"We quietly agreed that his nonfiction was fanciful and his fiction was what you had to look out for," Amy Wallace remembers of her brother in D.T. Max's detailed, fascinating biography of writer David Foster Wallace, "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story."
At the time of his suicide in 2008, Wallace had three books of stories, two essay collections and two ambitious novels to his name -- an output that dealt uncompromisingly with the hardest philosophical and moral questions but managed to be engaging and sparklingly witty at the same time (his ultradense book on mathematician Georg Cantor, who greatly influenced the way we study the idea of infinity, is called "Everything and More"). Wallace's devoted following treated him like a rock star.
Max has an unenviable but necessary task here: to write well about a fantastically good writer. Max's window-clear prose complements Wallace's own verbal pyrotechnics, though Max does provide endnotes, which can't help but recall Wallace's extensively annotated 1996 magnum opus, "Infinite Jest."
"Love Story," which began as an article in The New Yorker, is a high-wire act in at least one other impressive way: Over the book's 300-plus pages, Wallace gets his due as a human being, even a difficult and sometimes unwise human being, and the reader can still love him and his work at the end.
Wallace's death, at the age of 46, disturbed a great many people -- not least the readers who came to regard him as an authority on how to cope with addiction and depression in an overstimulated, hollow society. Everything Wallace had written began to seem like a suicide note; Max's biography, blessedly, contextualizes his work within a wildly rich life.
As Amy Wallace observes, her brother's thorniest relationships with friends and family went into novels and stories, and many of those people are unmasked here. "Love Story" is as much gossipy picaresque as character study, following Wallace from one outlandish encounter to the next.
A love of temptation
Max makes a compelling case for Wallace as a man who loved to feel attraction. Even more than the sensations he got from drugs or sex or fame, Wallace loved temptation -- and, of course, he felt its ultimate hollowness and hated himself for pursuing it. Literary fame, in particular, scared Wallace, because its attendant perks enabled his alcoholism and sex addiction and destroyed the connection with the reader he worked hard to create.
"Love Story" is filled with one-liners (and 10-liners) from Wallace's correspondence, but one pre-fame letter to a college friend stands out: "I did, very briefly, at an artist colony called Yaddo in 1987, meeting McInerney and some of the other celebs, get a big head and believe for a few months that I was destined for celebrity, Letterman appearances. Etc," he confesses. "The rather brutal intervening years have taught me that, though there's nothing de facto wrong with that stuff, it's not for me, simply because it's low-calorie and unstimulating and also highly narcotic. McInerney's big job now is acting as a custodian for the statue of himself that celebrity has constructed."
Advice and addictions
Of course, Max's book is full of dirty laundry about writerly lust and envy, sometimes to a fault. Poet Mary Karr becomes the object of Wallace's intense affections; revered mentor Don DeLillo and grouchy, kind Jonathan Franzen dispense sage advice to their friend, who is younger emotionally than both; memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel tempts a recovering Wallace with heroin (in revenge, Wallace caricatures Wurtzel in his story "The Depressed Person").
For hundreds of pages, "Love Story" is the vibrant account of a brilliant, naive, dissembling, lovable guy struggling to outgrow his shallow excesses and addictions, his personal triumphs frequently marked by huge literary accomplishments. But it's ultimately about a man who lived on the edge of unendurable psychic pain and eventually jumped off. When that end comes, it hurts to read.
Franzen characterized his friend's death bluntly in a recent essay: "The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed." Any reader of Wallace's who doubts that his suicide was that simple will find a necessary corrective in Max's carefully, sometimes pitilessly reconstructed life of a great author, greatly fallen.