It’s difficult to imagine a figure with a more awesomely passionate and thoughtful audience than David Foster Wallace. So the task of writing the first major biography of the late writer must involve not only the regular mining of primary sources but also grappling with a weighty paradox: the group best suited to buy and absorb and appreciate your work is also your adversary in that they know a ton, they care a lot, and they will hold you to a higher standard than your editor. But D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace is so captivating, well-researched, and straightforward that even the most frenzied Wallace fanatic should find little to quibble with.
Max’s method is simple: compile a lot of information about Wallace and arrange it in a way that tries to explain how he came to be who he was at each stage in his life: the pot-smoking tennis-playing adolescent; the anxious and competitive wastoid who managed to complete two undergraduate theses at Amherst College; the volatile writer who struggled with the combination of national critical success and realist professorial criticism at an MFA program in Tucson; the recovering addict who wrote Infinite Jest; the lothario who seized on young mothers; and the man who hanged himself at age 46.
Understanding the composite Wallace, DFW the person, doesn’t seem Max’s objective. He appears content offering the reader a better grasp of what led Wallace where in life and what formed his understanding of writing, drawing largely from Wallace’s friends and family, his letters, and, of course, his books.
Wallace’s depression is a theme throughout, of course. But there’s another aspect of Wallace’s life that is applicable to all our lives but not nearly as interesting or miraculous: how Dave Wallace almost didn’t become David Foster Wallace. Becoming a writer wasn’t out of the ordinary given his pedigree—anyone who’s read “Tense Present” knows the grammarian household he grew up in—but it wasn’t exactly his destiny, either.
Max sheds light on Wallace’s formative Amherst years, a time that’s always been murky in his biography. Aside from what’s in Broom of the System and a few quirky letters to the college papers, little was known.
But Max’s account of his undergraduate period is particularly illuminating when it comes to how Dave Wallace became DFW the writer. Though he had dabbled with “occasional comic stories” in high school, Wallace found Amherst’s fiction culture wanting, enough to keep him away from participating.
Fiction on campus was the province of, as he would later describe them, “foppish aesthetes” who “went around in berets stroking their chins.” They were sensitive, and his sensitivity was not something he wanted to emphasize. The cast of mind he thought it took to be a writer was scary to him.
Dave Wallace instead took logic, French, economics—the standard liberal arts fare. When at home in Illinois, however, he thought about writing fiction, telling his close friend and later collaborator Mark Costello that he wanted to write the sort of stuff “still read 100 years from now.”
The son of academics, Wallace, naturally, to decided to study it, signing up for literature courses and a class in creative writing—unusual for “midwestern boys,” Max asserts, because they “might teach or read or make ironic fun of novels, but they did not go to college to learn how to write them.” Wallace received an A-minus in this first course after clashing with his stylistically adversarial professor, Alan Lelchuk, who was a “realist in the style of Philip Roth,” who didn’t like Wallace’s “shallow and tricky” writing.
But Wallace kept at it, completing his first novel, Broom of the System, as a senior thesis at Amherst. It was later published by Viking Press in January 1987.
The writing came easily. But it wasn’t an obvious path. Though fiction held him, philosophy was in his blood. Wallace’s father was a philosophy professor, and his other thesis, in philosophy, received high marks at Amherst. Max relays the story of an Amherst professor telling Costello that Wallace “must study philosophy” instead of write fiction. Wrung out after Broom of the System and an Arizona MFA program that was ill-suited, Wallace enrolled at Harvard to study philosophy, only to bottom out and have the “worst year of his life,” spending time in various alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation programs that ultimately inspired large parts of Infinite Jest.
How close things like Infinite Jest were to not happening. Without the continual breakdowns and his nomadic years cleaning himself up in the Boston area, there would have been no masterpiece.
Max’s writing is so straightforward and readable that it takes a backseat to the various times Wallace is quoted—either from his fiction, his nonfiction, or his letters with Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, or other friends. In fact, the letters are so engrossing that the reader is left with a desire to own a collection of just Wallace’s correspondences. (Someone please do this.) From Wallace’s letters, we see the writer in many different positions: seeking guidance from DeLillo on writing, taking the time to write thoughtful responses to questions from aspiring writers, sparring a little bit with Franzen about each other’s work and what fiction must be.
