Friday, November 16, 2012
The Man, Not the Legend: D.T. Max's "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace"
I planned to read D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story ever since it came out, and thanks to a friend tipping me off and accompanying me, I had the fortune of seeing him discuss his work at Chicago's Book Cellar. Max gave an excellent, humorous discussion, read selected passages and provided fantastic context and back stories, and was extremely personable and gracious to the crowd when he signed copies of the book. However, as I waited in line to meet him, I felt a pang of empathy. I realized that everyone was there, myself included, not specifically for Max, but for his subject. One of the obvious questions posed to him was "Did you ever meet David Foster Wallace?" He hadn't, except for seeing him from afar at a party (which is documented at the end of the work). Granted, one can't write a book about a still revered literary figure and not expect to be asked about said subject, but the signing felt like a way to get close to the late Wallace, even if deep down, there's much appreciation for Max and his dedicated, complete examination of Wallace. Bits and pieces of Wallace's life are well-known (his Midwestern childhood, his lifelong battle with depression), yet when I first learned about this biography, I realized how necessary it was. Now, upon completion of the work, I also realize how necessary it was to have Max as the biographer.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story follows a chronological path, beginning with the aforementioned Midwestern childhood (Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, and his family moved to Illinois when he was a toddler). Max establishes details of life in the Wallace household, with touching details about their interactions. Wallace's parents were academics, and the combination of regular family routines, intellectual debates, and Wallace's precociousness led to a unique upbringing. His relationship with his mother went through some tense and sometimes alienated years, but Max's sketch of the early times are well crafted, combining factual details with a style that lets the reader imagine the scenarios.
"For Sally [David's mother], grammar was more than just a tool. It gave membership in the club of educated persons. The intimation that so much was at stake in each utterance thrilled David, and added to the excitement of having a gifted mother. As did her sensitivity--Sally hated to shout. If she was upset by something she would write a note. And if David or Amy [his sister] had a response, they would slip it back under her door in turn. Even as a little boy, Wallace was attuned to the delicate drama of personality. He wrote when he was around five years old--and one hears in the words the sigh of the woman who prompted it:
My mother works so hard
And for bread she needs some lard
She bakes the bread. And makes the bed.
And when she's threw
She feels she's dayd (Max 3)."
A good portion of the work is devoted to Wallace's college years. It led to his heavy drinking and drug use, which in turn led to his stints in rehab and attempts at a clean life; he struggled with his identity, attempted suicide, and made the decision to switch from philosophy to fiction writing. The combination of these factors mark the foundation of the public Wallace, and the private Wallace is a complex, sometimes broken person alternating between needing support and alienating those around him. His enrollment in the graduate program at the University of Arizona coincides with the writing and publication of his first novel, The Broom Of the System, as well as early stories, some of which find their way into his first collection, Girl With Curious Hair. As the book progresses, Wallace's stints in rehab, a halfway house, and his relationship with his mother are continual hints to the experiences that would lead to Infinite Jest. While this might seem like a hurried recap of Wallace's life, these are the more logical, famous notes. Max ends up sharing many more minute details, including Wallace's penchant for letter writing. There are excerpts from his correspondences with the likes of Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and other writers, editors, and friends. It never feels like Max is invading anyone's privacy; the words are necessary in shaping a full look at the public and (more relevant) private Wallace:
"Franzen offered to get together that April when he was in Boston, despite Wallace's changed circumstances. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he sent a quick note to his friend explaining his behavior. 'The bald fact is that I'm a little afraid of you right now,' he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so 'irked by my stuff,' because Wallace was no longer a 'worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat (Max 143).'"
When I mentioned the necessity of having Max as the first true biographer, that wasn't a throwaway line. Given Wallace's talents and the unique devotion and love that his writing inspired, other writers wouldn't be faulted for painting his life in a grandiose fashion. Max respects Wallace's intellect, explores his life with great sympathy, yet doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of his personality. Yes, Wallace was a genius, and yes, he was constantly troubled by depression and substance abuse, but Max never shies away from the bigger picture. Like anyone, Wallace could be mean and difficult. He pursued a doomed relationship with poet Mary Karr, which provides a backdrop for some of his less savory actions.
