Jul 14, 14
Read in November, 2012
A fascinating life but not a great biography.
So I'm mostly going to complain about the book: usually competent, but never anything more, and it often feels awkward, flat, devoid of insight. It makes a good case that Wallace's writing was heavily drawn from life, and in general I like the idea of a literary biography quoting liberally from its subject, but stuff like "'It's a lot easier to fix something if you can see it,' says a character in Infinite Jest" does not count as groundbreaking autobiographical insight.
And the flatness can seem particularly odd at moments where DFW's life is at its most seismic. Like the part where in a few pages we go from his meeting Mary Karr, getting a tattoo of her name (!), Karr claiming that during this time they were somewhat friendly but not romantically involved or touching each other, DFW inquiring about getting a gun to kill her husband (!!), and the two of them moving in together shortly thereafter. It's insane, improbable stuff, and Max tells it in clipped Wikipedian prose that gives no sense of the presumably overwhelming emotions Wallace and Karr were feeling. At first I thought that maybe Karr hadn't been willing to talk, maybe Max just didn't have enough source material to fill in the story -- but, nope, there Mary is, thanked profusely at the top of the acknowledgements.
And some of Max's conclusions and critical asides seem to come out of nowhere. Like the notion that "The Depressed Person" is nothing but a bitter, blue-balled swipe at Elizabeth Wurtzel. The claim's not really substantiated, and the story instead reads to me as sad & empathetic in a lacerating/self-hating way.
But I still enjoyed reading this just because his life was so interesting. (And so reflected in his fiction: dude, there was a real Don Gately!) Because Wallace's writing is so often focussed on ethical questions, and because he comes off in it as so neurotically, gymnastically menschy, I found myself reading about his life in an especially judgmental, ethical way. And, wow, he often wasn't a very nice person, was he? I wonder how the latter-years DFW felt about the cultural statue of him as Most Morally Clear-Eyed Writer -- to what degree there was glee at this admiration, and to what degree the kind of feedback loop of fraudulence and despair that figures in e.g. "Good Old Neon." Perhaps it'd be too much to ask that this biography help me through these wonderings. Or perhaps Dave will eventually be served by a biography worthy of his writing.