The Depressed Person in The Marriage Plot


David Foster Wallace

by Daniel Roberts

There’s this thing that happens to people who read David Foster Wallace, the novelist and essayist who would have turned 50 years old today. It’s the reason his literary reputation so fervently exploded the moment he died: those who like his work don’t just champion the writing, but seem to become personally enamored of the man.

They (I may as well begin using “we”) come to adore not just his short stories, not just his three challenging, brilliant novels, but his entire output, be it in video form, audio, image or text. We’ve read his introduction to the 2007 Best American Essays anthology. We’ve pored over his Kenyon College commencement speech, and feel offended that it was converted into a kitschy little coffee-table book called This is Water. We gobble up any authentic YouTube video, like the four parts of his 1997 Charlie Rose appearance, or the recordings of him reading the stories from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. We know that C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, of all things, was among his favorite books. We’ve even watched his goofy, charming ramblings at Le Conversazioni in 2006 in Italy.

We also feel a sort of ownership of our love for him. Look, we’re freaks, okay? It’s a dangerous thing, this tendency to want to prove our DFW expertise. You can see it all the time: on the subway, when a person is reading Consider the Lobster, which seems to be the most popular “introduction to Wallace” choice, and a faux-friendly fellow straphanger will ask them what else they’ve read by Wallace, and then scoff when the answer is “nothing yet,” as though one’s appreciation of the author cannot be legitimate until they’ve consumed Infinite Jest. You hear people complain, “this guy doesn’t get Wallace” when they see a new blog post or magazine profile. We get indignant, rightfully so, when blogs or, occasionally, elite publications call him “Foster Wallace” when referring to the author by last name. (Foster was his middle name. You wouldn’t refer to Thoreau as “David Thoreau,” would you? No, and yet myriad publications, including The Guardian, The New Yorker and New York magazine get this wrong.) Together, we correct misconceptions about our icon’s personal history and relationships. Together (thanks to his need to basically announce, in a lengthy New Yorker piece, “Guys, stop praising my friend, he wasn’t so great”), we resent Jonathan Franzen. And now, perhaps, we’ve collectively lost some love for Jeffrey Eugenides.

For those who feel a searing dedication to everything Wallace produced, The Marriage Plot’s Leonard Bankhead character feels almost like a personal assault. First of all, let’s agree that Leonard is indeed based on Wallace so that we can move on. Everyone everywhere knows it, knew it as soon as the book came out, and has written about it. For many months, Eugenides vehemently denied it, which seems downright puzzling and soon became enraging. In multiple interviews with various publications, he blamed an early New York Vulture blog post for the “rumor” of Leonard’s DFW-ness, as though without saying so, every single other person who had read Wallace before would not have immediately picked up on it.

Then he insisted that Leonard’s bandana came to him from “Guns N’ Roses and heavy metal guys,” which may be true but is the most goddamn ridiculous thing he could have claimed as evidence of why the character is not DFW. Then in an interview with The Economist, he said that, “the totalities of the two characters are completely different,” citing as examples such laughable trivialities as Leonard’s parents being divorced, poor, and from Portland, while Wallace’s were not divorced, not poor (though the two professors were hardly rich), and not from Portland. Eugenides also argued, most foolishly of all, that “Leonard gets married at 22, Wallace did not.” Yes, Leonard gets married at 22… in the plot of your book! Eugenides may as well have added: “Leonard went to Brown, Wallace did not” or “Leonard falls in love with a girl named Madeleine Hanna, Wallace did not.”

At last, after a couple months of the same tired defense in interviews, Eugenides admitted to KCRW in a December radio interview:

In a few places, it’s been much discussed, and for a while I wasn’t talking about it… I didn’t know David Wallace very well… In 2006, I spent a week with him in Italy… Some of the things that Leonard does have nothing to do with Wallace… the thing that comes from him, however, from Wallace, is he used to keep his Skoal can, I noticed, in his sock, when we were in Italy, and Leonard’s always sticking it down in his boot. So there’s a few things that I will admit to.

There is a lot more than the tobacco chewing, of course, that marks Leonard as DFW. In fact, almost every single detail given about Leonard reminds readers of Wallace. As the good people at McNally Jackson Books discovered, there is a line taken almost verbatim, when Leonard jokes about his dry-mouth (“Who took my saliva? Do you have my saliva?”), from a Frank Bruni New York Times profile of Wallace—though any number of lines from Infinite Jest would also show the same proof of the connection, saliva/salivating/dry-mouth being a favored topic in the book: “Your mouth is making those dry, sticky, inadequate-saliva sounds” or, “The twirler was so pretty that not even the senior B.U. football Terriers could summon the saliva to speak to her.”

