Webster Bull's Reviews > Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max
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Sep 05, 12

Read from August 30 to September 05, 2012

Now that I've finished the first major biography of the author of Infinite Jest, I have reduced my rating from 5 stars to 4.

First, if my previous posts don't make this clear, I am a big fan of David Foster Wallace. My daughter has just agreed to read it with me, in a two-person one-book kind of club, and I am thrilled. It will be roughly my 4th read-through. "Roughly" because I dip into it even when not reading it. I'll review the novel here when I finish reading it again.

But the biography: a brilliant job of journalistic research and writing. Max seemingly interviewed everyone who was ever close to Wallace, from his parents and sister, to his wife who in 2008 found him hanging over their back patio. And his story pushes forward, ever forward: from childhood in Urbana, Illinois, to Amherst College where Wallace was a double summa known to his class as "the smart guy," to an Arizona MFA program, to a Boston AA program, and so on, stopping at the two big landmarks:

(1) Infinite Jest (1996), a 1000-page-plus epic brilliancy, which weaves three story lines involving a dysfunctional family who own a tennis academy, a halfway house for substance abusers where we meet the Christ figure Don Gately (who takes over the book in the second half), and a conspiracy involving a terrorist cell of Quebec separatists in wheelchairs. And it works. And is deeply moving.

(2) The Pale King (posthumous, 2011), an unfinished novel about boredom set in an IRS processing center. When he died, Wallace left a pile of stuff, including a neatly tied bundle, for his wife and agent, and they published it, with help from his longtime editor. But it is, by any definition, unfinished and it is arbitrary, in the sense that whatever DFW had in mind, it couldn't have been this. (But then perhaps one reason he killed himself is that he could never figure out how to pull "this" together.)

The biography itself is unfinished. You MUST be interested in DFW, I think, to enjoy this book. It is written for his fans, and is all about him. Which is to say that almost every other character, outside is immediate family, is little more than a name: including many male friends, many women he slept with or wanted to, and a number of fellow writers like Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, some of whom were friends, some competitors, many both. In fact, there's more detail on Wallace's three dogs than on most of the humans.

If you're interested in Wallace, the book fills in a lot of gaps. Especially interesting to me is his encounter with and commitment to 12-step recovery groups, mostly AA. "The program" humanized him in important ways, made him care about other people really and not just about his own head's thoughts about other people.

Another way the book is unfinished is at the end. Max leads us to the suicide and then leaves us there. His only judgment about it is his final sentence, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen."

Well, OK, very good, but how about a summing up? How about an afterword: the funeral, the family and friends, the wreckage left behind? The story alone of how three people (wife, agent, editor) decided to publish The Pale King and then somehow determined what to publish out of the piles of scenes and characters he left would make a chapter in itself. We're left in the dark about this and so much else.

So for the DFW fanatic like me, Every Love Story is a must read. But for the rest of you, caveat lector!


* * *

UPDATE * * * The thing about reading the biography of someone you admire is that you know where it’s headed, so that a work of nonfiction, the biography, which is supposed to explain the mystery of a famous personality in fact leaves you contemplating the mystery of his or her destiny, and who or what is behind that destiny.

That’s my experience about a third of the way through D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. At this point Wallace is beyond the halfway point of his life, since he is 25 in the book and, I know this, he will hang himself at 46.

Having published his first novel, The Broom of the System, and written a story he feels contains everything else he has to offer, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” he is written out. He has just finished a semester teaching a writing course at his alma mater and mine (sort of*), Amherst College. He is smoking pot and drinking heavily, watching six to eight hours of TV a day. He is bouncing from girlfriend to girlfriend and being a jerk about it and feeling bad about being a jerk. Finally, unable to land another teaching job he goes home to his parents’ house in Urbana, Illinois, falling on the mercy of what he called “the Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Fund for Aimless Children.”

Not a pretty picture. And you probably think I’m going to go moralistic here and say that, well, yeah, of course he committed suicide because of the dope and booze and womanizing. But that’s not what strikes me.

Eight years after this bottom, Wallace will publish a 1000+-page book that many will deem the best novel of his generation, Infinite Jest. We know that this is ahead of him, as well as the suicide, but in 1988, a prey to addictions, he does not. He might have predicted the suicide—he often thought and talked about killing himself—but he could not possibly have predicted his life’s greatest work.

How do you explain this? I’m hoping that biographer D. T. Max will do so while suspecting that he can’t. Anyhow, no writer will ever be able to tell me—or you, dear reader—what lies eight years down our own lives’ respective roads.

That remains a mystery.

* I get the alumni mailings because they want my money though I never graduated. This misleading** footnote is an homage to David Foster Wallace.
** Misleading because I did graduate, only somewhere else.

This UPDATE also appeared as a post on my blog, Witness. http://witness2christ.blogspot.com/20...

* * *

My daughters remember me lying on the floor and laughing to myself for enough hours to make up a week. That must have been August 1996, because Infinite Jest came out in February 1996, and I read it for the first time after reading a lengthy early review. But not for the last time.*

Back to the floor. I was lying on it reading Infinite Jest, especially at my brother-in-law’s place in Maine but also afterward in Nova Scotia, where we completed a 10-day family-of-4 vacation, and where I finished the most impressive and moving novel I had ever read. This is saying something for me. I am a slow reader, and Infinite Jest is over 1,000 pages long.**

Well, I’m back in Maine and I’m not laughing. Most of the time. I’m reading D. T. Max’s biography of the author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, who died by self-administered hanging in September 2008, thirteen days before my father died of melanoma. My heart was breaking after two pages.

Wallace was such a good boy. And man. Who suffered from severe clinical depression and finally grew weary of the drugs he had to take to be anything like right in his head. So he took himself off the drugs, and you see what happened.

I’ll continue to update you on Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, when I’m not laughing or crying.

* I’ve read it three times.
** Including 200 pages of footnotes
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08/30/2012 page 22
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