In March of 2009, the New Yorker published an essay on David Foster Wallace by the staff writer D. T. Max. The essay, appearing six months after the novelist’s suicide, told the story of Wallace’s final months: how he decided to go off Nardil, an antidepressant he’d been on for more than 20 years; how this decision was triggered both by professional despair (Wallace seemed unable to finish what he called the “Long Thing,” his follow-up to his 1996 novel "Infinite Jest") and by personal happiness (his recent marriage to the artist Karen Green); and how it all ended horribly, with Wallace hanging himself in his home in Claremont, Calif.
Wallace’s struggles with depression and his own work were largely unknown, and Max presented this sad, shocking story with sensitivity and intelligence. When it was announced that Max would write the first full-length biography of Wallace, fans rejoiced.
Alas, Max’s book, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, has arrived, and it’s a serious disappointment. The book’s faults are many. The literary analysis is shallow, the writing clichéd: if Max mentions Wallace’s Midwestern upbringing, for instance, you can be sure that talk of “normality, kindness, and community” will follow. Wallace is never placed within the broader tradition of 20th-century fiction (for all it’s mentioned in this book, literature might not have existed before 1945). Worst of all, there’s no story here. Max merely lists one darned thing after another, and we’re left with a bunch of lifeless facts rather than with any coherent reading of Wallace’s life, his work, and the relation between the two.
Max’s failures are more glaring because Wallace is such a fascinating biographical subject, a writer whose genius and demons arose from the same source: his formidable, self-conscious intelligence. Wallace’s psychological troubles found him early. Max tells us that Wallace’s “version of counting sheep” as a child was to recite all of his physical imperfections: “Feet too thin and narrow and toes oddly shaped, ankles too thin.…” He began suffering from anxiety and depression – what Wallace called the “Bad Thing”– while attending Urbana High School in Illinois. A brilliant student at Amherst College – he wrote two senior theses, one on metaphysics and the other a draft of his first novel – Wallace twice had to leave campus because of depression.
Wallace’s earliest work was defiantly experimental. His first novel, "The Broom of the System," ends midsentence, and the self-conscious, playful short stories in "Girl With Curious Hair" signaled their affinity with the postmodernism of figures like John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Wallace was, at heart, a satirist, intent upon exposing the distinctive sin of modern life – the way that, as he put it, “irony tyrannizes us.”
In the mid-1990s, Wallace had a change of heart. He decided that he wanted to write “morally passionate, passionately moral” fiction, using postmodern trickery to, as he wrote, “give CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow.” The result of this shift was "Infinite Jest," a mammoth novel that wedded formal self-consciousness with serious considerations of love, suffering, and addiction.
Wallace’s movement towards sincerity and moral engagement helped prepare the way for writers like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer.
With such an interesting story to tell, why is "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story" so disappointing? To be fair, the book isn’t without its virtues. If nothing else, Max has done the literary world a service by making public some of the many letters that Wallace exchanged with Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and other writers. And there are occasional moments of critical insight, as when Max writes that the stories in Wallace’s late collection, "Oblivion," are “afraid of compression, as if the title were a threat that could only be defended against by the relentlessly engaged consciousness.”
But such moments are rare. Max is happy to summarize other critics’ views and to point to Wallace’s influences in the broadest strokes – he gets his dialogue from DeLillo, his “sense of America” from Pynchon – but he rarely hazards his own readings. That’s because he rarely hazards anything – interpretation, contextualization, even opinion.
Wallace’s hiring of a prostitute in the late 1990s, for example, is sequestered to a brief footnote, and Max doesn’t acknowledge how this might complicate Wallace’s late moral vision.
Max might respond that his is a descriptive, not an interpretive, biography. Even on these terms, though, his book is weak: His evocation of Wallace’s childhood, for instance, largely consists of a list of his favorite books and TV shows. The best literary biographies make an argument: They tell us how the life stands in relation to the work and why we should care. In the end, it’s not that I disagree with Max’s assessment of Wallace; it’s that I’m still not sure what it is.
Anthony Domestico's essays have appeared in The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Commonweal.