So, sorry, but the character is him. Seriously, it’s him. (Yet another indicator: Madeleine observes that Leonard “shaves irregularly” and has “St. Bernard’s eyes;” just do a Google image search of Wallace and you’ll note his sad, mournful eyes immediately.) Eugenides’ denial is about as ludicrous as it would have been if Hunter S. Thompson had said that Raoul Duke, the narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was in no way autobiographical. Let’s move on to why Leonard is a problem, because on the surface, especially if Eugenides had merely been up-front since the beginning and highlighted it as an appeal of the book, it may seem like the type of thing that Wallace’s fans, and any readers at all, really, would love.

And yet, it feels somehow like a mean ploy. Eugenides continually insists he didn’t even know Wallace personally, a claim that is difficult to believe after reading New York’s feature “Just Kids,” about Eugenides, Franzen, Wallace and Mary Karr knowing each other when they were all young writers, or knowing that Wallace posed with Eugenides and other writers in 1999 for the below New Yorker spread. But whether or not he knew Wallace better than he’s letting on, it feels as though he took the man’s persona and exploited it, magnifying his most identifiable quirks and characteristics to create Leonard, who, much like Wallace, is a character at once both alluring and exhausting.

“20 Under 40”, from The New Yorker, 1999. L-R: Junot Diaz, Rick Moody, Edwidge Danticat, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders and Jeffrey Eugenides. Photograph by Chris Callis.

Upon Leonard’s first real appearance in the book (not to be confused with the first time he is mentioned), the very first detail given about him, apart from the physical (“a big guy in a down jacket and snowmobile boots”), is that he is a double major in biology and philosophy. Thus we think of Wallace before Leonard’s dipping even comes up. Wallace, too, was a philosophy major at Amherst, and later went to Harvard for graduate school in philosophy, though he dropped out of the program. The guy is first introduced in a Semiotics class, for God’s sake. Leonard is Wallace, but it doesn’t yet feel at all manipulative. Nor is there any harm done when Leonard packs a lip, which Madeleine notices with “surprise.” It’s all good.

But only a page later, Leonard and classmate Thurston Meems (for my money the best character in The Marriage Plot, far more interesting and fun than any of the main trio) get into a discussion with their professor, Zipperstein, that, for DFW-heads, seems to refer directly to one of the most common debates about Wallace’s work. That debate is about the treatment of depression in his literature, and how to approach it. As A. O. Scott wrote in 2008 in The New York Times, Mr. Wallace’s vibrant body of work… pursued themes that in retrospect look uncomfortably like portents… [Infinite Jest] is, for all its humor, an encyclopedia of phobia, anxiety, compulsion and mania.” The Pale King is no exception. As D. T. Max noted in The New Yorker in 2009 about the book’s title, according to Wallace’s notebooks “it was a synonym for the depression that tormented him.”

The characters are talking about A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, by Austrian writer Peter Handke (Surprise, surprise: Eugenides wrote the introduction to the New York Review of Books Classics edition). The book is about Handke’s struggle to write about his mother’s suicide. Thurston comments: “Here’s a subject dear to my heart—offing yourself… But I’d contend, with Barthes, that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you’re treating actual events.” That sentiment is certainly one that Eugenides likely supports, since, even as he has now acknowledged a few bits of influence from Wallace on Leonard, he resists and clearly resents the idea that the character is a direct representation.

Regardless, now that this DFW-like character, the one that chews tobacco and pursues both literature and philosophy, has been introduced, it’s hard not to begin thinking, at this point, of Wallace’s work that deals with depression and suicide (in other words: the majority of it). Sure enough, Leonard joins the conversation. After Thurston adds, “suicide is a trope,” Leonard jumps in: “If I was going to write about my mother’s suicide, I don’t think I’d be too concerned about being experimental… If your mother kills herself, it’s not a literary trope.” At this point a perhaps misguided, but nonetheless hard-to-ignore, nagging feeling bubbles up: that this is a discussion about Wallace’s own writing. Thurston’s opinion matches with those who insist that the details in stories like “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” “The Depressed Person,” “or Death is Not the End” cannot necessarily be taken as autobiographical simply because we know Wallace to have been personally depressed. It’s a purist sort of view, often called formalism (as opposed to historicism, which supports analyzing a work through context and the lens of the author’s personal background), suggesting the text is all there is, and that outside factors (such as, here, Wallace’s own depression) cannot be considered.

