David Foster Wallace was the leading literary light of his generation, a man who not only captivated readers with his prose but also mesmerized them with his brilliant mind. In this, the first biography of the writer, D. T. Max sets out to chart Wallace’s tormented, anguished, and often triumphant battle to succeed as a novelist as he fights off depression and addiction to emerge with his masterpiece, Infinite Jest.
Since his untimely death by suicide at the age of forty-six in 2008, Wallace has become more than the representative writer of his time — he has become a symbol of sincerity and honesty in an inauthentic age. His reputation and reach grow by the day.
Max takes us from Wallace’s early years as a child of the 1970s in the Midwest to his hothouse success in his twenties and subsequent collapse into depression and drugs, and from there through his painful reemergence as an apostle of recovery, ending with his triumphant novel of addiction and redemption, the book of the decade, published when he was just thirty-three. But Infinite Jest itself left as an open question what should come next, as Wallace sought hopefully — and then, increasingly, helplessly — for a way forward, stymied even in the midst of the happiest personal time he had ever known.
Max guides us on this remarkable literary and spiritual journey, this prolonged exploration of what it means to be human. Wallace was coy with the press and very private, yet the concerns of his writing and the struggles of his life were always closely intertwined. In illuminating the life, Max enriches our understanding of the work. And in his skillful, active investigations into Wallace’s prose, he reveals the author in unexpected ways.
In the end, as Max argues, what is most important about Wallace is not just the words he left behind but what he taught us about life, showing that whatever the price, the fight to live meaningfully is always worth the struggle. Written with the cooperation of Wallace family members and friends and with access to hundreds of his unpublished letters, manuscripts, journals, and audio tapes, this deeply researched portrait of an extraordinarily gifted author is as fresh as news, as intimate as a letter from a friend, as painful as a goodbye.
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For those who really love DFW
Probably not. First of all, I don't have too many friends who are as rabid a David Foster Wallace fan as I am. I don't have too many friends who are DFW fans period, at any level of rabidity. However, (secondly) if I did, I would probably recommend they read the actual book instead of listening to the audiobook. The loss of the (copious) endnotes from the audio kept me going back to the physical book daily to read what I'd missed. I think the producers of this audiobook should have found a way to include them. There were some real gems buried in those notes. For instance, the title is only mentioned/explained in an endnote.
Being (as I am) a rabid DFW fan, I liked best the parts that described his writing experience, especially around the creation of Infinite Jest.
Let me just say this: the performance was fine, mostly, but I noticed that there were passages, single sentences here and there, that were re-recorded (the tone of voice and background noise changed audibly for an entire sentence and then resumed back to normal afterward) and then I realized that every time this happened, the sentence contained Jay McInerney's name.* Seriously. Every. Single. Time. Then I figured out what had obviously happened. After the entire recording was done, someone realized that Hillgartner had mispronounced McInerney's name all the way through. The index (in my printed copy) shows that McInerney appears on 13 different pages, so that's at least 13 different sentences that needed to be re-recorded and spliced back in. I found that off-putting, to say the least, although (admittedly) a minor gripe.
However, besides that and to repeat myself, I thought Hillgartner's performance was fine. He did an especially good job of "voicing" DFW himself during passages where his own writing was quoted.
* McInerney wrote Bright Lights, Big City back in the 80's and was a person whom DFW followed during his early career.
Sure. Any time DFW went off his meds. And obviously the last few pages.
If you're going to listen to this, get a copy of the actual book and follow along. The endnotes are worth reading.
- Watery M
Max avoids hagiography or a sycophant's biography