Tag Archives: infinite jest

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.

Eschaton Music Video

One of my favorite parts of Infinite Jest.

Letting Go

Steve Mitchelmore finds this while making a broader point about Joyce vis a vis modernism:

Compared with Proust and Beckett, Kakfa and Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Joyce presents a strangely rigid attitude; he refuses ever to let go, to trust the work to take him where it will. Every ‘letting go’ has to be carefully fitted into its place in the overall design, even though there is no longer, by his own admission, any authority for the pattern the design itself assumes.

It is perhaps a weakness of Joyce and not just a fact about him that he is such a godsend to the academic community. For there is ultimately something cosy and safe about Ulysses: underlying it is the belief that the mere accumulation of detail and complexity is an unquestioned good. Far from being ‘the decisive English-language book of the [twentieth] century,’ as Kenner suggests, it is perhaps the last great book of the nineteenth.

These remarks strike me at an interesting time, wherein I’m re-reading Pynchon and not finding him wholly to my liking. I think there are certain similarities with Joyce. Pynchon’s way of “letting go” is always situated within a certain set of ideas he wants to get across. Some stretches of Pynchon’s work are quite brilliant, so brilliant in fact that one is encouraged to just break them out of the novel and enjoy them on their own, since, in the context of the larger work, they always end up reducing themselves back to that grand design.

This, I think, gets back to my main critique of David Foster Wallace, who also seemed unable to let his work simply be. (Perhaps there is something to these massive novels of information. I would say that, like Joyce, Wallace and Pynchon harken back to the 19th century more than people who are obsessed with reading them as postmodernists seem to think.) Infinite Jest succeeds, in my opinion, on the fact that it got away from him despite his best efforts to pin it down to certain certainties he wanted to express.

William Deresiewicz on The Pale King

Pretty honest review.

There is almost none of this alertness in The Pale King. With few exceptions, the prose is merely serviceable. Is this how Wallace wanted it, flat language to mimic flattened affect, or would he have improved it on a rewrite, or could he simply not do better anymore? We’ll never know. The truth is, nothing else in his corpus measures up to Infinite Jest. Nothing even comes close—not only in the aggregate but even line by line. Wallace wrote the novel, all 1,079 pages of it (and indeed a great deal more that Pietsch persuaded him to cut), in three years in his early 30s. A special grace must have governed him. His three volumes of short fiction—Girl With Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004)—contain some marvelous ideas, bravura turns, ingenious constructions, but nothing that possesses the emotional texture, the intimacy and immediacy, of his magnum opus. In a review of the second collection, a book that often reads like a set of exercises, Andrei Codrescu got it more right than he knew. Wallace, he said, “has a seemingly inexhaustible bag of literary tricks.” But tricks are often all it is, a long series of contrivances, as if Wallace aspired to be no more than the cleverest kid in the workshop.

And later:

Only in Infinite Jest did he let himself go, and his characters, too—he into his experience, they into theirs. The frames and fractures are still present—388 endnotes, for starters, plus the whole Quebecois separatist/wheelchair assassins/near-future subsidized-time comic dystopia thing—but the story proceeds, as it were, in spite of them. Hal and the tennis academy, Gately and the halfway house: they are given their freedom, their imaginative stretching room. To use a dated but indispensable phrase, they come alive. To use another one, Wallace makes us care about them. They are even allowed, at times, to commandeer the frame, Hal and Pemulis, his partner in crime, inserting some crucial endnotes at a certain point in the proceedings, as if they were the story’s secret authors all along. The novel is dense with feeling, meaning, tangibility, presence, conviction. It may be heresy to say this, but Wallace’s greatest strengths were as a realist: an observer, a describer, a metaphor maker, a constructor of scenes and dialogue, a creator of convincing situations and morally autonomous characters—someone, in short, who believed in fiction’s ability to represent the world.

Deresiewicz’s candor is refreshing, but why the “it may be heresy”? It’s not. He’s absolutely right. For all the postmodern nonsense people want to strap onto David Foster Wallace, his books were so popular because they were so real. Of course it wasn’t “realism” in the way that the word tends to evoke, as in some 19th-century work by someone along the lines of George Eliot, but it was more to do with real people and real situations than any kinds of dumb postmodern games. It was “realism” as it should be written today, and that’s why it became so popular.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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