The more reasonable conclusion, of course, is that Wallace’s writing about depression cannot be taken in a black and white sense. It isn’t completely self-referential, nor is it entirely not. That reasonable middle ground is the one Leonard seems to espouse in this scene: that when a person who himself has been depressed or contemplated suicide (or in Handke’s case, has a relative that has) writes about depression and suicide, it’s because they’ve been there, they know that pain, and it isn’t as simple as a literary trick. Leonard even says: “I’d do it [write about my mother’s suicide] to cope with my grief.” This sounds a lot like something we learn about Wallace from D.T. Max’s profile: “For some time, Wallace had come to suspect that the drug [Nardil] was… interfering with his creative evolution… He wondered if the novel was the right medium for what he was trying to say.” That is, Wallace struggled with how, or whether, to cope with his feelings of depression and boredom through literature.

The same section of that New Yorker profile mentions the occasions on which Wallace would go off his medications, a decision that, friends and family have said, was almost always a mistake. (He had also, according to reports, stopped taking his medication just before killing himself.) D. T. Max writes:

In the late eighties, doctors had prescribed Nardil for Wallace’s depression… Wallace had come to suspect that the drug was also interfering with his creative evolution. He worried that it muted his emotions, blocking the leap he was trying to make as a writer. He thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse…  Wallace went off the antidepressant… ‘That’s what created the tension,’ Franzen recalls. ‘And he didn’t make it.’

Thus we see another painful tie to Wallace when Leonard makes the same ill-fated decision regarding his medications:

It was time to take his lithium. He opened the bottle and shook out four 300-milligram pills. He was supposed to take three of them. But he took only two. He took 600 milligrams instead of his usual 900, and then he put the rest of the pills back into the bottle and replaced the lid.

This, of course, begins an entirely new regimen for Leonard during which he continually lowers his own dosage, feeling great for a while, recording it all in a journal, only to end up behaving recklessly (he nearly rapes a sixteen-year-old girl in a taffy shop, walking out of the store “grinning madly” after he ”stared at her little tits,” got an erection, and kissed her) and, most ominously, rushing home to propose marriage in that awful state. (He reasons, “There was no telling how many great historical figures had been manic-depressives.”) It all later leads to a bender on their honeymoon that breaks both Madeleine’s and the reader’s heart.

That bender is where the feelings of frustration and pain, for Wallace devotees, crystallize most harshly. No doubt Eugenides did heavy research for these sections, but nevertheless, Leonard’s behavior on the honeymoon seems ludicrous, and its descriptions equally silly:

Just as they were nearing the top of the stairs [after Madeleine has finally found Leonard and is leading him out of the casino] Leonard stopped. He lifted his chin and made a curious face. In an English accent, he said, ‘the name’s Bond. James Bond.’ Suddenly raising his arms, he wrapped himself in his cape like Dracula. Before Madeleine could react, he bolted away, flapping his cape like wins, his expression mad with delight, playful, confident.

Whether or not a depressed person would actually do this is beside the point; the agony that ensues, for Madeleine and the reader, is almost impossible to bear for those that have been reading Leonard as an extension of Wallace. The absurdity of his actions and of the entire debacle makes it that much more painful, and makes it feel like Eugenides is manipulating for dramatic effect the memory of an actual human being who, whether Eugenides knew him well or not, he didn’t need to know well personally because the man’s inner psychological struggle has now been broadcast and dissected everywhere.

Additional depression-related passages cement the connection further, and add to the pain of the reading experience. Shortly after Madeleine and Leonard arrive at Pilgrim Lake, where Leonard has found work in a lab, Eugenides writes:

The proof that lithium stabilized one’s mood was confirmed every time Leonard saw himself naked in the mirror and didn’t kill himself. He wanted to. He thought he had every right.

Again, hard not to think here of “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” in which Wallace writes of the depressed mother that she found herself in “such a chasm of self-recrimination and despair that she felt it just could not be borne. Hence the mother was at war.” Leonard, too, is at war with himself.

Yet another tie exists, difficult to overlook, between Wallace’s depressed behavior, his writings about depression, and Leonard’s depressed behavior. The story “The Depressed Person,” as The Guardian phrased it in a 2011 profile of Wallace’s widow Karen Green, was, “told from inside the head of an unnamed young woman who is kept going day to day by a support system of friends who she knows cannot bear her phone calls.” Wallace himself, we know from various quotes, essays, and comments made by Franzen and other loved ones, would call people on the phone when depressed, often keeping them on for hours. Eugenides applies the habit to Leonard, naturally:

Leonard stopped taking his lithium… Pretty soon he was calling people on the telephone. He called everybody. He talked for fifteen minutes, or a half hour, or an hour, or two hours… He called his friends two or three times a day. Then five or six. Then ten. Then twelve. He called from his apartment. He called from pay phones around campus… From each and every one of these phones Leonard called to tell his listeners how exhausted he was, how insomniac, how insomniac, how exhausted.

