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on September 27, 2017
From the moment I was introduced to DFW, I not only loved his work but felt that I knew him. Characters like the Hungarian waiter, in his cruise ship piece have stayed with me over the decades. I still quote from his work. DFW is the real deal a truly tortured genius and this biographer doesn't spare him. Although I knew he was an alcoholic/substance abuser, I didn't realize how hard he worked to remain sober and how much he admired, loved and needed his recovery groups. His struggles with anti-depressants and their side effects were heartbreaking to read about, as is of course his final determined suicide.

Correspondence with Franzen and DiLillo reveal DFW's insecurity about not measuring up to their genius as social seers for the new era and he constantly feared being left behind. DT Max never comes off as preachy or having insight into the mind of DFW but instead seems humbled by the giant shadow DFW casts and I think that makes for a work to be trusted. The bibliography and footnotes themselves are reminiscent of DFW's own meticulous research.

I love the images of Wallace with his rescued dogs, surrounded by stacks of paper, happiest when in the thick of writing on a difficult subject - "The Mathematics of Infinity" comes to mind. Now there's a subject to fixate on. I am almost afraid to read it, certain that I will become overawed by his ability to move from letters to numbers with ease. I am also happy that his work is actually gaining in popularity and stature as time goes by.

D.T. Max captures the complexity of the man, the attention and kindness he showed to his students, the care he showed to his animals and financial generosity with friends and ex-lovers from the large endowments he received for his work. That these qualities reside alongside sex addiction, financial irresponsibility and professional jealousy makes for a realistic and interesting portrait.

If there is a flaw in the work it is that I wanted to better understand his obsession with suicide at the end of his life. Withdrawal from antidepressants does not quite cover the determination with which he carried out his final mission. Oddly, I feel a weird comfort in knowing that it was not an accident.

This work does what all good biographies should: make me want to read more of his work.
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on August 23, 2015
I read this book in a single sitting, a rare event in my life with books. One of the joys of this book is Mr. Max's effort to mirror DFW's own habit of linking ideas with loads of interesting footnotes to help curious readers dissect the smooth skin of Max's text and delve deeper into the life and mind of DFW. I would buy this book for the footnotes alone.
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on October 29, 2012
DT Max does such a thorough job walking us through DFW's life. My favorite aspect of the book is the way it reveals the source of many of the themes that DFW wrote about. I won't label them here. Go find them yourself. Upon finishing this book, I felt I could finally pick up The Pale King and I even have a renewed desire to reread Infinite Jest.

I think one of the things that will stay with me for a while, in addition to several vocabulary lessons(1), is DFW's extensive commitment to his addiction recovery. Like Don Gately, he built walls around some difficult days, just to get to the next. His writings and his personal experiences have done much to help me understand the plight of those who suffer from chronic depression and addiction. I want to thank DT Max for bringing this treasure of man into sharper focus for me.

(1) For example, Nauseous vs. nauseated: According to the Militant Grammarian(2) site [...], 'when one feels like vomiting, one feels NAUSEATED. When something causes nausea, that thing is said to be NAUSEOUS. The American Heritage English Dictionary sez:
nauseous - Causing nausea; sickening
nauseated - To be feeling, or having been caused to feel nausea.
So, next time you are tempted to say "I feel nauseous", understand that you are saying "I feel that I make other people sick", or basically "I feel nauseating".'

Second-level footnote:
(2) is note actually a Millitant Grammarian site, as far as I can discern, but labeling them as such fits with the whole DFW narrative.
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on October 19, 2016
Beautifully written, engaging, and thorough. It seems appropriate that the biography of David Foster Wallace should make clear the necessity of the artist's story in understanding his work. This account of Wallace's life adds a crucial dimension to his work and presents a heart breaking narrative of a truly incredible mind beside. A must read.
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VINE VOICEon April 27, 2013
On the most obvious feature of DFW's writing:

"[Wallace] disliked how formally and verbally claustrophobic [minimalist] writing was. Minimalist stories gave the reader little experience of what is was like to be assaulted the way in real life their characters would be. They were effectively unease recollected in tranquility. While Wallace certainly knew what it felt like to be overwhelmed by the stimuli of modern life -- indeed his response to them when under stress was more extreme that anyone knew -- this was not his stance when he recreated experience. As a writer, he was a folder-in and includer, a maximalist, someone who wanted to capture the *everything* of America."