But Max isn’t just transmitting information. Though he holds his subject at arm’s length, his approach more honest than flattering, he gently asserts himself at various times, taking issue with Wallace’s “self-flagellation” about early writings, specifically Broom of the System.
Many anecdotes about Wallace are charming, and paint a clear picture of a man who was very kind, often too generous, and seemed to genuinely care about other people’s happiness. Sure, he could be nasty at times, especially when talking about other writers and their work, but in his everyday interactions—especially after entering a Twelve-Step Program—Wallace behaved at times like the ideal neighbor.
But Wallace seemed like an entirely different person when depression beset him. After electro-convulsive therapy, Wallace appeared to his mother “as delicate as a child.
“He would ask, ‘How do you make small talk?’ ‘How can you know which frying pan to pick out of the cupboard?'”
Though Max fills some voids in Wallace’s life, questions are still left about the post-Infinite Jest years, which are hurried through quickly. (Much of what’s in Every Love Story about this period comes from Max’s lovely New Yorker piece.) Many know The Pale King was a struggle, something he started and stopped a lot, something that left him disenchanted altogether about his writing—Max notes these things, of course. But there are shifts in Wallace’s constitution that are mentioned but not drawn out to the reader’s satisfaction.
Take Wallace’s political leanings. Max notes that Wallace voted for Reagan and supported Ross Perot (!) in 1992, but by the W. Bush years was stridently liberal. Max reports that Wallace and his wife Karen Green “seriously considered leaving the country” after Bush’s 2004 reelection, but ultimately decided it would be an “overreaction.” But Max concludes that Wallace was merely “a writer, not a political operative.” Wallace “cared about the moral state of the country, more than which side won,” Max says. A quick reading of Wallace’s 2007 piece for The Atlantic “Just Asking” confirms this, I think.
At the same time, to see 2007 Wallace ask a question like
What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.?
is jarring. Something shook him. Perhaps he was spurred by Green, a woman who was with him until his suicide but was his partner in some of his happiest and most stable years, and her politics. Unfortunately, far less seems to be known about the Wallace of the aughts than the nineties or eighties versions. Of course, based on the body of Every Love Story, I’m confident Max would have included more about this period if it was out there. So in this case, the shortcoming might not be Max’s fault—Wallace’s paper trail in his Karen Green Years is just quite scant; he was living his non-writing life quite happily, bellyaching to Franzen and Costello and DeLillo far less.
My willingness to absolve Max of this shortcoming probably won’t be the norm, I’m guessing, among more knowledgeable and devoted fans of Wallace. Resistance to Max’s coverage of Wallace + religion is already out there, and will probably grow in the weeks after the book’s release.
And when one considers how personal a connection Wallace fans feel to the late writer, it’s inevitable that individual readers will take issue with omissions or proportions of focus. (Ex: I have always loathed “Ticket to the Fair” for its coastal superiority—that someone who grew up in my homestate would paint us as such broad hucksters made it even more difficult to read—and am always happy when it’s passed over in discussions of Wallace’s best nonfiction.) Look at the entries on Infinite Summer: Wallace means a lot to individual people not because he was a tremendous writer, but because he has the effect on people of shaking them up, giving them purpose.
So it’s kind of weird, I realize, to refer to Wallace fans as a collective, as I did in the first paragraph—”fanatics”—because each person’s relationship to a writer is individual and inseparable from critical discussions of literary quality. Wallace’s fans are no different than those of other writers—I know this, I do—their presence is just more apparent, and their passion more palpable.
But Max writes with a calm that betrays no fear of backlash or repudiation from Wallace fans. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, like Wallace’s best writing, is straightforward and honest and does not piss around for anyone’s sake. It is not a tribute to Wallace so much as a service to those who could not know him by way of anything but his remarkable work. And as the first major biography of Wallace, it’s a thoughtful start, the sort of work that might inspire others to follow up, spur them to head to Amherst or Austin or Bloomington in search of answers.