switterbug (Betsey)'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 13, 12

Read from August 31 to September 01, 2012

All my adult reading life, I waited for a young contemporary writer to transport me to the prose-rich playgrounds of Nabokov and Pynchon. ADA and GRAVITY'S RAINBOW were my torches, but they were, arguably, emotionally sterile. When I read INFINITE JEST ten years ago, I knew I had finally found an author who, besides giving words an elastic, carbonated buoyancy, was a vigorously palpable storyteller, altogether tragic and heartbreaking.

I remember the exact moment when I heard that Wallace took his life (as I suspect did everyone who is reading this book, who read DFW before his death). It was like a brother or best friend had died. He was my rock star--my John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan all rolled up into literature. He wasn't yesterday's insurgent Kurt Cobain, he was today's voice--the insurrectionist of the insurrection, the anti-ironist and seeker of exigent summits.

D.T. Max evinces respect, compassion, and objectivity toward this now lionized author he has never met, in his biography assembled from the contributions of friends, family, lovers, AA comrades, colleagues, fellow writers, and epistolary confidants.

"Fiction is what it's like to be a fucking human being," Wallace said, and Max shows us the utter turbulence of this writer's life, a man who lived inveterately with the howling fantods (a phrase from his mother, the grammarian, used potently in INFINITE JEST).

David was a depressed, addicted, chaotic genius, a man who felt that he never lived up to his lofty ambitions as a writer or a person. He was both fascinated and repulsed by the TV culture and how media hijacks and propagandizes public and private minds--his constant themes in his essays, short stories, and of course, IJ.

As many know, he was hospitalized several times for breakdowns and overdoses, and struggled with pervasive suicidal ideation. Max does a virtuous job of giving the reader a candid view of the complex nature of DFW; the generously endowed writer was often a captious, violent, and tormented soul. He was also a passionate, outstanding teacher, and a patron to his companions in AA. Moreover, he was an enthusiastic dog lover, especially drawn to dogs with an abusive past.

The parts of the book that describe Wallace's years writing INFINITE JEST were not just revealing, but like a fourth wall nakedly exposed. Max captures the line between author and material with authenticity and revelation. It is almost surreal, as Max brought me back to the narrative of IJ while manifesting Wallace's actual art and pain of writing it. I don't want to spoil it for readers by dropping tidbits of information--reading about it is thrilling and gripping, the most page-turning part of the book.

The letters Wallace wrote to Franzen, DeLillo, Costello, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, at Little, Brown, and Company, (and many others), will prickle the skin of any DFW aficionado. He was self-conscious, and self-conscious about being self-conscious, and communicated that in his letters.

"I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am...self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests...but then I countenance the fact here at least here I am worrying about it; so then I feel better about myself...but this soon becomes a vehicle for feeling superior to imagined Others...I think I'm very honest and candid, but I'm also proud of how honest and candid I am--so where does that put me."

This book is a valuable companion to David Lipsky's journalistic book, ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF, a biography of Lipsky's five days spent with Wallace on his IJ book tour. It is hard to compare them, as Lipsky's is an echo and interpretation of his actual time with DFW, and this book is compiled from sources outside of the biographer. Both have poignant insight into the ephemeral but perennial figure of Wallace.

I award four stars, rather than five, although the quality of writing and extensive research is first-rate (despite being almost devoid of familial testimony, and despite errors that I think are typesetting errors, not copy-editing, errors). It's personal. Something is missing, some essence that cannot be filled by a biographer, or hasn't yet-- the unnameable, soulful reflectiveness that I ache for. The closest way to that is through the Harry Ransom Center, which is fortunately only a few miles from my home, which houses David Foster Wallace's entire archive at hand. You can feel the pages while you read what he wrote, with just a slip of a glove separating you from his words.

There is something about Wallace fans--it is as if we are all in the same karass, isn't it? But Wallace wanted to relate to us on a cosmic scale, not like an exclusive club, yet he appeals to only select (not elite, but select) readers. If you become a lover of Wallace's work, you feel almost mystically connected to all other lovers of his oeuvre, and however fantastical a presumption, we also feel connected to Wallace, the person. It is apparent that D.T. Max understands this, and that he is bonded to Wallace, also. That is why (I think) he wrote this bio, about the ghost of David, who keeps on penetrating our literary dreams.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Drew (new)

Drew Great review, but...you think Ada is emotionally sterile? I think you're right that Wallace put way more of himself into IJ than Nabokov put into Ada, but it was still pretty affecting to me.


switterbug (Betsey) I did love Ada, and it is still one of my favorite books of all time. But, it hit me cerebrally, intellectually, rather than emotionally. I do plan to read it again some day. I am now a more sophisticated reader than when I first read it, and perhaps I will get the emotional connection the second time around.


message 3: by Steve (new)

Steve Outstanding! You set this up well then supplied just the right amount of information to tempt us without sating us. The quotes were very effective, too. I especially liked the one about the loop of recognizing his own pettiness, copping to it, then feeling good about his honesty. As you said, "self-conscious about being self-conscious." Well put.

I suspect Wallace's biggest fans will find almost anything written about him and not by him lacking in some way. He had so many facets, and they reflect differently in the eyes of each beholder. We inherently mistrust any one author's interpretation as being definitive.


message 4: by Drew (new)

Drew Or at least, we trust it less than we trust Wallace's own writing. Which says something important about his honesty--just one of his facets, of course.


message 5: by Steve (new)

Steve Good point, Drew.


switterbug (Betsey) Yes, good point. And, thank you, Steve!

Yeah, I hope there will be other bios, because as you said, we will always find SOMETHING lacking in any book written about him.


message 7: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie Thanks switterbug for your thoughts. You are a true DFW fan. I keep changing my mind about reading this, but you've pushed me back onto the yes side.


switterbug (Betsey) Bonnie--I still feel that reading IJ gives you more DFW than any bio, but this is a good book, overall, and there are some true nuggets in here.


message 9: by Lemar (new) - added it

Lemar What a terrific review from a fellow DFW lover. I really appreciate your work in doing this because I am a bit leery of diving into a book that might annoy me by not getting what I loved about Wallace's prose. For me as well Wallace was the one. Through wonderful connections with Vonnegut, Jonathan Lethem, Dana Spiotta, Adam Langer, Bruce ChatwinSeymour Krim, Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, ok I'll stop, I had come close but no one had managed to pull off putting it all together, what it was like to grow up in Americca in the last half of the 20th century until I read Wallace.

I read a biography of Bob Marley that started with a premise of how everything he hoped for and dreamed of withered and died, betrayed him like his health. To me that was bullshit and it annoyed me no end to have someone ascribe an arc to a life that did not fit.

But I am hungry to know more about the people I connect with through music or literature better. Sometimes knowing more about their lives intensifies the connection. I can better imagine what it was like for them to create. Kurt Vonnegut credits his son with saying that the meaning of life is helping each other get through this thing whatever it is. Easier said than done. In the midst of debilitating pain Wallace found the strength to communicate to others. He helped. As a good author can do he created a connection with me the reader, I heard him, understood him in my way and I deeply appreciate his efforts.

A strong urge to footnote is presenting itself now! It is wonderful to be a part of a community that shares the love of his work. No one in my physical life has fully felt what is so evident in the reviews of switterbug and Greg, thanks.


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Lemar. What a beautiful and tender message you wrote. DFW has a way of deeply affecting those of us who love his work. I still feel like I can hear his heart beating. 9/12 is the day I really mourn every year.


Patricia Geller I am struggling to finish this book because to loved Wallace's books and can't bear reading about him.


switterbug (Betsey) Yeah, sometimes it's heavy to bear.


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