I’d been putting off buying Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of the recently late David Foster Wallace. But also I was nearly obsessively returning to the Amazon page to reconsider it. Eventually, needing something nonfiction to read, I gave in. At one point, I’d seek out and read anything Wallace wrote, but eventually gave that up—the nonfiction first, a lot of which I haven’t read (in this, I’m the opposite of many of Wallace’s fans, especially among journalists, who really adore the nonfiction, and especially the pieces I tend to like least), and eventually the fiction, too—Oblivion doesn’t fall into the category of books I’m going to borrow from the library enough times that I really ought to buy them, though actually there are only three stories in the collection that I don’t already have in magazine form. I’d gone through the same nearly obsessive process with The Pale King, which, similarly, I eventually broke down and read.
It’s not too surprising that the biography itself raises the question whether it really needed to be published, and whether anyone really needs to read it. The book ends with what for many readers, most probably, will be the starting point from which they decided to pick it up: Wallace’s suicide and what led up to it; and what he had in mind for The Pale King, the unpublished and uncompleted manuscript that would be his final novel. Most of this material appeared already in Max’s 2009 New Yorker piece.
The penultimate and antepenultimate chapters, similarly, cover material that is already somewhat familiar to many readers: Wallace’s publications after his blockbuster (in literary terms), Infinite Jest, and the editing process and publicity tour for that novel. Max actually has little to say about the many stories and magazine articles Wallace wrote after Infinite Jest. The origin of the Harper’s pieces, which it’s known were much longer in manuscript—and as later published in collection—than as printed in the magazine, if they ever appeared at all—is described; but the editing process is not. The origin of Wallace’s Dostoevsky piece, a review of a biography by Joseph Frank, is dealt with in some detail, but not the fact that it never appeared in print in any magazine (nor the rumors that it was included in a galley version of Wallace’s first nonfiction collection, which appeared in 1997, and circulated in quasi-samizdat form among some insider fans, but was removed before that book went to press—in fact, no rumors at all of this kind make an appearance in this book). It’s with the publication of Infinite Jest that the “accepted” biography of David Foster Wallace begins. As far as what comes after that goes, we know all this, or think we do, and there’s not much a biographer can add. Max recounts a lot of correspondence between author and agent, or agent and editor, all of it pretty much the same as all the rest.
Wallace’s worldview was pretty much set by that point. What’s more interesting, or was for me, at any rate (and maybe also for the biographer, who counts The Broom of the System, written while Wallace was still in college and published before he got his MFA, as his favorite book), is what comes before. Max devotes lots of space to the genesis of Wallace’s early stories and nonfiction articles, and to the interactions with university programs and fellow writers they grew out of, as well as to (in passing) debunking certain myths.
Maybe we really didn’t need to know these things, and so didn’t really need a biography of David Foster Wallace. His life isn’t really history; it took place very recently, so a book about him is inevitably going to fall into the category of journalism, even of publicity hype. Looking at it feels a little prurient, like wanting to satisfy our curiosity about any individual person, who deserves their privacy. We don’t have to satisfy our curiosity about where the novelists writing now are coming from, what they studied at school, who mentored them, or what obstacles they encountered, any more than about their political ideas or whether they consumed illegal substances. But then again, we really don’t need novels, either.
As far as David Foster Wallace’s early life, influences, and development go, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is a good, basic biography that gives you all the facts (for the most part). Wallace was born in New York State and moved to rural Illinois as a small child. He grew up in a university town and attended public high schools where only some of the students were, like him, faculty kids. He played competitive tennis. He watched a lot of TV. He read a lot. He drank and smoked pot. His father, a philosophy professor, taught him about philosophy. He had a complicated relationship with his younger sister, his only sibling. His mother, a teacher of college composition, really was very insistent on good grammar, and really did cough at the dinner table every time one of her children made a grammatical mistake. He really did go to Amherst College, and considered going to Oberlin (viz. The Broom of the System, in which a girl rejects Amherst’s sister college for Oberlin after visiting her elder sister there). He really was in recovery. He was really hospitalized for depression. He did take a dual summa in English literature and philosophy. He did know Mary Karr and Elizabeth Wurtzel. He went to Yaddo twice. “E Unibus Pluram” was commissioned by Harper’s but not published by them. He wrote a good number of book reviews early in his career. Etc.
