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Infinite Jerk

Adrienne Miller’s memoir of her relationship with David Foster Wallace is part of an emerging genre of women coming of age via an older, powerful man.

David Foster Wallace in 1997 (Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty)

A young woman—observant, self-conscious, harboring literary aspirations, though not quite sure where she wants to end up—meets an older novelist, and they start dating. He is as famous as it’s possible for a contemporary writer to be. He is obsessed with his privacy: She is not to draw any attention, occupying a hidden corner of his life. In fact, he sets all the terms of their relationship; the age gap benefits him. While there’s plenty of desire, it’s tinged with condescension (even spite), which contributes more than it should to their sexual tension. In return, he allows her to soak up some of his brilliance, as if by osmosis. Of course, she will have to leave him if she wants to be the star of her own life. The experience is only worth having if it is the precursor to something bigger.

In the Land of Men by Adrienne Miller
Ecco, 352 pp., $28.99

This is, loosely, the arc of Adrienne Miller’s new memoir, In the Land of Men. The book is a recollection of her career as an editor at glossy men’s magazines from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, and of the sexism she encountered on the job. A large part of that story is dominated by David Foster Wallace, the writer she met when she was 26 and he was 36; she published a long and difficult short story of his in Esquire in 1998, and soon after they began an affair. A May-December romance is the starting point for Lisa Halliday’s 2018 novel, Asymmetry, which draws on the relationship she had with Philip Roth in the early 2000s, when she was in her early twenties and he was in his sixties.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $26.00

Both books were met with high expectations. Halliday’s novel, a piece in The New York Times noted, attracted enthusiasm from publishers early on, “fueled partly, no doubt, by Ms. Halliday’s intriguing back story.” A review by Parul Sehgal in the Times praised the novel for transforming Alice, Asymmetry’s central character, from a “handmaiden to genius” into an artist in her own right. Adam Kirsch in The Atlantic considered the book a response to Roth’s The Ghostwriter that emerges as its own “masterpiece.” The novel did not only succeed as a work of literature, critics proposed, but also performed an act of social justice, putting the hierarchy of talent in a new order. Miller’s memoir came with a similar promise. The book expands on a personal essay she wrote for Vogue in the midst of the #MeToo movement in early 2018. Recounting the sexist putdowns (“You don’t have any authority to do this job,” an agent informs her) and unwanted come-ons (“You should dress sexier,” says a writer) that she endured in the magazine world, she reframes her experience as an education in subtle power dynamics. If there’s a form of liberation to be gained from all this, it’s in seeing the phoniness of the whole system.

The appeal is undeniable: a simple story of coming out of the shadow of a Great Man. Yet I don’t think that’s the process either of these books is really describing. There’s nothing straightforward in finding independence by way of dating a famous man. There are also tangled questions of agency and desire, of what’s in it for anyone who attaches herself to a celebrity.

In the Land of Men starts out as a career-minded story: Miller gets a job as an editorial assistant at GQ right out of college, and after a small promotion, she heads to Esquire, where she’s appointed literary editor at the age of 25. The rampant misogyny that you might imagine is all there: This is the men’s magazine caught in an era between midcentury machismo and the rise of the “dudeitor.” Art Cooper, the legendary editor of GQ who stalks the halls in a chalk-striped suit, barking things like “Heads are gonna roll,” is an aficionado of martini lunches and the Great American Songbook. He embodies the fading old order, while Miller’s colleague at Esquire, the preternaturally wide-eyed Dave Eggers, marks the other end of the spectrum. It is a moment when these magazines’ signature blend of bespoke suits, boobs, and celebrities is forced to compete with the coarser offerings of lad mags like the newly launched Maxim. Beyond the horizon, waiting to subsume them all, lies the internet.

As in most entry-level jobs, Miller’s work at GQ is largely drudgery: Her most important task as an assistant is clipping every gossip column from the morning papers, compiling it onto a sheet, and circulating copies to the editors. When she moves up a rank, she’s entrusted with writing the table of contents. This requires a lot of time and discipline but brings no glory, which is probably why none of the male editors deign to do it. In a passage I can relate to too poignantly, she consoles herself that Joan Didion honed her prose style in the equally thankless task of drafting captions at Vogue. (We tell ourselves stories in order to live, etc.)