This is another one of those passages that becomes seriously gut-wrenching to read and experience; part of that is a testament to Eugenides’ oft-proven skill for writing beautifully, cripplingly, about suicide, depression, and misery (think The Virgin Suicides or parts of Middlesex). But part of it is that unsettling feeling that he’s transformed, with minimal modifications, a guy he once met into a very troubled character in his novel.

One wonders whether a similar icky feeling would have been sparked if it had been Franzen who injected a Wallace character into his novel, and if he had been completely above board about having done so. (Yes, much has been written about rock star Richard Katz in Freedom being a DFW character, but I just don’t see it, or if it is there, it doesn’t approach the close mimesis of Leonard.) My instinct is that, because Franzen and Wallace were actually extremely close, it would have seemed far more acceptable and fair of Franzen, and he likely would have painted the character more fully and lovingly than Eugenides has. Then again, anything Franzen writes or says about Wallace in the future is now tainted by our very public awareness of just how complicated Franzen’s feelings of both jealousy and love for his friend are.

Eugenides has insisted, in his arguments against the Leonard-as-Wallace reading, that “Wallace didn’t even have manic depression.” That may or may not be true, but it’s a bit ballsy for him to act as though Wallace never behaved in a manic fashion. A scene from Mary Karr’s memoir Lit comes readily to mind: “If David enters the mindset he calls a black-eyed red-out, he’s inclined to hurl all manner of object… Not that anything I utter warrants his pitching my coffee table at me, my sole piece of intact furniture splintering on the wall.” Throwing a coffee table against a wall sure sounds like manic behavior, regardless of what the clinical diagnoses of Wallace’s specific form of depression were. And in fact, the entirety of Karr’s portrayal of “David” in Lit reads eerily similarly to the Leonard Bankhead portrayal. Mary and David’s romance sounds a lot like Madeleine and Leonard’s. From Lit: “Our every day is a rage, the whole romantic endeavor flip-flopping from cuss fight to smoochy-faced makeup… He climbs on my balcony and bangs on the bedroom window.”

Whether or not Eugenides says that Leonard is a representation of Wallace doesn’t matter: it is Wallace. What’s more important is what such a decision says about Eugenides as an author. It says, though he may profess otherwise—having told KCRW “This is not a roman a clef” and stressing, in each interview, that he is not looking to represent real people but to create fiction—he has not practiced what he preaches. If Eugenides is so opposed to the idea of people seeing Wallace in Leonard, why didn’t he switch something, anything, so that the two don’t match up so closely? He could have exchanged the plotlines, for example, of Leonard and Mitchell, keeping their physical descriptions intact but having the depressed person be Mitchell, and not the character that chews tobacco in Semiotics class. Then no one would say either character was reminiscent of Wallace. He could have carefully placed the “Where’s my saliva” line in Mitchell’s mouth, perhaps spoken while nervously tending to the sick patients in India. But he didn’t do that. Instead, everything lines up perfectly, every trait or deed in the book that reminds us of Wallace is displayed by, or performed by, Leonard. So if this novel isn’t a roman a clef, it’s unclear what it is. Perhaps it’s one-third roman a clef, since the direct representation of a real human being is happening through only one of the three characters, though it’s certainly the most significant, vivid of the three.

The Marriage Plot is a wonderful read: a smart, evocative page-turner that transplants us to Brown’s campus in the eighties and does the same for scenes of Mitchell in India and Leonard and Madeleine on Cape Cod. It’s inventive, honest, and though it does not end happily for any of its three main characters, it does end satisfyingly. But what doesn’t feel as honest as the rest is Leonard, because for those steeped in Wallace’s story, it feels as though Eugenides has taken a public persona and crammed it into a fictional character, one who, in a sense, is the villain of the book.

In this way, the novel pours yet additional fuel on the ongoing fire around the lines between fiction and nonfiction, representation and invention. It’s a fire that writers like David Shields and John D’Agata have stoked with questions of genre and the definition of truth, but it’s a conversation that Eugenides seems uninterested in having. Were he to acknowledge, fully, that Leonard is indeed completely inspired by what he knows about Wallace, the discussions about this book would be very different indeed, and probably more exciting.

About the Author:

Daniel Roberts is a magazine reporter and book critic in New York, originally from Massachusetts. He tweets @readDanwrite and blogs here.