And on perhaps the second most-obvious feature ... because even maximalism wasn't enough:

"Wallace would one day say that he loved endnotes because they were 'almost like having a second voice in your head.' "

I finished this biography months ago but find I can't leave it unmentioned and unreviewed.

David was the son of Jim (a philosophy academic) and Sally (a literature academic) and older brother to Amy in central Illinois ... and that's about as much as we get of his childhood. He had some friends and lovers and eventually a wife, and that plus his struggles with severe depression are about as much as we get of his personal life. Because this is more so a biography of his writing -- a deconstruction of who and what influenced and inspired him; his style; and his execution. Drawn from interviews and DFW's letters and papers, it's chronological and extremely straightforward. It's objective, and yet such objectivity doesn't prevent a gathering sadness at his psychiatric struggles and tremendous loss from his eventual suicide.

Takeaways I hadn't known: he was competitive; he could be mean; he intended every word he wrote; and while his nonfiction was often embellished, his fiction was searing truth. Plus a reading list: Barthelme's "The Balloon"; Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49; Bret Eason Ellis's Less Than Zero; John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse; and DFW's own story, "Little Expressionless Animals."
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on February 10, 2016
I got choked up so many times reading this. Some people like to think that all praise is hagiography and that they will sound smarter if they can think up something nasty to say about a great talent, especially one who has reached enough people to warrant a bandwagoning inquiry.

D.T. Max is honest without losing compassion or idealizing David Foster Wallace. The latter is not easy. To me, he is as flawless as he is tragic. But Max does it.

This is an excellent read on its own merits, regardless of whether you are fan of DFW. It's essential if you are a fan.
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on November 5, 2012
So, there's this bit in AS Byatt's Posession where an arrogant biographer tries to tell an audience that biographers are almost as important as their subjects, and the message is that this is a kinda forced and needy way to think. Reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story I get the feeling that the writer wishes he was more of David Foster Wallace the novelist and less of DT Max the biographer at times.
All that said, he's actually a pretty good biographer. The book reads easily, flows smoothly through the major events of his life, and while it's very sympathetic it also leaves you just enough room to get an impression of just how much of a difficult arsehole DFW must have been. I thought the book could have given more of a voice to the women around him, especially in cases where the relationships weren't that great or even downright creepy, because without their voices it all feels a bit one-sided in an area that reveals so much about the subject.
The discussion of the work, and of his movements and changes and personality shifts, is very high quality though. All round a good read, and, of course, a devastating ending.
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on August 31, 2012
Before you ask, yes, this book does contain endnotes. :)

At the time of his death, David Foster Wallace had two novels under his belt, a trio of short-story collections, and a hefty amount of essays/nonfiction. D.T. Max's biography, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY (a reference from Wallace's posthumous novel THE PALE KING that first appeared in a letter to the University of Arizona's graduate program), is the first of the author, and I'm sure it won't be the last; Wallace's insights and personality are too big and interesting to be left to one book. With that said however, Max's treatment of Wallace's life is superb: it's clear, understated, and well-written.

This isn't the first piece of writing that Max has published on Wallace. In fact, this book feels like a fleshed out version of the New Yorker article that Max published a few years back (see the comments section o this review for a link). For anyone who read and enjoyed the article, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY feels very much like an extended take, complete with more anecdotes and more information (particularly involving his childhood). Max stores all of his sources (and there are hundreds) next to a pretty comprehensive index. There's not much speculation here -- it's a very well constructed and research account of the author's life.

D.T. Max's account of Wallace's life sticks close to the facts; because the biography sticks pretty closely to notes, letters, and interviews, the narrative Max weaves often feels like a timeline. DFW's time spent in Illinois seems to rely heavily on his family's account of the events; his time in Amherst relies on dormmates; and as DFW moves into the literary world, the bulk of the narrative is constructed through letters with Mark Costello (former roommate), Michael Pietsch (editor), Bonnie Nadell (agent), Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Franzen. DFW's wife, Karen Green, seemed to cooperate a great deal in the making of EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY -- the final years of DFW's life are pretty vivid as he struggled to find inspiration to finish THE PALE KING.

