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Chad Harbach remarked that Infinite Jest 'looks like the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser works to orbit'. It would seem author D.T. Max chose Harbach’s sentiment as a way to frame his biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Prior to Jest Wallace struggled. Struggled with substance abuse and mental illness and struggled to make an indelible imprint on fiction. Jest is the apex. Everything that happened prior to its publication was simply a step toward the pinnacle of Wallace's career. After Jest Wallace struggled to replicate this success. Jest is like the agent in a special relativity physics lesson with Wallace’s lesser works orbiting its colossal achievement.
The fact that Max glosses over aspects of Wallace's life that other publications chose to highlight illustrates why the title 'A Life' is aptly chosen. Friendships with well known writers and artists are casually mentioned once and not returned to despite evidence these friendships held a meaningful and important place in Wallace's life, personally and professionally. The end reads like Max was running out of room, cutting a driving, vigorous narrative to a clipped ending. And I'm sure I won't be the only one to mention some serious editing issues, some parts are a bit of a mess with simple grammar, subject/verb tense problems. Despite Max's (and the editor's) misgivings the bio doesn't scrimp on heart, not that the magnanimous subject would allow such treatment.
There's plenty for the reader to chew on, to mull, to be seduced by. Wallace's 'Prometheusizing' of himself, the personal sacrifice and torment Wallace endured to create his oeuvre. Anyone personally familiar with severe depression can relate to the terror and hopelessness such a condition can wrack on a seemingly strong and resilient person. Aspects of this narrative seem to effectively hold a mirror to many a reader with a passion for the arts and that struggle to turn off the cacophony of the modern world. A recurring theme in Wallace's best work addresses this constant barrage of stimuli in which the brain is ill equipped to manage, let alone turn off.
Some of my favorite passages deal with Wallace rejecting the irony that peppers his earlier works. He wanted to not only connect with his readers, but to offer a way out or a directive on issues merely depicted in other works. He sought truth over posturing, earnestness over knowing smiles. Where his older works were snide with self-knowing, he sought honesty and substance in Jest. Wallace offered that the 'next literary rebels...will have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre principles…Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction...who might risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, of young ironists...the “how banal”'. This just happens to jibe with my own views of meaningful art and fiction, thus the impact.
This is a fascinating read about a fascinating artist and thinker. It’s also about a budding life cut short by the debilitation of mental illness. No doubt other biographies will soon surface, but for now Max does Wallace the justice he deserves.