As she learns the ropes, she sees how and where business is done. (The answer is at lunch.) Choosing the right people to go out with can be dicey. Miller makes an early misstep, when she accepts an invitation from the man who is employed to fix copier machines at the office; it earns her a reprimand from a more senior assistant when she gets back to her desk. There are more productive meetings ahead, as well as more dangerous ones. After an outing with a GQ contributor and a maître d’ (who brings his own supply of black truffles to a beer garden), she and a co-worker fend off an assault from the maître d’ in the back of a taxi. It is to be the first of many deeply uncomfortable encounters, including a later incident in which a very famous writer assaults her after a professional meeting.

This part of the book is extremely effective at underlining the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexism in the publishing industry. Perhaps the most blood-boiling example in the book comes when Miller confronts Art Cooper, who has just pushed her out of GQ. He dismisses her rage with the placid sentence, “You’ll be a star.” When she gets to Esquire, things are meant to improve, and to some extent they do. She is taking a job that historically has conferred a lot of power—the literary editor chooses the fiction that runs in the magazine and controls its coverage of books—but seems to have been downgraded lately. She is expected to measure up to Gordon Lish, who, she notes, earned the nickname “Captain Fiction” during his tenure in the 1970s. Her immediate predecessor, Rust Hills—whose “literary universe” encompassed Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer—looms over her, as he stays on at the magazine in an indistinct “emeritus” role.

The work itself is invigorating. Miller declares her faith in “vibrant, necessary fiction” and quickly starts working through the Rolodexes she photocopied and stashed away while at GQ. But there are lots of pitfalls, and people are not very forgiving when she steps into them. She approaches Mailer, for instance, at a public event and tries to solicit work from him for Esquire. His answer is, “I don’t care.” When she relates the episode to Dave Eggers back at the office, he sweetly calls her a “dork.” (She soon finds out he is making twice her salary in a comparable position.) If she were a young man, she wouldn’t have to justify herself so relentlessly; her lack of a proven track record, rather than counting against her, would indicate promise, potential. She’d be a wunderkind.

If the book stopped here, it would be a different sort of memoir, deftly evoking the spirit of a particular world at a particular time, and presenting ample evidence of the power structures—some obvious, some not so visible—that bound it and all its problems together. But then she meets David Foster Wallace.

Once Wallace enters the memoir, it stops being a story about Miller’s struggle with the male-dominated structures of the magazine world and morphs into something far more intimate. Wallace dominates the second half of the book, which tracks his appearances and disappearances, his mood swings, and the brilliant and devastating things he says to her along the way.

In this it differs from Miller’s Vogue essay, which focuses on her personal development and never identifies Wallace. He appears unnamed there, in a long list of other offenders, as the “writer who tried to convince me to have sex with him in a large empty auditorium before his event there” (an event we hear much more about in In the Land of Men). The change in direction—from #MeToo parable to study of a dysfunctional writer and his milieu—makes this a different sort of story, but not a lesser one. The most enjoyable quality of the book is its relentless cataloging of Wallace’s inventively awful behavior, and of Miller’s efforts to withstand the onslaught. That Wallace was not a great guy is no surprise, but a lot of the detail here is fresh, since Miller doesn’t appear in D.T. Max’s life of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. (She did not participate in the biography, and except for a contribution to a McSweeney’s forum, has not written about Wallace’s life before now.)

Once Miller accepts his story “Adult World” for the magazine, he seizes on the connection as an excuse to call her about anything and everything. When she asks him why he is contacting her so much, he answers creepily that he sees her as “blood in the water for a shark.” He portrays himself as juvenile and helpless, a savant so incapable of caring for himself that an old woman prepares and delivers his meals each week. When he walks his dogs, named Drone and Cancer, they pee outside, and he pees with them; he also pees while on the phone to Miller and is surprised when she can hear him. He refers to his typos as “boners.” He perfects the art of negging, complimenting Miller on choosing such a sophisticated story (his) for Esquire, which he considers an idiotic magazine with “apelike” readers; since she can’t be a person of taste, this must be a “cruelly savvy” move on her part to “signify literary respectability and win awards.”

This first editorial project wraps up with him thanking her, “a total angel puff,” and when he comes to New York on a trip, they start sleeping together. From here, he goes about calibrating the relationship in a uniquely screwed-up way. He instructs her to pick up food for him en route to their first date, which she resents but does. He establishes a code of silence around their conversations, which he calls “dead man’s talk” (this includes a confession that he took out a hit on someone). He pushes her into the role of his personal ego-booster: “I am hated,” he whines. He initiates tedious, unwinnable games of limit-testing and punishment, in which the love offered is never good enough: “I just think you’re the most,” Miller assures him; “Horseshit,” he tells her, “You think I’m the second most. You think I’m the third most. You don’t even like me.”

