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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."

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