With the exception of (or possibly because of) “Consider the Lobster,” I have been a little intimidated by David Foster Wallace’s reputation as a difficult writer. I haven’t read “Infinite Jest” though it’s on my list, and the thought of reading the posthumous “The Pale King” is both sad and overwhelming. So I’m not sure what impulse made me pick up D.T. Max’s literary biography of Wallace “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.” I’m glad I did: “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” is exemplary, a loving and clear explanation of Wallace’s life and work.
Wallace grew up in central Illinois, in the university town of Champaign-Urbana. His father was in the philosophy department; his mother taught English at a local community college. The house was full of books, words, and ideas. Wallace became an adept tennis player in high school, spent summers teaching tennis, and followed his father to Amherst College. In college, Wallace made some friends who were to stay his friends throughout his too-short life. He started writing fiction. He had to withdraw twice because of depression. And then he made a sparkling finish, writing two theses, one of which became his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987).
Wallace went on to graduate school in creative writing, and to early professional success and to personal and professional struggles. He published a collection of short stories, wrote non-fiction, and was invited, twice, to Yaddo. He returned to graduate school, this time at Harvard, to study philosophy. He struggled with depression, pot, alcohol, and women. He taught English, first in Boston and then in Illinois. He had difficult romantic relationships. He published Infinite Jest (1996). Eventually his life seemed to settle into some sobriety and calm, with a marriage, dogs, teaching and writing. You probably know the ending.
Throughout it all, Max does an excellent job sorting through letters, conversations, and Wallace’s papers, relating the life to the work and rendering Wallace’s literary influences (particularly Pynchon) clear. Wallace maintained some life-long friendships; in his letters he discussed everything from the future of fiction to recovery from alcohol and drug abuse to the state of his love life and his dogs. “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” is a loving, well-written story of a life lived in constant struggle, of a man with a hugely engaged and engaging mind (Max calls it recursive). You may be wondering about the title; Max discusses it in a New Yorker blog post here.)
A good non-fiction book should spark a mental conversation between reader and writer, and Max’s book, while no exception, goes one step farther, embodying Max’s conversation as reader with Wallace. There’s a Wallace-like set of endnotes that Max uses to enlarge upon points in the main text. For example, in the Max describes Wallace’s process of preparing for, attending, and writing about the Illinois State Fair for Harper’s. He says that the editing process reminded the editors of a tennis game and describes some unable-to-be-disproven embellishments that Wallace included. Max adds two footnotes, one about additional transgressions that includes a quote from Wallace’s sister that “his nonfiction was fanciful and his fiction was what you had to look out for,” and the other about Wallace’s hints that he knew he was pushing journalism’s limits. There are many similar lovely moments in this engaging and deeply interesting book. Let us know your favorites in the comments.
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