Ironically, I want to say that my experience reading this book – which I did voluntarily – was totally “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
Beyond that, I don’t really know what to say about this book or how to assess it.
Part of the reason I think I’m rating this book so low is that it’s so unbelievably sad and unfair that it exists at all. And that’s not really D.T. Max’s fault. Another reason is that what I really took away from reading this was just what a fine writer Wallace was, which consequently heightens the weaknesses of Max’s own writing. I mean, how can you write such a boring, joyless and pedestrian biography of one of the most inventive writers of the past fifty years?
This book is rather superficial. I don’t think it pretends not to be, so I can’t really fault it for that. The marketing materials even say it’s the “FIRST!!!111” biography, not the best, not the most critical, etc. In that sense I think I resented it for its rushed, middlebrow-magazine qualities. It is merely a recitation of facts.
The book is also heavy on telling and light on showing. I found myself annoyed at parts when Max would elide seemingly important episodes, or gloss over them, or throw in a “hey by the way,” like towards the end when Max nonchalantly mentions that Wallace was essentially a political conservative. I felt like entire stories were reduced to sentences and asides, which maybe is the closest Max came to being an inventive or stylistically interesting writer. Although it’s sad that Max has this task at all (okay, not really – this is probably the most important book this dude will ever write), I never once got the sense the author was having any fun or even that he really enjoyed Wallace’s writing. The lack of direct quotes from Wallace’s friends and family made me wonder exactly what they thought of this project. The book was oddly sterile and lacking in affection for the subject, his work, or anyone in his life.
I know the NY Times review mentioned how this biography made Wallace seem like a jerk, and while I don’t think biographers have any obligation to represent people positively, I think this dovetailed poorly with the more superficial aspects of the biography. After reading this book, I still don’t feel like I know anything more than a ton of facts about DFW, though I guess since apparently he really liked The Wire (something Max mentions several times) I should finally get around to watching it.
I wanted to rate this book higher. I do think D.T. Max is to be commended for having engaged in a daunting task, and nobody wants to write the biography of a talented writer. The task was complicated even more by the need to stretch out minor aspects of Wallace’s life to fill pages, which just made me really depressed all over again. If this was some clever trick on Max’s part, then maybe I’ve underestimated the book. Nah, I don’t think I have. It just seems like an absolute travesty that the biography of such an important writer has to discuss grade school poetry because the author in question died so horrifically young.
That’s why I’m giving this a gentleman’s 2 stars. If you want to give people the impression you have a superficial understanding of DFW’s work, like maybe to get them to sleep with you, then this is probably a great book to read. But if you wanted to gain at least moderate insight into the writing, process, influences, and life of DFW, the book is a big disappointment.
Time may show that the dull, superficial qualities of this book are actually part of some stylistic project on Max’s part. But I doubt it. If so, I’ll adjust this to 3 stars.