Documenting the life of a writer as revered and tormented as the late David Foster Wallace is a fraught task at best. D.T. Max has done an admirable job with “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.’’ Drawing on hundreds of interviews and letters, Max reconstructs every phase of Wallace’s eventful journey: his Midwestern childhood, college years in Amherst, early rise to literary prominence, struggles with depression and drug addiction, hard-fought recovery, and eventual suicide in 2008, at 46. What emerges is a vivid portrait of an artist whose verbal brilliance was continually hampered, and ultimately silenced, by debilitating mental illness.
For devout fans, the book will be an especially tough read. We learn, for instance, that Wallace was first beset by “clinically anxious feelings” as a boy of 9 or 10, that he suffered half a dozen serious depressive breakdowns, attempted suicide multiple times, and required a battery of medications, along with electro-convulsive therapy. He was also sadistic to his younger sister, nakedly ambitious, envious of other writers, and (to put it gently) callow to women for most of his life.
Max proves a deft appraiser of Wallace’s work, noting that his early interest in literary theory “had a compensatory element. It served to satisfy energies that would have been frustrated had they gone into aspects of fiction writing he did not naturally excel at, like character development. It was a handy refuge for a writer who was still an odd combination of a mimic and engineer.”
Wallace’s psychological struggles, it becomes evident, made him more humble and empathic. He found in the recovery process, and later in nonfiction assignments, a means by which he could cast his gaze onto the world around him and away from the dark reverberations within him. The cleverness in which he cloaked himself gave way to an overt and insistent humanism.
Max captures the anguish Wallace felt during his depressive episodes by quoting generously from the letters he dashed off to literary correspondents. The book’s single greatest virtue may reside in its ability to present the underside of literary endeavor without sentiment.
We see very little of the manic bursts in which Wallace composed chunks of his thousand-page masterpiece, “Infinite Jest.’’ Instead, Max focuses on the fallow periods, the grueling process of editing the book, and his subject’s anxiety at watching it become a bestseller, and himself a celebrity.
This is not to say that Max completely avoids hagiographic excess. “In Infinite Jest,” he observes at one point, “Wallace was proposing to wash Pynchonian excess in the chilling waters of DeLillo’s prose and then heat it up again in Dostoevsky’s redemptive fire.”
If you say so.
As a rule, though, Max resists hyperbole. He sticks with a straightforward chronology, a good decision given the chaotic rhythms of Wallace’s career. Most readers know where the story ends anyway.
“Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story’’ serves as a powerful reminder of why Wallace should eventually make good on his collegiate ambition to write fiction people will read “100 years from now.” He recognized that the essential crisis in American literature — as in the culture at large — was not aesthetic but moral.
If there is a moral to his story, it is delivered by Wallace himself, in a haunting passage from one of his epistles: “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.”
Steve Almond, author of the
story collection “God Bless
America,” can be reached at