The changes in Wallace’s writing voice provide many of the book’s most fascinating moments.
It’s impossible to read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the biography of David Foster Wallace published last year, without knowing how it is going to end. Even if you pick up the book knowing nothing of the famous writer, you will not get past the inside sleeve without learning of his suicide in 2008, at the tragically young age of forty-six. It is a lens through which we have to view the rest of his life, especially since the book arrives on the shelves a mere four years after his death.
From the beginnings of his mental health troubles and depression, through his later addictions and troubled relationships, there is a constant sense of foreboding, that his eventual suicide means that these issues will have defeated him in the end: a view that is at least hinted at by D.T. Max in his preface by calling Wallace’s last work: ‘the novel that would defeat [him].’ However, whether or not that sheds light on his death, Max declines to conclude.
Max’s journalistic style, which describes without passing judgement, has been a major point of praise in many of the book’s reviews. Wallace was both a popular and critically renowned writer, especially in his native America, so it is not surprising that Max’s book has received so much attention. He is the first to the punch at telling the life of a hugely significant writer of the last two decades, whose legacy is important to a much wider audience than academic readers alone. However, the speed with which the biography has been produced since Wallace’s death has not resulted in a poorly researched work. The notes at the back are in themselves a joy to flick through, shedding yet more light on Wallace’s world and history. Max does show a tendency to rely on his correspondence with his friend Jonathan Franzen, another prestigious American author, to illustrate parts of Wallace’s life. Even this, however, is put somewhat blindly. If we could and did read Wallace’s letters to the extent Max has, his exchanges with Franzen might simply be the most illuminating.
Max is also a brilliant writer in his own right. This is not a multi-volumed, exhaustive biography, like Robert Caro‘s ongoing effort with Lyndon B. Johnson. Instead, the book is clear and eminently readable, perhaps even intentionally as a companion and aid to Wallace’s often dense and complex work (his masterpiece Infinite Jest runs to over a 1,000 pages); and it is perhaps because he is a writer himself that he manages to understand and portray so well the challenges Wallace faced in the development of his work. The changes in Wallace’s writing voice and the explanations behind them, from his first novel at the age of twenty-three through his short stories and non-fiction up to the method of Infinite Jest and beyond, provides many of the book’s most fascinating moments.
Moreover, just as Wallace’s work might have influenced Max’s biography in opposition to it, his reputation probably did influence his approach. His preface illustrates the problem he faced in telling Wallace’s life, as well as allowing him the opportunity to be more personal and praising of Wallace before the biography proper begins. Wallace’s already impressive fame was solidified by his early death into an iconic, almost sacred legacy. The phrase ‘secular sainthood’ has been thrown around a lot by many reviewers to describe this, and attracted Bret Easton Ellis to launch one of his notorious twitter attacks on Wallace’s reputation when the book was released (the two writers are not particularly charming about one another). Max steers the biography clear of fawning to Wallace’s fans, keeping himself at a distance from the events he describes. We are not denied Wallace’s best moments and features, but are also subjected to his worst, notably his early selfishness and failings in his relationships, and most memorably his short lived attempt to buy a gun in order to get a married woman’s husband out of the way.
Then again, is this necessarily the best approach? A biography is not simply a long article, and the journalist’s voice can become unsatisfying after a while. It is easy to miss the excited tone of the preface, which describes Wallace’s first short story collection as a ‘post-modern cabinet of wonders’, when Max is busy describing the mixed reception of that collection, with his own views kept hidden. You could even be forgiven for wondering why Wallace deserves a literary biography at all, as Max describes all the difficulties and negative reviews he suffered on the road to greater recognition.
Nonetheless, it would be unfair to criticize Max too harshly for this, as he does step in at times to defend Wallace against negative reviews and misunderstanding; for instance in illustrating why he had to work so hard because of copy editors who simply did not understand him, or particularly in explaining the significance of his neglected novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. Rather than complete journalistic detachment, Max attempts to present as detailed and complete a portrait of Wallace as possible, so that the reader can form an opinion of him themselves.
However, there is not complete satisfaction even in this. While allowing the reader to decide for themselves sounds like an admirable approach, whatever s/he thinks is only so important. Max’s book is, after all, the official record, the first and, for now, only account of Wallace’s life. Any conclusions we come to about Wallace must be made through Max, and it might have been better if we had a clear judgment of this that we could set our own against, rather than risk a view unconsciously under his influence. And yet, this desire undoubtedly comes from the unresolved end of Wallace’s life. Max can only be so detached, and there is a true sense of loss and sorrow in his closing sentence, even as it tries to wash its hands of the matter: ‘This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.’
The best compliment I can think of for Max on the book is that this loss is so keenly felt, alongside a deep disappointment when that last page is turned to show only the list of acknowledgements. By the nature and tragedy of his suicide, there is no answer that can fully satisfy and explain this end to his amazing life. Wallace is too important a writer for this to be the final word and there will certainly be other biographies written in the future, but whatever stance they take on his death, they won’t be able to solve the unfinished end of a truly unique human being.