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Excerpt: The Opening Paragraphs of D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

By posted at 6:00 am on August 24, 2012 18

coverSix months after David Foster Wallace’s suicide, The New Yorker published a novella-length piece by journalist D.T. Max on Wallace’s last difficult years and his encompassing effort to surpass Infinite Jest. That article started the drumbeat for two books: The first, The Pale King, was released last April and pored over by critics and readers; the second, Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace, arrives next week. The biography was written with the cooperation of Wallace’s family and is the first definitive treatment of the author’s life.

What follows are the book’s opening paragraphs:

Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s. He was born in Ithaca, New York, on February 21, 1962. His father, James, was a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell, from a family of professionals. David’s mother, Sally Foster, came from a more rural background, with family in Maine and New Brunswick, her father a potato farmer. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister who taught her to read with the Bible. She had gotten a scholarship to a boarding school and from there gone to Mount Holyoke College to study English. She became the student body president and the first member of her family to get a bachelor’s degree.

Jim and Sally had their daughter, Amy, two years after David, by which time the family had moved to Champaign-Urbana, twin cities in central Illinois and the home of the state’s most important public university. The family had not wanted to leave Cornell—Sally and Jim loved the rolling landscape of the region—but Wallace had been offered a job in the philosophy department in the university and felt he could not turn it down. The couple were amazed when they arrived to see how bleak their new city was, how flat and bare. But soon, happily, Jim’s appointment turned into a tenure-track post, Sally went back to school to get her master’s in English literature, and the family settled in, eventually, in 1969, buying a small yellow two-story house on a one-block-long street in Urbana, near the university. Just a few blocks beyond were fields of corn and soybeans, prairie farmland extending as far as the eye could see, endless horizons.

Here, Wallace and his sister grew up alongside others like themselves, in houses where learning was highly valued. But midwestern virtues of normality, kindness, and community also dominated. Showing off was discouraged, friendliness important. The Wallace house was modest in size and looked out at other modest-sized houses. You were always near your neighbors and kids in the neighborhood lived much of their lives, a friend remembers, on their bikes, in packs. Every other kid in that era, it seemed, was named David.

There was elementary school at Yankee Ridge and then homework. The Wallaces ate at 5:45 p.m. Afterward, Jim Wallace would read stories to Amy and David. And then every night the children would get fifteen minutes each in their beds to talk to Sally about anything that was on their minds. Lights-out was at 8:30 p.m., later as the years went on. After the children were asleep, the Wallace parents would talk, catch up with each other, watch the 10 p.m. evening news, and Jim would turn the lights out at 10:30 exactly. He came home every week from the library with an armful of books. Sally especially loved novels, from John Irving to college classics she’d reread. In David’s eyes, the household was a perfect, smoothly running machine; he would later tell interviewers of his memory of his parents lying in bed, holding hands, reading Ulysses to each other.

For David, his mother was the center of the universe. She cooked his favorites, roast beef and macaroni and cheese, and baked his chocolate birthday cake and drove the children where they needed to go in her VW Bug. Later, after an accident, she replaced it with a Gremlin. She made beef bourguignonne on David’s birthday and sewed labels into his clothes (some of which Wallace would still wear in college).





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18 Responses to “Excerpt: The Opening Paragraphs of D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace”

  1. Book News and Conversations - 24 August 2012
    at 7:30 am on August 24, 2012

    […] The Millions: Opening Paragraphs of D.T. Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace. […]

  2. Grant
    at 11:15 am on August 24, 2012

    It seems that all of the DFW attention is on the person and life…and death…rather than on the works. I wonder if a certain segment of serious readers see him as both their ideal self- philosophy major, big thinker/writer-and their worst fears…and fascination with…his depression and death. I’d be curious to know the demographics–strikes me as male dominated (yes, with some women), and of a certain age?

  3. elle
    at 12:46 pm on August 24, 2012

    @Grant: I was worried as well – the focus on the mental illness/addiction/suicide drama in favor of the literary genius and craftsman.

  4. Andrew
    at 3:00 pm on August 24, 2012

    @Grant and @elle – I tend to categorize Wallace as my favorite modern author, and it seems to me–from what I’ve read on him thus far–the amount that his illness/addiction/etc. drama played into his work was by no measure minuscule. His personal life during any given period of his fiction/nonfiction (this works for most authors, I suppose) was monumental to the very thing he chose to write about. When he was going through rehab and became deeply infatuated with Mary Karr (who was also going through rehab), from those experiences, he churned out “Infinite Jest”–there is a clear correlation in how much of the book focused around a halfway house and its recovering populous.

    I guess what I’m trying to say here is that it’s impossible to separate the two from each other–the addiction/depression and his literary genius/craft. Circularly, one formed the other and so on.

