Review of the David Foster Wallace biography: EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY

Before you ask, yes, this book does contain endnotes.  🙂

At the time of his death, David Foster Wallace had two novels under his belt, a trio of short-story collections, and a hefty amount of essays/nonfiction.  D.T. Max’s biography, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY (a reference from Wallace’s posthumous novel THE PALE KING), is the first of the author, and I’m sure it won’t be the last; Wallace’s insights and personality are too big and interesting to be left to one book.  With that said however, Max’s treatment of Wallace’s life is superb: it’s clear, understated, and well-written.

This isn’t the first piece of writing that Max has published on Wallace.  In fact, this book feels like a fleshed out version of the New Yorker article that Max published a few years back (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/09/090309fa_fact_max).  For anyone who read and enjoyed the article, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY feels very much like an extended take, complete with more anecdotes and more information (particularly involving his childhood).  Max stores all of his sources (and there are hundreds) next to a pretty comprehensive index.  There’s not much speculation here — it’s a very well constructed and research account of the author’s life.

D.T. Max’s account of Wallace’s life sticks close to the facts; because the biography sticks pretty closely to notes, letters, and interviews, the narrative Max weaves often feels like a timeline.  DFW’s time spent in Illinois seems to rely heavily on his family’s account of the events; his time in Amherst relies on dormmates; and as DFW moves into the literary world, the bulk of the narrative is constructed through letters with Mark Costello (former roommate), Michael Pietsch (editor), Bonnie Nadell (agent), Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Franzen.  DFW’s wife, Karen Green, seemed to cooperate a great deal in the making of EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY — the final years of DFW’s life are pretty vivid as he struggled to find inspiration to finish THE PALE KING.

David Foster Wallace wrote a staggering amount of letters, both to friends, family, and fellow authors (who eventually would fall into the “friend category”).  Max’s use of these letters turns out to be a great way to let DFW’s story unfold; it lets readers peek around in the DFW’s personal thoughts without the use of speculation on behalf of D.T. Max.  The friendship/rivalry of Wallace and Johnathan Franzen is documented well here, and their letters contain (what I feel to be) the most revealing information about Wallace’s own insecurities and struggles with writing after THE INFINITE JEST.  It appears that many of these letters of personal correspondence were borrowed, and I can’t help but hope that some of these are later collected and published.  Their involvement in the biography, while substantial, often don’t amount to more than just slivers or short paragraphs before being slapped with a “…”

What I enjoyed most about EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY is the light that it casts on Wallace’s prose — because Wallace famously pronounced that “fiction’s about what it is to be a f***ing human being,” the extent to which Wallace’s fiction was autobiographical should be no surprise.  INFINITE JEST’s Hal Incandenza, for example, is a remarkably bright tennis player (with a militantly grammarian mother) who uses drugs to cope with his own anxiety.  THE PALE KING’s highly anxious David Cusk who has “ruminative obsession, hyperhydrosis, and parasympathetic nervous system arousal loop.”

Additionally, I would like to give praise to D.T. Max for the tone of the book.  While there are a few jarring transitions, it’s largely well-written and enjoyable to read.  Max’s tone towards the subject isn’t overly reverent either — Max allows the narrative to slip into some of the most unpleasant things about DFW’s personality.  This biography doesn’t shy away from letting Wallace appear sometimes arrogant, sometimes jaded, and sometimes just plain mean.

There are a few knit-picks that I have with the biography though:  I really wish more time was spent with the Wallace family before college.  Jim Wallace and Susan Foster are both really interesting characters, and traces of them show up often in DFW’s work, however after the first chapter or two, father Jim and sister Amy disappear from the book almost completely.

One of interesting choices for this biography is the fact that this is quite literally, “A LIFE OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE:”  the final sentences of the book deal with Wallace’s too-soon death.  The final passages of the book feel like a punch to the gut.  The decision to stick so closely to the sources is primarily a fantastic move by D.T. Max — there’s no speculation about DFW’s death, no conjecture about intent, and there’s no overwrought purple-prose either.  This style won’t suit all readers — I think many fans will have liked to see a more personal telling of DFW’s story, complete with perhaps another chapter on the state of things in the wake of DFW’s death.  EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY does not cover what happened to the manuscript of THE PALE KING, nor does it follow the reactions of the friends, family, or the public.  In previous interviews, Karen Green has stated that she did not want people to think of her departed husband as a “tormented genius” who died for his craft.  This biography makes well on that wish.

I would recommend EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY primarily to fans of the author’s work.  I do believe that other readers, unfamiliar with DFW’s prose would still gain some enjoyment with the biography though: his life was so interesting and moving that parts of the narrative should be universally appealing.  However, many of the autobiographical allusions that are referenced in his fiction will be lost.  For those that are on the fence about buying this book, I would recommend checking out the link provided above — readers who enjoy the article will be sure to love this book.  EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY won’t do anything to demystify the prominent figure of modern literature that David Foster Wallace has become, but it will make you want to re-read and re-think his work.

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