Book review: Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, to use a euphemism he would have despised, “took his own life” on 12 September 2008. In many ways, as DT Max’s immensely moving and intellectually scrupulous biography shows, he never really felt he had his own life in the first place.

Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace

BY DT Max Granta Books, 352pp, £20

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To many – and I would include myself in their number – he was the pre-eminent literary writer of our generation. To himself, he was plagued by doubt and addiction, preferred the company of his dogs and those who supported him through Alcoholics Anonymous, and feared becoming a “statue” of himself, as if his Midas-touch with the sentence might be turned on his own body and freeze him into a glistering, claustrophobic simulation of the living, communicative human being his work always took pains – and do not forget, they were excruciatingly painful – to insist existed.

Wallace has been paired, thoughtlessly, with Kurt Cobain: Max even manages to remind us that there was a period where he was the representative of “Grunge Fiction” (or post-postmodernism, or the “New Sincerity”). But the differences are spelled out in stark detail. The “undemanding hopelessness” of Nirvana was antithetical to Wallace’s project as a philosopher, fiction writer and essayist. He took for granted that we live in a media-saturated, spectacle-driven but unspectacular world that offers little in the way of humane-ness, let alone humanity, but his agenda was not to describe, meticulously, the horror and glory of that. It was to write out and through a solution to it; how one might salvage the best of us while admitting the worsening and the worst. In his two masterpieces, Infinite Jest and the posthumous, incomplete The Pale King, he edged towards an answer he would not be able to implement himself.

There is a kind of Moses on Mount Pisgah feeling about Wallace: he could see the Promised Land, but was too damaged and broken to reach it himself.

Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, but his formative years were spent in Illinois, to which he returned in 1992 to teach at Illinois State University, having studied at Amherst College, Massachusetts, on the MFA programme at the University of Arizona, and at Harvard, where his depression and addictions meant he dropped out swiftly.

He was one of those immersive geniuses who could inhabit any realm of ideas: his philosophy senior thesis was on modal logic and fatalism in the work of Richard Taylor (and is worth reading), but he variously threw himself into tax accountancy, pornography, rap music, Thomas Pynchon and tennis. Towards the end of his life – after a dysfunctional relationship with Mary Karr, author of The Liars’ Club and relentless promiscuity – he found a kind of sanctuary with the artist Karen Green, before deciding to stop taking anti-depressants. He had two courses of electro-convulsive therapy. One can only wince at her honesty in telling DT Max about the final weeks before his suicide.

Wallace saw two main currents in contemporary literature. On one hand was the “Catatonic Realism a.k.a. Ultraminimalism a.k.a. Bad Carver” which Iowa’s famous Creative Writing workshop inculcated and transmitted to many other such institutions – its legacy lives on, with all those “Show, Don’t Tell” idiocies. He could be scathing about it: “fiction for which the highest praise involves the words “competent”, “finished”, “problem-free””. Equally, he became disenchanted with what he would call in The Pale King “titty-pinching postmodernism”: all those novels about novelists struggling with novels, where the artifice of fiction was exposed to the extent that it was more about the strings than the puppets. Wallace attempted to chart a route out of this, forgoing neither the self-awareness of the postmodernists (a self-awareness he turned into crippling self-consciousness) nor the observed detail and social agenda of the minimalists (noticing, for Wallace, became a kind of honouring). There is no better way to see how he succeeded than to read the books themselves; failing that, his address to Kenyon College (particularly when read against his friend Jonathan Franzen’s snarling version) is insightful.

Max is a fine writer – his own book The Family That Couldn’t Sleep is amazing – and is humble enough to take a back seat; preferring not to attempt to imitate Wallace’s style. Perhaps the most reassuring thing in a mostly traumatic and painful book is his declaration “David Foster Wallace and I never met”. Without pretending to be objective, he can still be distant enough to be measured. There are a few things I might have cared to be different: Max doesn’t mention Wallace’s brilliant essay on the porn industry, “Big Red Son”, first published as “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment”, despite providing a great deal of detail about his prior engagement with the topic (and mentioning that the ongoing interest might have been part of The Pale King, with Drinion, a character with a concentration so awesome he sometimes levitates, being part of the tax system’s tentative steps into running their own porn studio: these details aren’t in the original edition of The Pale King, assembled by Wallace’s long time editor Michael Pietsch). The book ends with Wallace’s suicide, and I might have been tempted to nudge the chronology forwards to the funeral, and analyse the press and media reaction to the news. That Wallace went to church was intriguing, and the book prevaricates or passes over in silence whether he did find a faith (given his cerebral scepticism) or whether it was an acquiescence to AA’s injunction to the “higher power”.

Max’s biography will spur readers already acquainted with Wallace’s work back to those ground-breaking books, and readers merely interested in the life will no doubt pick up the books afterwards, as Max is a compelling and subtle critic of the work. If you doubt that Wallace is the key figure in our tentative steps towards a new literature, I should mention, in concluding, an incident that happened when I was reading the book. Meeting a friend for lunch, I put it down on the table, and watched the waiter look at it. As we paid, he came up and asked if it was good and what did it reveal and when would it be out. Wallace managed to articulate the concerns and harms of a generation, and they loved him for it, from college professors to Edinburgh waiters.