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Publishers Weekly Review
The success of the first "big" biography on David Foster Wallace depends on your expectations. If you are looking for a straightforward depiction of a life's events, Max's take covers all the principal mile markers of Wallace's life. Expectations for more than that, however, may result in disappointment. The book begins with Wallace's childhood and ends with his suicide, detailing both the highs (his marriage to Karen Green) and lows (his string of breakdowns that began in college). There is the mutating public and critical opinion of his work, his troubled history with women, and his tendency to roam for much of his life while he struggled to balance writing and relationships, and writing and well-being. A substantial amount of the text is spent on Wallace's correspondence with family and friends, including Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, whom Wallace confided in and used as sounding boards for his writing difficulties and his broader life fears. But the dialogue presented in the book is vastly one-sided in Wallace's favor, and no one else is given enough space to become more than a supportive acquaintance-his father and sister are scarcely mentioned after the first chapter. The facts are all there, but Max (The Family That Couldn't Sleep: Unraveling a Medical Mystery) often seems in a hurry to report them, rarely stopping to explore Wallace's struggles with his social identity or his creative evolution. The book's "slowest" moment is perhaps its strongest: a small chunk of pages devoted to Wallace's shift to "single-entendre writing" as a reaction against the pervasive irony of the '90s-the turning point that became the beating heart of Infinite Jest. Distancing and destructive by nature, irony, as Max writes, "got dangerous when it became a habit." Suddenly for Wallace, "sincerity was a virtue and saying what you meant a calling." One wishes Max would have spent more time on such insights. Instead, the quick pace becomes the book's central flaw, with the potential for immersion quashed by the book's own need to finish. While this will certainly satisfy those curious about Wallace's chronology, it's hard not to expect more from a biography on a writer of Wallace's stature. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Write what you know" is a hackneyed slogan in creative-writing circles. In this well-researched biography, the first on Generation X's most heralded English-language writer, Max (The New Yorker) makes tragically apparent how thoroughly Wallace's long battle with depression infused his famously self-reflexive and obsessive prose, fueled his addictive and competitive personality, and warped his intense yet distant personal relationships, especially with women. As intriguing, Max suggests how extensively academia shaped Wallace's literary sensibility, a hyper-awareness both penetrating and paralyzing. Son of philosophy and English professors, this self-doubting genius spent most of his life researching, teaching, and writing in higher-education systems. That Wallace exemplifies, pathetically, the systematic creativity analyzed in Mark McGurl's The Program Era (CH, Nov'09, 47-1299) does not diminish his formidable writerly talents, documented in Max's illuminating accounts of Wallace's epistolary correspondences, most notably with Jonathan Franzen, a rare close writer friend; Don DeLillo, his de facto mentor; and his editors. The book foregrounds the affective torment underlying Wallace's aesthetic struggles: fear of egotism, the allure of entertainment and sentimentality, and anxiety about failing to "be emotionally engaged and morally sound, and to dramatize boredom" in his unfinished novel about the IRS, which he hoped would ethically reorient contemporary fiction toward possibilities for everyday mindfulness. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. E. D. Rasmussen University of Stavanger
Author notes provided by Syndetics
D. T. MAX is a journalist and essayist who has written for the New York Times Book Review, and the LA Times. He is currently a Staff Writer with the New Yorker, His previous book with Portobello was The Family That Couldn't Sleep (2007). www.dtmax.com