David Foster Wallace’s 2008 suicide makes it easy to cast all of his work as a race to the morbid finish line, particularly given his numerous references to depression and self-annihilation in his writing. His premature death threatens to reduce a formidable body of writing to one long series of warning signs. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace—the first biography, knowingly titled “A” rather “The” life—makes Wallace’s struggles with depression its centerpiece, but New Yorker writer and The Family That Couldn’t Sleep author D.T. Max makes a good case for this focus.
Previously, Wallace’s two major artistic/personal postmortems were both published in The New Yorker. First came Max’s 2009 “The Unfinished,” a brief biography of a man who fictionalized himself heavily in his non-fiction work and kept his depression and battles with addiction off the record. Two years later, Jonathan Franzen’s substantially angrier essay “Farther Away” insisted that no matter how loved the work made readers feel, both the man and his work were ill-served by canonization.
Max’s expanded biography contains many more public unveilings of Wallace’s secreted-away life, but dodges the personal fury Franzen displayed. As first-draft history, it does a good job of connecting real-life models to their literary manifestations and imposing a coherent arc on Wallace’s life. The choice of “Every love story is a ghost story” is explained in an endnote indicating how carefully Max read every piece of material he could get his hands on: The phrase first appeared in “a letter [Wallace] wrote in the graduate program at the University of Arizona, and he is still turning it over in his mind twenty years later when he slips it into a scene in which IRS examiners silently turn pages in The Pale King.”
That kind of proof of deep reading lends credibility when Max draws connections between real-life role models and characters. Not prone to sensationalizing, and largely avoiding such telltale guesswork as “Wallace must have felt,” Max is accordingly credible when he uncovers the prototype for Infinite Jest’s Don Gately (Big Craig, one of many people from Wallace’s rehab past preserving their anonymity) or denounces Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel as the solipsistic model for the short story “The Depressed Person.” In Max’s telling, writing was a struggle for Wallace, part and parcel with his battle with emotional instability in all its forms: marathon wastoid (Wallace’s word) pot-smoking sessions, drinking-to-unconsciousness binges, a series of debilitating, obsessive relationships with women, constant feelings of insecurity and competitiveness with other writers. It all came atop a serious, searching evolution from clever ’80s whiz kid to a self-styled modern Dostoyevsky of sorts, using postmodern tricks to preach pre-modern moral truths.
Even if Wallace’s suicide, wisely or unwisely, made his instant canonization inevitable, it’s worth remembering how bumpy the road was to Infinite Jest, his one nearly universally acknowledged masterwork. A clever young man constantly at odds with ’80s writing classes run by inflexible proponents of the “well-written” story, Wallace was particularly exasperated by the post-Raymond Carver vogue of minimalism. His dissatisfaction with his literary contemporaries was amplified, complicated, and ultimately redirected by his struggles with addiction. At the University of Arizona, he mocked teacher Jonathan Penner in a campus newsletter with a joke that made his dismissal of Penner’s rigid constants clear: “How many Jonathan Penners does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One. Having more than one Jonathan Penner violates basic point-of-view considerations.”
Wallace’s literary challenge was to meld his smartass, burn-the-writing-faculty urges with his increasing sense that his obsession with TV and media saturation wasn’t just his problem, but one that haunted America in general. In Max’s telling, this realization came to a head when he came to rehab in 1989. “He understood from the beginning that his fall from grace was a literary opportunity,” Max writes, noting that at the time, Wallace wrote to a friend comparing his arrival at Balmont, Massachusetts’ McLean House to Dostoyevsky’s The House Of The Dead (“my weeks in drug treatment composing the staged execution and last minute reprieve from same”). Exposure to new voices from a background radically unlike his academic, nearly-all-white upbringing allowed him to blast past battles with writing norms and find a new mode of writing, one merging his deep debt to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo with a moral urgency all his own.
Max’s strongest point is biographical readings of the work drawing upon deep research. Wisely, he largely sticks to Wallace’s POV, drawing upon copious letters. When Max starts passing judgment—on both the work and the man—his readings don’t seem as thought-through. Wallace’s tortuous relationships with women are a recurring motif, and Max seems strongly indignant on behalf of the casualties. Perhaps “That’s a three-day weekend I’m still paying the credit card bill on” isn’t the nicest thing to have said, but Max emphasizes his feeling that it was an unchivalrous remark.
Max has equal difficulty passing balanced judgment on Wallace’s post-Jest work. In a book whose chapters edge above 300 pages, about 75 percent of the text leads up to Infinite Jest, leaving around 70 pages to cover the last decade-plus of Wallace’s life. Wallace didn’t care much for his first novel, The Broom Of The System, and only valued about half his second short-story collection, Girl With Curious Hair. Max largely concurs, placing Infinite Jest in pole position and questioning the subsequent works’ value. This has the effect of making Wallace’s magnum opus a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece (true) an anomalous perfect moment in an otherwise spotty body of work (questionable, to say the least). The rush to the end of his life can partially be blamed, the endnotes seem to imply, on Wallace’s shift from gregarious letter-writer to relatively taciturn e-mail correspondent.
Many recently published books have been issued with flagrant typos, and it’s a shame that as high-profile a literary event like this still comes with glaring errors. That’s Viking’s fault: the most Max can be blamed for is being incomplete and sometimes injudicious. A warts-and-all anti-hagiography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story does the most any first biography can: It sifts an author’s personal materials, finds primary sources, talks to friends, and creates a whole new lens for reading Wallace’s work. His suicide shouldn’t be the first step in explaining his work, but—at the expense of a large portion of it—Max makes a coherent narrative from and leading up to it.