A few weeks after I finished “Infinite Jest, ” David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page novel, a friend asked me if it was really worth the time. It took some two months of reading and dictionary consulting, of heavy annotating, cross-referencing, and back-and-forth turning between the book’s body and all 388 of its endnotes, but at the time I told him that yes of course it was, that the book was as much a work of genius as all the back-cover blurbs had made it out to be, long and dense but powerfully written in a language that shifts between the lowbrow and the hyper-literate with intertwined plot lines and shifting points of view and all of it was simply gilded, yes gilded, with layers and layers of meaning and allusion that could only be created by, I told him, a Genius. I still stand by most of what I said. But reading “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story,” D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, I realize that my reasons for recommending the book were all too naïve, and that I had, more or less, failed as a reader of Wallace’s works. The fact is that although David Foster Wallace is a great writer because of the way he assembles words on the page, he is something much greater and much more important—“artist” may be the appropriate word here, purple and sappy as it sounds—because of the moral heart of his fiction.
This, Max’s book makes clear, came about only after Wallace wrote his first novel and story collection. In these and in everything that came after—from “Infinite Jest” to the manuscript for “The Pale King,” unfinished at the time of his suicide in 2008—his style is essentially the same: a combination of “informal diction” and “recondite polysyllabic nouns,” as Max describes it, with the potential for sentences to run on for hundreds of words, for footnotes to sprawl across pages, and for consciousness to manifest all its hesitations, doubts, reversals and re-reversals. Around the time Wallace began writing “Infinite Jest,” though, he came to believe his earlier works were little more than flashy stylistic exercises, fundamentally empty at the core. Like his contemporaries and the post-modernist writers that came before him, Wallace felt he had been able to use humor and irony to criticize and diagnose certain negative elements of contemporary culture; with that irony he had not, however, been able to say anything meaningful and sincere in his work. He had not yet succeeded, he felt, in writing a book that captured fiction’s true aim: showing “what it is to be a fucking human being.”
Max does a good job of chronicling Wallace’s struggle to write such a book, something that would be, as Wallace put it in an essay on Dostoevsky, both “a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” and “ingenious and radiantly human fiction.” The focus of “Every Love Story” is always on Wallace’s successes and struggles as a writer, and touches on each work’s influences and origins before discussing their place in the Wallace canon. It does not, however, provide much in the way of critical analysis; as its copyright page warns, the book is an extension of an article Max wrote for the New Yorker after Wallace’s death, and in spirit is much closer to works of exceptional journalism than to exhaustive literary biographies. In place of critical analysis are interviews and anecdotes: we learn that Wallace made up details in his early non-fiction, that he liked to write in a room whose walls he painted black, that he was “not that into condiments.”
We also learn that Wallace was not, as has been so often reported since his death, a deeply religious person. He never fully gave himself to any organized belief system, and this is somewhat reflected in his writing: from “Infinite Jest” on his fiction is deeply moral—that is, concerned with how and by what principles we live our lives—but it is not evangelical. Instead of demanding specific beliefs it demands a new awareness at the ways in which we find things to be meaningful or important, aiming always, as Max makes clear, to be of “service to the inner life of the reader.” It could be complex, it could be difficult, but his work was always infused with a desire to help readers “become less alone inside,” in a place, he writes in his story “Good Old Neon,” “that is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part…at any given instant.” Difficult as it may be, Max, in his work, gives us a provisional sketch of Wallace’s inner life; Wallace, in his, was able to do the same for each of us. (Harrison Smith)
“Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace”
By D.T. Max
Viking, 368 pages, $27.95