Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

1 Oct


EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY: A Life of David Foster Wallace
By D.T. Max

I’ve been totally flawed trying to come up with a way to enter this piece, grappling to come up with even a vaguely all right introduction. I feel slightly less a complete failure as I can see the meta narrative at work: my only real criticism of D.T. Max was his beginning, basically a 4th form essay opener, a rejoinder so simplistic and cop-outish (sic) even a 4th form teacher would have asked for more:
 “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.”
But why I’m sympathetic to this palsy start, and see it as a reoccurring issue, is that after reading (and in Max’s case researching) DFW and in doing so reading much of his actual writing; personal letters, essays, commencement speech fragments, witticisms and such, one can become totally mute as a writer in response to such an incredible talent.

Part of what’s hard with writing about DFW is the tenacity and brilliance of the subject matter, he played around with structure, language, obfuscation and translucency his entire career: “If words are all we have as world and god, we must treat them with care and rigor: we must worship.” Known originally as a postmodernist shit-kicker with his thesis-come-published-novel The Broom of the System for which he was lauded and criticized as being (too) derivative of Pynchon et al he took postmodernism to the next level. Broom includes an ode to Wittgenstein, a critique of Heidegger and a go at a semi-plotless plot that frustrates with the intention of pushing the reader to less passive heights (something he would extend in his opus Infinite Jest). On the back of Broom’s marginal success he wrote short story collections and some non-fiction essays, finessing his aptitude for brilliant titles (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Girl With the Curious Hair, Consider the Lobster) and ultimately Infinite Jest originally subtitled A Failed Entertainment which was a nod to the meta narrative of Wallace critiquing passive entertainment as dangerously gluttonous and apathetic. Through all these publications he played grammar at its own game, driving copy editors mental by reediting their cuts of his ingenuous yet correct usage.
My point is that DFW had a style so unique, so thoughtful and multifaceted that when you read about him you expect that same brilliance to infuse the biographising (sic) otherwise it’s a little like hearing a terrible covers band and having to go home and put on the originals to make yourself feel better. Max I think realized this and devised a plan: try super hard to make linear a life of chaotic ups and downs. He devises a chronology to DFW and sticks to it, unrelentingly, which can make for some boring notations but overall was probably the safest way to go.
This structured approach hits its stride about midway through when Max feels safe enough inside his design and relents a little, becoming more poetic with his own voice and less a slave to every piece of information he recovered. Max’s tone cleverly mimics the pattern of his subject: his attitude towards DFW is like a friendship unfolding, or maybe the observance of a sibling. What begins as slightly passive aggressive during DFW’s more egocentric phase (i.e in relating DFW’s correspondence with a friend where he mentions he turned down a tenured position Max writes “or so he wrote to Peterson, though the school has no record of it and it seems unlikely”) evolves into gentle concern during DFW’s break downs, admiration after the publication of Infinite Jest, and ultimately a sense of sad resignation towards the end of his days. Max never met Wallace, he’s a stranger to the writer, but he did manage to gain extraordinary cooperation from publishers, editors, girlfriends and friends – everyone from Nadell (his agent for his entire career) to novelist Jonathan Franzen and artist Karen Green, his wife and widow.
How this unfolds then is both a forgone conclusion and a lifting of the veil, much of DFW’s writing has been dissected and intellectualized but much of his private life remained private, his struggle with pot and alcohol was coded into fiction with AA support groups appearing as church groups, his depression was explored by his characters, his love life a garrulous selfish beast cowering in corners throughout his work. Max unearths all of these intimacies with a gentle and purposeful hand. What coalesces is a flourish of trouble and brilliance and, at the end, the biography of a writer trying to align himself with the moral compass of authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky:

What seems most important is that Dostoevsky…changed {from} a typically vain and trendy young writer – a very talented writer, true, but one whose basic concerns were for his own literary glory – into a person who believed deeply in moral/spiritual values.”

Finishing Every Love Story… I had a similar problem as with beginning it; I found myself wanting more. Initially I wanted more from Max’s approach but this time it was the longing that comes after a blunt drop off, confronting a cul-de-sac where a highway should have been. It is the drifting sadness of a suicide, the sense that so much more was to come; in many ways a typical DFW ending, summarily it stops and you’re left to imagine what might have been.


By the end, abrupt or not, Max manages to piece together the sad and fascinating portrait of a giant, vastly courageous intellect. A disheveled philosopher, who always had the brains but who, in his last few years, really started working on the heart. There’s a small redemption here too, that although the depression resulting from a change in medication was ultimately too terrifying to survive, DFW still managed to achieve an important milestone in his life, not old age sure, but certainly the beginnings of wisdom.


Note: Works I have read by DFW.

Broom of the System
Selected essays from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
The first ¼ of Infinite Jest
Incarnations of Burned Children
Published in Esquire

Books I own, but haven’t yet read, of DFW’s:

The last ¾’s  of Infinite Jest
The remaining essays from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
The Pale King

Image credit: Esquire Magazine & Wall Piece with 200 Letters // Mikko Kuorinki at Kiasma Museum in Helsinki.


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