David Foster Wallace was a revolutionary, influential writer, captivating readers with sincere prose such as the gargantuan “Infinite Jest,” the short story collection turned film “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and two acclaimed non-fiction collections. In an era marked by insincerity, Wallace’s eccentric political and social satire, coupled with piercing wit and authentic, life-like characters have contributed to a popularity far outliving him. D.T. Max’s (New Yorker writer and “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep” author) “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” details Wallace’s public, literary life and deep inner turmoil. At once evocative and saddening, Max’s biography spans Wallace’s precocious youth and prolific, troubled early adulthood, concluding with his tragic suicide at the age of 46.
The biography is deliberately titled “A” rather than “The” life, suggesting a specific facet of Wallace’s life as the central focus. His tormenting anxieties quickly become Max’s centerpiece, effectively tracing a clear connection between real-life models and their literary forms. The personal letters and texts contained in the biography provide a close-knit relationship between fiction and painful reality. Don Gately, The Ennet House and nearly all primary characters in “Infinite Jest,” the wayward youth in “Westward,” the protagonists of “The Depressed Person” and “The Broom of the System”: all are loosely fictionalized portrayals of experiences and people in Wallace’s life. The relationship appears credible and provides a deft engine and crux to the narrative. It is so evident and constant throughout Wallace’s writings, he even mocks this link in “The Pale King,” creating a character named David Foster Wallace. Max likens Wallace’s writing struggles to his many, varied manifestations of emotional anxieties and instabilities: the pot-smoking wastoid, the cripplingly obsessive boyfriend (Max recounts a scene in which Wallace allegedly tried to purchase a firearm from an ex-con in order to shoot his girlfriend’s husband), the debilitated alcoholic and the insecure writer at discord with contemporaries and the world around him. This is all situated within a serious and touching narrative that the evolution of a tremendously gifted and conflicted adolescent to the foremost patron of postmodern fiction, and realized in near-perfect fashion.
The title “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” is a line Wallace pined over and scribbled occasionally in the margins of his hand-written letters. Thus, it is a testament to Max’s thorough research, attention to detail, and excess of information with which he was provided. Much of this concentrates on Wallace’s magnum opus, “Infinite Jest.” This deservedly occupies nearly a third of the biography as this seminal text forever shaped Wallace’s career. He recounts the difficulties writing, editing and getting a grant to work on a nearly 1,200 page novel, Wallace’s subsequent anxieties over plugging the novel through talk show appearances and public readings and the conclusive troubles of managing fame and teaching all while attempting to recapture Jest’s fluidity of style and acute social commentary in following works. Through copious letters written to renowned authors (Jonathan Franzen, Don Delillo, Mark Costello), unpublished manuscripts, interviews with jilted lovers, family members and friends and excerpts from the author’s texts, Max paints a delicate depiction of a troubled genius as intimate and touching as a love note.
Max’s biography succeeds in its connection between Wallace’s actual relationships and experiences and those delineated in fictional writings, culled from talks with friends, the author’s personal letters and a profuse amount of primary sources. He wisely produces a coherent account of Wallace’s personal, deep-seated twinges, simultaneously evading and explaining the events that lead to his untimely demise. The biography achieves its goal so well that it comes off as a bit fragmentary in the omission of Wallace’s placement in the broader tradition of 20th fiction writers and a more complete story. However, the shortcomings are few and Max’s descriptive (rather than interpretive) take on the biography is brilliantly conceived and executed.