught and uneven—in her memoir In the Land of Men, which is also a story of coming of age in the last gasp of the golden era of magazine journalism, against the backdrop of a thoroughly male and insistently masculine literary landscape.
Wallace is nearly impossible to like in Miller’s telling: with an outsider’s remove and a decade’s experience on my side, I found his predatory instincts unmissable. He insists on telling her about some of his most private misdeeds and then demands to know, “Do you hate me?” while at dinner on their first date. Later, when they’ve broken up and he’s living with someone else, Wallace calls Miller and observes, “You may know more words than she does, but she’s better at cleaning my underwear.”
The book maps a man’s abusive behavior towards a woman, the external force he exerts on her, almost incidentally; its true interest is in describing what it feels like to be a person having that kind of force enacted on you at time in your life when you don’t know what the rules are yet—when you have to wonder if what’s happening to you is normal, or, if not normal, then no more than what you deserve.
Miller is unsparing in her descriptions of Wallace’s sliminess, his manipulations, and his cruelty, but she’s not interested in framing herself as his victim, a word which might reduce her role in her own life to that of an object, acted upon.
She does grapple with his legacy as an artist, asking a series of by now familiar questions about what we can or ought to make of a man who wrote so brilliantly and lived so cruelly.
“Questions,” Miller writes at one point.
“Who looks to the artist’s life for moral guidance, anyway?
How much of the human condition do the more stringently self-righteous among us believe we’re exempt from?
What are we to do with the art of profoundly compromised men?”
“I’ve got no answers for you,” she adds, finally concluding, “’Is he good?’ ‘Is he bad?’ The answer, about pretty much everyone, is: ‘Yes, he’s both.’”
This may seem like a wishy-washy conclusion to reach about a man who, according to Karr, once followed her kindergartener home from school. Miller doesn’t discuss other women’s public accusations against Wallace, and when she mentions stories she heard from him or other sources, it’s almost always in general terms. (“He’d again crossed lines he shouldn’t have—some pretty bright, sacred lines,” she writes, in a representative example, of Wallace leaving his teaching position at Illinois State University. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story describes Wallace sleeping with his students, both graduate and undergraduate, as well as, at one point, “an underage girl.”)
We’re at a moment of larger cultural reckoning with that last question of Miller’s: “What are we to do with the art of profoundly compromised men?” It’s a question worth asking and exploring as we try to broadly and deeply re-shape our expectations of art, and of one another.
But reading In the Land of Men was also a critical reminder that no cultural standard will ever apply evenly or neatly to individual lived experience; that for all of my desire to root shitty men and their shitty art out of my life, there will, inevitably, be things I am simply unable to give up or get over. Even if I never read another word of Wallace’s again, he will always be with me. He will always have shaped the person that I am.
For me, reading the book, there was a measure of relief in Miller’s ambivalence. It’s clear that that she loved Wallace, and what’s more, loved his writing: “I still can’t even believe… that I had a chance to burrow into it with him as deeply as I did,” she says of the process of editing his story “Oblivion” for Esquire. (The story was ultimately killed and never ran in the magazine.) She writes about the damage he did, the pain he inflicted, and also about the joy she experienced in their work together, without suggesting that one of the experiences negates the other.
It’s not that I think this is the correct stance, necessarily; it’s that I recognize myself in it, both in my attitude towards Wallace’s work, and also towards some of the deeply compromised men I have known and loved in my own life. I have no forgiveness to spare for other people’s shitty ex-boyfriends, but remain helplessly tender towards my own, perhaps because, like Miller, I feel that I bear some responsibility for what happened between us. Those relationships weren’t something they did to me, abuses of which I am nothing but the victim. They were choices—stupid, ill-informed and often self-destructive choices, but choices nonetheless.That’s an effective strategy for dealing with the art of profoundly compromised men, it seems to me: to tell our own stories about them.
And in the same way, reading Wallace’s work, not knowing what he was doing to the very real girls and women he knew in real life, is not just something that happened to me. It was and is a formative experience; it shaped the consciousness that, even now, is trying to sort out an answer to these questions. I don’t know how to be the person who didn’t find his books at 22. Maybe she’s smarter, cooler, a better feminist than I am, but that doesn’t matter—I simply don’t know her.
Miller writes about seeing herself, or details from their relationship, in Wallace’s fiction. “David would in fact caution us against doing exactly this—poking around a writer’s life in search of ‘personal stuff encoded in a writer’s art,’” she says. “I agree that this sort of literalism is a crude way to interpret an artist’s work. But what am I supposed to do here?”
And then, later, “This is my life, too.”
Wallace’s story does not subsume Miller’s just because his name is better known; she should not be required to reframe or subsume her own experiences because of what he did. The most powerful thing that In the Land of Men does is make Wallace nothing more or less than a character in the story of Miller’s life—a fascinating and indispensable one, but a character nonetheless.
That’s an effective strategy for dealing with the art of profoundly compromised men, it seems to me: to tell our own stories about them, solely and insistently from our points of view. To ask that they exist in relation to us for a while, instead of believing that we are required to exist always, and only, in relationship to them.