Let me start by stating upfront how much I wanted to dislike this book. I caution students against biographical readings all the time. The author on whom I've done most of my research work, Thomas Pynchon, deliberately obfuscates attempts to read in this way through extreme privacy. I didn't like Max's style from the off (the dropping of the preposition after the verb "write" in its epistolary sense is an Americanism that I still can't forgive). No, I was predisposed to dislike this work.
Sadly, in spite of myself, I was gripped. With all his flaws -- the demolition of St. Wallace, as Franzen seems to cruelly refer to him -- the figure was only built higher, which conflicts with Wallace's own problems with fame. In short: the biographical details replicate the recursive loops that so pre-occupied Wallace and thereby repeat the experience of his prose in a life story. It's a problem, but at the same time both interesting and thought-provoking, which sounds quite a bit like Wallace's work.
The book, of course, has an unhappy ending and much of the life story that leads up to Wallace's tragic death is also not particularly joyous. However, in literary terms, I particularly enjoyed (obviously) the centrality of Pynchon to Wallace's development that Max teases out. In fact, no other influential figure occurs so frequently. Also of interest was the humorous letter that Wallace sent to the unfortunate being contracted to copy-edit Infinite Jest and the extent to which Wallace incorporated his life experiences into his fiction; creative nonfiction.
Overall, the literary biography is a problematic genre. That said, I enjoyed this. I found it interesting, although I accept that this could be a prurient interest on my behalf. Wallace is the kind of figure who attracts this mode, though. His difficult life and tragic suicide seem to encourage readings of the work as symptomatic of his illness, which I don't like, while his influential encounters with other literary figures and the source materials for various episodes throughout his fiction seem to further the field. I set out to dislike this book, but it wasn't a promise I could keep.
Featured image by Steve Rhodes under a CC-BY license.