Reviewed by Bob Wake
D.T. Max’s solid biography of American writer David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, portrays with emotional force Wallace’s successful struggle to stay sober for the better part of his adult life. From roughly 1989 up until his 2008 suicide (resulting from a recurrence of severe depression that plagued him on and off since his Midwestern adolescence), we learn that he worked a rigorous recovery program, attending regular support group meetings (even when on the road in unfamiliar cities), and befriending and helping fellow recovering addicts. The importance of sobriety to his life and work cannot be overstated. His career-making 1996 maximalist novel, Infinite Jest, can legitimately be considered The Great American AA Novel.
Wallace honored recovery group tenets by not divulging his personal involvement in one organization over another (and the biography never directly links him with any specific twelve-step program by name). Max quotes from a Newsweek interview in which Wallace was asked about Infinite Jest’s verisimilitude and insight regarding Alcoholics Anonymous and halfway-house living conditions. The author replied at the time:
I went with friends to an open AA meeting, and got addicted to them. It was completely riveting. I was never a member—I was a voyeur. When I ended up really liking it was when I let people there know this and they didn’t care.
Michael Pietsch, his editor at Little, Brown, recognized early on that the recovery material was the heart of Infinite Jest, what Pietsch called a “huge roiling story about addiction and recovery, their culture and language and characters, the hidden world that’s revealed when people come in and tell their stories.”
Less impressive to the editor was the novel’s “ornately bizarre-to-goofy superstructure” of dystopian Canadian terrorist cells and the hunt for a lethal video cartridge that induced addictive stupor and even death in those who watched it. The manuscript was cut and reshaped, a process during which Wallace devised his soon-to-be-iconic solution of off-loading some of the novel’s pile-up of political and cinematic arcana and narrative tangents into 100 pages of small-print endnotes, 388 in total.
Max situates the development of Wallace’s nascent writing style (a mixture of Thomas Pynchon’s digressive erudition with the experimental playfulness of Donald Barthelme) within the polarized scene of mid-1980s American literary fiction. When he enrolled in the University of Arizona MFA writing program in 1985, the “dirty realism” of minimalists like Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips and Richard Ford was in vogue. So was the bestselling “brat pack” fiction (defined by Max as “minimalism with attitude”) of Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. Wallace found himself butting heads with writing professors who championed above all else “the well-made realist short story.” The dynamic with his teachers shifted, however, with the 1987 publication of his antic 500-page first novel, The Broom of the System. The book had been written as his undergraduate thesis at Amherst College before enrolling at Arizona. (Remarkably, he wrote two Amherst theses for a dual-degree. The second was in philosophy, published posthumously in 2010 as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.)
Wallace would later disavow much of what he considered the metafictional games of his pre-Infinite Jest fiction. Some critics, like A.O. Scott in a perceptive 2000 NYRB piece titled “The Panic of Influence,” believed the writer was kidding himself. As Max summarizes it, Scott “emphasized Wallace’s anxious relationship with postmodernism and also his expectation he could have things both ways, pursuing the questionable tactic of writing cleverly to assert the superiority of sincerity in a world wedded to cleverness.”
The growing ranks of Infinite Jest fans felt otherwise, of course. More than a few flocked to sign up for classes taught by Wallace in the English department at Illinois State University, where he was employed when the 1,079-page novel was published to near-instantaneous notoriety:
Students had begun applying to the graduate program specifically to study with him. He was becoming a beacon for a kind of writing, not the postmodernism of the rest of the department and not the realism of Iowa and everywhere else, but a third approach, uncomfortable but sincere realism for a world that was no longer real. Making the head throb heartlike had the potential to become a literary movement. Different names were bruited for it, from the New Sincerity to Post-postmodernism. Occasionally one heard Grunge Fiction.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story steers clear of hagiography by maintaining a thoroughly researched journalistic tone. The substance abuse, repeated suicide attempts and institutionalizations filling the first half of the biography make for harrowing reading, especially given that the scope and magnitude of some of this information is new.
Certainly the heretofore unreported womanizing documented in the book, with Wallace cavalierly sleeping with female students in the manner of Philip Roth’s Professor Kepesh in The Dying Animal, is far from flattering. His borderline stalking of married poet and future influential memoirist Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club), whom he met during the early stages of his halfway-house recovery in the Boston area, is disturbing and dark. If nothing else, we perhaps now have a little more context for judging novelist and friend Jonathan Franzen’s cryptic allusion (in a 2011 New Yorker essay) to Wallace’s brutish 1999 short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men:
I will pass over the question of diagnosis (it’s possible he was not simply depressive) and the question of how such a beautiful human being had come by such vividly intimate knowledge of the thoughts of hideous men.
The biography grew out of a well-received profile that Max wrote for The New Yorker in 2009. Wallace, it seems, was a compulsive letter writer, most notably to Franzen and the novelist Don DeLillo (a formative literary influence and someone from whom Wallace appears to have sought a good deal of working-writer advice, sometimes in dire desperation). Never a fan of the Internet—“He was wise enough,” writes Max, “to see a snare in it for an addict like himself”—he only began using email after 2000. Generous quotations from his correspondence with Franzen and DeLillo, his life-long agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch (whose posthumous assemblage of the author’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, was widely admired) add immeasurably to the portrait of Wallace and his writing process.