Saturday, September 15, 2012

The new DFW biography

D. T. Max. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. New York: Viking, 2012. 356 pages. $27.95.

To its credit, D. T. Max’s biography deepens the enigma of David Foster Wallace’s character. The humble truth-teller of the rightly celebrated Kenyon commencement address was no saint. Wallace’s committment to “the capital-T Truth” (as he called it at Kenyon) did not extend to the presentation of the self in everyday life (claims of perfect SAT scores and other imaginary achievements) or to his non-fiction, which, it turns out, is filled with invented circumstances and events. Wallace’s dedication to teaching did not stop him from sleeping with his students. (He joked to a friend about trying to get fired.) His deep gratitude for the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous did not prevent him from “thirteenth-stepping,” seeking out sexual partners at meetings. The details of Wallace’s violence toward others — shoving a student, ramming a stranger’s car, throwing a table at a lover, plotting, at least briefly, to murder that lover’s husband — make for a very dark portrait.

And then there is the violence Wallace directed against himself. This biography omits the most gruesome detail of his suicide (it can be found in the autopsy report). But Max leaves so much more unsaid. One example: he mentions a history of suicide in Wallace’s mother’s family — and stops there. Did Wallace know about these suicides? Did they occur before his birth, or in his lifetime? Did he know the people involved? Could a family history of depression have had something to do with his struggles? The answers might explain nothing, but the questions are still worth asking. And if Max has no answers to them, that would be worth stating too. Another example: Max has spoken with a man he calls Big Craig, the model for Don Gately in Infinite Jest. That there was a Gately is big news, but it’s presented here in passing. We learn that Craig — also an addict in recovery — suspected that halfway-house resident Wallace was looking for material for a book. But what of their relationship? Did Craig become something of a mentor to Wallace? Did the two stay in touch? Does the climactic fight scene in Infinite Jest draw in any way from Big Craig’s life?

As one must now expect with new non-fiction from trade publishers, the writing in this biography is in need of more careful editorial attention. There are frequent problems with pronouns (missing referents) and at least one error in subject-verb agreement. And there’s a conspicuous factual error about Infinite Jest (Charles Tavis is Avril Incandenza’s half-brother, not her husband’s brother.) A larger criticism: Max’s attempt to link Wallace’s interest in “sincerity” to a midwestern habit of saying what one means is, I think, an East Coaster’s fantasy. Life in the midwest — trust me — can be full of evasions, silences, and mask-like tact. Some of the details of Wallace’s life in the midwest show just that.

Any reader of Wallace’s work will want to read this biography. But I’d suggest — and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know where this sentence is going — getting it from a library.

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts (via Pinboard)

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