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.
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.