Behind the David Foster Wallace myth

The audiobook of D.T. Max's new biography makes a sad ending all the more shocking

Published September 13, 2012 7:58PM (EDT)

David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, and in the four years that have passed since his death, his life and work have been a subject of constant discussion in American magazines, on Internet discussion groups and literary gossip sites, and among readers who gather wherever readers gather to talk about books.

He rose to prominence as a writer of formally daring novels, stories and essays that did their best to interrogate American culture, including the culture of entertainment, while also — in a pleasurably idiosyncratic and sometimes difficult manner — succeeding on their own merits as entertainments.

In his best work — showcased in his hyperbolic literary reportage for Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine, in stories such as “Good Old Neon” and “Adult World,” and in the novel “Infinite Jest,” his masterpiece — he seemed not only to crack open and display the candy-coated sophistication of his own brain, but also to do it in a way that invited a certain kind of reader to imagine that Wallace’s hyper-kinetic, hyper-associative and hyper-insightful page persona was something the reader could share in, because Wallace’s voice was somehow an analogue for the reader’s own interior life. In addition to everything else Wallace’s writing was, it was also, at its core, a virtuoso performance of seduction.

Such a life easily slides in the direction of myth. Malcolm Hillgartner’s audiobook performance of D.T. Max’s “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story” — the first of what will surely be many David Foster Wallace biographies — is a welcome corrective. Hillgartner is one of the more accomplished audiobook narrators at work today, and his range is extraordinary, accommodating works as aesthetically diverse as Philip K. Dick’s “Selected Stories,” the Dean Koontz thriller “Your Heart Belongs to Me,” Donald Trump’s “Time to Get Tough,” and Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever. His delivery is stately and unshowy, and it is a good match for the genre of biography, which is by its nature full of gossip and other prurient pleasures.

On these counts, Max is likewise restrained. He is neither hatchet man nor hagiographer. He wades carefully into the swamp of Wallace’s personal myth-making, and the sometimes contradictory accounts of his friends and contemporaries. A lesser biographer might be tempted to try to write Wallace’s life in a maximalist mode that more closely resembles Wallace’s own, but Max’s prose style couldn’t be any more different from Wallace’s. Max’s sentences are direct and elegantly concise. Wallace’s were often digressive, and willfully and artfully inelegant. Max nails down facts. Wallace was not afraid to embroider them.

Early in his career, Wallace pursued a burn-the-house-down literary showmanship, and once he hit his stride as an artist, he coupled the gamesmanship with an exploration of language, consciousness, suffering and community that pushed the limits of what the sentence in American English could do. Perhaps Max took comfort, along these lines, from the line from “Good Old Neon” he uses as an epigraph: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

“Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story” moves quickly. Hillgartner and Max hit all the important early-life beats: Wallace’s childhood in Illinois with two intellectuals for parents, the childhood anxieties his mother called “the black hole with teeth,” the emergence of his insatiable intellectual appetite during a period of high school in which he would “hoover everything.” Then a brilliant but troubled tenure at Amherst, punctuated by a severe depression (“the Bad Thing,” in Wallace parlance) that caused him to temporarily drop out of school twice, but ending with a double-summa graduation, in honor of two undergraduate theses. The first was a sophisticated debunking of the philosopher Richard Taylor’s semantics-based argument that the future is predestined. The second was a work of fiction that owed a large debt to Thomas Pynchon’s "The Crying of Lot 49," which would become Wallace’s debut novel,"The Broom of the System."

The listener who is also a Wallace aficionado will occasionally quibble with the biographer’s choices. Max is a good reader — his exposition of the plot and structure of "Infinite Jest" rewards the time of the listener who has already read the novel, and it also serves as a first-rate introduction to the novel for the listener who hasn’t — but, as with most biographies, “Every Love Story” is interested to a fault in the connections between the life of the writer and the writing itself. This tendency sometimes has the effect of distorting the stories themselves, which were never intended to be read through the lens of biography, and which, if the writer was doing his job, can sometimes have little aesthetic traffic with the circumstances that gave rise to them. This impulse might also explain why Max spends so relatively little time on the formal experiments in Wallace’s story collection "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," such as “Octet,” “Datum Centurio” and the two parts of “Adult World,” in which Wallace did some of the most interesting writing of his career.

Max, who did not know Wallace while he was alive, is also limited by his sources. Although he was clearly a diligent (and first-rate) reporter, he leans heavily on certain sources — the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, Wallace’s editors Michael Pietsch and Gerald Howard, Wallace’s letters, and David Lipsky’s interview book "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself." Clearly, these are the best available informants for many of biography’s set pieces, but they color portions of Wallace’s life in a manner that causes the listener to hope that an army of knowledgeable competing sources will make themselves available to future biographers.

To his credit, Max does not mythologize Wallace’s suicide, nor does he imply, as other writers have, that the death was calculated and stage-managed to produce Kurt Cobain-like effects. Instead, he draws a clear line between Wallace’s death and his decision to abandon the drug Nardil, which had helped him regulate his depression but had unpleasant side effects. In so doing, he avoids dramatizing the suicide or even offering what might otherwise seem like the obligatory physical details that would allow the reader to draw a sharper picture of the event. Instead, he dispenses with all of that in one sentence: “Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself.” He follows that with Wallace’s lyrical description of the death of a character from "Infinite Jest" who is “catapaulted home” and sounds “a bell-clear and maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”

The point, Max seems to be saying, isn’t the suicide. It’s the life and work of the man who offered it. There is a way in which the choice to avoid these details might also be read as a socially responsible choice. If the biographer commits the death ritual to paper, perhaps the ritual will distort the life of his subject in a way that glorifies the suicide. Who would want to inspire the inevitable copycats? But the listener wonders if the avoidance of these details in some way neglects the biographer’s obligation to offer it all, for good or for ill, the way Max does masterfully in the rest of the biography. And the listener also wonders if the ritual itself might shed light on Wallace’s character in a way that necessarily reframes our understanding of his interior life, perhaps unpleasantly.

There is, however, one extraordinary virtue to this ending. The listener doesn’t know it yet, but when Hillgartner delivers his one matter-of-fact sentence about the suicide, he is only one paragraph from the end of the audiobook. In effect, Max has made the most formally daring choice imaginable, under the circumstances: At story’s end, he allows the narrative to abruptly fall off a cliff. So when Hillgartner says, “This is not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen,” and then stops talking, the listener feels a palpable and almost wounding shock in the dead air that briefly follows. It is certainly not a shock similar in degree to what those who knew and loved Wallace must have felt, but it must be akin to that shock — sobering and awful. It calls to mind the last sentence of “Good Old Neon,” the Wallace story most aligned, in spirit, with Max’s biography: “Not another word.”

In describing the feeling that this kind of ending provokes, every earnestness that would otherwise pass for banality becomes fitting: His death was a waste, he was so young, there was so much more work to be done, there was so much more life to live, a truly special person walked among us, and we carry with us the great sadness that he walks among us no more. As many of the best passages of “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story” remind the listener, this willingness to engage the true things embedded in the things we might have come to think of as earnest banalities is something that Wallace helped restore to a place of honor in serious literature.

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New to Audible? Listen to “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story” for free, or check out a sample.

By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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