Strength of will ... David Foster Wallace. Photo: The New York Times
It was clear enough from David Foster Wallace's fiction that he knew more than most about emotional disturbance, but his suicide in 2008 was a shocking and distressing event for those readers who had come to see him as somehow belonging to them. He was the writer who more than any other could articulate what it was like to live in the atomised, addicted, fragmented now, and did so in a prose style of vast energy and humour and resourcefulness, one that has enlarged our sense of what contemporary (American) English is capable of.
In the 1960s, critic Leslie Fiedler remarked that the American muse seemed to favour the path between the classroom and the madhouse.
D.T. Max's biography details the breakdowns, the dependencies on television and dope and drink and sex, the 20-year reliance on heavy-duty antidepressants, the roller-coaster of vanity and self-laceration.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max. Granta, $39.99.
It also makes clear his strength of will and capacity for hard work and seriousness of intent, and an erudition in philosophy and literary theory which, combined with the depressive's demonic superego, fuelled his almost crushing intellectual conscientiousness about the moral purpose of writing. It is a terrible and moving story, and Max comes to it with sympathy and respect.
Writing about a man who has recently committed suicide and is survived by all his loved ones makes the biographer's problem of tact more exigent than usual. Max gives us enough information to know that Wallace could be difficult, and one of the things that is heroic about his story is the vast and finally successful effort he put into trying to be a better person. But one has the sense sometimes that Max can be a little cagey about Wallace's less-admirable qualities. One of the weaknesses Wallace most disliked in himself, for example, was his need to impress people, and he was prone to fibbing and exaggerations of the self-mythologising kind, but we don't really learn what effect this kind of thing had on his relationships with other people. The callous, manipulative attitude to women Wallace wrote so chillingly about in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was also something he knew rather too well.
It's possible simultaneously to feel glad the book isn't more intrusive while at the same time noticing what has been left out. Wallace's family is something of a blur. Max refers more than once to Wallace's difficult relationship with his mother, and we learn there was quite a long period when Wallace had no contact with her: at one stage, Wallace came to think his mother had been abused by her father, but, once again, how this belief affected his relationship with her and the rest of his family isn't explored.
Wallace was fond of quoting Faulkner's line about how writing a novel is like building a hen house in a cyclone, but the rest of his life was rather like that. His achievements would have been remarkable even for someone who didn't have to fight what he fought. He almost single-handedly resurrected avant-garde adventurousness in contemporary fiction, and reasserted its value as a vehicle for moral and intellectual inquiry, while he also made us fall off our chairs laughing; he was strong-minded enough to brave being thought naive or sentimental by talking against chic postmodern irony and nihilism; artistically and intellectually, he took nothing for granted. D.T. Max's book makes clear once again what a loss his death was for literature.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace