A First Draft of Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max

We might develop a kind of spectrum of biographies. On one pole would be a book like In Cold Blood, where Truman Capote takes a largely unremarkable individual and tells his story so well as to make his subject into such a compelling person that he feels like a character in a novel. That is the gift of an author like Capote: deep psychological insight, an ability to draw profound conclusions about life and our world by investigating the story of an individual.

On the other end of this spectrum we would have a book like D.T. Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. Max’s book is decent and worth reading (particularly if you are a fan of Wallace’s writing), but it is a book without much human or philosophical insight. Unlike In Cold Blood, we read this book more or less solely because its subject is a figure of much celebrity interest.

On the positive side, Max is clearly a diligent and able researcher. He’s dug up all sorts of interesting facts about Wallace and seems to even be familiar with his correspondence (at least with luminaries like Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo). There are lots of little gems in here, and I think this would constitute the main appeal for this book to Wallace fans and academics. The depth to which Wallace himself was an addict surprised me, as well as the extent to which fame really did seduce and then mangle him as a young writer who had an enormous amount of early success. These findings do put books like Infinite Jest into a new light.

The other thing to be said for this book is that it gives a reasonably good arc to Wallace’s life. Max has done a good job of corralling what must have been enormous amounts of information into a coherent account of who Wallace was. My main issue with this is that, while Max gets the shape of the narrative right, there is very little depth to it. There’s very little sense of Wallace as an actual human being, as opposed to a literary figure, and there’s little sense of how the forking paths of his life informed one another.

Max is clearly familiar with Wallace’s body of work and hits all the high points along the way. However, at times it feels that his interpretations of said works conform more to what his narrative for Wallace’s life needs to be than any idiosyncratic feelings on his own part. For instance, “Forever Overhead,” about a boy about to take a leap off a high-dive into a swimming pool, has long been one of my favorite of Wallace’s early stories. Here, it’s maligned as an conventionally realist work that Wallace only wrote to please his instructors in the University of Arizona’s MFA program. That may very well be true (it’s unlike most of the other work Wallace was doing at the time), but: 1) I have my doubts, and 2) it’s still a great story. At any rate, my point is that Max’s interpretations of Wallace’s works never really diverge from what the orthodoxy is and what his narrative needs. I never in this book found him claiming any sort of personal reaction to any of Wallace’s writing. his responses to Wallace’s writings are at their best when they give insight into how the writings were informed by Wallace’s personal life; but so far as interpretation goes, these are very much the “standard” interpretations of Wallace’s books, without a whole lot of depth. (For more idiosyncratic takes I recommend Who Was David Foster Wallace?, where seven writers give their own personal and critical takes on some of Wallace’s major work.)

A lot of my issues with this book can be understood by looking at its first lines: “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s. He was born in Ithica, New York, on February 21, 1962.” First of all, what a flat beginning to a bio of one of the greatest writers of our era. But more importantly, why is this the beginning of Wallace’s story? Why not start with the life of his mother, who Wallace battled with his whole life in ways that defined his addictions and his fiction? Why not start with the Midwest community that shaped him? Tennis? But then, after telling us that this is the start to Wallace’s story, Max fails to even describe the birth, giving the clear impression that he simply chose this as the “start” of Wallace’s story because it was the day on which he was born. This approach will characterize the pages that follow: a lot of well-researched facts hewn together into a reasonably cohesive narrative, but very little texture of Wallace’s life, and little thought as to the deeper implications of what is being claimed.

My other big issue with this book is that everything that happens after Infinite Jest is given short shrift. The part on Infinite Jest ends more or less on page 226, leaving Max 75 pages to fit in (not counting changes in his personal life, which were of course enormous): A Supposedly Fun Thing; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which barely even rates a mention); Everything and More (likewise); Consider the Lobster; The Pale King. Quite arguably, Wallace’s work after Infinite Jest makes up a much stronger, more consistent batch of writing than his work before, and it’s a serious flaw that Max’s bio gives the creation of this writing such perfunctory treatment. As Max rightly points out, these books were written at a time of considerable struggle for Wallace in which, after finishing his career-defining novel, he was unsure of where to travel next as a writer and was facing no shortage of personal struggles.

