Giving Up the Ghost: A New Biography Gives a Sobering View of David Foster Wallace

The author was just flesh, after all.

After David Foster Wallace’s death, once the dust settled on the extraordinary eulogies by Zadie Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Lipsky and many others who stood in awe before their titanic subject, another school of writing about Wallace emerged. His suicide in 2008 provoked the minute dissection of parts of Wallace’s life that the author had always avoided talking about, namely his history of depression and addiction. These revelations surprised few of his readers. Wallace might have been a genius, but even he could not have gleaned so much insight in his fiction about drugs, sex, depression and general human nastiness without having experienced these things himself. Gradually, an altogether less reverential, more diagnostic portrait of the man came forth.

The culmination of the great rewriting of Wallace was “Farther Away,” The New Yorker essay Jonathan Franzen published about his friend last year. “The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms,” Mr. Franzen wrote, setting forth a corrective, anti-hagiographic approach and a reprimand to all the fanboys and girls making Infinite Jest-themed Google maps, mining the author’s marginalia and tattooing themselves with inspirational Wallace quotes. The Wallace he knew was unmoved by hummingbirds, insensitive to a certain female and not averse to some figurative dick swinging. Mr. Franzen warned Wallace fans to approach their hero with a little more self-regard—“David’s fiction is populated with dissemblers and manipulators and emotional isolates, and yet the people who had only glancing or formal contact with him took his rather laborious hyper-considerateness and moral wisdom at face value,” he wrote—and ended up looking like a Salieri to Wallace’s Mozart. But he gave us a powerful piece of writing and an honest exposure of the sort of emotional apoplexies that most humans would be ashamed to reveal.

In a new biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, 368 pp., $27.95), by D.T. Max, the two strands of posthumous Wallace revisionism—the psychological and the reproachful—converge. Mr. Max reinserts Wallace’s history of depression and addictions into the sanitized record the author left of his life in his nonfiction. He also takes on, pace Mr. Franzen, the un-beatification of a literary saint.

The tempering of Wallace-adulation that was fascinating coming from an exasperated friend can at times feel ungenerous from a biographer. Mr. Max does not overtly dislike his subject, but in depicting Wallace as a bundle of pathologies and deceptions, he paints a portrait of a lifelong dissimulator. Of The Pale King, Wallace’s final, unfinished novel, Mr. Max writes:

The Pale King had so many ambitions. It had to show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic freneticism of American life. It had to be emotionally engaged and morally sound, and to dramatize boredom without being too entertaining. And it had to sidestep the point that the kind of personality that conferred grace was the opposite of Wallace’s own.

Did readers really come to Wallace for insulation and moral soundness? Did we expect him to “confer grace”? Mr. Max bases the myth of saintliness on the understanding that Wallace sought “a single-entendre writing that felt redemptive.” Wallace did call for a literary rebellion of “born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall to actually endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles,” but he hardly became a Paulo Coelho or Nicholas Sparks. Readers loved him for what he complicated rather than what he simplified, for work that did not bow before their understanding. As Zadie Smith remarked on Wallace’s writing, “all that can be said is that the difficult gift is its own defense, the deep rewarding pleasure of which is something you can only know by undergoing it.”

Wallace was born in 1962, in Ithaca. He spent his boyhood in Champaign-Urbana, an Illinois university town blessed with what Mr. Max calls “midwestern virtues of normality, kindness, and community.” In Mr. Max’s Midwest, ambition, intellectual acuity, and critical thinking arrive from without. Even Wallace’s beloved tennis “wasn’t a cool sport; in fact, for most midwesterners at the time, it existed only on television.” So too with Wallace’s ambitions as a writer: “midwestern boys might teach or read or make ironic fun of novels but they did not go to college to learn how to write them.” In fact, going to a “prestigious private college” in the first place “was one of the ways the Wallaces differed from some of their midwestern peers.”

The severance between the place where a writer is from and the place he ends up has produced, from the writers who experience it, one of the richest seams in American fiction. It’s the point in our literature where characters tend to crack up, so to speak—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and William Faulkner’s Quentin cannot feel they belong in the places where their intelligence and ambition landed them, but neither can they go home again. Mr. Franzen’s disaffected Midwesterners survive their geographical break by hating the place they came from. Wallace attended Amherst College, where he suffered his first psychological breakdown. Subsequent returns East resulted in other episodes of madness: a hospitalization when he began an unfinished graduate program in philosophy at Harvard, a destructive relationship with the writer Mary Karr in Syracuse. So Wallace went back to Illinois, until he went to the West Coast for a job at Pomona, where he died.

This pattern indicates that Wallace was at his most stable when he skirted places of concentrated ambition: publishing parties, Harvard, New York. Living outside such circles allowed him to socialize with people who were not of his class and educational background—it gave him something more interesting to write about. Mr. Max views it less kindly. If Wallace avoided friendships with other writers it was because “he was too competitive, judgmental, and self-absorbed.” If he could fit in back home, it was frequently an act. Wallace might have adopted his signature bandanna as “part of his rejection of midwestern conformity, a light shock to the bourgeoisie that also kept the sweat off his face,” but he could still charm the drones, deploying what Mr. Max calls his capacity to “turn on his ‘jus’ folks’ quality when he wanted to.”

