Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
Viking Adult, 2012
This biography, useful as it is in providing some needed context, feels flimsy.
The most obvious missing piece in this bio is an exploration of David Wallace's relationship to his mother. It is quite clear even from Max's work that this relationship was central both to who David Wallace was and to the stylistic and thematic choices in his work. The difficulty of such an endeavor is clear. In unveiling whatever that relationship might have been like, Max risked offending Wallace's family, a risk that can derail a biography. The qualms of writers of biographical material, both tactical and borne out of common courtesy and compassion, are well exemplified in the first piece that actually touched on the matter of Wallace's relationship with his mother. In Maria Bustillo's Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library, comment after comment on the self-help books he owned point to the crippling influence of his mother on Wallace's life. After this article was published, revealing something that reader's might have been gleaning from pieces like Suicide as a sort of present, Present Tense... and character's such as Avril Incandenza, a total of 21 out 320 books from the library of DFW on display at the Harry Ramson Center in Austin were removed from public access by Wallace's Estate. There is no question that family members should be spared the grief of seeing their intrafamilial relationships dissected in public in a biography. Also, arguably, no biography of David Foster Wallace can be complete without an extensive exploration of this relationship. This conundrum probably means that we will have to wait for a definitive biography of Wallace for a few years.
Further, there is extensive research done up until after the publishing of Infinite Jest in 1996, at which point Max makes a mad dash for the finish line as if the main objective of the bio had already been accomplished. It takes Max until page 220 to get to the publication of IJ and he then proceeds to wrap up the next 6 books, Wallace's final crisis and all material and analysis of Pale King in 80 pages. This approach left me with the feeling that Max unspoken conclusion for the biography was that Wallace is a failed writer, that published an astounding but essentially unfollowable book in IJ. This would be a massive underestimation of Wallace's work. It is also, however, possible that Max simply ran out of time. This was widely expected book and there must have been a lot of pressure to put it out fast. One would assume that if heavy research was put in at the early stages, it would have had to be sparse at the end with the deadline approaching.
Max's style provides evidence to support the rush theory. There are, for example, sentences that must originate in transfer from subject to biographer and that patient editing might have weeded out, such as in the inadvertently funny: "He knew that he had to write for himself and not think about the reader, but that was easier to enunciate than to enact." One is reminded of Wallace's video about "puffed up words", as well as his penchant for renovating clichés with smart word play; in this case, however, "easier to enunciate than to enact" is not an improvement on the equally lame cliché "easier said than done". The book is not badly written, but there are a few of these little surprises lying around in it.
The biography also fails to transmit what Wallace aptly called his "psychic pain". In Max's bio Wallace will be feeling depressed in one sentence and then hospitalized in the next and out of the hospital by the next paragraph. There is a feeling that Max felt that dwelling on unsavory topics such as what it actually feels to be severely, clinically depressed was somehow offensive to his subject, or that his journalistic principles kept him from approaching the more subjective aspects of "how it felt" for Wallace. This, of course, can all be found on Wallace's work, but one would think it necessary in a book that is supposed to provide context for his own life decisions.
Is this DFW first bio worthy of your attention, then? Yes, despite its shortcomings. It provides much needed information and context. There are no incredible insights from Max himself, it feels rushed and skips important topics, but it is in all a worthwhile read.