What was in this for her? She never actively pursued Wallace and doesn’t say why she reciprocated his advances. It’s possible she found the put-downs, which she’s recalled 11 years after the fact in all their glory, as morbidly engrossing as I did. A few examples: Arriving at her apartment, he starts to compare their book collections. “You sure have a lot more Martin Amis,” he says. “Is everything OK?” On another trip to her place, he makes no secret of his disdain for her interest in clothes, and rifling through her closet, he comments, “You’ve heard of Marx, I presume?” Even the nicer moments are a little intolerable, when they flirt and compete over who can find the best use for the word bivouac as a verb, in an exchange that isn’t as clever as either of them thinks it is. He is convinced that he knows how to do her job better than she does, and suggests Courtney Love as a potential book reviewer. “Run, do not walk,” he later instructs, “to get James Wood into the magazine.” He can only concede that she knows what she’s doing when reminding her of his more elevated position: She’s become a skilled editor, he admits, “and fyi I’ve told Franzen and G. Saunders and other people this.” It’s appropriate that when they break up, he sends her a poisonous letter signed “Snidely Whiplash.”

Maybe the connection with him was worthwhile for the light it shone on his work, on which Miller places a supreme value. It’s not a coincidence, or even ironic, that the man portrayed here as a near-monster is the author of a story collection titled Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Many of Wallace’s works, Miller writes, should be read as notes to self, as the author’s attempts to remind himself to be a better person. At one point, Wallace dangles the possibility of incorporating her into his work, announcing that he wants to dedicate the story collection to her. It’s a perfect case study in his lavishing and then withdrawing affection, as he later mentions that he hates personal dedications and will instead create a fake name for her, “Nicolette Fiss.” This name appears as the dedicatee in the draft manuscript, but by the time of the book’s publication, he has swapped it out for “Beth-Ellen Siciliano” and “Alice Dall.” Whether both or either of these people are still pseudonyms for Miller, or someone else, or an amalgam of Wallace women, or no one at all, we don’t know. That seems to be the point: To be a woman close to David Foster Wallace means mattering not as a specific human but as a convenient peg for a set of his ideas. How real or imagined you are isn’t particularly important, and you will be extravagantly messed with along the way.

The effect of all this is that, despite having a job that she repeatedly reminds us others would “kill” for, Miller comes to feel marginal. She starts thinking of herself as “the most regular person in the world,” in contrast to Wallace. She becomes convinced that her work as an editor makes her something like a “leech” or a “parasite.” She questions the value of a “life lived only in relation to another person.” This feeling surely bears some relation to her wider experiences of sexism; she talks of making herself a “fortress” or a “Soviet tank” in the face of male condescension. But it’s also uniquely bound up in the relationship between two people, between her and Wallace, and the book’s broad meditations on power and gatekeeping don’t really clarify this. The thing that is evoked so well here is the quality of feeling adjacent. There’s nothing uplifting about that, or explicitly political, and I am not sure there has to be.

It seems much nicer to date Ezra Blazer, the character based on Philip Roth in Asymmetry, than David Foster Wallace. He’s the kind of creep who buys you an ice cream from Mister Softee before asking for sex, rather than calling you a “manipulative slimehead,” as Wallace does. Still, like Wallace, he insists on a bizarre level of secrecy and control: His phone number only ever appears to Alice as “CALLER ID BLOCKED.” When she goes to visit him at his country house, he has her adopt an alias (Nicolette Fiss, meet “Samantha Bargeman”) and even goes to the lengths of having business cards made up in the fake name, identifying her as his research assistant. When she first visits his house, he takes her handbag, empties it out, and then throws her wallet in the trash without asking her. She is expected to be grateful (and is), when he replaces it with a wallet of his own choosing. Stop me when this starts sounding less than romantic to you.

As with Wallace, all of this bad behavior makes for gripping reading. But the idea that Alice somehow grows from this experience with Ezra, or gains anything from her stint as the young person who reenergizes him, is harder for me to believe because of the way the tension between the two characters is constructed. Mary-Alice Dodge is one of the mutest protagonists I’ve ever come across in a book. The novel is written in the third person and gives the reader very little access to any of Alice’s thoughts about what Ezra Blazer is doing or why she would want to go along with it. Ezra offers her an ice cream, and she takes it; he invites her over for sex, and she goes; he tells her to leave soon after (he croons “the party’s over” at her, if she didn’t get the hint), and she does. She accepts the entire experience of becoming an elderly writer’s girlfriend with a pristine passivity.

