mark'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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's review
Sep 23, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, favorites, mental-health, biography-memoir
Recommended for: Wallace fans. Genius fans. Writers.
Read in September, 2012 — I own a copy

David Foster Wallace: No Way Out

David Foster Wallace was not depressed, he was frustrated and impatient to the point he felt he had to act—one final act to make his point –‘THERE – do you get it now? Look at me, hanging by my neck, dead.’

Wallace had been writing about (saying) the same thing for twenty-plus years and threatening suicide for nearly the entire time.

I came late to the genius that was David Foster Wallace. I first heard his name while living in Upland, California, in the summer of 2008. He was a literary “genius” and had committed suicide —and he had lived and taught creative writing— just a couple miles from where I was. I took little notice, but remember his bandanna’d head-shot on the TV. Shortly after that event, a book reviewer reviewing my novel Attachment: A novel of War and Peace, made reference to Wallace i/r/t [(in regards to) a lift from the Wallace style > Abbreviations w/o warning or authoritative sanction.] my work – that we shared some personal and literary “afflictions.” (I hope that doesn’t turn out to be exactly true.) I ignored the review and the reference. A few months later, when I had returned to Colorado, a friend sent me an article in the The New Yorker about Wallace and his work: “The Unfinished: David Foster Wallace’s struggle to surpass “Infinite Jest.” (March 9, 2009. P. 48-61) by D.T. Max, who has just now come out with a biography of Wallace, Every Story Is A Ghost Story: A life of David Foster Wallace. I made no connection between the events in the Inland Empire and the article, but out of respect for my friend, read the article and then dismissed that also. Strike three. Oh no, not yet. In November of 2010, on a road trip with my son, Jake, back to southern California, late in the night he surreptitiously fiddled with his iPod and out of the speakers came Wallace’s voice; “ If anybody feels like perspiring … .” It was his commencement speech “This is Water” (May 21, 2005). Interesting ideas and I thought, Who is that guy? Upon leaving Jake’s apartment in Hollywood, Jake handed me a book, a birthday present he called it —David Lipsky’s book Although of Course you end up Becoming Yourself: A road trip with DAVID FOSTER WALLACE. I began reading it when I got home and was hooked. It was as if the Universe would not give up on me. Sort of like chumming. The Universe kept throwing bait into the water until finally, the fish (me) notices it and strikes. A kindred spirit, a kindred soul were Wallace and I, and he had something to say to me.

I started reading, in quick order I read: 1) Infinite Jest 2) A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again 3) Oblivion 4) The Pale King 5) The Broom of the System 6) Consider the Lobster 7) Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, and now Max’s book as well as Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit. I’ve written reviews of most of those books which if you click on the title, will take you to them. [A tenet of mine, which forms the foundation for my class “WRITING CREATIVELY 1.0,” is that “Writing Is Thinking.” Would Wallace agree? Probably. Somewhat. And then he would have to elaborate and go into some detail, with many grimaces and hand gestures, and maybe some parenthetical asides as he spoke, and we’d become friends chatting over herbal tea at Barbara’s in Cucamonga. And I would save his life, or so my fantasy goes, sometimes, when my anger about his death bubbles up.]
So after reading Max’s book and letting it incubate for a few days, here I am, writing about what I read. To help me make sense of what I was reading, I made a timeline and divided it into three columns: Personal, Professional, & Medical. I found that Max wasn’t exact or precise when it came to exactly when certain events took place, and The Index and Notes weren’t exact either. But, the book was sourced and the author had access and cooperation from friends and family and some of Wallace’s correspondence. However, another problem for me was Max’s assumptions and his interpretations, such as: On page 52 he writes, “The doctors likely considered the possibility that he [Wallace] suffered from bipolar disorder, manic depression.” There is no source for that assumption. And, while it seems a more accurate diagnosis from here – it’s never mentioned again. Wallace was eighteen at the time, having just graduated w/honors from Amherst & was headed for the U. of Arizona for an MFA; and also, had just broken up with his hometown girl. This was his third breakdown. Instead, the doctors, according to Max, diagnosed him with atypical depression and changed his medication to Nardil. And the narrative of a depressed and anxious boy gathered momentum, as well as the belief that Nardil was an effective treatment for what ailed Wallace. DFW was very impressionable and easily influenced, to go along with his mad crazy intellect. With the timeline I constructed, I found that his dark periods were always proceeded by life transitions. In other words, they were exogenous and not simply biological, part of some cyclic thing or a ‘chemical imbalance.’

