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.