Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max

A friend remarked in a thread here in Infinite Jesters regarding D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace (DFW), "It was so interesting and heartbreaking, I just felt terrible once I finished it."

To which I replied:  Exactly!  And that's why I haven't said very much about it.  Until now.  And even though it's obvious how the book is going to end, it's still sad when you finish it.  Made me feel a tad too empty for my taste.  I wish Max could've softened the blow somehow, but that's just wishful thinking.

I thought it was interesting how DT Max demonstrated how much of DFWs so called "non-fiction" was in fact confabulated.    I hadn't suspected the degree to which Wallace embellished.  Maybe not so much the meat of the truth about his life and experiences, but all the whimsical amplifications he made in the otherwise humdrum details concerning the people and events of his reportage.  His essay on the Illinois State Fair, "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All", collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is a good example of that.  Or how "the people at his church" that he sometimes mentioned in his essays were invariably stand-ins for his "12-step friends," exemplified in his piece in response to 9/11, "The View From Mrs. Thompson's," collected in Consider the Lobster.  Based on that essay alone, I always assumed that DFW went to church.  I made inquiries, in fact, over the years, as a stalker/sleuth, attempting to uncover the secret of which church David Foster Wallace attended.  Come to find out, from Max's biography, he couldn't go to church, because whenever he did, he'd inevitably start chuckling uncontrollably in the pew.

And I wonder why, beyond obvious reasons of personal privacy and reputation concerns, when he so championed Authenticity and eschewed Irony in his later years, he never made public, beyond the occasional admissions in interviews that were play-downs of ginormous proportions, concerning his lifelong vulnerability to substances — "yeah I experimented "a little" with drugs after I wrote The Broom..." blah blah blah — the source or engine of his addictions.  His Depression.  Capital "D", as in Major, of which he was a chronic sufferer.  Might he still be alive, if its not too insensitive for me to conjecture (probably is, but I'm compelled, regardless, to ask the question), had he opened up about his struggles with depression, had he written another of his patented, footnoted essays on the subject, about how it crushed almost irreparably every aspect of his life, when he let it go untreated?

Yet he concealed it.  No one outside his family, agent, and maybe his editor at Little, Brown and tight circle from Amherst ever knew about it.  Is it any wonder then that he could so comprehensively fashion a complicated character like Hal, from Infinite Jest, who secreted his addictions so perfectly — oh people at the Enfield Tennis Academy he attended knew he got high but not how often, just like people at Amherst knew DFW had had some personal problems at school that required he abruptly leave campus, but maybe didn't know the full gravity of just how life threatening those problems were -- and yet still functioned at genius levels in day-to-day academics?

Though I doubt Hal could hide any better than DFW could hide — an overriding impression I'm left with reflecting on the biography.  That is, what was Wallace's perhaps unwitting ability to reveal himself by what he concealed.  Which strikes me as something DFW would've phrased as being "ironically ironic" about himself, especially for one who no longer wanted to be -- or in the least, no longer wished to be perceived as — Ironic, whether in life or fiction.  Except DFW would've no doubt made the turn of phrase cleverly, and with an endearing and generous amount of hysterical self-deprecation my criticism lacks; and, in so doing, probably made himself seem that much more Authentic to us all, his fans and critics.  Man of many contradictions, DFW, and D.T. Max lets the contradictions speak for themselves.  His biography is as unflattering of Wallace as it is effusive in praise.  Yeah, Wallace, knowing full well he was pursuing a married woman, participated in the breakup of the poet and memoirist, Mary Karr's, marriage.  Karr denies they were involved while she was married, however, Max notes.  Bottom line:  DFW chased one too many skirts for his own good in his day, whether they were married or not, and did so even when at least one was worn by his student.  He was probably too smart for his own good too, able to rationalize and intellectually minimize some of the more dubious decisions he made regarding his multitude of failed romantic relationships.   Miracle he lived as long as he did, considering all that early drunken debauchery, all that later despair.

I didn't like how little Max spent on DFWs childhood, a single chapter, the book's first, and not nearly enough.  Perhaps the bio's brevity on the subject, as Anna noted in her comment in the Infinite Jester's thread, was at least partly due to his mother's intervention in D.T. Max's research.  Her desire for privacy.  Maybe so.  Small quibble though, compared to my next.

