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Byard Duncan

Straight-ahead Look at Foster Wallace: D.T. Max’s ‘Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story’

The main triumph of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (Viking; 368 pages), D.T. Max’s biography of the late writer David Foster Wallace, is that it’s not really a triumph at all – at least not in the ways fans of Wallace’s jittery, hyper-articulate prose might expect. By examining the author’s life in sterile and often painful detail, Max teases out the sort of truths that Wallace, for all his rhetorical and conceptual acrobatics, could only ever seem to orbit. The book’s resultant paradox (its most immediate one, anyway) is almost Wallace-like in its complex reflectiveness: it’s through decidedly non-decadent probing that we begin to understand just how multi-tiered and consuming the writer’s struggles with depression, addiction and sexuality actually were.

Max dedicates only 14 pages to Wallace’s pre-college years, and only five to the final bout of depression that ended his life. These flimsy bookends are intentional, and support the work’s underlying insistence that to truly understand Wallace is to follow him through his most prolific time as a writer. Indeed, by focusing on the dynamic between Wallace’s work and his relationships, Max is able to sketch a thorough and often unforgiving portrait of the author—a man at once “proud of his fiction” and “ashamed of his behavior.”

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A (Long) Painful Path to Self-Knowledge: Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

Close to the beginning of Wild (Knopf, 336 pages), Cheryl Strayed’s compact and potent memoir about hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, the author finds herself holed up in a remote motel room, assessing her baggage.

In a literal sense, this means tallying up the all the things she thinks she’ll need for the trek – a lantern, a tent, a foldable saw, a packet of condoms – and stuffing them into a giant backpack. In a metaphorical sense, it means mapping out her escape from a life punctured by difficult endings: the unexpected death of her mother, a recent abortion, a divorce, her break from a “ridiculous” heroin habit.

“I’d simply thought that if I’d added up all the things I needed in order to go backpacking, it would equal a weight that I could carry,” Strayed writes. In reality, it takes everything she has to deadlift the load, leave the motel room, and find the trail’s beginning.

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