Review of “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace”

"Viking Poem," written by David Foster Wallace when he was a child. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

In the opening paragraph of "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story," the book's subject arrives into the world. "Every story has a beginning," D.T. Max writes, "and this is David Wallace's." In the book's final paragraph Wallace is discovered by his wife, Karen Green, having committed suicide in 2008 at the age of forty-six. In between, Max's focus stays tight on Wallace himself, with only passing interest in the world around him. The result is a taut, unquestionable extension of Max's heart-crushing essay, The Unfinished, which ran in The New Yorker in 2009. Whether the biography marks an important moment in Wallace scholarship, however, is less certain.

Wallace's story is by now doubly familiar. For someone whose books were shut out from our major literary trophies, he is an author who, four years after his death, looms increasingly large. We've seen a book-length transcript and another collection of interviews, at least two volumes of critical essays, plus the man's own undergraduate philosophy thesis, unfinished novel, and a forthcoming collection of essays. There has been a cascade of articles and essays by academics, former friends, and devout fans. And for a notoriously challenging author, the Hallmarkish quality of Wallace pull-quotes has made him a prime source of micro-blog material. By now we've whittled his oeuvre down to a few key guidelines for living: pay more attention to the world outside and avoid the pitfall, and paralysis, of our default selfishness.

But it's the second way that his story feels familiar that made Wallace himself reluctant to tell it. "It sounds like some Hollywood thing to do," he snipped to Charlie Rose in 1997, refusing to link his recovery narrative to his work. And he's right, of course; there's nothing new or exciting about the archetype of the tortured genius. Such tropes and pre-set narratives were never the sort Wallace believed in -- they were too-convenient catch-alls for the messy realities of any single life. Denial, though, does not equate to innocence, and indeed the narrative into which Max fits his subject is trope-heavy and unsurprising. Wallace was a young, troubled genius who was constantly battling his demons, serially rising and falling and eventually, inevitably, succumbing.

It is a testament to Max's writing that so pat a narrative can feel so personal. His last book, "The Family That Couldn't Sleep," found him traversing 250 mysterious years in the science of prions, misfolded proteins that alter neural tissue and result unanimously in death. This time around, he's formed his composite of Wallace by way of interviews and correspondence with Wallace's family, friends, teachers, editors, lovers and students (it might go without saying that these last two aren't distinct). Max dug deep into the David Foster Wallace Archives at The University of Texas Harry Ransom Center in Austin. He also sent feelers to even the most distant of satellites (disclosure: Max even found his way to me, despite my having met Wallace exactly once; I am included in the book's encyclopedic acknowledgements). He compiled details ranging from the mundane -- during a drive, Jonathan Franzen "was amazed at how much wiper fluid his friend used" -- to the almost unbelievably exotic -- like the gun Wallace clumsily attempted to procure so he could shoot Marry Karr's husband.

With such details providing texture to Wallace's life, a reader almost doesn't mind the dearth of context. Throughout, Max's tone is controlled, resisting the temptation to sensationalize. It can be difficult to write about Wallace without writing like Wallace, but Max, to his and probably the New Yorker's credit, maintains the invisible, voiceless style for which his employer is known. The resulting portrait is a compelling blend of historical record and tempered mythology -- appropriate, perhaps, for a man who regularly exaggerated his own history and weaknesses for effect or advantage. These embellishments, Max tells us, were sometimes minor (did their father truly read Moby Dick to the Wallace children?) and other times major (did he, you know, really try to kill Marry Karr's husband?). All appear to have been deployed in the service of Wallace's immense and fragile ego, the archest villain in our hero's tumultuous life. The Wallace we come to know on these pages is thus a "vain, timid, pompous mama's boy, given for much of his life to dithery romantic obsessions."