It’s suggested that Alice’s own literary ambitions, and her appreciation of literature more generally, go some way toward justifying Ezra as a partner for her. She is working an entry-level job at a literary imprint called Gryphon, and she knows he is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize. Immediately after we read that “his lips were soft,” Halliday reminds us that “there were no fewer than three National Book Award certificates in his name framed on the lobby wall.” Which is the greater turn-on? Later, Alice finds herself cradling Ezra’s head as they lie in bed together and is struck by the idea that so much intellect is contained in her arms.

The larger idea here is that Alice leaves Ezra and becomes the artist she couldn’t be with him around. (“After all, hadn’t he already said everything she wanted to say?” Halliday writes.) Asymmetry is composed of two main parts, plus a coda, with the first part devoted to the Alice-Ezra relationship. The big reveal is that the novel’s seemingly unrelated second portion—the story of an Iraqi-American man being held in detention at the airport—turns out to be a work of fiction authored by Alice. There it is, we might say: Alice pulled it off, and so did Halliday, by establishing a new center of gravity for the book, in which the Roth-like Ezra has no place. This would be more convincing to me if we knew more about Alice in the first place, if she ever became a character with her own agenda.

I don’t see, in fact, why the first part of Asymmetry should need Alice to end up with an astonishing literary triumph. A major point of interest here, as with In the Land of Men, is in its character study of a highly intelligent, awful man. One thing that differentiates Asymmetry is that Halliday finds a way to make Ezra erotic. He has heart trouble and can’t have sex as often as he’d like to, or in interesting ways. The possibility that Alice could push him too far becomes dangerously alluring to her. Halliday lavishes attention on Ezra’s infirm, surgery-marked body in a way I have rarely seen before:

From his stomach all the way up to his sternum ran a pink, zipper-like scar. Another scar bisected his leg from groin to ankle. Two more made a faint circumflex above his hip. And that was just the front.

“Who did this to you?”

“Norman Mailer.”

Whatever you think of aging and bodies, the quality of attention being paid here is sexy in itself. And so is the way that Halliday gives Ezra an opportunity to name-drop and make a joke: He may have a pacemaker, this says, but he knows who he is.

There’s another context for these books, which is the decline of the publishing industry and the shrinking demand for literary fiction. Maybe the novel Halliday always wanted to write was the story that occupies Asymmetry’s second half: “War. Dictatorships. World affairs,” as Alice puts it. But it’s the novel intimately enmeshed with Ezra Blazer and Philip Roth that has become a national bestseller. Miller too has to do her job in the shadow of the towering midcentury men, Gordon Lish and Rust Hills, who went before her.

She’s living through the “last gasp of the print magazine,” and even as she rises through the ranks, it’s clear there is a limit to how successful one can be by the late ’90s. She witnesses firings, some accompanied by a goodbye card tucked into a file folder, some toasted with champagne. Colleagues toughen up with straight talk like, “There are no tenured jobs at Esquire.” But Miller doesn’t really contend with how the contraction of the industry affects her sense of being pushed to the edges. She feels sexism holding her back, but surely the fact that her industry is dying and that her publication is less and less interested in acquiring fiction also puts limits on her career. When she starts at Esquire, the magazine is publishing 10 short stories a year; by the time she leaves, she can barely get anything into print, and her bosses kill a Wallace short story that she has labored on for months. All this comes after she wins an ASME award for fiction. Whoever filled the role of literary editor at Esquire, whatever brilliance they displayed, they were not likely to carve out the same kind of space for themselves that Lish had.

Perhaps in a different environment, one less tainted by sexism and less constrained by the collapse of the culture industry, Halliday and Miller would have written different books; perhaps these men would have been no more than glamorous cameos in a very different sort of story. As it is, we get skilled and unsparing portraits of them, largely on their own terrain.

One of the funniest moments in In the Land of Men comes near the end, when Miller recounts a phone call with Wallace. He asks her if she is familiar with Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return”—the idea that events in history “repeat themselves infinitely.” She is, though there’s no way it could have prepared her for his next insight. “This,” he says, “is why you can never be an asshole to anyone. No one ever really goes away.” Clearly he and Miller see the world very differently. There are many reasons not to be a jerk, but Nietzsche is not one of them.