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Biography of David Foster Wallace traces his path to greatness and an early death

  • Published Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012, at 7:42 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012, at 7:43 a.m.

“Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story” by D.T. Max (Viking, 356 pages, $27.95)

Serious readers of contemporary American fiction at least know about David Foster Wallace, a wunderkind whose massive novel “Infinite Jest” had a great effect on literature. Now, just four years after his death from suicide at age 46, we have the first biography of this remarkable writer.

D.T. Max, a writer for the New Yorker magazine who worked with the cooperation of Wallace’s family and friends, distills a large amount of research, including access to Wallace’s notes and many of his letters. Max also displays his careful reading of the writer’s published works, including his three novels, three short-story collections, and many nonfiction essays.

Wallace grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., then went to Amherst, where he excelled in his studies, focusing on philosophy and literature, winning many academic awards. He also struggled with depression and had to leave school at times.

During one stay at the psychiatric unit of a hospital, “the doctors likely considered the possibility that he suffered from bipolar disorder, manic depression.” But they ended up putting him on Nardil, which treats atypical depression. He would stay on this drug until a year before he died.

A recognized genius (he received a MacArthur grant), Wallace incorporated huge amounts of information and created new approaches to storytelling. His head teemed with thoughts too numerous to communicate. For an epigraph to the book, Max uses a quote from Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon”: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

We learn how much of Wallace’s own experience he used in his fiction. In a footnote, Max quotes Wallace’s sister, Amy: “We [the Wallace family] quietly agreed that his nonfiction was fanciful and his fiction was what you had to look out for.”

Max traces Wallace’s writing from his first book, “The Broom of the System,” written as his senior thesis at Amherst and widely acclaimed, to his last, the posthumous “The Pale King,” which he left unfinished at his death. He shows how Wallace changed through the years, growing from “Broom,” a postmodern novel heavily influenced by Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, through his first story collection, “The Girl With Curious Hair,” which critiques such metafictionists as John Barth, to “Infinite Jest,” which marked a major change from using irony to pointing toward a more positive outcome.

Partly through his own experience of addiction, Wallace had come to see America as “a nation of addicts, unable to see that what looked like love freely given was really need neurotically and chronically unsatisfied.” However, rather than simply describe that addiction, Wallace said in an interview that the writer’s job was to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” Wallace noted that “American writers were still content to describe an ironic culture when they should be showing the way out.”

Max, who gives much attention to Wallace’s best-known work, writes, “In ‘Infinite Jest,’ Wallace was proposing to wash Pynchonian excess in the chilling waters of DeLillo’s prose and then heat it up again in Dostoevsky’s redemptive fire.” He goes on: “The book is at once a meditation on the pain of adolescence, the pleasures of intoxication, the perils of addiction, the price of isolation, and the precariousness of sanity.”

With the publication of that book in 1996, Wallace became a celebrity, and the attention was excruciating to one who so resisted crowds and prized his privacy. By then, he had taken a job at Illinois State University that allowed him to teach part-time and write the rest of the time.

After nearly a decade there, he accepted an invitation from Pomona College in California, to write and teach one course per semester. There, after many failed relationships with women, he met Karen Green, an artist, whom he later married.

Meanwhile, he published two collections of short stories, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and “Oblivion,” plus numerous nonfiction pieces, many collected in two books, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and “Consider the Lobster.”

But he agonized to make progress on “The Pale King,” the novel he was writing about the IRS. Always a perfectionist, he felt stuck trying to figure out the right approach to the work.

At the same time, he was happy with Green and decided to go off Nardil in 2007. Doctors tried different combinations of antidepressants and even electroconvulsive therapy, but on Sept. 12, 2008, Wallace hung himself at home.

Max has charted not only the life of this extraordinary writer but his influence on literature. One of his more influential works actually came from a graduation address Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. In a speech against egoism and egotism, he encouraged students to practice awareness, to open themselves, even in line at the supermarket, “to a moment of the most supernal beauty — ‘on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.’ ”

Someone taped the speech and wrote it out online. It went viral and later was published in a short book. The speech summed up, in a way, the arc of Wallace’s writing, seeking some truth behind the banalities of daily life. And his honest struggle seemed to resonate with many readers. It still does.

Gordon House is a writer and editor in Newton.

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