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A biography of brilliance

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New book recounts the life of David Foster Wallace

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “genius” thusly:

      - A single strongly marked capacity or aptitude.
      - Extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity.
      - A person endowed with transcendent mental superiority.

The late writer David Foster Wallace was an embodiment of all of these definitions. The author of the seminal novel “Infinite Jest” – along with a wealth of beloved work both fiction and non – died in September of 2008 by his own hand. He was just 46 years old.

everylovestoryWriter D.T. Max has undertaken the unenviable task of assembling the first real comprehensive biography of Wallace. “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” (Viking, $27.95) attempts to give us multitudes whose lives were changed by DFW the author an opportunity to get a closer look at DFW the man.

Max had unprecedented access to the people with whom Wallace was closest, interviewing the relatively few real friends that DFW had accumulated over the years as well as his acquaintances and associates from the various periods of his life. Max pored through notes and letters written by the man himself in an attempt to paint a portrait of the man behind the masterpieces.

As an unabashed fan of Wallace’s work, the idea of reading a biography both thrilled and frightened me. Ever since I first stumbled upon “Infinite Jest” in the Bangor Public Library some 15 or 16 years ago, I have been fascinated by both how Wallace viewed the world and by how he was able to portray that view through his words. Finding out more about the real man behind these – to borrow a phrase from Wallace’s contemporary Dave Eggers – “heartbreaking works of staggering genius” could lend an added layer to my understanding of those works.

But I also worried that peeking behind the curtain would reveal a man who was a lesser being than I needed him to be. Could I accept the knowledge that the genius in those pages was a mere mortal in real life? Would I have my own heart broken by revelations that rendered my hero human?

Happily, it was “yes” to the first and “no” to the second.

D.T. Max’s meticulous research has resulted in a profile of an undeniably brilliant – and undeniably flawed – man trying to come to terms with both the expectations of the world around him and his own expectations of himself. Wallace was constantly walking the tightrope, trying to discern between what he was supposed to want and what he actually wanted.

The David Foster Wallace within these pages is smart and funny and conflicted and sad. The recollections pour forth, both in the form of interviews and excerpts from letters written by Wallace. We see him through the prism of his family, from the perspective of his high school friends in Illinois and his college buddies at Amherst and the University of Arizona. We hear from his agents and editors, as well as from noted authors such as Don Delillo and Jonathan Franzen (perhaps Wallace’s closest literary contemporary/competitor/friend).

His battles with mental illness and quest for true love are unflinchingly recounted; his issues with addiction, too. No stone is unturned. So we see what happens when success comes too quickly (he wrote “Broom of the System” as his thesis at Amherst; it was published when he was just 25) and burns too brightly (“Infinite Jest” marked him as a literary superstar, leaving him pressured for a suitable follow-up).

In the end, David Foster Wallace truly was a genius, but he was also far from perfect. “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” shows us the man as he was seen by those closest to him as opposed to how he saw himself.

I think he would have liked that a great deal.

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 August 2012 14:41

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