All my adult reading life, I waited for a young contemporary writer to transport me to the prose-rich playgrounds of Nabokov and Pynchon. ADA and GRAVITY'S RAINBOW were my torches, but they were, arguably, emotionally sterile. When I read INFINITE JEST ten years ago, I knew I had finally found an author who, besides giving words an elastic, carbonated buoyancy, was a vigorously palpable storyteller, altogether tragic and heartbreaking.
I remember the exact moment when I heard that Wallace took his life (as I suspect did everyone who is reading this book, who read DFW before his death). It was like a brother or best friend had died. He was my rock star--my John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan all rolled up into literature. He wasn't yesterday's insurgent Kurt Cobain, he was today's voice--the insurrectionist of the insurrection, the anti-ironist and seeker of exigent summits.
D.T. Max evinces respect, compassion, and objectivity toward this now lionized author he has never met, in his biography assembled from the contributions of friends, family, lovers, AA comrades, colleagues, fellow writers, and epistolary confidants.
"Fiction is what it's like to be a f*****g human being," Wallace said, and Max shows us the utter turbulence of this writer's life, a man who lived inveterately with the howling fantods (a phrase from his mother, the grammarian, used potently in INFINITE JEST).
David was a depressed, addicted, chaotic genius, a man who felt that he never lived up to his lofty ambitions as a writer or a person. He was both fascinated and repulsed by the TV culture and how media hijacks and propagandizes public and private minds--his constant themes in his essays, short stories, and of course, IJ.
As many know, he was hospitalized several times for breakdowns and overdoses, and struggled with pervasive suicidal ideation. Max does a virtuous job of giving the reader a candid view of the complex nature of DFW; the generously endowed writer was often a captious, violent, and tormented soul. He was also a passionate, outstanding teacher, and a patron to his companions in AA. Moreover, he was an enthusiastic dog lover, especially drawn to dogs with an abusive past.
The parts of the book that describe Wallace's years writing INFINITE JEST were not just revealing, but like a fourth wall nakedly exposed. Max captures the line between author and material with authenticity and revelation. It is almost surreal, as Max brought me back to the narrative of IJ while manifesting Wallace's actual art and pain of writing it. I don't want to spoil it for readers by dropping tidbits of information--reading about it is thrilling and gripping, the most page-turning part of the book.
The letters Wallace wrote to Franzen, DeLillo, Costello, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, at Little, Brown, and Company, (and many others), will prickle the skin of any DFW aficionado. He was self-conscious, and self-conscious about being self-conscious, and communicated that in his letters.
"I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am...self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests...but then I countenance the fact here at least here I am worrying about it; so then I feel better about myself...but this soon becomes a vehicle for feeling superior to imagined Others...I think I'm very honest and candid, but I'm also proud of how honest and candid I am--so where does that put me."
This book is a valuable companion to David Lipsky's journalistic book, ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF, a biography of Lipsky's five days spent with Wallace on his IJ book tour. It is hard to compare them, as Lipsky's is an echo and interpretation of his actual time with DFW, and this book is compiled from sources outside of the biographer. Both have poignant insight into the ephemeral but perennial figure of Wallace.
I award four stars, rather than five, although the quality of writing and extensive research is first-rate (despite being almost devoid of familial testimony, and despite errors that I think are typesetting errors, not copy-editing errors). It's personal. Something is missing, some essence that cannot be filled by a biographer, or hasn't yet-- the unnameable, soulful reflectiveness that I ache for. The closest way to that is through the Harry Ransom Center, which is fortunately only a few miles from my home, which houses David Foster Wallace's entire archive at hand. You can feel the pages while you read what he wrote, with just a slip of a glove separating you from his words.
There is something about Wallace fans--it is as if we are all in the same karass, isn't it? But Wallace wanted to relate to us on a cosmic scale, not like an exclusive club, yet he appeals to only select (not elite, but select) readers. If you become a lover of Wallace's work, you feel almost mystically connected to all other lovers of his oeuvre, and however fantastical a presumption, we also feel connected to Wallace, the person. It is apparent that D.T. Max understands this, and that he is bonded to Wallace, also. That is why (I think) he wrote this bio, about the ghost of David, who keeps on penetrating our literary dreams.