A Life Cursed and Enabled by Genius: The First Biography of David Foster Wallace

Tammy La Gorce reviews the first biography of the late David Foster Wallace.

Courtesy of publisher.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (Viking), the first biography of David Foster Wallace, author of the 1996 masterpiece Infinite Jest, belongs to Montclair writer D.T. Max.

It’s a harrowing book. But that’s not Max’s fault; it’s his prodigiously brilliant subject’s. Wallace, who committed suicide at 46 in 2008, was clinically depressed, a drug abuser (marijuana and alcohol), had trouble finding his footing in romantic relationships, and suffered massive bouts of authorial self-doubt.

But he was also a genius, a voice-of-his-generation type who outwitted his limitations long enough to produce nationally praised novels, three short-story collections and countless nonfiction pieces. They were and are beloved: each spring, a certain type of graduating senior  receives “This is Water,” a transcript of Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, the way other new graduates receive Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. That certain type of graduate is book smart. And philosophical.

Max’s approach to Wallace is from a safe, grounded remove—the acknowledgements first sentence reads, “David Foster Wallace and I never met.” Yet Max, who once observed Wallace at a publishing party but was “too intimidated to go over and talk to him,” was nevertheless successful at unearthing never-before-shared memories from those closest to him. Wallace’s wife and sister gave Max their support in telling his disquieting story; so did literary friends, including Jonathan Franzen and Mary Karr.

For some, the book is the publishing event of the year. Max, a staff writer for The New Yorker, understands why: Wallace’s fictional tone belonged to “a sensitive, sincere genius operating in second gear,” he writes. “No one worked harder.”

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