The publication of D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace is both wonderful and sad - wonderful in that it is the first in what I can only assume will be multiple attempts to shed light on the trying life of one of my generation's most brilliant authors, sad because it is a reminder of that life's brevity and of Wallace's absence in our world today.
David Wallace was an average kid - read a lot, watched TV a lot, was ok at sports and mean to his sister, Amy - except of course that he was brilliant, which was perhaps unsurprising with two highly academic parents - a tenure-track professor and a relentless grammarian - who read James Joyce's Ulysses to each other in bed and instilled in David their love of words. His teachers remember him as being among the best students they ever taught.
D.T. Max details two concurrent discoveries made by Wallace during his teen years - tennis and marijuana. At that time and place - the late 1970s in the Midwest - marijuana was commonplace, tennis less so. One friend remarked that "it wouldn't have been any stranger if he had been good at jai alai," but Wallace took instantly to the game, joining the Urbana high school tennis team and quickly becoming a ranked youth player in the state. Wallace's experience on the tennis circuit of course informed much of the setting of Infinite Jest. In fact, Wallace’s persona at this time resembles no one so much as Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest's tennis-playing, pothead protagonist.
Wallace's undergraduate years at Amherst were a dichotomy. On one hand he was fraught with paralyzing depression which twice forced him to leave school for a period of recovery (the second time during which he wrote "The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing," a story of a young man forced to withdraw from college due to psychiatric problems), and on the other, he was the college's star student. He aced all of his classes and quickly became a favorite among his professors, especially those who taught his literature and philosophy classes. It was at Amherst that Wallace found postmodernist literature, the point of which "was not to make the reader forget the conventions of the charade but to see them more clearly." His longtime friend Mark Costello recalls Wallace’s discovery of Thomas Pynchon, which he said was "like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie.”
D.T. Max traces Wallace's progress as a writer, as an academic, and as a human being struggling with depression, drinking, and drugs. Max was exhaustive in his research for this biography, so much so that, above and beyond any sort of chronology of Wallace's life and writing, the reader is privy to his innermost thoughts as delivered in his ongoing written correspondences with his agents, editors, and fellow authors - mostly Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo. In 1987, after going off of Nardil, his anti-depression medication, and nearly killing himself, Wallace wrote to his agent Bonnie Nadell:
"By now I expect maybe you've heard ... I finally did something stupid last Wednesday simply because it hurt so bad I was willing to kill myself to have it end ... I just seemed to lose my will to work as well as the ability to organize myself or my thoughts .. So far these haven't come back and my confidence as a writer has left too ..., confidence in being ... a minimally functional human being. My ambitions at this point are modest and mostly surround staying alive."
It was shortly after this that Wallace entered an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center and later the halfway house in Brighton, Massachusetts, after which he modeled Infinite Jest’s Ennet House. There, Wallace quickly found he had access to a mesmerizing cast of characters - "twenty-one other newly detoxed housebreakers, hoods, whores, fired execs, Avon ladies, subway musicians, beer-bloatd construction workers, vagrants, indignant car salesmen, bulimic trauma-mamas, bunko artists, mincing pillow-biters, North End hard guys, pimply kids with electric nose-rings, denial-ridden housewives and etc., all jonesing and head-gaming and mokus and grieving and basically whacked out and producing nonstopping output 24-7-365."
D.T. Max takes readers dexterously through the writing, publication, and launch of Infinite Jest (there is a fantastic and succinct summary of the novel on pages 159-161), as well as the subsequent tsunami of fame and publicity that buffeted the author and sent him into hiding much of the time. He recounts the tumultuous relationship that Wallace had with Mary Karr and the ones that followed alongside Wallace's writing efforts - the short stories and essays that he continued to publish and later compiled into books, and his agonizing work on what he called "the long thing," The Pale King, the manuscript for which he left in hundreds of stacked pages, as well as floppy disks and hard drives - all written over the course of a decade.
Of all of Wallace’s work, Max devotes the most detail to Infinite Jest, and this biography was, for me, at it’s height in those sections. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a fascinating book for anyone who has read and loved David Foster Wallace's writing. In it, we see past the man's genius and his work to better understand Wallace as a human, one who suffered and struggled throughout a life that ended too abruptly with his suicide in 2008.