3:41 pm Sep. 6, 2012
For readers of a certain stripe—the legion of obsessive types who've devoured, regurgitated, and re-consumed every esoteric adverbified noun and introductory compound conjunction written by the late novelist David Foster Wallace—the publication earlier this week of D.T. Max's Wallace biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story carries with it the promise of both closure and continuity.
Wallace's 2008 suicide, at 46, an age when most great novelists are hitting their stride, left something more than the usual residue of melancholy and regret in its wake—it punctuated what should have been one of the great bodies of work in modern American letters with a final and unalterable ellipsis—and the sense of distress among Wallace's readers has sharpened over time rather than diminished.
As the first biography of Wallace (though surely not the last), Max's book marks something like the official commencement of Wallace's canonization, the big fat literary seal of approval he, never having won a major award, was denied in life.
“It's a first biography,” Max said when we spoke before his first public reading from Every Love Story at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble on Tuesday. “What’s really, really intriguing and exciting and difficult is simply to create a portrait where no portrait has existed before.”
What began as a 2009 New Yorker story about Wallace's unfinished novel (published last year as The Pale King) has grown into something full and fleshy. In digging up, teasing out, and verifying the facts of Wallace's life, most will find that Max has provided the foundation for what will inevitably become the next phase in Wallace's afterlife, one in which contesting theories about the relationship between the author's life and work will play out on some sort of solid empirical basis.
Much of that life had remained slightly obscure, due to both its eventlessness and Wallace's own tendency to exaggerate or lie outright about himself. In the essay “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” for instance, Wallace writes that he was born in Philo, Illinois, when in fact he was born in Ithaca, New York, and Max underscores the improbably Wallacian quality of some of the events depicted in his early nonfiction. But while Max has sifted out many of the whoppers, plugged gaps in the historical record, and performed a daunting amount of research—he spoke to dozens of Wallace's friends, family, and colleagues and read around 850 pages of his correspondence—he has also ably demonstrated that factual knowledge hardly presents us with an “accurate” portrait of the artist. The indefinite article in the book's seemingly pro forma subtitle—A Life of David Foster Wallace—sneaks in a claim that guides the entire literary biographical endeavor: there is no one life of David Foster Wallace.
“Every David was presented to me," Max said, "from this monastic Thomas Merton figure to the wastrel, the manipulator. I had to decide among my Davids.” That meant building a mosaic out of “David the trickster,” “David the honest, genuine empath,” “David the serial seducer,” and “David who longed for a real relationship.” In working through Wallace's letters to his friends and family, his journals, and his archives, Max confronted a subject that seemed to turn the central imperative of biography—to illuminate the life of its subject—in on itself. As Max put it, “One of the things you realize as a biographer is you can never out-David David.”
Wallace's fiction, after all, runs over with characters in various states of anxiety over the seeming impossibility of communicating in a sincere fashion, characters locked in geosynchronous orbit around some authentic version of themselves, unable to land. Orin and Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest both find themselves stuck in recursive spirals of deception and self-presentation, as does the narrator of the short story “The Depressed Person.” The opening lines of “Good Old Neon,” one of Wallace's best-loved stories, put it this way: “My whole life I've been a fraud. I'm not exaggerating. Pretty much all I've ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.” The story's narrator describes the effect of this kind of self-presentation as “the fraudulence paradox,” the crux of which is that “the more time you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn't find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were.”
“Good Old Neon” consists almost entirely of a confession, an unspooling of the pernicious, infinitely regressive logic of fraudulence. As Max notes in Every Ghost Story this recursive, paradoxical quality became the stylistic hallmark of Wallace's mature fiction, which conveys “a passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seem ostentatiously to prohibit it, as if only by passing through all the stages of bureaucratic deformation can we touch each other as human beings.” Max finds fraudulence-paradox-type problems throughout Wallace's life—the panic attacks he began experiencing in high school “quickly became endless loops, where he worried that people would notice he was panicking, and that in turn would make him panic more.” This “recursive” quality—a term Max favors in describing the loopy regressiveness—constitutes one of the primary achievements of Wallace's writing and thinking, and Wallace was able to achieve it by “universalizing his neurosis,” as Max puts it.
