Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was published my freshman year of college, just as I was discovering the world of contemporary literature and my own desire to participate in it. I remember reading magazine reviews hailing Wallace as a genius, and being much too intimidated to read what was described as a dense and complicated tome 1,104 pages thick. Over the next 10 years, through my matriculation into two creative writing programs (the last in Syracuse, New York, the city where Wallace wrote much of the novel), it seemed to dominate the psychological landscapes of many of my classmates, whether we’d read it or not. Especially if we hadn’t. Most of us had read Wallace’s short stories and his essays, and knew the prolix, metafictional, formally-inventive style for which he was famous. But discussion of the book inevitably settled on the awe in which it was and should be held by both critics and fans, and the rumors of what it contained: that it presaged the Internet. That it had crazy inventions like wheelchair assassins and branded years. That despite these things it was a deeply serious book. That it used impossibly hard words and had immense footnotes. That it contained everything.
These were all things I’d heard long before I’d read a word of Infinite Jest. I found the reputation of Wallace’s masterwork intimidating. I loved much of his other work, especially his nonfiction. After reading the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I pressed copies into people’s hands for months and gleefully told them it would forever sour their outlook on life. I used his essays to teach freshman composition classes. And long before I knew better (and even a little after) I filled my own essays with copious footnotes and thought I was being very sly and allusive.
Finally, during my first summer in Syracuse, I picked up a 10th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest and read it. It was great, of course. The book comes by its accolades honestly. It is grand and wise and sneaky and sad. It is strange and hilarious, filled with the linguistic pyrotechnics and heartfelt truth-seeking that I had come to know and love from Wallace’s nonfiction. It is also rife with puzzles and games. I was not then, nor am I now, enough of a super fan to worry those puzzles to conclusion, though I recognized how Infinite Jest can inspire that kind of attention in readers. I didn’t pour over the book or try to absorb all the clues or conclude every plot line. But I recognized what everyone 10 years earlier had been so excited about: coming along in the wake of Raymond Carver and the terse, carefully-hewn writing that was in vogue, Infinite Jest had been a game-changer. A decade on, it still had a game-changer’s effect. Infinite Jest reinforced my fundamental idea of who Wallace was: a funny, wise, and troubled obsessive genius capable of braiding fantastically convoluted and obfuscatory narratives, yet also able to nail the human condition to the wall for incisive analysis.
I read the book between June and August of 2008. On September 12 of that year, Wallace committed suicide, hanging himself in his house. The news shocked our community: some of my teachers knew Wallace, and many of my classmates were fans. For several weeks it felt like I read or talked about little else. And of course, we mined his writing for intimations. Before his death I had liked to compare Wallace with one of our teachers, another great contemporary fiction writer-cum-essayist, George Saunders. Saunders takes readers to unfamiliar places (to a boy-mystic in India, to the volunteer minute-men on the Mexican border) and portrays himself as an aw-shucks everyman who discovers that there’s hope: people are pretty much the same and we’ll all be okay. Wallace does the exact opposite. He takes readers to familiar places (a state fair, a cruise ship), portrays himself as knowing nearly everything and points out how people are pretty much the same and we are all completely fucked. It’s thrilling to read, but in retrospect, it makes for an awful lifeview.
Critical work on Wallace’s fiction had begun well before he died, but Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, which began as a long piece in the New Yorker just after his suicide, is the first actual biography. It is, by extension, the most thorough attempt so far to make sense of his life and death in the context of his literary achievements. Author D.T. Max has done something difficult and valuable: he has put together an honest and human account of Wallace without demeaning his literary achievements. Max has extensively interviewed Wallace’s colleagues, family, and friends, and combed through his work to provide a warts-and-all portrait of a person who was incredibly intelligent and gifted, but who let that intelligence more or less dominate his life.
The book begins at the beginning, and gives equal treatment to all parts of Wallace’s life. We see him as a TV-watching, pot-smoking, tennis-playing teen. We see him as a cocky college student who has a nervous breakdown, takes time off, then comes back to graduate double-summa with two senior theses, one of which becomes his first novel. We see him compete at everything, develop a reputation for sleeping around, become (in his words) something of an asshole, and we see his ambitious, combative years as a grad student, when he’s sure he knows more than his teachers. We see him at his best and worst as a writer: Max shows us where he exaggerated in his nonfiction and where he lifted from real life in his fiction. And we see his alcoholism and further struggles with depression and drug-use—topics that Wallace’s readers will recognize. Eventually we see the settled and almost content college professor. Wallace was generous with his students, in a stable and happy relationship, and working on his next book when, through a series of terrible events, he tried to change his antidepressants and ended up suicidally depressed, making the tragedy that much more potent.
Though Every Love Story is thoroughly footnoted, Max avoids the temptation to imitate Wallace’s style, recounting the biography in straightforward, clear prose. This is a boon both to those interested in the story as well as those who will comb through looking for biographical facts relevant to Wallace’s fiction. If there’s any criticism to be made it’s that Max’s workmanlike prose is overly even-handed, such that Wallace’s uneventful early years watching television, playing tennis, and torturing his sister seem to drag on, whereas the much more dramatic time he spent embroiled in a tempestuous relationship with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, or struggling to overcome his addictions, are almost under-told. However, this is a superbly authoritative biography: a great first work on a complicated writer, and one that fairly uses both Wallace’s own writing and pertinent details from people close to him to hold the whole person up for inspection.
But exactly what that inspection yields Max largely leaves to the reader. The Wallace that emerges from Max’s narrative is more self-centered, volatile, and haughty, and much less wise or self-assured than Wallace’s own self-portraits, though he’s every bit as intelligent. And he’s every bit as determined to trouble people’s moral complacency. But Max doesn’t spend time providing much more than the obvious connections between Wallace’s life and work, he offers no grand theories about Wallace’s accomplishments, and there is little investigation into the cultural impact Wallace has had. Of course, this soon after Wallace’s death, his cultural impact is still being worked out, and many readers will come to Every Love Story in an attempt to understand what Wallace meant, and means, to themselves, much less to literature. But for as much trouble as Wallace had curating his own statue, as he called it, his impact is undeniable.
One of the most pertinent examples of this has to be the two poems by Mary Karr just published in the September 2012 issue of Poetry magazine. Without ever once naming him, both very clearly address Wallace’s suicide, one from the point of view of a reader of his fiction and one of his characters, and the other from the viewpoint of a former friend and lover long out of touch. Karr is in the curious position of being both. She was, as Max’s biography explains, the object of Wallace’s intense, obsessive affections while he was writing Infinite Jest. Wallace has said that he wrote the book largely for her, and one of the main characters, a problematically overbeautiful woman, is apparently based on her.
The poems are worth finding and reading. The end of the second one addresses the very thorny problem of Wallace’s legacy, and his suicide’s inability to fully erase himself: “despite / your best efforts you are every second / alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in...” Every Love Story is perhaps not the best introduction to Wallace, but for those who have already breathed him in, it’s a chance to breathe a little deeper.