Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, May 30, 2013

D. T. Max, _Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace_

THIS IS A fine, serviceable biography. Max seems to have done a thorough job of the interviewing and the legwork the project required; he conveys an idea of the importance of Wallace's work without going overboard in summarizing or describing the work; he is candid about Wallace's shortcomings without sensationalizing them or doing a hatchet job on the dead man's reputation.  He writes clearly and gracefully.  My recurring thought was, "wow, this is good, this will certainly do until the definitive life comes along."

But then I thought--will a definitive life, in fact, be coming along? Do American academics still go in for that sort of thing? Way back in the 1960s and 1970s, writing the definitive life of a canonical writer was one way to get to the top of the profession--Richard Ellmann, Walter Jackson Bate, Leon Edel, R. W. B. Lewis, and so on.  But High Theory came along, and pfft, the road to prizes and named professorships lay elsewhere. Paul De Man, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler...no one like that was going to put ten years into writing the definitive life of anybody.

Things were different in Britain--lots of outstanding biographers of writers: Hilary Spurling, Michael Holroyd, Richard Holmes, Jenny Uglow, Claire Tomalin--but I don't think any of them were primarily academics. The only great writer's biography of recent vintage by an honest-to-god academic that I can think of off the top of my head is Brian Boyd's life of Nabokov...and he's Australian, I believe.

All due applause to Lisa Jarnot (Robert Duncan) and Mark Scroggins (Louis Zukofsky), but since they are poets, I don't think of them as full-fledged academics, exactly, though I certainly appreciate their excellent biographical work.

In short--unless the wind changes (and Lisa Cohen's staggeringly great All We Know may be the creaking of the weathervane), the old doorstop academic definitive life of a writer may be as gone as the passenger pigeon. There may never be one about Wallace--to say nothing of Gaddis, Pynchon, et al.

Well, we do have the Max, so it's a very, very good thing that it is as good as it is. Rather more interesting (more new info, perhaps) on the pre-Jest years than the post-, but if you, like me, are someone who cares about Wallace, Max's book is well worth your money and  your time.


Maycee Greene said...
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Maycee Greene said...

I recommend this book for David Foster Wallace fans and academics; for the casual reader of his work, this biography would likely bore. It focuses on the inner mental machinations and, some say, genius of the man, rather than the titillating tabloid fodder of many modern biographies.

I appreciate the time and effort of D.T. Max to write this work of non-fiction.

Maycee Greene (Premium SEO - Colorado Springs)