Except, these words are Wallace's own, spoken not of himself, but the version of Jorge Luis Borges portrayed in Edwin Williamson's “Borges: A Life,” a 2004 biography to which Wallace took grave and caustic exception. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Wallace argued that the danger with literary biographies of Williamson's (and now Max's) variety, is the way their narratives enact what's at best a reduction, and at worst a perversion, of the author's work. "The more intimate and thorough the bio," Wallace wrote, the stronger the temptation to blur the distinction between artist and art, resulting in a "simplistic, dishonest kind of psychological criticism." It is tempting, in other words, to reduce all of the man's art to the facts of his life when he created it. And one can imagine the temptation is further magnified when the details are new and / or salacious. Max is surely guilty of this reduction. What's less clear is whether he believes this to be a problem.

For the most devoted of Wallace's admirers, only the most extreme and frivolous revelations -- washer fluid? -- will be new. Newer and more casual admirers, or those for whom Wallace's Kenyon commencement address is scripture, won't likely appreciate learning how difficult the man could be. But appreciation is not the point, and try as some surely will, they'll have a difficult time drilling holes into the thick wall of Max's exhaustive research. In his thoroughness, Max has insulated himself against charges of skewing history. But it is still Max's story, and the manner by which he exerts his control over it is both masterful and a bit troubling. Like The Unfinished before it, Max's book is a prime example of the The New Yorker's even-handed style of journalism. Reviewing Wallace’s posthumously published novel “The Pale King” for GQ, the essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan cited this style as one reason Wallace never published nonfiction for the magazine. "The well-tempered magazine feature," Sullivan wrote, "for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur."

There is an argument burbling beneath “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.” "A biographer," wrote Wallace, "wants his story to be not only interesting but literarily valuable. In order to ensure this, the bio has to make the writer's personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work." However Freudian and however neat, Max does not hesitate to make such connections in service of his narrative. Looking at Max's opening paragraph, we see the plain statement of six objective facts about Wallace's parents. One involves Wallace's father, James, while the other five describe Sally Wallace, including that her father was a potato farmer, and that she attended boarding school. And so it goes that Sally is positioned as the dominant parental force for young David, the woman whose love he'd try to win directly and through surrogates until his death. So, too, is Sally linked directly (twice!) to Avril Incandenza, the frankly terrible mother of Wallace's 1996 novel "Infinite Jest," who runs a boarding school and whose father was a potato farmer. Throughout, Max's biography bleeds naturally into this type of lay literary theory. Referencing Wallace's story The Depressed Person, Max will matter-of-factly call it "revenge fiction." And while he is gracious enough to footnote an "alternative reading" of the story, this "revenge fiction" -- a term with no traction in any known literary sphere, and to which the author himself certainly would have wretched -- aligns with the timeline of Wallace's heartbreak, so we accept it as truth.

The argument, while perfectly suited for a 12,000 word essay, sputters when dropped under the hood of this book. Yes, we think, here is another instance where Wallace's personal struggles surely manifested in his work. Halfway through, the pattern becomes clear. But without the intrigue of such connections, what do we have? Wallace in one chair or another, struggling to write. Wallace, a very good college instructor, struggling to teach. Wallace, like every writer alive, harvesting his friends for material. Wallace childishly competitive. Wallace awkward at public appearances. Wallace lovelorn and tasteless, addicted to affection. We see him clinically depressed and riddled with the compulsions of the clinically depressed.

But Max is uninterested this time around in science. The birth and death of David Wallace are the stubborn boundaries inside of which he colors, and the resulting portrait moves a reader with neat efficiency. Max's framework of the troubled genius struggling to outdo his previous success serves as a useful, if narrow, framework for organizing the madness of a life. But it is also restrictive, and singular, and upon reaching that last paragraph of “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” it will not be unfair to wonder if there's a more open, difficult, and interesting conversation still to come.

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Kyle Beachy is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago. His essays and fiction have appeared in The ChicagoanKnee-Jerk OfflineAnother Chicago Magazine, FiveChapters, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, Pank, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from The Danish Arts Council and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. His skateboarding criticism appears semi-regularly at The Classical.