WHEN DAVID FOSTER WALLACE committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46, it was inevitable that we’d eventually read a biography of his life. He was, after all, widely considered to be the greatest writer of his generation, an author of prodigious range and talent who was not only an American literary innovator, but also one of those rare experimental writers who found a way to attract a small army of loyal fans. He broke genuinely new ground not only in his fiction (which inaugurated nothing less than a post-postmodern wave of writing) but also in his nonfiction and journalism (it’s frankly hard to imagine writers like Wells Tower and John Jeremiah Sullivan doing what they do without Wallace’s example).
What wasn’t inevitable is that we’d have a biographer as sensitive and careful as D.T. Max to give us such a strong account so soon after the author’s death. The resulting book, released a little less than four years after Wallace’s suicide, is Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, which grew out of Max’s widely read 10,000-word New Yorker article, “The Unfinished.” After reading Max's moving book, I have been haunted by a question that I’m finding incredibly hard to answer.
What would David Foster Wallace have made of his own biography?
I ask this question in two senses. First, there’s the relatively straightforward dilemma of what role biography should play in our understanding of the meaning of an artist’s work. If it’s a mistake to read the work of a writer through his biography, then Every Love Story is a Ghost Story cannot help but be an exercise in gossip-mongering, an exploitation — however well-meaning, however skillfully wrought — of the culture of celebrity that has since the 1980s overtaken publishing, just as it has colonized more or less every other sphere of American life. Wallace would simply be the latest Famous Man to have his writing subordinated to his book jacket photo. That the cover of this book is a large, pleasant headshot of Wallace — that the subject of this book was himself so notably anxious about appearing in public, in performing himself for the mass media — suggests the problems Wallace might have had reading his own biography, even before opening the book itself. (Perhaps Thomas Pynchon was, all along, right to run from those who have tried to photograph him.)
And yet this objection is hard to sustain. As Max reveals, Wallace’s writing and his life were deeply intertwined, in ways that reward careful biographical analysis. The author’s ruminations on suicide, depression, addiction, and the devilish double binds of contemporary consciousness were not themes he just happened to write about but were the very ones of his life. Artists are always also human beings, and however badly celebrity culture corrupts our relationship to the fact of their humanity, biography nonetheless remains essential to a full appreciation of their work. It was Viking’s marketing department that probably chose Max’s book’s cover, after all. Though he felt that readers would make what they would of his writing, Wallace ultimately conceived of his art as an act of communication between two distinct but equally real minds. Would it be so much of a fallacy then to care what was going on in his intricate mind as he was composing his many masterpieces?
Whatever the man himself would have th...read more