D.T. Max, a graduate of that school up north and staff writer at The New Yorker, just published “Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story,” his latest novel and the first biography of the tormented writer David Foster Wallace. In it, Max meticulously recounts Wallace’s lifelong struggle to succeed as a novelist amidst depression and addiction. Dave Eggers called the biography “well researched, deeply sympathetic, and incredibly painful to read.” This week, before giving a Master’s Tea at Morse College, Max sat down with WEEKEND to discuss what he has learned from Wallace, why “Infinite Jest” is one of the greatest novels of all time and what he’d say if he could meet Wallace today.
Q. If someone had never read David Foster Wallace, where would you say to begin?
A. It would depend on who they were. For one type of person, I’d say read “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” The title essay, about a cruise ship, is a classic place to bring someone into Wallace, to start enjoying his writing. A different kind of person I’d send right to “Infinite Jest.” Why not? Why not see if they’ve got what it takes? My final answer is to read the biography. If a biography does anything well, it should lead you to a writer’s work. It doesn’t matter if a biographer likes the writer as a person, and there are plenty of examples of biographers who didn’t like their subjects by the end, but I can’t think of a single biography that doesn’t lead straight to the writer’s work.
Q. When did you first encounter the works of David Foster Wallace?
A. I read him when he was first published because he and I are contemporaries. In the files at Viking, his first publisher, there’s actually a letter to me from his editor at the time asking if I was interested in reviewing “The Broom of the System.” I still have the book and the letter. Still, I didn’t really appreciate David in any serious way until after his death. I mean, I loved “The Broom of the System.” I spent much of David’s life with that being my favorite of his books, which is a complete apostasy. It’s a hanging crime among Wallace aficionados. But it’s true: I just adored the book. I admired “Infinite Jest,” but I adored “The Broom of the System.” Now, having spent all these years with David’s writing, my thinking is more in line with the conventional thinking — and also David’s own thinking — which is that “Infinite Jest” is one of the greatest novels of our time.
Q. Has your study of David Foster Wallace influenced the way you approach writing?
A. Well, it’s so complicated. I certainly don’t write like him. But we have the same point of departure as writers, which you can see in the epigraph to the book: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.” That’s his point of departure and mine, but we took two different approaches. He tries a sort of faux inclusiveness. I mean, he writes this maximalist novel that attempts to include everything. I’m the opposite. You can see in my book, I’m all about what you push away. I’m about trying to clean up the world in a way because the world is not really clean. His work is at least a nod to a dirty world that you can record in a dirty fashion — dirty in the sense of disorganized, chaotic, occurring naturally and in unknown non-repeating patterns.
Q. Has David influenced the way you approach life?
A. I didn’t do the book just to write a book. I was very intrigued by David as an ethical figure. I mean, who isn’t interested in the question of how to live a good life, a life not beset by anxiety? He taught me lots of things. I think the things we think of as classically David really come out of 12-step therapy programs. To be honest, the truth about 12-step therapy programs is that they really do help a lot of people. A lot of their wisdom is good, sound wisdom that highly intellectual people tend to discount or ignore. For instance, a really obvious thing from 12 steps is the idea of paying it forward. Paying it forward means if I do a good turn for you, you’ll do it for someone else. But I’m also helping myself by being generous to you. The weird thing is that it’s actually true. If you do something nice for someone, don’t you feel that? It’s a lovely feeling. It’s not a feeling that I was much more aware of until I was working on the book and became more conscious of it and of trying to do more things that fit under that category. I would see a person in need and respond perhaps a bit differently than I might have responded had David not been in my life.
What’s ironic is that David was always struggling to put these things into action. He’s probably a better preacher than parishioner. But who isn’t, really? One of the weird things about David is that, after his death, people often confuse him with the virtues he describes. He was a brilliant decipherer of the need for those virtues. And he was a guy who really, nobly tried. The one thing you’ve got to say about David is that he never stopped trying. But he’s not Gandhi. You know, in “Consider the Lobster,” there’s this wonderful line — “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” — and that night, after writing, David ate two lobsters. I love that. You don’t want to write a biography of a saint. But to write about someone with saintly aspirations, someone who verbalized saintliness for the rest of us, that’s really rich.
Q. You’ve said that David Foster Wallace was a “sort of martyr for literature.”
A. Yes. I don’t want to overstate the extent to which David’s death was a result of his frustrations as a writer, but there’s definitely a connection, and a significant one too. But more broadly, David was a guy who believed that the written word could make us whole as nothing else could — movies couldn’t, plays couldn’t, other kinds of work couldn’t. In “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” there’s a story about a depressed woman whose neediness pushes everyone away, which, of course, only makes her needier. The only hope in grim stories like these is the hope of the story itself as a story — not just the ability of the story to heal, but the ability of narrative to calm. That’s a part of David’s makeup I’ve found very appealing, and I think you see it in all of his fiction.
Q. David Foster Wallace once wrote that reading a writer’s biography leaves us uneasy, that “the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire.” If David could have read your biography, what do you think he’d say?
A. That’s an unfair question. That’s like asking, would your first wife like your second wife? First wives never really like second wives. And what author has ever really liked a biography of him? Actually, one of David’s close friends said after having read my biography that it would have been David’s deathbed wish. Because it takes him so seriously as a writer. But David was a very private person, a person with a lot of self-hatred. I don’t think that type of person, someone with a tendency to hide, is very eager to see himself laid out for the world, however artfully.
That said, David was a great admirer of Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky. What David took out of that work was that a biography is great if it enlightens you about a person and a person’s struggles, but not in a trivial way, in a way that connects to the culture of the time. That’s what I tried to do — I wanted you to see David as an individual figure, but also as a figure of his time, which is also my time. He’s someone coming of age in the permissive 70s, going to college and becoming a writer in the 80s, in the Reagan years, when intellectual life was so dismissed, and then finding himself in the 90s, where the cultural stance of the intelligentsia was that everything that was worth knowing was already known. In the midst of that complexity, he was trying to find his place as a writer, to ask, “What is my voice useful for?” That’s what my story is supposed to be about.
Q. What would you ask David in person, if you could?
A. I never missed conversation with him while writing this book. I was surprised because I’ve done a lot of interviewing in my life and a lot of profiles. But I had 200 of his letters, beautiful letters, and I had the interviews he’d done, some of which were very skillful. If you do your work well and properly as a biographer, you develop your own idea of the person, consistent with theirs but independent from it. What could you then ask? Is the question the unknowable: Why did you choose the end you chose? Or the unanswerable? — where did your huge talent come from? Or is the question something more pedestrian, like when did you start “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”? Did you start at Yaddo or at home in Illinois later the same year? That’s a question I wouldn’t mind asking, actually, but I’m not sure I’d want to take up his time with that.