I don’t read biographies, really. This must be the first one I’ve read in years. On the other hand, I never had any chance of resisting a David Foster Wallace biography, what with having read just about everything he wrote and generally being fascinated and probably obsessed yes. Plus, it’s by D.T. Max, who wrote the absorbing–and crushing–New Yorker article on Wallace shortly after his death. If I didn’t read this biography, I’d never read any. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is the name of the book, and it’s a very good one. The book I mean, not the name. But the name as well.
Wallace’s life really wasn’t super interesting in its externalities (didn’t someone say something quotable about a writer’s life being mostly sitting in a room with blank pages and a typewriter?). Yes, it’s got drugs, but it’s got a lot more Alcoholics Anonymous. Yes, there’s sex, but it’s more sad than salacious. (At one point, apologising to a girlfriend for cheating, Wallace tells a girlfriend that he’s a sex addict. Whether or not that was an exaggeration, Wallace’s relationships with women do seem more than anything like a symptom of his complexly broken self.) But no one is reading about DFW expecting Hemingway-esque-apades. We care about his mental battles, and they’re more than enough to sustain this book.
It feels to me that Max succeeds in casting a clear strong light on Wallace, in all his muddiness and complexity and suffering. A lot of his insights feel like clear new expressions of vague feelings and suspicions I’ve long held wordlessly, and I think lots of Wallace fans will feel the same.
One of these insights is that a big key to Wallace’s best writing–from Infinite Jest on–was the projection of his own psyche onto American life generally. “The personal [became] the societal for Wallace,” Max writes. DFW made the leap into believing that the way it felt to be Dave Wallace alive at the turn of our new century was expressive of the deep problems facing everybody. This despite his having, and being acutely conscious of having, a brain really intensely unlike that of most anyone else. Wallace’s energy in searching out the ways for us to live today is driven by the very personal intensity with which he felt the pressures of contemporary life.
And it works. Despite my having no real depression, little anxiety, not much fondness for TV, and a million other departures from Wallace’s personal torments, his writing speaks to me as directly as any ever has. Me and you and a squillion others. This seems like one of the mysteries of literature to me. That a highly unusual individual expressing his own highly unusual subjective experience of the world speaks so profoundly to so many others. That our reaction to Wallace is not ‘what a strange man’ but ‘yes.’
I read a couple of Kafka stories yesterday (“The Great Wall of China” and “The Huger Artist”), and it occurred to me that a pretty similar thing was going on with him. Kafka was a deeply screwed-up unhappy bloke, broken in ways entirely his own, and yet his writing comes to express a large part of the soul of modern humanity. Auden’s quoted on the back of my Complete Short Stories saying that Kafka is the closest thing our age has to Shakespeare or Dante. How does this happen? Is apparent weirdness really just a symptom of staring straight in the face of the stuff the rest of us bury away deep but still feel somewhere down there? That doesn’t quite feel like it though. Ideas, anyone? Or other broken weirdo writers who seem to know just how it is for you?
Wallace, perhaps unlike Kafka, was trying to do more than express his subjectivity. He wanted to create a new kind of writing; fiction that resuscitated the human in our world, demonstrated the possibility of living, while remaining honest to the unreality of the world as he experienced it. Max’s book highlights is the nature of Wallace’s ambition, and the extent to which he was never able to realise it. His struggle towards the new kind of fiction he wanted is the heart of the book, and it’s another broken heart. Anyway, this is all hurting my head tonight.