David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008. In the four years since his death, I’ve read two books about the famed writer, but have yet to complete his most famous work — Infinite Jest.
A new biography on Wallace came out this week. The book, by the New Yorker’s D.T. Max, is called “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.” Two years ago I read David Lipsky’s “Although You Of Course End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.” Lipsky’s book dealt with a very specific time in Wallace’s life, as the Rolling Stone writer traveled with Wallace on a book tour after the publication of Infinite Jest, when his fame skyrocketed and the Illinois native who worked as a university professor transformed into a literary phenomenon. Lipsky traveled with Wallace for a story that never ran in Rolling Stone. When I wrote about it a few years ago, I called it the saddest book of the year, because the conversation between the two men is so interesting and fun and deep you wanted to be in the backseat of their car, but all the while you know how Wallace’s story ultimately ends.
Max’s book covers Wallace’s whole life — his childhood, his days as a superstar college student, life at grad school, his horrific struggles with depression and substance abuse, his publishing struggles, his publishing triumphs, his fears, his relationships, and his death. Like Lipsky’s book, I felt a dread while reading Max’s. Wallace is so alive on the page, it’s easy to forget that he no longer is, and when you do remember he’s dead, you want to try and change the ending.
The final chapter of Every Story is a Ghost Story deals with Wallace’s final years. In the final pages, when Max describes how Wallace stopped taking the medication he had been on for years — after suffering heart palpitations while out eating with his folks — the countdown to Wallace’s suicide begins, even though it would be another full year before he completed the act.
But as the title indicates, Max’s book is about Wallace’s life — and his work.
Wallace’s fiction receives much more attention in the book than his nonfiction. Wallace himself took his novels much more seriously than his magazine pieces. Many people find his nonfiction work more accessible, easier to understand and a blast to read. Those are the stories I’m more familiar with as well. He wrote definitive pieces on everyone from Roger Federer to John McCain, and penned memorable articles on state fairs, cruise ships, talk-radio hosts and the plight of the lobster. When describing those stories — and in the endnotes that fittingly take up a lot of space in a Wallace bio — Max hints at and calls in to question the veracity of many of the anecdotes in Wallace’s nonfiction stories. Wallace’s friend Jonathan Franzen caused a bit of an uproar last year when he suggested his pal and occasional rival had made things up in his magazine articles. As Max notes, Wallace called himself out, in a more subtle way. In an endnote, Max writes: “Wallace was aware that he had transgressed, and many times he hinted to journalists that their rules weren’t his, as in an interview he gave to a writer for the Boston Phoenix in 1998. ‘The thing is, really — between you and me and the Boston Phoenix’s understanding readers — you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be an occasional bit of embellishment.'”
Max had access to the mountain of letters Wallace wrote, although his output did drop when he started using email more at the turn of the century. It’s amazing to read Wallace’s letters and see the doubts that ravaged him as a writer. A bad review could shock him, and in letter after letter to peers and friends like Franzen, Don DeLillo and his old college pals, he wrote about his struggles to produce anything on the page. In those letters you see his struggles in relationships — he basically stalked the writer Mary Karr, even dreaming up a plot to murder her husband — before he finally meets and marries his wife.
I particularly enjoyed reading about Wallace’s days as a college instructor. Often he had a love-hate relationship with the job. In his early days as a writer, he hated the energy he had to devote to the job, which took away from the energy he wanted to give his writing. He couldn’t survive on his writing alone at first so he needed the income, but also the health insurance that helped him during his struggles with depression. But as a professor, Wallace threw himself into his work. Max details how Wallace would cut down the arrogant students in his creative writing classes and nurture the meek and shy. He edited and graded their stories with the intensity he used when putting together his own work, stunning his colleagues and winning over his students.
“He asked for a high level of commitment,” Max writes, “but he gave it too. He read every story three times and marked it up with each pass — once for first impressions, a second time to evaluate how well it did as a work of fiction, and a third time as if it were about to go to press.”
Max details Wallace’s evolution as a writer, from his days as a wunderkind to a novelist who spoke out against irony’s takeover of America. He writes about the mini-feuds or disagreements Wallace had with writers like Mark Leyner and even John Updike. He reveals Wallace to be a self-described grammar Nazi. He provides great insight into the way Wallace’s two main fiction editors dealt with him. When fighting against cuts or alterations, Wallace would occasionally plead, flatter and self-deprecate, treating it like a tennis match from his youth, the volleys traveling from the editorial offices in New York to his home in Illinois.
Of course much of the 350-page book focuses on the 1,100-page Infinite Jest. The book came out in 1996, but Max notes that Wallace likely started writing portions of it in 1986. By the time the book came out, Wallace had sobered up and, at that time, successfully fought his demons, which included numerous hospitalizations and suicide attempts. The book is a beast, a weapon you grab from the nightstand when you think you hear an intruder. I’ve read about 700 pages. I want to finish it, I will finish it. In an odd way, after reading Max’s book, I almost feel an obligation to Wallace to finish Infinite Jest. When you read about how much Wallace put into the book — and realize what it took out of him — it almost feels wrong to not see the thing through to the end. When I do return to the book I enjoy it but it can also feel like a workout, a mental one that’s as taxing as an six-hour physical one. Infinite Jest was Wallace’s final full-length novel. He couldn’t produce anything like it again — no one has.
Max’s book presents Wallace’s full life story. It’s exhaustively researched and reported and backed with great insight and superb writing. And I still hate the ending.