There are some specific issues that I have with Max’s takes on certain things, and overall I feel the book has too much of an anti-experimentalist bent to it, but I’ll save those for another day.

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I don’t think good biographers are supposed to give their opinion on their subject’s behavior, etc. I think a good biographer would provide an analysis using documents, letters,in order to remain objective.

The murderer in “In Cold Blood” is “a largely unremarkable individual”? What in the world are you talking about? He’s a TWISTED MURDERER. And what kind of clunky phrase is “largely unremarkable”?

And just look at that whole sentence:

“On one pole would be a book like In Cold Blood, where Truman Capote takes a largely unremarkable individual and tells his story so well as to make his subject into such a compelling person that he feels like a character in a novel.”

You could cut “as to make his subject into such a compelling person” and not lose a jot. It’s mere verbiage.

It’s very trying to read criticism by someone who cannot write well himself.

(There should NOT be a comma before “Scott Esposito” in the title of your blog, by the way.)

I disagree about whether or not a biographer should remain objective. How can you remain objective when a person’s behaviour is so self-destructive? The excerpt I read of this book at Daily Beast did seem to make the book out to be more of a celebrity gossip book rather than a serious biography.
I found the comparison to In Cold Blood quite interesting. Another comparison might be Gerald Clarke’s famous biography of Capote. As a teenager I loved Capote, and I remember devouring Clarke’s book. If any writer lived a life that deserved a juicy, tell-all celebrity bio then Capote was certainly one; yet I remember the book also gave insights into his life and the big impact his childhood had on his writing. It also made clear the destruction fame wraught on him – fame like DFW never came close to. Though, do we really need to know how well hung the guy he paid to travel with him in the 70’s was; or other salacious gossip from the era when he basically gave up? It titilated but probably isn’t a great example of a literary bio.
I just dug that book out and have read a bit. Here’s a great couple lines I found opening the book at random:
Page 89:
“One trick Truman learned from George is that the surest way to find out a secret is to tell one – your own, if no one else’s. It seems impolite, even churlish, to keep secrets yourself when the person across the table has just discarded the last veil and left himself naked; self-revelation, or , better still, self-mortificaton can be used as a kind of bait to forge a bond of instant intimacy.”

So some good writing, but it is quickly over-taken by the tawdry. Yet at the same time, the book goes into great detail about everything he wrote. That this new book about DFW doesn’t go into as great detail is good to know. Reading this has changed my mind about purchasing the book. I will either wait for a better book to be written, or pick it up cheap off of remainder tables in a year or so.

I was really looking forward to this release until I read your post, and then in that mood of disappointment I came across the interview with D.T. Max featured on The Awl. His character seems germane with your opinion of his work. Near the beginning, he pompously declaims that he only wrote about what interested him; a different man could defend that, but from his mouth it’s weighted down implicitly with his obviously narrow reading. I found his rhetoric gaudy, name-flinging, precious. Listen to him speechify about reading Wallace’s letters:

Even the former assistant that conducted the interview tried to get him to tone down the high-flown hero-worship. It didn’t work, unfortunately.

    Most of my post got lost in improper tagging. The one section that appears in quotes is obviously my own words. The best example of D.T. Max’s rhetorical tricks is as follows:

    “I felt the letters calling out to me so strongly that sometimes late at night I would close the door to my office to quiet their voices. The effect was, well, ghostly, all his unanswered declarations of his being. Sometimes I felt like Bartleby.”

    Also, as per the Arthur Allen post: I enjoy the more buttoned-down feeling of this blog as compared to the Quarterly Conversation; the awkward sentence construction was blatant, but not offensive, and certainly very little is to be found like it in the quarterly itself. I don’t think such vitriol is merited for a personal blog post that was probably typed up inbetween more taxing projects, especially when the heft of the ideas within are still sensical and even worthy. It feels like there’s something more personal here.


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