In the late ’90s I was fortunate enough to meet David Foster Wallace. He was kind and generous and we talked about books and language and many other things for a long time. After that I continued to correspond with him and when I heard the news that he had hanged himself in 2008, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I wondered how a man with such a great mind could possibly give up on life. It has haunted me ever since.
In his biography of David Foster Wallace, New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max has painted an incredibly honest and vivid portrait of a brilliant writer, a sensitive soul and a tortured artist, plagued throughout his life with severe depression, anxiety and self-doubt. Drawing on interviews with family, friends and fellow writers, as well as countless letters, journals and other documents, this is as definitive a biography as anyone could hope for.
Beginning with Wallace’s childhood in the Midwest in the 1960s, Max portrays Dave (as he preferred to be called) Wallace as a precocious toddler, the son of two teachers who grew up in a stable, loving home in Urbana, Ill., seemingly destined for greatness from the start.
Max weaves into this biography the evolution and changing moods of the culture Wallace lived in and charts the beginning of the Post-Modernist movement in literature, a movement that Wallace championed. When Max details the evolution of Wallace’s magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, Wallace appears to be on the right track again. But despite Wallace’s high achievement, despite the success of Infinite Jest, despite his sobriety and hard work at recovery, Wallace was simply never able to find the true happiness and satisfaction that he sought.
In the end, we see a young man exhausted by his own genius and unwilling to stay alive. It is a compellingly tragic tale with far too many questions and nowhere near enough answers.