05 September 2012

Wallaceblogging: Ghost story

Last night I went to see D.T. Max read from his new biography of David Foster Wallace, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY. Max is soft-spoken with floppy bangs and referred to Wallace often by his first name, describing writing the book as an "incredible blessing" of spending "3 years in his presence." He often began his sentences with "One thing you need to know about David..." Even when addressing questions about Wallace's addictions and death, he seemed happy to be talking about him. This was often touching but occasionally weird.

I haven't had a chance to crack the biography yet, so the two excerpts he read were new to me -- well, at least one of them was. A passage Max read about how Wallace started dating Karen Green (who he would later marry) offered an unforeseen view of his sentimental, eccentric side, without foreshadowing. The other passage Max read, about Wallace's stay in a halfway house outside of Boston during his mid-20s, was familiar to me in that most of his real-life experiences in there were chunked directly into INFINITE JEST -- so directly, in fact, that some details had to be changed in draft to make them less libelous. (Among the resemblances Max pointed out: a house supervisor/ addict named "Big Craig" believed to be the inspiration for Don Gately, who in interviews with Max said he was suspicious of Wallace because he thought he was looking for material. Accurate.)

The book grew from Rolling Stone story Max wrote (sadly no longer online) called "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace," published about six weeks after his death. Max's 2009 New Yorker story "The Unfinished" about Wallace working on THE PALE KING. (Thanks to Peter W. Knox for the correction; I mixed up Max and fellow DFW-studier David Lipsky, who wrote the aforementioned Rolling Stone story. I regret the error a lot.) Max described one of the drivers to write the biography as the sense that the story left out the "part that was funny" about Wallace in its focus on his unhappier episodes, and that its structure and the way it was pegged to Wallace's suicide made that death feel inevitable. One challenge he said he faced in writing it was Wallace's tendency to write to his public, even in private letters and a diary he kept for his sponsor, and his connected exaggerations and inventions.

An example he gave, which Max described as a standout instance of truth distortion in Wallace's journalism, was describing John McCain's press liaisons shrinking away from him in "Up, Simba," about the senator's 2000 presidential bid; in fact, other reporters there noted that Wallace and the campaign had a good, joking working relationship. Surely a lot of biographers face this challenge, but maybe here it's magnified by Wallace's style, at play with the same forces that make fact-checking him difficult.


Peter Knox said...

I wish I could have gone! I'm going to his Tribeca Y event next week (& maybe his Word Bookstore event next month). The book is excellent (I'm 2/3 through).

However, in your post you note that this book grew from a RS piece that DT Max wrote. DT Max wrote The New Yorker piece (10k words), that birthed this book: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/09/090309fa_fact_max and is available online.

David Lipsky wrote the RS piece, and that paved the way for him to publish his road trip transcript with DFW "Sometimes You..."

Hope that clears things up. So glad someone I know went last night!

Ellen said...

Oh lord, am I embarrassed that I made that mistake. Am I out of the fraternity?? I will go ahead and correct that now. I guess now it makes more sense that the introduction described him as a New Yorker staff writer.

I won't be at the Tribeca Y event so let me know how it is.