Celebrating the Mourning After

A new bio looks at the life, brilliance and ego of David Foster Wallace

September 13, 2012

The best part of a funeral is the evening after the service. People have taken off their heels and loosened their neckties; maybe they’re a little drunk. And that’s when the stories of the deceased start to flow and those listening get to know a person, now gone, that they didn’t even know existed.

Those stories are what give D.T. Max’s (1) biography of the late author David Foster Wallace (2), “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,” shade and meaning to a life that tread awfully close to the “tortured artist kills self” trope. Wallace was more nuanced than that, though, with his relatively happy childhood, well-known affinity for pot and an ego that volleyed from nonexistent to dominating. (3)

While interviewing people for his book, Max found that their memories of Wallace and their responses to his death shifted over time. “People are in different stages and moments,” Max says. “I wouldn’t say that grief fades, but it becomes a different part of someone’s life. People want to form the story of the person they remember.”

Wallace was known for his dense, heavily annotated prose (4), but Max deliberately stuck to a simple, unforced, almost conversational style. “The whole tone of the book is meant to be plainspoken,” he says. “There’s no deep underscoring when [Wallace] does horrible things, and there’s no excessive kvelling when ‘Infinite Jest’ is a huge success. It’s life. It’s what happens.”

Footnotes

(1) Max’s previous book, “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep,” is about a family suffering from fatal familial insomnia, a brain disease that kills its victims by never letting them sleep.

(2) Wallace, who is best known for writing 1996’s “Infinite Jest,” hanged himself in 2008.

(3) For the September 2002 New Yorker Festival, Wallace argued with Jonathan Franzen over who should read in the second, more prestigious slot of their shared time.

(4) “Infinite Jest” has 388 endnotes — some of which have footnotes, and some of which are longer than the text to which they refer.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness) (5)

(5) Max will also speak at St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, 2300 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria; Sat., 2-4 p.m., free; 703-739-9268. Max, who used to live in Del Ray, thanked St. Elmo’s in his first book.

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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