Larger criticism, and I'll disclose it originates from a recent review of the biography that I can't at the moment locate in order to properly cite, is, as its author argues convincingly, Max's strict overuse of a chronological order in encompassing the writing and life of one whose was as experimental, or as unorthodox in nature, as DFWs.  I agree with that.  Max nailed the facts of DFWs life but his connect-the-dots narrative missed an opportunity in paying homage to the more creative forms DFWs authorship consistently inhabited, be it in structuring his first novel after the intricate philosophy of Wittgenstein, or in the multilayered geometrics of Infinite Jest.  I'm not suggesting Max needed have constructed some kind of David Mitchellesque Chinese puzzle box out of his biography to satisfy the most insatiable Oulipo devotee, but couldn't he have structured his work just a tad less traditionally, considering the innately innovative core of his singular subject? The book was too predictable at times; tedious even.  As a hardcore fan I knew much of DFWs history already, and so knew what was probably coming next, like how I know the letter D comes next after C, and so on, but perhaps (and I hope) the more casual readers of DFW will still be surprised by what they find in Max's biography.  Predictable or not, it's a good solid biography, and I'll confess that despite my criticism, I certainly kept turning the pages, fully involved and invested with what I was reading, and finished the biography in two days.

Max made up for most of his predictability with his seamless onslaught of insightful analyses zeroing in on the connections between the content of all of DFWs fiction and nonfiction with that of his life.  The way Max thoroughly applied this connective-commentary upon the title story to DFWs first story collection, Girl With Curious Hair, in particular, was beyond exceptional.  In it, Max reveled in DFWs deadpan delivery he exacted in filleting the dispassionate novels of Bret Easton Ellis, which up to the time of Girl With Curious Hair's 1989 publication, would've included Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction.  DFW ridiculed Ellis' dry style and nihilistic content with such exquisite wit and verve (qualities Ellis' fiction lacks), that Ellis was even less than a pile of ashes by the time DFW was finished with him.  Hysterical.  It was like DFW had made Bret Easton Ellis "disappear here, Dude" in the very pages, the satiric prose, of "Girl With Curious Hair," and Max showed us, practically paragraph by paragraph, exactly how DFW went so Houdini on him.  Splendid work.  Superior explication.  No wonder Ellis lashed out a few months ago in an embarrassing spate of tweets about Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, shortly after its release.

Mindful of what beelzebubba shared in the thread I linked up at the top, about meeting D.T. Max at a Texas book fair, how when he acquired his autograph, Max conveyed to him that future bios will undoubtedly cover more of the personal, family stuff of DFWs, and maybe then we'll know more about that often-difficult relationship he had with his mother, whom he clearly modeled, according to his sister — who recognized the resemblance immediately when she read an early draft of Infinite Jest — in the cool, calculating, matriarchal character, Avril.  In fact, she let DFW know that she was worried (and shouldn't he also be worried) about their mother's reaction once she'd read (and witnessed, like looking into a mirror) the inspiration for Avril?  DFW hemmed and hawed about it, noncommittal in his response to his sister's concerns.  No surprise then, when soon thereafter, because of Avril, DFW and his mother did not speak to one another for five years following the publication of Infinite Jest.

I look forward to reading those future, perhaps more complex, biographies on DFW whenever they're eventually published.  Hopefully their structure and style will be more congruent with DFWs serpentine convolutions than D.T. Max's straight-laced chronology.  For those who enjoyed Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, as I did, and want more, I'd recommend Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marshall Boswell, a fine, albeit more academic study, focused primarily on Wallace's fiction rather than his personal life, published just over a decade before he died.


  1. Thanks for the great review. This is on my 'to read' pile but I might also check out the Marshall Boswell book you recommended.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read the review and commenting. Both books are great. The Boswell is mostly brains, while Max's also has a lot of heart.

  3. Very insightful review- did not make it through Infinite Jest though have very much enjoyed some of DFWs essays, and very interested in reading this biography. Love your consideration of the chronological order vs. perhaps a more creative approach- tough to do, perhaps, especially with a tragic end such as his, where a reader probably is looking to "connect the dots" and understand the whys. But then life and reasons aren't always as orderly as we'd wish them to be.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful review. I'm undecided about reading this; I've only read one of DFW's books, and a long time ago, and I probably need to get to know him better as a writer before I dive into a biography. It seems like a good place to start sort of book, a first treatment of a life that was too short.

  5. Thanks, bookspersonally! I nearly gave up on IJ my first time, around 200 pages in, but came back to it after about a week away from it and it just started to click somehow.

    Thanks, Marie! I'm curious, which book of his did you read way back when? His essays are good starting points too. The bio would be a good starting point, I agree, and might even whet your appetite for any number of his works, as Max quotes liberally from many of them.

  6. D. T. Max has done all of us a great service, whether we have a direct relationship to suicide or none at all, by detailing David Foster Wallace's life with unsentimental but sympathetic eloquence. In so doing, Max gives us insight into the intensity with which Wallace lived and thereby helps us understand a bit more of how Wallace came to make the choice he did even if we are still left far from resolving the why.

    Maycee Greene (Olympia SEO)


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