BLOOMINGTON, IL—Claire Thompson, author David Foster Wallace's girlfriend of two years, stopped reading his 67-page breakup letter at page 20, she admitted Monday.
"It was pretty good, I guess, but I just couldn't get all the way through," said Thompson, 32, who was given the seven-chapter, heavily footnoted "Dear John" missive on Feb. 3. "I always meant to pick it up again, but then I got busy and, oh, I don't know. He's talented, but his letters can sometimes get a little self-indulgent."
Foster, the award-winning author of The Broom Of The System and the 1,079-page Infinite Jest, met Thompson in March 2001 through mutual friends.
A political-science professor at Illinois State University, where Wallace teaches creative writing, Thompson said pages 4 through 11 of the letter chronicled the deterioration of the relationship "fairly well." She specifically cited Item 64, on page 7, from the section, "How I Can Tell Things Have Changed":
"It used to be that if you were away from the table or in the next room or otherwise unable to witness this admittedly unsavory and wholly intrusive activity on my part, in little spasms of unhealthy obsession I would peek into your Day Runner Personal Planner so as to gauge how much together-time we would have during the upcoming week at a glance; lately, however—if you are at all able to move past this revelation of my no-two-ways-around-it unforgivable and unjustifiable invasion of privacy and on to the rather telling point—I have found myself either viewing the week-at-a-glance in actual anticipation of our time apart or, even when opportunities for unfettered peeking presented themselves, ignoring your Day Runner Personal Planner altogether such as just last week when, stooped in rummaging position, I opted to remove from your bag and guiltily read cover-to-cover a copy of Fine Cooking magazine, therein choosing to glean particulars about the cultivation, culinary traditions, and preparation of white asparagus over those of our precious little time together."
In addition to compiling the many reasons why the relationship was no longer working, Wallace's letter featured sections on "Why We Could Never Grow Old Together," "Ways It—Us, The World, And Everything—Has All Changed," and "Things I've Never Told You (That Will Certainly Change Your Mind About Me)."
"One thing I found annoying was that you had to read all the way to the middle to figure out what things on the first page of the letter were talking about," Thompson said. "For instance, he kept referring to somebody named The Cackler without explanation until page 11, at which point I finally found out that The Cackler is my friend Renée—essentially forcing me to read the whole first 11 pages over again. And then there are all the footnotes. I always felt he overused those in his valentines, too."
Thompson said she believes Wallace penned the breakup opus during a January lecture trip to the University of New England in Biddeford, ME.
"When he came back, he handed me a big manila envelope," Thompson said. "He said that during the trip, he confronted himself about some things he'd been avoiding, and that he needed to start living his life in a whole different way. He said the contents of the envelope would explain everything. I was just like, 'Okay, whatever, David.'"
Thompson said she did not immediately open the envelope.
"I assumed it was one of his tomes about, I don't know, the reasons why he isn't going to eat processed sugar anymore, or why he threw out his TV," Thompson said. "Or something like the one where he said, in 88 numbered points, why he didn't want a birthday party."
"Or, God, I almost forgot," Thompson added. "There was the letter where he explained how he now wants to be called 'Dave' and included a page-long description of every single 'Dave' and 'David' he's ever known in his entire life."
On Feb. 5, two days after receiving the letter, Thompson received a voicemail message from Wallace asking her what she thought of it. The message prompted her finally to open the envelope and "crack" the letter. That evening, Thompson slogged through the first 20 pages of the dense, complex Breakup Letter For Claire–Rough Draft, eventually putting it down to begin making dinner. The next morning, she moved the letter from her coffee table to a desk drawer, where it still remains, unfinished.
"Maybe I'll pick it up again," Thompson said. "I'd sort of like to see how it ends. Then again, knowing David, it probably just leaves a whole bunch of loose ends untied."