Here’re a couple of sentences that have probably been written a bunch of times, by a bunch of young male writers: I’ve been a fan of David Foster Wallace’s since picking up Infinite Jest a number of years ago. I hadn’t read anything quite like it, and it moved me to read more of his stuff, think about the purpose of writing in new ways, and, ultimately, to want to write myself.
Well, as cliched as it is, it’s true for me. And reading this biography of Wallace fed that part of me that is a fan. I loved reading how his life shaped what went into his stories – it made his writing seem more human. I reacted to most of his fiction along the lines of, “How could someone come up with that?” As it turns out, by living it. This inspired me as a writer, because of the simplicity of it, and the accessibility: all this great writing that I loved, all the pieces of it, weren’t created ex nihilo but instead were arranged just so, and that was the real artistic achievement – the arranging of the pieces.
The themes of a lot of those pieces interested me too, and Max lays out Wallace’s thematic development very well too. He (Wallace) struggled with how distracted we are as Americans, how entertainment and stimulation get in the way of authentic human experience, how the choice of what to pay attention to is one of the most important choices we can make. Max gets into this, not just in Wallace’s writing, but in his life – which unfortunately was a fairly sad one. Wallace also struggled with depression, the spotlight of fame, his need to be affirmed and accepted, and his own internal motivations for writing.
Another thing he struggled with was the purpose and theories of literature, as well as his place in them. Max does a good job with this, too, and so even if you’re not a DFW fan, this bio is still worth a read as an overview of mainstream American fiction’s themes and movements from the 2nd half of the 20th century till now.
Wallace committed suicide in 2008, which Max foreshadows (as did much of Wallace’s writing) but doesn’t dwell on. He (Max) instead chooses to pay more attention to Wallace’s life, his work, and the work behind his work. It’s a choice I bet Wallace would have appreciated.