The first bi­og­ra­phy of David Fos­ter Wal­lace is a heart­break­ing work about a stag­ger­ing ge­nius, writes Peter Craven Ev­ery Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Fos­ter Wal­lace

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

DAVID Fos­ter Wal­lace was the great­est writer of his gen­er­a­tion: the man among nov­el­ists now kick­ing 50 who could with­out ab­sur­dity be com­pared with James Joyce. His 1996 epic In­fi­nite Jest was game-chang­ing lit­er­a­ture pub­lished just yes­ter­day, but it is a mas­ter­piece that re­de­fines the ground on which we walk and rest. If T. S. Eliot was right that lit­er­a­ture is a time­less or­der that is mod­i­fied by ev­ery sub­se­quent work of lit­er­a­ture then Wal­lace’s work is the great mod­i­fier.

Yes, but we don’t ex­pect to be touch­ing up the in­ti­mate bits of any writer’s life who seemed to have a de­fin­i­tive grip on the world just now. What lends an ex­tra­or­di­nary poignancy and a raw drama to this first stab at a life of Wal­lace is that on Septem­ber 12, 2008, at the age of 46, he killed him­self.

So we read D. T. Max’s riv­et­ing, im­per­fect bi­og­ra­phy for the sense of fa­tal­ity but also, al­most as con­so­la­tion, for a sense of the voice of the man in the hope of find­ing a warmth or a wis­dom com­pat­i­ble with the work. And we read also in a re­demp­tive sense, to un­der­stand how Wal­lace wres­tled with the dark an­gel (of de­pres­sion, of life) that took him from us.

More than any book I re­mem­ber, Ev­ery Love Story is a Ghost Story has peo­ple duck­ing into book­shops to savour a snatch of Wal­lace’s pri­vate voice. And that voice is stun­ning. He writes to Don DeLillo (the great writer of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, the au­thor of Un­der­world and White Noise) about a grant he wants for $50,000 so he can take a year off teach­ing: I can take an un­paid year off next year and face writ­ing fears head on . . . ba­si­cally to have pro­jected my own super­ego out onto the world and thus imag­ine that THEY ex­pect — nay — de­mand an ex­hil­a­rant piece of novel-length prose at the end of my grant time, which I know is horse­shit but still makes it hard to breathe.

Then a year later he re­ceives a ‘‘ ge­nius’’ award for $230,000. ‘‘ I am a MacArthur Fel­low,’’ he wrote in 1997. ‘‘ Boy am I scared. I feel like throw­ing up. Why? String-free award — noth­ing but an avowal of their be­lief that I am a ‘ Ge­nius’. I don’t feel like a Ge­nius.’’

Of course he protests too much. One of the beasts that Wal­lace had on his back was that he was not only a great writer with skills (and, by this stage, achieve­ments) com­pa­ra­ble with Joyce’s but that still rarer kind of writer — Robert Musil, the Aus­trian au­thor of The Man By D. T. Max Granta, 272pp, $39.99 (HB) With­out Qual­i­ties is the great ex­am­ple — who in fact has brains to spare, who would be a ge­nius even if he were not a writer.

When his ed­i­tor, the su­perb Michael Pi­etsch, wanted to make some cuts to In­fi­nite Jest, Wal­lace wrote to him: ‘‘ I can give you 5000 words of the­o­retico-struc­tural ar­gu­ment for this, but let’s spare one an­other, shall we?’’

You can al­most see the curl of the lip. This is the Wal­lace who was told he had a schol­ar­ship to Amherst dur­ing the in­ter­view, who strolled into Har­vard to do a PhD in phi­los­o­phy in what he imag­ined would be the min­i­mum time. Who, faced with an English fac­ulty con­sid­er­ing him for a job, said: ‘‘ You should know I am re­ally, re­ally smart.’’ (Not­with­stand­ing this he got the job.) He’s a close cousin to the Wal­lace who could say to DeLillo that the self­con­scious beauty and el­e­gance of John Updike’s prose ‘‘ paw . . . at the reader’s ear like a sopho­more at some girl’s bra’’.

The ver­bal raz­zle-dazzle and the cute-boy hu­mour are among the thou­sand colours that iri­desce in ev­ery ut­ter­ance of this heart­break­ing bi­og­ra­phy of a man who was, God knows, a stag­ger­ing ge­nius.

It’s an im­per­fect life that Max has writ­ten but ul­ti­mately a com­pelling and deeply af­fect­ing one. You be­gin sus­pi­cious of a bi­og­ra­pher who tells you that he re­alised how im­por­tant Wal­lace was only when he saw how mas­sively he was mourned by his fans, and who takes pains to tell us that there were other writ­ers who were im­por­tant to him: Flaubert, for in­stance, and Martin Amis.

For what seems like a long stretch down a high­way with what can all too eas­ily be seen as a pre­des­tined ter­mi­nus, Max has the odd qual­ity of sound­ing much less ma­ture than his sub­ject, whom he presents in a state of re­cur­rent break­down, ad­dic­tion, dis­ar­ray, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and then, af­ter a sud­den un­ex­pected burst of sun­shine and mar­ried hap­pi­ness, an­ni­hi­lat­ing de­spair.

But it does mean this bi­og­ra­phy of the ex­cep­tion­ally com­plex and con­flicted Wal­lace seems for quite a long dis­tance to have been writ­ten by some­one who is a bit like a Wal­lace char­ac­ter: some­one who writes a weird kind of ‘‘ slacker’’ prose and is in­or­di­nately fond of his sub­ject’s in­ter­est in rap and in the rock

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