A Life of David Foster Wallace by Nick Abrahamson

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.
 

Comments

I found this ironic, here is his take on Literary biographies:
Taken from a Review DFW did on "Borges: A Life"

"There's an unhappy paradox about literary biographies. The majority of readers who will be interested in a writer's bio, especially one as long and exhaustive as Edwin Williamson's ''Borges: A Life,'' 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."

"A biographer wants his story to be not only interesting but literarily valuable.** In order to ensure this, the bio has to make the writer's personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work. The idea is that we can't correctly interpret a piece of verbal art unless we know the personal and/or psychological circumstances surrounding its creation. That this is simply assumed as an axiom by many biographers is one problem; another is that the approach works a lot better on some writers than on others."

"**Actually, these two agendas dovetail, since the only reason anybody's interested in a writer's life is because of his literary importance. (Think about it -- the personal lives of most people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.) "

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