‘A must-read for writing students and DFW fans alike’ – Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by DT Max
In the posthumous commemoration/analysis/cashing-in stakes, DFW fans would probably do well to concede defeat to the estate of Roberto Bolaño, the executors of which appear to be punting out a new book every time the wind changes—but Wallace aficionados are certainly well-served. Since his death in 2008, most famously we’ve had the unfinished novel, The Pale King, and last year’s new essay collection, Both Flesh And Not, has been recently joined by the re-release of his co-authored (with Mark Costello) 1990 book, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. There’s already a growing body of critical and scholarly work on DFW, much/most of which is referenced in the book on the table today, DT Max’s pretty well universally praised biography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, which is now out in paperback. In the half-decade since Wallace’s death, then, public and literary interest in his work seems to have surged from high-tide to tsunami levels, and Max’s volume is riding that wave, not without reason.
As what I’d probably call a critical biography, it’s fairly conventionally-structured, moving from birth to death (in a teleological fashion that I’m sure Wallace himself would have decried), with a strong focus on the middle years and stopping abruptly at its subject’s death. For better or worse, then, the chosen end-point means that Max refuses to indulge in and/or engage with the ethical/critical/editorial debates surrounding the posthumous publication of Wallace’s partial manuscript of The Pale King in 2011. This was probably something of a move towards self-preservation, because the flurry of posthumous publications attendant upon the death of any big-name writer these days can’t entirely avoid the taint of commercial tastelessness, and a relatively quick turn-around bio like this one certainly wouldn’t be (and oughtn’t to be) exempt from that debate. Laying ethics aside for a moment, though: in ELSIAGS we get a more or less chronological account of DFW’s childhood, high-school life and college experience; his teaching and writing careers; his relationship sagas, publishing history, marriage and death, all complete with the various breakdowns which his suicide has meant are now talked-about more than they might, perhaps, otherwise have been. Max isn’t ghoulish, however, and he doesn’t romanticise mental illness; Wallace’s psychology remains at all times contextualised with regards to his work, his family and his relationships, and the book is, as you’d expect, heavily geared towards an exploration of his creative and editorial process, from composition and research to redrafting, copy-editing and the dreaded book tours. As a DFW fan (disclosure: a BIG fan, the geeky irritant t the party who insists you must read Infinite Jest and damn the length), I was pleased to find it’s crammed with details about his attitude to fiction as a writer, a reader and a teacher. Max had access to a substantial amount of Wallace’s correspondence, so much of the particularly personal detail we get about the gruelling nature of his work is in Wallce’s own words, transcribed from letters sent to literary cohorts like Franzen, Costello and Delillo; likewise, details about his relationships (some of them, at least) and teaching situations are backed-up by copious referenced documentation. Aware, of course, that the bulk of his readers will be those who want to see the books contextualised, Max is exhaustive in his approach to the writing itself: as well as recounting the often elongated and apparently torturous composition processes, he includes a certain amount of critical responses to the texts, from the gushing to the less-impressed (the NYT’s Michiko Kakutani is the chief naysayer throughout). For those in search of a Life, though, and not an annotated bibliography, don’t worry: it’s a good balancing act. Wallace, in Max’s version (because it’s always a version), is arrogant, terrified, humble, paranoid, excessive, exuberant, funny and bleak; possessor of an acute and blinding intelligence; a romantic disaster (until the last few years); an addict and an inspiration to other writers. His ambition jumps off the page, as does his dissatisfaction with his output; his life as a writer seems equal parts despair and joy. ELSIAGS attributes to Wallace a life that’s as compelling to read (especially if you like reading about intellectual dilemmas and the problem of irony vs sincerity in post-postmodern life with a lot of Wittgenstein thrown in) as it must have been painful to live.
It’s not a perfect book, of course, and while writing the biography of a recently-dead and relatively young person comes with its (rather morbid) blessings—that is, still-living sources—you’ve also got to contend with the downsides of that; i.e., an internet-bred audience that expects exhaustivity clashes with the likelihood that you, the biographer, won’t get access to all that you need. According to Max, Wallace blamed his mother, Sally, for a significant portion of his psychological difficulties; this theme recurs throughout the text, but, unlike many other hangups (particularly regarding his attitude to girlfriends like Mary Karr or Elizabeth Wurtzel, which are well-documented by Wallace within the text and substantiated or otherwise by Karr and Wurtzel themselves, thus giving a pretty rounded picture of Wallace’s state of mind and the reliability of his accounts), we don’t get either Sally’s own response or much of a contextualisation by Max on her history and what about it might have affected Wallace so extremely, especially considering that his childhood was, by all the given accounts, including his own, unremarkable and pretty happy. This loops back round to the issue of biography and ethics that I touched on earlier: Max, presumably, didn’t have the cooperation of Sally Wallace when he was research the book. The result is that amidst a mostly very shored-up text we get some apparently pretty unsubstantiated claims—repeated hints and allegations about Sally’s negative impact on her son’s mental health without concrete details or counterarguments—which wouldn’t matter so much or be so notable if the rest of the text wasn’t so heavily substantiated, and which is also significant because it’s all bound up with the mental states that are central to much of the narratives about his struggles as a writer. There are gaping plot holes, in short, in what’s otherwise a straightforward explanatory text. It’s a difficult situation to resolve, and Sally Wallace’s implied reticence is both reasonable and understandable and points us back towards the potential ghoulishness of writing a life of somebody so recently dead, and dragging the lives and reputations of living witnesses into public account. If Wallace pointed the finger at his mother, justly or otherwise, it’s reasonable for Max to indicate as such; but it might have been less of an oddity if he’d added a note to the effect that he couldn’t explore this further because, etc, etc.. To a lesser extent, the first fifty or sixty pages suffer from a similar, if less ethically significant ailment: there’s less paperwork to draw upon when dealing with the younger Wallace and so the biographer seems led towards making assumptions: we get apparently unverified statements like ‘During his senior year Wallace applied to creative writing programs. It never occurred to him that he could just go somewhere and write’, and sweeping psychoanalytic conclusions like ‘Wallace held so fast to his sparse emotional certainties that when they proved unstable, the impact was crushing.’ Perhaps these are securely grounded in evidence, but that evidence isn’t in evidence. Although Max does, as befits a Wallace fan, use footnotes to bolster his main narrative, a few more referential notes wouldn’t have gone astray so as to assure the reader that what we’re getting is less conjecture and more certainty. The odd bit of adulation has also snuck through the editorial web (‘Wallace was able to persuade [Gale Walden to go out with him] with his brilliant mind.’) which most readers will certainly forgive, being adoring themselves, but it errs a little too much on the side of subjective judgement and conjecture for my liking.
Any Cop?: Absolutely. Most of my qualms are issues that you can pin to most biographies; it’s a complex field. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story is still a fascinating read for those curious about Wallace’s life, and a truly compelling one for readers interested in how and why he wrote. I’ll be intrigued to see, in later years, when competing volumes appear (because they undoubtedly will), how they’ll differ. In the meantime, a must-read for writing students and DFW fans alike.
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- August 6, 2013 / 8:14 am