Saturday, December 1, 2012

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D.T. Max

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2012/2013

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story:
A Life of David Foster Wallace
D.T. Max
Viking ($26.95)

Everything in David Foster Wallace’s life happened quickly. He wrote his first novel, The Broom of the System, in well under a year, as one of his two undergraduate summa theses (his philosophy thesis has now been published too). He wrote the bulk of his massive, generation-defining Infinite Jest in about three years. And after going through more artistic and personal regenerations than would seem possible for one single writer in one single lifetime, he died far, far too young. When I interviewed Wallace in 1997 (click here to read a full transcript of the interview), he was wholly ascendant as the representative writer of his time, and it’s dizzying to think that less than a dozen years later he’d be dead—and that just a few years afterward his first biography would appear.

In keeping with Wallace’s swift turnover, D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, arrives alongside a flurry of other rapidly produced Wallace-related books, and at only around 300 pages, it’s all over much too soon. Not employing the breakneck overwhelm of Wallace’s include-every-possible-detail-and-reflection style, Max instead reins in an amazing amount of material into a surprisingly concise narrative. In addition to consulting all of Wallace’s voluminous drafts and notebooks, Max was afforded unprecedented access to Wallace’s vast correspondence—to friends, family, girlfriends, teachers, editors, and fellow writers—and most of these people granted him extremely candid interviews as well, consigning to Max a kaleidoscopic but also sharply outlined portrait of one of our era’s most brilliant and troubled writers.

Just a few pages into this biography’s revealing portrayal, any Wallace fan will quickly realize that this is Wallace’s worst nightmare: exposure. A profoundly depressed, anxious, self-conscious, and shame-ridden man, Wallace was a mass of tics and habits and neuroses that he very successfully hid from the public by channeling it all into his compulsive writing and by representing himself as the serene author who’d conquered all his demons in the pages of his books. Suffering from depression is nothing to be ashamed of, but being ashamed is unfortunately one of the disease’s most crippling symptoms, and Wallace would have shriveled up with more horror than Hal Incandenza at a college admissions interview if he were to have seen all of his manias and foibles and repeatedly unlearned lessons spread out for all of his readers to ponder in this unflinching biography.

For the first hundred pages or so, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story does an impressive job of sifting through all the interviews and records and recounting it all in a clear and steady voice, Max’s judicious choices in focus and pacing giving the reader a streamlined and lucid understanding of Wallace’s early personality and life-experience in suburban middle America. In many respects, Wallace was a typical product of his times, but with two rigorously intellectual academics for parents, he was also encouraged to regard himself with adult-like rights and responsibilities and was expected to live up to the standards that such responsibilities placed upon him. In a different child, such as Wallace’s sister, Amy, this might have resulted in a well-informed and well-rounded sense of self, but for a child as nervous and insecure and fundamentally unwell as Wallace, it bloomed into a narcissistic neediness that caused him to depend upon wild over-achievement in order to feel any self-worth at all. When he couldn’t perform to the utmost extent, or when he merely feared inability when taking on outlandish loads, he simply crumbled.

As Wallace begins to find a satisfying outlet for self-expression in writing fiction, Max zeroes in and applies an exceptionally keen literary understanding to each of Wallace’s artistic phases and incarnations. Max knows Wallace’s work as well as any fellow writer or critic, and he also demonstrates a deep knowledge of Wallace’s contemporaries and influences, and he makes nearly pitch-perfect evaluations of each of Wallace’s works, including where each of them fit into the larger literary scene. Thus we learn that, contrary to all of Wallace’s protestations that he hadn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 before writing The Broom of the System, the young writer had in truth latched onto Thomas Pynchon in college as a kind of revelation (even pinning up a photograph of the rarely photographed Pynchon onto his wall) and wrote deeply under his influence (or in rebellion against his influence) for much of his career. Wallace was often obsessed by the dialogue that he felt he was in with the state of literary art, and Max very astutely limns all of the specific writers (Barth, Gass, Ellis, etc.) whose works Wallace’s early stories either mimicked or parodied or attempted to abnegate.

Max also examines how Wallace’s literary and philosophical ideas both fueled and hindered his growth as a writer and as a person. Wallace was consumed with ideas in a way that was frequently unhelpful and unhealthy, and his often ludicrous literary rules about how fiction had to be a certain thing—or more often not a certain thing—led him down paths that at times he couldn’t back out from, his self-worth hinging on mental concepts that sometimes did and sometimes didn’t bear fruit. Happily for Wallace and the rest of the world, his concerns merged with his natural creative gifts to find a brilliant consummation in Infinite Jest, but in channeling himself into the specific project of The Pale King—a scheme that by its design couldn’t be dramatized in any effective or compelling manner given Wallace’s specific talents and style—he allowed his rules to determine and limit what he could achieve, which for Wallace unfortunately also determined and limited what he felt he was worth as a person. As anyone who’s read Infinite Jest knows, Wallace had a rehabilitative agenda that bordered on the messianic, and like Dostoyevsky, the idol that he replaced Pynchon with, Wallace in later life became profoundly moralistic in his rules about what his writing needed to accomplish, and anything short of rapturous success would mean utter failure.

Max covers all of this extremely well, but as the biography leans more into Wallace’s writing, it begins to lose its task as a biography. The first third of the book works to portray Wallace’s life among his various milieux quite vividly—from his family to his tennis teammates to his college friends—but as soon as Wallace’s writing comes to the fore, Max begins to forget to do the job of choosing his sources and continuing the textural narrative, and he increasingly quotes Wallace at length and simply lets the quotes do the talking. There are very few quotes that are in themselves uninteresting or out of place, but Max is clearly incapable of effectively pruning Wallace, and as the text proceeds, the quotes become more and more unwieldy and off topic while the biographical fabric slowly loses its integral thread. No relationship in the dozen years after Infinite Jest gets the close biographical treatment of Wallace’s college friendships, and although many of these later relationships are just Wallace repeating his old patterns, they’re all important and worth dwelling upon closely—especially his relationship with his wife, which seemed to be a very new and very different step for Wallace—but instead it’s all rushed through in a way that seems as if Max just wanted to get the book finished in 300 pages without maintaining the level of its early focus and without the difficult decision-making that its narrative and personal texture required.

Max’s greatest mischaracterization, however, is in his last line. After a year of struggling to change medications, Wallace lived in such excruciating pain that he twice attempted suicide and finally succeeded, having not been able to find any measure of safety within himself, and also having failed to complete The Pale King. Max writes, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” How can Max think, after detailing so many years of profound mental illness, that Wallace “chose” suicide? In Wallace’s case, it was so clearly the most desperate escape from pain, made by a mind so out of control that it could hardly make any kind of informed “choice,” and Max’s poorly considered words leave a terribly bitter taste at the end of this biography. Just as it would be wrong to think that it was Wallace’s wild intellectual notions that led him into sickness (rather than the other way around), it’s incredibly tasteless to suggest that any mental process other than the deepest mental illness could have led Wallace to commit suicide.

Max’s subtitle for this biography is “A Life of David Foster Wallace,” and, true to its word, this book is undoubtedly destined to be “a” life rather than “the” life of its subject. Max has done a great service in bringing all of his sources together and by doing so much excellent original groundwork himself, and his evaluation and interpretation of Wallace’s literary life is likely to stand for some time to come, but Wallace deserves much more than this. With all of its flaws, this book is still a positive contribution that sincerely helps readers understand a complex and sometimes mystifying human being, and like Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, it even helps us read that human being’s works. But surely someday a true biographer, with all of the biographer’s necessary skills and talents, will come along to write the definitive life of David Foster Wallace.

—David Wiley