There’s some attempt to place David Foster Wallace as a writer, but Max isn’t a literary critic, and there’s blessedly not too much of it. There’s no attempt to diagnose him or to subject him to commentary. Only once does the biographer allow himself to wonder whether a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, rather than depression—which would have necessitated, presumably, a drug different from the Nardil he was prescribed—had been called for, and the question whether Wallace was in therapy for most of his adult life, and if not, how he was getting his prescriptions refilled, is not considered. The book is sympathetic to the twelve-step movement, in a vague kind of way, and respectful of Wallace’s and his friends’ privacy.
The genesis and development of each of the stories that went into Girl With Curious Hair is described to a significant level of detail. So is the kind of work that was expected at Amherst and at the University of Arizona. The classes Wallace took at both places are described, and the kind of work Wallace turned in for them. His struggles with the curriculum, when it pulled against his intuitions, is described, as well. Every one of his emotional collapses (as an earlier age would have termed them) is narrated, in its genesis, phemonenology, and eventual resolution. All of this leads up to the completion of the magnum opus, Infinite Jest, and the apotheosis (whatever his feelings about it) of David Foster Wallace as a teaching writer, albeit an occasionally blocked one, with complex feelings about that blockedness.
Where the book is also useful is in debunking (assuming you think that kind of thing is necessary, or desirable) some of the rumors that swirled around Wallace’s persona—what he called “the statue”—while he was alive.
The “standard, accepted” biography of David Foster Wallace during the time of his greatest fame included the following “facts”: that he had never held a teaching job until after around the time Infinite Jest was published, that everything he wrote about AA was based on research and he was not himself in recovery, that he was a cradle Catholic; that the manuscript of The Broom of the System was accepted at Amherst as a thesis in the department of philosophy, as a text about Ludwig Wittgenstein. Max’s biography shows all these “facts” to be, in fact, false, and it’s helpful for other areas, too, that simply were never very clear. On the other hand, other questions, such as the pseudonyms mentioned above, aren’t addressed at all.
On the literary side, the following additional facts, I think, were generally largely accepted: that Wallace’s understanding of literary theory (Derrida, De Man, and so on) was one that had been inculcated in him in the standard undergraduate English literature sequence (and not in philosophy classes, which tend to take a different tack); that he had rejected philosophy for literature and that, if he hadn’t done so, he had certainly rejected technical formal logic and Anglo-American analysis in favor of a more literary and subjective philosophical style; that the beliefs held by the faculty of the University of Arizona writing program were his own (in fact he disagreed with them vehemently and was somewhat miserable there); that the best parts of his early published fiction were written by an author who despised Mark Leyner (in fact, he was a fan, and only turned against Leyner’s kind of writing a bit later). Some might feel that knowing whether these “facts” were true or false is important for understanding what Wallace wrote. To my mind, Max’s biography casts them in doubt (even for readers who didn’t already doubt them, as a consequence of having read the texts themselves). To be fair, Wallace did change his mind (or at least nuance it) about, especially, the purpose of fiction and the best way of writing it; but it is not obvious that he made a complete about-face and came to fully embrace the writing preferred by the MFA program that he attended. And to my mind, it’s an important fact that for Wallace, unlike many of his peers who came out of English-literature programs, De Man belonged to philosophy and not to literature.
It would be too much to say that this book is going to give ambivalent (or even mourning) readers closure about Wallace and the manner of his death. It did help me come to grips with the earlier stories, again, after I’d become frustrated with his later ones and with the way he’d become given to speaking about them. It helped me better appreciate The Broom of the System, which never was one of my favorites. And it helped to explain why there were parts even of his best work—Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, in particular—that eventually came to rub me the wrong way, and why the parts I liked best were so often the parts that Wallace himself seemed to disown.
 Now that I have an e-book reader, though, the criterion has moved from “don’t really really have to have it, but am about to borrow for the third time,” to “would consider borrowing again just for reference, because it looks pretty interesting.”
 This is reasonable, actually. The book is about the writer, not about his readers. But all except the bare facts of the publication histories of many of the stories that would be collected in Oblivion is excluded here. And even that’s an exaggeration, unless the fact that some of them appeared under pseudonyms is excluded from the category of “bare fact.” For instance, “Mr. Squishy,” one of the best stories in the collection, first appeared as the work of “Elizabeth Klemm,” but the name “Klemm,” like the words “pen name” and “pseudonym,” appear nowhere in the book.
 If it were my book, I’d have mentioned the fact that one of James D. Wallace’s books (on open stacks in the Boston Public Library in Copley Square) is about the philosophical implications of fiction. Maybe also the fact that another of his books is on virtue ethics. But it’s not.