August 20, 2012

The life of a flawed but brilliant writer

By D.T. Max
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When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September 2008, many of his fans and friends mourned the loss of the brilliant writer, whose fiction and essays wove filaments of energetic, staccato and sometimes lumbering prose around clever and piercing insights about contemporary society. As the details of his death began to emerge and critics began to publish studies of his life and writing, so did details of Wallace's life-long battle with depression, mental illness, addiction and self-abnegation.

In the first biography of Wallace, New Yorker writer Max (The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery) exhaustingly chronicles the details of Wallace's life from his happy and ordinary childhood in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, where his father taught philosophy and his mother taught English, his love of, almost addiction to, television, his tennis successes in high school and his terror at leaving home to enter Amherst—which he decided to attend so he wouldn't have to face any more college interviews—to his on-again and off-again college career, interrupted by episodes of depression, and his faltering rise to success and recognition as a writer.

Max points out that as a high school junior Wallace experienced an unforgettable moment when "he clearly saw the danger of a mind unhinged, of the danger of thinking responsive only to itself . . . . [H]e would derive a lifelong fear of the consequences of mental and, eventually, emotional isolation." In spite of the flashes of brilliance in his writing, Wallace could never grow beyond the menace and threat of his own restless, anxious mind, and even the novel for which he is most praised, Infinite Jest, baffles readers with the labyrinthine excess of a soul lost in the funhouse. Although it rose quickly on the bestseller lists, the novel received a mixed response from critics; the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani famously called Wallace's novel a "big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, reminiscences and footnotes . . . arbitrary and self-indulgent." Much the same could be said of Max’s bloated and uneven biography.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story offers unsatisfying readings of Wallace's own writing, but Max provides a sympathetic portrait of a writer who struggled to show the world what it meant to be a human being—though he never managed to live up to his own expectations for the task.

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