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. Continue reading