All of this sounds like the stuff of nightmares, literary-biographically speaking. How does one biographize a person whose fiction continually asserts the inaccessibility of exactly the thing the biographer wants to get at? Reading Max's biography, one almost gets the sense that the relationship between the fiction and life that produced it is almost as simple as it looks—Wallace just transcribed his anxiety-ridden mental contortions onto the page, giving us exactly the kind of access that biography usually provides. In that sense, Every Love Story gives the reader a form of permission to draw exactly the kinds of parallels between life and work one always suspected were there in the first place.
This sounds like a rather obvious thing for a biography to claim—David's characters were often, though not always, fictional surrogates for his own luminous but tortured mind. But the real trick of Max's book is how smoothly and seamlessly he actually forges connections between Wallace and his work.
“In some ways, my goal in this book was to write a memoir written not by the person who experienced the events.” With no introduction and no afterword, Wallace is born in the book's first sentence and dies in its last paragraph—the portrait ends where its subject does.
Accordingly Every Love Story reads as though it were written by someone exceedingly good at writing like nobody at all. That sounds like a criticism but this spectral quality positions Max as Wallace's stylistic opposite, and so has consequences for the particular David that his book cobbles together. If Wallace envisioned human relations as a kind of cognitive-emotional bureaucracy, Max's book tells Wallace's story directly, presenting the double-binds and breakdowns that drove his subject without getting embroiled in them himself. There is no Wallacian recursivity in Max's account of Wallacian recusivity.
Which is not to say Every Ghost Story doesn't contain surprises. That Wallace apparently planned and nearly carried out a murder will likely come as an outright shock to readers who envision Wallace as the moral, beatific “Saint Dave” (though one wonders about the uncomfortable proximity of homicide and suicide). And while his dedication to his dogs is well known, the full extent of his empathy for them and identification with them would appear cartoonish if it were not so literally pathetic. One wonders, of course, about the things that were left out. In our conversation, Max recalled a tape recording of Wallace interviewing a porn star whose father did missionary work in South America—Wallace's “missionary position” pun did not, it seems, go over too well. “His bullshit wasn't going to work there,” said Max, “And that excited him.”
While Max's biography gives us a composite portrait of those Davids already mentioned and many more—David the straight-A student, David the addict, David the bullshitter, and so on—most people will come to it looking, finally, for David the suicide. Max handles Wallace's suicide with a kind of inordinate even-handedness. If it didn't inevitably lead to his death, one might get the impression that Wallace's hanging was just another rocky event in a life riven with breakdowns, institutionalizations, 12-step programs, and suicides merely attempted. Most readers will not be comforted by the fact that Wallace's suicide, in Max's telling, looks like a badly timed collision of writer's block and a poorly judged decision to stop taking the anti-depressant Nardil, which he'd been on for decades. Despite the self-annihilating portents of his fiction, the circumstances that manifested in Wallace's suicidal depression seem almost accidental.
Given that Max's first book, The Family That Couldn't Sleep, was about the science of prion diseases, it seemed likely that he would delve into the neurochemistry of Wallace's illness and the reasons he might have decided to come off his medication. But Every Love Story has almost no discussion of the science of depression.
“I would have thought when I started out the book," Max said, "that … I'd find a long train of physical ailments that the Nardil was causing, but I didn't find them.” Wallace was not killed by his illness or his medications, exactly, but he wasn't not killed by them either. As Jonathan Franzen wrote in his meditation on Wallace published in the New Yorker, “[O]ne of the lessons of David's work … is that the difference between well and not well is in more respects a difference of degree than of kind.”
We've got one life of David Foster Wallace, then, and there promises to be more. Whether or not Max's account manages to penetrate to the core of a writer and thinker who centralized the idea of his own psychic impenetrability, and thereby laid it bare, is somewhat beside the point. With so many Davids, after all, some are bound to be more opaque than others. Any reader finding this notion somehow unsatisfying or even in some way a blaspheme on the biographer's profession would do well to consult a passage from The Pale King. In it, Wallace addressing the reader through the persona of “the Author,” reminds us that “there are vastly different kinds of truth, some of which are incompatible with one another.” Max has captured one kind of truth—in David Foster Wallace's future—for that permanent ellipsis remains in place—there will be others.
An earlier version of this article misstated David Foster Wallace's age when he died and misspelled Orin Incandenza's name; these errors have been corrected.
More by this author:
- John Lurie, with a 'Fishing With John' screening, hopes to 'reacquaint myself with the world a bit'
- More mean than mirthful, 'The Comedy' skewers the young and the aimless