"As the fall turned into a remarkably snowy winter, Wallace's relationship with Karr deteriorated further. The two fought bitterly. Karr, Wallace wrote Franzen, was prone to 'terrible temper-outbursts.' She found him spoiled, a mama's boy using rehab as an excuse for self-absorption. Her needs were more concrete--food, money, child care for her son. He still wrote her constantly, even though he was just around the corner. He printed out in huge letters on a computer the words 'MARRY ME' and added, 'No shit, Mary Karr, do not doubt my seriousness on this. Or the fact that I'm a gila-jawed bulldog once I've finally made a commitment, a promise. My expectation is not that it would be easy, or all the time pleasant. My expectation is that it would be real, and illuminated.' Karr knew it would not work out, she remembers, when one day she asked Wallace to pick up [her son] from school and Wallace said he needed his car to go the gym instead (Max 170)."
And when Max discusses Wallace's writing and creative process, it's equally wonderful. He doesn't revert to hyperbole, as any admirer can do at times (lord knows I've done that myself in some of my Wallace critiques). The balance between descriptions of Wallace's solitary writing habits and the business side of editing and publishing are fascinating. Many terrific examples come from the back and forth between Wallace and editor Michael Pietsch as they debate, edit, and come to agreements on the changes, cuts, and publication of Infinite Jest:
"In April 1995 Infinite Jest was back on Wallace's desk--Pietsch had had the novel set in sample type again and realized the book was still too many pages. He sent a list of possible new cuts. To DeLillo, whom he increasingly turned to as his authority on literary matters, Wallace voiced a growing worry:
I am uncomfortable about making cuts for commercial reasons--it seems slutty--but on the other hand [Little, Brown, and Co.] is taking a big gamble publishing something this long and this hard and I feel some obligation not to be a p.-donna and fuck them over. Maybe I'm writing because I want your general aestheto-ethical input on this. I don't know (Max 205)."
Writer Tom Bissell's blurb for Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is actually totally accurate: "This book should be handed to anyone who wants to write." There aren't any wistful totems of literary wisdom; Wallace was more talented than most writers of this generation, but he still struggled with doubt about his work and consistency. But generally, the book presents the case of a man who sits down and devotes the time to his craft. He experienced a lot of early setbacks (both personally and creatively) and used those knocks to fuel his stories and essays. The book rightfully breaks down the Wallace mystique. His vision was singular, but came about through time and hard work.
Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Wallace knows how the story ends, so to speak. His successful marriage to artist Karen Green gives him stability and happiness as he works on The Pale King, which likely would have been even bigger and deeper than Infinite Jest. With so many essays and remembrances that came out following Wallace's suicide, Max takes a decidedly neutral tone as he gets to the sad conclusion. It might feel like a cold summary of the end of a life, but there's no judgement or hypothesizing. Wallace's lifelong struggles tie into his end, but Max leaves the opinions to other people. The biography's ending is blunt, much like the end of its source material.
Reviewing a biography is not unlike reviewing a collection of critical essays--one can agree or disagree with the opinions, but the focus should be on the writing and tone. In this sense, D.T. Max has done an amazing job with this work. There's no doubt that he admires Wallace's work, but he is steadfast in presenting an honest, varied account. I've read quite a few reviews that merely pick and choose interesting factoids that can be learned in the book, of which there are many (there's an amusing anecdote about Ethan Hawke attending one of Wallace's readings). By doing impeccable research and conducting dozens of interviews, Max succeeds in giving readers a definitive look at a writer most people know only through oft-repeated stories and, of course, the books he left behind. By knowing more about what went into those amazing works, Max manages to increase the admiration people feel when digging into Wallace's fiction and essays. A lot of Wallace's friends and associates have written their own remembrances, the majority of them illuminating, respectful, and fascinating. However, as a generally detached biographer, Max manages to cut through the "legend," without sacrificing his own status as a fan and reader--were he not a lover of Wallace's works, he wouldn't have undertaken this book. Wallace is more real to me now that I've learned more about him, and I would venture a guess that this is what Max had in mind.
Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Copyright 2012 by D.T. Max.