Wallace once characterized himself as “the impotent unlucky sort whose beliefs inform his stomach’s daily state.” This might be what Mr. Franzen refers to as “laborious hyper-considerateness.” The other view of Wallace was one he described in his fiction.

“My whole life I’ve been a fraud,” states the narrator at the beginning of the short story “Good Old Neon.” “I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.” For Mr. Max, it’s the “Good Old Neon” side of Wallace we should remember. He writes that if Wallace made a liberal political argument it was “girlfriend-pleasing.” If Wallace joined the debate team it was because it would look good on a law school application. When Wallace collaborated on a book about rap music it was not because rap was the most vital cultural examination of race and class that America produced in the late 20th century, but instead was just the bored exertions of “a very smart kid slumming it.” As for Wallace’s attempts to write about porn, Mr. Max sees those as “a way to intellectualize an appetite a less guilt-ridden man might have just enjoyed.” Even Wallace’s interest in literary theory was in part a “compensatory element” that shielded him from supposed literary failures in the execution of “character development” and which served as “a handy refuge for a writer who was still an odd combination of mimic and engineer.”

Mr. Max has given us a portrait of Wallace as a manipulator, but this reader would prefer to maintain some memory of Wallace as the hyper-considerate guy who felt everything in his gut. Wallace’s life oscillated between periods of extreme avidity and regretful apology. His friends are right to begrudge his steady commitment to self-destruction—it’s hard to be friends with someone like that. But a biographer should at least consider the extent to which Wallace’s behavior was motivated not by what others thought of him, but by what they thought of his writing. If Wallace had really wanted to disguise the man who had been cruel to his little sister, showed off in class, voted for Reagan, hurt his mother’s feelings and had sex with groupies, he would not have given us the dysfunctional members of the Incandenza family, nor any hideous men.

PERHAPS THE IMPULSE to temper exuberant Wallace enthusiasm comes from all the rampant merchandizing in the wake of his death. But rather than elevate the writer to sainthood, the mass agglomeration of Wallace ephemera on the internet is better seen as the futile grasping of bereft fans seeking scraps of what remains of their favorite author. In this spirit, Little, Brown has collaged together some of Wallace’s previously unpublished essays into yet another posthumous book, Both Flesh and Not (272 pp., $26.99).

The new collection is anchored by “Roger Federer, Both Flesh and Not,” the essay on the tennis player originally published in 2006 as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in The New York Times Magazine. This essay is not one of Wallace’s best; it’s not even his best about tennis. Certain observations feel lazy (“some of this stuff is interesting; some is just odd”; “there’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body”; “it was like something out of The Matrix”). But Wallace coasting is still better at descriptions than most writers gunning their engines. There are images of Ralph Lauren uniforms “like children’s navalwear”; of Rafael Nadal, “he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations”; and of the “moon-ball tedium of classic baseline attrition.” What really makes this essay special, though, is that it’s where Wallace finally succeeded in shattering the stylistic limitations of a conservative daily newspaper’s Sunday magazine (the piece included his signature footnotes). At the same time, it was like hearing your favorite band in a car commercial: you’re happy for their success, but the context is disheartening.

The best thing about Both Flesh and Not is that it places Wallace’s mature voice and rhetorical acrobatics alongside a zygotic version of himself. “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” written in 1988, when Wallace was in his mid-20s, will be a pleasure for completists. His distinctive voice camouflaged in tame book review prose, Wallace engages in the generational rite of defining his generation. All of the concerns of the young Wallace, the ones that would continue to define him for the rest of his career, are laid out: his wary eye on his peers, his worries about television, his interest in poststructuralist theory, his disdain for writers who uncritically cling to mimesis, his disappointment that while “some good fiction has held up a mercilessly powder-smeared mirror to the obvious,” too many young novelists “seem content merely to have reduced interpretation to whining.” In another essay, “The Empty Plenum,” a review of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, we see Wallace dissecting the very plots Mr. Max claims he disliked, identifying, for example, how a plot might progress with “concentric circularity” instead of “linear progression” but still compel the reader.

The editors of Both Flesh and Not have managed to graft in a few excrescences. My delight that Wallace had written an essay about a poet (“Mr. Cogito”), turned to ashes when I turned the first page and the “essay” was already over. A listicle of book recommendations (“Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels>1960”) is comforting only as proof that even Wallace had to write time-wasters for internet publication. And then there’s the selection of quoted American Heritage Dictionary definitions, lifted from vocabulary lists kept by Wallace and reprinted on the pages between the essays as “a reminder of Wallace’s love of words and the delight he took in deploying them.” As if we could forget that.

Giving Up the Ghost: A New Biography Gives a Sobering View of David Foster Wallace