An Improvisatory Feel
D. T. Max
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
Granta Books, 2012
What exactly are you reviewing when you review a biography – the life or the writing of it? It’s worth giving a nod towards both, but the real interest of D.T. Max’s life of David Foster Wallace lies elsewhere altogether.
Before we come to that, the first thing: DFW himself. Every Love Story won’t be shaking his well-disseminated image as a tortured genius. Genius he was, and officially so, thanks to the MacArthur Foundation; tortured he was, and officially so, thanks to some unfortunate brain chemistry and an addictive streak you wouldn’t believe. Max fleshes all this out for us. On one side we have the kid precocious enough to be writing plausible poetry at five years old, who went on to earn his double-summa from Amherst by turning in two book-length theses: one on the philosophical problem of logic as predestination, the other his first novel, The Broom of the System. And that’s all before Infinite Jest, of course. On the other side we have the full medical history: the first instance of ‘Depressive, clinically anxious feelings’ at age nine or ten, the first full-blown psychotic episode in college, the time in rehab, right up to the dark final days as Wallace waited – failed to wait – for a return to equilibrium in the wake of an abortive attempt to change his antidepressant regime. What Max gives is the evidence and the timeline for what the myths had already told us: the life was faulty and failed, the writing by turns patchy and stratospheric.
I run the risk of sounding glib, even callous, but Wallace attracts histrionics, and they tend not to help much. A certain subsection of the reading public were hit by his suicide – as Max points out in his preface – as another generation were hit by John Lennon’s murder. Not long after reading Infinite Jest I had a conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen in four years; she told me that Wallace was the greatest writer ever, and that every word he’d written made her want to weep. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think she was clasping my hand in both of hers at this point. When I left with another friend, he said, unprompted, “Wow. I’m less interested in reading him now.”
So, some measure is called for. But it can be a mixed blessing, as Every Love Story demonstrates. Max is aware of the myths and exaggerations, and wants to give the human being behind them. He is at his best in the calm and critical tact with which he reveals just how much of his own life Wallace had already written up. Neat quotations from the novels turn out to be describing Wallace and the people around him. The kid that plays youth tennis tournaments in denim cut-offs, the kid with uncontrollable excessive sweating, the mother obsessed with grammar – a SNOOT, in Wallace family slang – all worked their way across from Wallace’s own life into Infinite Jest. Twisted, of course, through the unique Yorick-lens of that book, but, still, real. To the extent that Wallace’s closest relative in the American literary pantheon would seem to be John Berryman, a man so similarly prone to fictionalising his own life that he prefaced his own American epic with the disclaimer that its central character was “not the poet, not me.” What critics will do with this is up to them. But it makes interesting reading for the casual fan – if anyone willing to plough through Infinite Jest could ever be called casual.
If Max is good at picking out the life in Wallace’s writing, he’s less good at lending the life any life in his own. Every Love Story suffers from a curious lack of perspective on its own subject. The lack of any photographs of the book’s subject on their usual glossy central pages is a handy metaphor for the way Max treats DFW: we never quite get to see him as others did. Max is so concentrated on worming his way into DFW’s mind that he forgets to let us know how everyone else perceived him. For all that we are told, repeatedly, how intelligent and thrilling he was as a student, teacher, writer and man, it never becomes clear why so many people lavished so much time, money and emotional energy on a guy so prone, despite his best efforts, to drinking it all down and pissing it away. The positive things we hear about Wallace have a curiously null quality, either by vague report or as score-sheets, facts and figures. They all have a statistical turn that fails to explain what made Wallace so paradoxically attractive to the people in his life. Which makes in the end for an unfortunately lifeless life. Smart, well written and elegant, but not alive.
It is for this that the phrase Max applies to the first academic studies on Wallace, “some of the early efforts had an improvisatory feel,” seems so appropriate for his own work. Every Love Story is the first biography of Wallace, and the first biography Max has written. Someone will soon pull together a less improvisatory and one-dimensional life of Wallace, and it will doubtless go far beyond Max’s slim 300 pages. The standard academic biography of DFW has yet to be written. And if Max writes more biographies, they will doubtless be better, richer books than this.
There is another side to Every Love Story, however, which is where the meat lies for anyone born and bred outside of the USA. As much as a life of Wallace, Max’s book is a snapshot of the whole system of literary production in modern day America. This is a land where students can hand in book-length undergraduate theses, and where they can go on to participate in MFAs taught by writers who themselves did MFAs, and make their money from teaching writing as much as from writing itself. The whole industry is alien to British or European eyes. And Wallace is, thus far, its greatest product. Even if he was rebelling against it all the time – as Max suggests – Wallace’s writing, even at its most extraordinary, has the exercise-based production of the classroom behind it: the assignment-based episodicness of the creative writing course informing it at the deepest level possible. The casual ease with which Max speaks of this-or-that writers’ workshop, the somewhere-someplace MFA, or such-and-such a writers’ retreat, unveils a whole culture and economic structuring of literary production that merits a study of its own. Future generations of students should be walked through Macheray’s Theory of Literary Production with a copy of Max’s book open on their desks.
Tim Smith-Laing is a DPhil student and lecturer in English at Jesus College, Oxford.