Granta, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: a life of David Foster Wallace, By DT Max

This biography captures the inner turmoil of a literary 'genius' who hated, and loved, his fame

After a life's work attempting to mitigate the reflexive ironies of postmodernism with something more sincere, David Foster Wallace became by his suicide the locus of a sad irony of his own. Both to those who loved his writing and to those who had barely engaged with it, he was now a literary totem. Wallace was always wary, as someone who toiled under the designation of "genius", of the perils that could come with believing the hype – partly because he was unable wholly to reject it.

He declared himself pleased by about "26 per cent" of the fuss surrounding his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. Like the narrator of his story "Good Old Neon", he was paralysed by the idea that he was "condemned to a whole life of being nothing but a sort of custodian to the statue". And when offered a compliment on the success of a magazine piece, he mimed feeding himself the praise with one hand, and using it to wipe his backside with the other.

In death, though, contradictions are harder to sustain. Now David Foster Wallace, Great Writer, is known to many people via "This Is Water", his address to an American university graduating class about the importance of remembering that the world doesn't revolve around you. As he was consumed by his lifelong depression – a "great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor", as described in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King - Wallace proved unable to abide by that advice. Beautiful though the speech is, and alive to the truth that resides in cliché though Wallace was, in the circumstances there's something grotesque about the reduction of his legacy (even the word feels glib) to an especially well-wrought mantra. His suspicion of writerly celebrity extended to the literary biography, but in his case, perhaps there's more at stake.

Happily, the New Yorker writer who took on the task, DT Max, is just as acutely aware of the ambiguities and limits of any such project. In Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, a nuanced, deeply reported and fiercely sad book, he moves the popular statue of Wallace out of the way and replaces it with a smaller, truer monument: one that portrays a much less straightforwardly endearing man than the Saint Dave of the devotee's imagination, but reveres him none the less.

Max's work pays a kind of formal tribute to Wallace. This is not the ordinary biographical attempt at completeness, but a self-consciously partial account, one that shows a truly ethical self-discipline in refraining from assumption about what was going on in that troubled brain. Throwing his hands up at the idea of comprehensive literary portraiture, Max takes as his epigraph a line from "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".

This is not to suggest that the book is not packed with incident and insights, many of which illuminate the work as deeply as the man. Working with the co-operation of most of those who were close to Wallace, as well as with access to a large number of his extraordinary letters, Max shows an addict whose path to recovery is as fundamental to the writer he became as everyone suspected. He persuasively finds a tipping-point in the well-worn, embarrassingly earnest maxims that helped Wallace stick to sobriety, which form a real-life counterpoint to the post-ironic credo that took Infinite Jest far beyond the semi-adolescent theory of The Broom of The System: that "the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies… in being willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow".

But the picture is more complicated, the writer less straightforwardly noble. Wallace himself noted that Infinite Jest was also born of the less high-minded desire to impress a woman, the poet Mary Karr. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, but later, Max tells us, Wallace tried to push her out of a car, and, bizarrely, seriously considered killing her husband. More broadly, Wallace's obsession with getting laid – he wondered to his friend Jonathan Franzen whether his sole purpose in life was to "put my penis in as many vaginas as possible" – made him seem indifferent to the pain he caused myriad others. He was also an extravagant exaggerator, whose non-fiction, brilliant though it is, must now come with one of his customary footnotes.

As hard a man as he was to like, he was a harder one not to. Perhaps by Max's artful design, it's the last chapter, in particular, that makes his sweetness seem so real. After so many chaotic years, his personal life finally seems to come together, even as The Pale King gets ever more elusive. He falls in love with an artist, Karen Green, who is able to love him back despite his cuttings about his dreaded shark attacks, his fridge stocked with nothing but peanut butter and crackers. He finds a job teaching at Pomona College that he enjoys, and leaves him the time to write he badly needs.

Then, just as Max has brought him closer to us than ever before, the depression takes him away again. The last pages, as Wallace enters a spiral of despair brought on by the decision to try to do without the medication he had been taking for 22 years, are a study in heartbreak. As he turns inwards, the details thin out, the pace quickens, and then, suddenly, he is gone. It is unbearably sad. I prefer to think of the account of his generosity and commitment as a teacher, remembered by a student called Kelly Natoli just a few pages earlier, which seems to go for the writer as much as for the man.

"It's going to take me, like, two weeks to learn everyone's name," Natoli recalls him saying. "But by the time I learn your name I'm going to remember your name for the rest of my life. You're going to forget who I am before I forget who you are."

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing