Any biography of David Foster Wallace is inevitably going to be a bit uncomfortable and problematic. From all reports, DFW was not someone who revelled in being in the limelight. He disliked the spectacle of The Writer as separate to the person who actually exists, and writes. The Writer as commodity.
In his 2004 essay Borges on the Couch, Wallace talks about the “unhappy paradox” of literary biographies:
“The majority of readers who will be interested in a writer’s bio … will be admirers of the writer’s work. They will therefore usually be idealizers of that writer and perpetrators (consciously or not) of the intentional fallacy. Part of the appeal of the writer’s work for these fans will be the distinctive stamp of that writer’s personality, predilections, style, particular tics and obsessions – the sense that these stories were written by this author and could have been done by no other. And yet it often seems that the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire. And the more intimate and thorough the bio, the stronger this feeling usually is.”
According to Wallace, in literary biographies the spectacle and the actual writer clash, and this is confronting for readers. I’d like to know what Wallace would have said about DT Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
The book seems thoroughly researched – lots of single-line quotes from important figures in DFW’s life, and extracts from letters and journals. Lots of anecdotes from publishers and students. There’s a lot of ‘behind the book’ type reveals, matching up what was happening in DFW’s life when a certain piece of work was taking shape or being published.
Some of the material Max uncovered in his research is truly gorgeous and insightful – my favourite little grab was a note Wallace made about what perfect balance would look like in his life:
“What Balance Would Look Like:
2-3 hours a days in writing
Up at 8-9
Only a couple late nights a week
Minimum time spent teaching
2 nights/week spent with other friends
5 [recovery meetings a] week
It gave me insight to what DFW wanted, and it made me think a lot about my own priorities.
The majority of Max’s focus, however, is on Wallace’s mental health. We follow his hospital visits, his time in rehab, his unstable relationships, his time on and off medications. While this kind of information is interesting to a certain point, and not something that can be left out of DFW’s biography, it’s also only part of Wallace’s life.
In the preface of his biography of David Foster Wallace, DT Max talks about the way that DFW fans “read their own lives in Wallace’s. They identify with his genius, his depression, his anxiety, his loneliness, his frustrations, his early success, his amazement that the world isn’t gentler, and his upset at how hard it is to say what you mean. They know or intuit his struggles. They talk about how hard he worked to stay sane and happy in a difficult world.”
While perhaps some people do feel an affinity with Wallace’s struggle (there was lots of “Mmm, what would I do in that situation?”), it is reductive and beside-the-point to be raising him up as the poster boy for mental illness and tortured artists. For me, it’s the parts of DFW’s life that I can’t relate to that make him such an admirable figure. He overcame his struggles and turned them into useful things. He was prolific and so.fucking.clever.
The hype around David Foster Wallace chucks his amazing work to the side and is overly preoccupied with that “staying sane and happy in a difficult world” hero. I don’t want to diminish his struggle, but I also want to say that we all have our stuff, and none of us are as clever or useful about it as DFW was.
Good Old Neon was the first DFW story I read, and I was struck by how wonderfully he could communicate human isolation (paradox alert). In it, the narrator speaks at length about how impossible it is to truly understand anyone because we can’t get inside anyone else’s head. This is a part of being human that just cannot be overcome. We’re doomed to aloneness and an inability to ever connect in a real way. Wallace did his best to write about this difficulty, and while the problem is ultimately a bind with no way out, he still wrote something beautiful about it, and publishing that work was the best he could do towards bridging the divide. Instead of sitting on his hands and bemoaning this fact (as most of us more inclined to do), Wallace used it.
By writing a biography whose major focus is on how tortured the artist was, DT Max’s Every Love Story … seems to function mainly to feed the spectacle. It lacks heart.
The subtitle may be telling – A Life of David Foster Wallace. A life. Just one possible life of the many lives – perhaps this is Max’s way of saying that he’s aware that this biography is narrow-minded. In reading the book though, it seems to imply that DFW’s work was the mental illness, and that the mental illness was the work.
In reading Every Love Story…, I can’t say that I felt confronted by the dissonance that DFW talks about in literary biographies. So much of the DFW mythos is about the tortured artist stuff anyway – for a writer who committed suicide, perhaps it’s inescapable. I mainly felt sad that DT Max hadn’t tried to do anything new with the material. Instead, he bought into the spectacle and reduced all David Foster Wallace’s work to his mental health or illness.
God forbid that should happen to any of us.