Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story
A Life of David Foster Wallace
By D.T. Max
Viking, 343 pages, $29.50
WHEN U.S. literary star David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at age 46, he left behind not only an unfinished novel, but also an audience hungry for more of his work and some insight into his life and death.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, which takes its name from a line Wallace loved and used twice in his writing, is an excellent biography for those already interested in Wallace. There is much to comfort and dismay the aspiring writer as well.
Born in Ithaca, N.Y., but a product of Illinois, Wallace has been called, in a variety of ways, the author of his generation. His output, while not immense, covered subjects great and small.
He was also a daunting read, due to both his lexical dexterity and his desire to comprehensively grapple with large issues.
Wallace's life was in some ways uneventful: there were no grand adventures or exotic travel. Yet for those sympathetic to him, biographer D.T. Max's explorations of the complexities of his interior life offer more than adequate compensation.
A precocious youth, according to Max, Wallace demonstrated an early talent for prose matched only by his appetite for television. That the latter, and more generally contemporary media and entertainment cultures, would serve as both resource and critical foil comes as no surprise.
Wallace's family dynamic feels relatively under-explored here. Both of his parents were intellectuals and in turn nurtured their son's academic gifts. It was a family that clearly loved to play with language, even as they also used it as a weapon.
A well-known anecdote tells how Wallace's mother would fake choking fits until her children corrected grammatical missteps. Yet his family largely disappears from Max's narrative once Wallace moves from home, leaving largely unanswered questions about Wallace's antipathy towards his mother.
Wallace hit his academic stride in college and was a standout student. Here he explored many of the writers and theorists from whom he'd draw inspiration.
One of his two senior theses, The Broom of the System, was published as novel when he was only 25. Other works, essays and short fiction, followed.
At the same time, Wallace's depression, evident as early as age nine, became increasingly disruptive. Also weighed down by alcohol and drug issues, Wallace spent time in both rehab and psychiatric programs.
These experiences helped shape his mammoth 1996 novel Infinite Jest, for which Wallace is best known. In it he demonstrates a growing maturity as a writer, one less concerned with exploring sophisticated literary and theoretical models, and more with compassionately connecting to the reader.
Wallace struggled to find his footing for some time after Infinite Jest, especially in light of the expectations it garnered. He published several subsequent non-fiction books and two collections of short stories, but not another novel, except for his incomplete and posthumous published title, The Pale King.
While Max devotes much space to Wallace's health struggles, he allots his death only a brief mention, and reaction to it none at all. Whether this amounts to a gesture of dignity and respect, or a dereliction of the biographer's duty, will be the individual reader call.
Max's work has much to recommend it. His portrait of Wallace is many-dimensional, blending description with insightful analysis. He neither reduces Wallace to his mental health struggles, nor unduly elevates him by way of his literary success.
What we find instead is a complex and human figure, marked as much by achievement and small kindnesses as by competitive slights and petty cruelties. At times, though, one wishes for greater background on those in Wallace's life, who occasionally become indistinct.
One of Max's greatest strengths is that he does not try to write like Wallace. His narrative and grammatical style is far less experimental, and each sentence generally begins and ends on the same breath. His prose is energetic and well-researched, but also makes accessible and succinct what Wallace would perseverate over.
Max does share with Wallace a penchant for footnotes, which are unfailingly helpful. Wallace's work, and especially Infinite Jest, opens up in surprising ways to Max's treatment.
Jarett Myskiw is a Winnipeg teacher who runs a DFW word-of-the day blog, definitivejest.blogspot.com.