David Foster Wallace wrote a staggering amount of letters, both to friends, family, and fellow authors (who eventually would fall into the "friend category"). Max's use of these letters turns out to be a great way to let DFW's story unfold; it lets readers peek around in the DFW's personal thoughts without the use of speculation on behalf of D.T. Max. The friendship/rivalry of Wallace and Johnathan Franzen is documented well here, and their letters contain (what I feel to be) the most revealing information about Wallace's own insecurities and struggles with writing after THE INFINITE JEST. It appears that many of these letters of personal correspondence were borrowed, and I can't help but hope that some of these are later collected and published. Their involvement in the biography, while substantial, often don't amount to more than just slivers or short paragraphs before being slapped with a "..."

What I enjoyed most about EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY is the light that it casts on Wallace's prose -- because Wallace famously pronounced that "fiction's about what it is to be a ____ing human being," the extent to which Wallace's fiction was autobiographical should be no surprise. INFINITE JEST's Hal Incandenza, for example, is a remarkably bright tennis player (with a militantly grammarian mother) who uses drugs to cope with his own anxiety. THE PALE KING's highly anxious David Cusk who has "ruminative obsession, hyperhydrosis, and parasympathetic nervous system arousal loop."

Additionally, I would like to give praise to D.T. Max for the tone of the book. While there are a few jarring transitions, it's largely well-written and enjoyable to read. Max's tone towards the subject isn't overly reverent either -- Max allows the narrative to slip into some of the most unpleasant things about DFW's personality. This biography doesn't shy away from letting Wallace appear sometimes arrogant, sometimes jaded, and sometimes just plain mean.

There are a few gripes that I have with the biography though: I really wish more time was spent with the Wallace family before college. Jim Wallace and Susan Foster are both really interesting characters, and traces of them show up often in DFW's work, however after the first chapter or two, father Jim and sister Amy disappear from the book almost completely. Also missing is any kind of insight from the author -- D.T. Max mostly tries to stay invisible here, so there's no real analysis of Wallace's work to be found here. The book itself is also relatively brief, just barely reaching 300 pages (not including sources/endnotes), and while a brief biography is probably appropriate (given DFW's short life), I couldn't help but want more. It's a super quick read.

One of interesting choices for this biography is the fact that this is quite literally, "A LIFE OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE:" the final sentences of the book deal with Wallace's too-soon death. The final passages of the book feel like a punch to the gut. The decision to stick so closely to the sources is primarily a fantastic move by D.T. Max -- there's no speculation about DFW's death, no conjecture about intent, and there's no overwrought purple-prose either. This style won't suit all readers -- I think many fans will have liked to see a more personal telling of DFW's story, complete with perhaps another chapter on the state of things in the wake of DFW's death. EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY does not cover what happened to the manuscript of THE PALE KING, nor does it follow the reactions of the friends, family, or the public. In previous interviews, Karen Green has stated that she did not want people to think of her departed husband as a "tormented genius" who died for his craft. This biography makes well on that wish.

I would recommend EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY primarily to fans of the author's work. I do believe that other readers, unfamiliar with DFW's prose would still gain some enjoyment with the biography though: his life was so interesting and moving that parts of the narrative should be universally appealing. However, many of the autobiographical allusions that are referenced in his fiction will be lost. For those that are on the fence about buying this book, I would recommend checking out the link provided in the comments -- readers who enjoy the article will be sure to love this book. EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY won't do anything to demystify the prominent figure of modern literature that David Foster Wallace has become, but it will make you want to re-read and re-think his work.
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on April 14, 2014
Some people derided this bio as not containing enough juicy details regarding the psyche of the author. We will never understand D.F.W.'s psychology unless we understand his works and his life which are, in my humble opinion, the goals of this work. A tasteful take on a beautiful soul. Well done, D.T. Max.
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on October 19, 2013
Taking on this assignment must have been daunting, but D.T. Max has delivered an even-handed description of Wallace's life, writing, and mental state through the years. The loss of Wallace's voice is huge, and I hope the collected letters are published in my lifetime. I was a follower of Wallace's magazine pieces and story/essay collections, but still blown away by the magnitude of the fiction problems he set himself, and his attempts to solve those problems. The biography is stunningly written and highly recommended.
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