A friend of mine described D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story- A Life of David Foster Wallace as akin to a 300-page Wikipedia article. 300+ pages later, I’m still not sure how to respond to that. It was very factual, but better written and less boring than much of what you’ll find over at Wikipedia. Of course, maybe I’m just biased. Would you read a 300 page encyclopedia entry about the most fascinating person you have ever encountered? If yes, then read on.
I enjoyed the family background. His parents were both highly educated, his dad a philosophy professor, his mom going the English/language/grammar route. His relationship with his parents was always complicated, especially with his mom, but this background makes a lot of sense when you think about some of his works.
Even as a teenager, he intellectualized everything, even his approach to girls: How do you know when you can ask a girl out? How do you know when you can kiss her?
For a time, Wallace was enrolled in a PhD Philosophy program at Harvard. His fellow students didn’t know what to make of him. He wore a bandana. Liked rap music. Max describes Wallace as contrasting with his classmates as a “primitive type.”
Wallace even co-wrote a piece on rap with his college friend Mark Costello, called Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. If anyone knows where I could get my hands on this, hook me up!
Wallace had a complicated and changing relationship with the works of John Updike, writing a parodic next-chapter to his Rabbit series for Harper’s magazine. This I would also like to read.
Wallace was very concerned with and aware of his place in literature, and the state of literature as he was writing. In his Review of Contemporary Fiction interview, Wallace said:
we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.
And of his changing view over time:
When I was younger, I saw my relationship with the reader as sort of a sexual one. But now it seems more like a late-night conversation with really good friends, when the b___-s____ stops and the masks come off.
This might not make any sense out of context. But I think it’s real and profound.
One thought that bothered him towards the end was the recurring idea that he was no longer the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write.
As perhaps a nod to Wallace’s affinity for the technique, Max used quite a few end notes in his biography. My favorite:
The Onion, the satirical newspaper, ran a parody with the headline “Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter at Page 20.”
That’s just funny.
I enjoyed the book because it was a good overview of Wallace’s life and works. Having just read many of his books here recently, it was fun to think about the books again and think about what was going on in his life at the time. The fact that he died so early doesn’t get any less tragic for me. The books made me sad, but happy too. I would recommend it if you like Wallace and are in one of those moods.
The same friend preferred David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. I’ve got that now too, and am reading and enjoying. Will let you know.