THE MAN WITH QUALITIES
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
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