  5. Drew
    at 4:13 pm on August 24, 2012

    I am certainly no DFW apologist, but I remember him being showered with attention prior to his suicide. For better or worse, people will be writing PhD theses focusing on his work for many years to come which I imagine will mention these personal issues only in passing if at all.

  6. beamish13
    at 7:59 pm on August 24, 2012

    Wallace is ridiculously overexposed. You’d think scholars and biographers would find some other writers to reappraise and discover new facets to.

  7. elle
    at 8:13 am on August 25, 2012

    An interesting note, DFW never discussed addiction, depression, or his personal experience in a halfway house in any interviews. Yet those subjects are rife in his work.

  8. Adina S.
    at 12:43 pm on August 25, 2012

    @ elle

    Oh but he does in of course you end up becoming yourself. Maybe not so at length as the people writing about him, but considering it’s a 300 page interview style book, it does come up. inevitably.

  9. Matt
    at 5:56 pm on August 26, 2012

    This Is Water.

  10. RAL
    at 12:37 pm on August 27, 2012

    Grant:

    “both their ideal self- philosophy major, big thinker/writer-and their worst fears…and fascination with…his depression and death.”

    Yes and yes.

    Also, he has a cool name, a cool face, a cool way of talking, is self-effacing, mischievous in his prose, and powerful. He is what happens when the flawed and broken genX has a brain the size of a HumVee.

    I don’t see anything wrong with seeing DFW as our best and worst selves. I think that was the whole point. It doesn’t cheapen the fact that we are fixated on him. I think it simply speaks to the writing itself, its power to make us feel less alone, and more alone, at the same time. This polarity is a game of chicken. Dive into the stark center of DFW’s psyche and you could feel completely un-alone (connection), or completely alone (solipsism). I’ve read everything, fiction and non, and pale king, too.

    I believe his best readers are attracted and repelled. can’t wait for this book. DT Max’s article (in Spin I think it was?) – one of the best.

  11. Hubert Sorrentino
    at 6:14 pm on August 27, 2012

    I think this book is a bad idea, and I plan on cracking open my copy as soon as I get it manana.

  12. The Opening Paragraphs of D.T. Max’s Life of David Foster Wallace | Color Disco
    at 6:23 pm on August 27, 2012

    […] It’s almost four years since David Foster Wallace took his own life. Next week, a new, definitive biography by D.T. Max will come out. The Millions has the opening paragraphs. Read them here. […]

  13. Grant
    at 11:16 pm on August 27, 2012

    RAL writes: “I think it simply speaks to the writing itself, its power to make us feel less alone, and more alone, at the same time. This polarity is a game of chicken. Dive into the stark center of DFW’s psyche and you could feel completely un-alone (connection), or completely alone (solipsism). I’ve read everything, fiction and non, and pale king, too.” I would really like to find writers about the life of DFW who also can make these sorts of explicit connections to his works–quoting examples, teasing out illustrations of your points here. That’s the disconnect I find in the adulation. Not saying it’s not real or possible; just haven’t come across it.

  14. David Biddle
    at 12:32 pm on August 28, 2012

    I am so looking forward to this biography. The intersection between DFW’s personal biography and his professional writing biography is so touching and intense. The genius of great artists is so bound up with their psyches. I love that these opening paragraphs show the Midwestern pastoral he grew up in, and hope that Max goes deep into that womb with stories and examples of how amazing life in a Midwestern college town was — and life in those strange heady days. Wallace’s later demons and his dance with linguistic virtuosity was so wild and seemingly out of control.

    And then there is the battle with bipolar reality…So many of us have a touch of that disease. It is so modern and so American. And so painful and self-defeating. And Wallace was one of the best and most honest writers to document (and talk about) what it could do to a gentle, well-meaning soul.

  15. Sebastian S.
    at 12:43 pm on August 28, 2012

    I agree with Andrew in that separating his life from his work, especially in a biography, would be a mistake. Imagine a biography of Dostoevsky that ignored his prison sentence and conversion to his peculiar brand of Russian Orthodox Christianity in favor of his works. It would hardly be a biography; it would be a literary study.

    Fortunately, we have room for both.

  16. Barnstorm | Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 8:27 am on August 29, 2012

    […] That D.T. Max biography of David Foster Wallace is out. The Millions has an excerpt. […]

  17. RAL
    at 7:12 pm on August 31, 2012

    Grant writes: “I would really like to find writers about the life of DFW who also can make these sorts of explicit connections to his works–quoting examples, teasing out illustrations of your points here. That’s the disconnect I find in the adulation. Not saying it’s not real or possible; just haven’t come across it.”

    Agreed. It would be a great idea and I’m sure it’s doable. Safe bet that his canon will be picked apart, like you describe, over the next century. He’s immortal. Might as well talk about Him versus his work for a while, while he’s still fresh in our minds. Our grandchildren won’t have that luxury.

  18. Grace Bello
    at 4:00 pm on April 2, 2013

    […] got the first few paragraphs of D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace for you to […]

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