It’s not my intention here to do a complete going over of Max’s interpretation, but only to summarize from his work, via the timeline, and my own reading of Wallace’s works. [Do read this book. It’s not only for fans of Wallace’s work, but is just a flat-out good read and fascinating look at creative genius.]

I do see things differently. David Foster Wallace was highly neurotic, and bought into the narrative/diagnosis of depression, although from his writings and in his own words, I get the sense that that wasn’t his undoing and he knew it, or suspected it. Depression was a false diagnosis. Full stop. But, it allowed for an explanation that absolved anyone and everyone of blame. At his core, Wallace was a very, very smart, and a very kind person – torn between ambition and doubt, so much so that he eventually blamed himself for his problems, and his inability to make others understand. He was flawed and a fraud, he thought. His thinking is best illustrated in his story “Good Old Neon,” I think. In the story he writes about his problems, therapy, and eventually suicide from the POV of being dead and how that happened. His life was, as he suspected “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” and in his family, he was the “identified patient.” Nevertheless, he was also vain about his gifts. And then, at Amherst, he discovered fiction and used that to let others know what he was really thinking and thought. He had found a way out, he thought. But his worry and doubt made him suspect he was guilty of “second-order vanity” (see TBOTS) – a horrible affliction, and began to hate himself for that as well as his failure to save the world (people) from itself (themselves) and the/their addictive nature. He fictionalized reality in his work. He was an obsessive student of reality, often complaining about the bombardment of stimuli and was in constant search of a balance between what he saw and the recording of the data. What he did he did to make a point –he was always making points but being misunderstood, and so he would try again; and eventually he had talked himself into a corner where his only way out – to make his point – was to stop talking and writing and leave.

All his fiction reflects his life story, from The Broom of the System right on through to his last, The Pale King; and the same existential and philosophical questions that concerned him since he first began to develop as a human being.

When DFW was seventeen he had an anxiety attack on his sister’s birthday. He was already using marijuana, which he had figured out, helped to calm him down. He also at that time, thought enough of Franz Kafka to post a picture of the Czech writer on his bedroom wall with the caption: The disease was life itself. (pp. 12) Max doesn’t source this but, subsequently, it makes sense. Found in Wallace’s workspace after he died, was a story that his editor Michael Pietsch included in PK, Chapter 36, which to me is very similar to a Kafka story, “A Hunger Artist.” Here is an excerpt from Kafka’s piece:

So he lived for many years, with small regular intervals of recuperation, in visible glory, honored by the world, yet in spite of that troubled spirit, and all the more troubled because no one would take his trouble seriously. What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possibly wish for? And if some good-natured person, feeling sorry for him, tried to console him by pointing out that his melancholy was probably caused by fasting; it could happen, especially when he had been fasting for some time, that he reacted with an outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal.

From the outset Wallace questioned just what was language, a window or a cage? His mother was a grammar freak and English teacher, and his father a Philosophy professor. All three novels and many of his non-fiction essays examine the interplay of language and ideas. But of course, as was his habit, Wallace never revealed answers, but was instead fond of the antinomy, beginning in TBOTS with: “ … this guy here is the barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves.” … “If he does, he doesn’t, and if he doesn’t, he does.” (pp. 42) Wallace’s fixation on particular ideas and words and language permeate and saturate his work. And besides the lifting of Kafka’s “plot” from “A Hunger Artist,” no one shook the cage of language and thought more than David Foster Wallace. In my opinion.

It’s worth consideration that two separate characters in Infinite Jest think that a person will be killed by a woman, and that that woman will be your mother in your next life, leading me to believe that just maybe David Foster Wallace didn’t think that death meant the end – but only a way out. He broke the code –he told.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Mike you might enjoy this discussion. i particularly liked the thoughts of costello and karr, the two on the panel who knew him best:

mark I'll check it out,thanks.

mark Watched it. Something ghoulish about it. Nothing revelatory. I don't like Karr. Not her fault, she was so damaged by early childhood sexual abuse - that's just who she is. I can see how she would drive a man to violent behavior. Liked Costello. His point that Wallace wrote to feel good makes perfect sense to me. Which is opposite of Karr's writing for the reader - which DFW was not about, at all. Rock & hard place, Wallace. Again, no way out.

Mike I'd say the questions were a little ghoulish- and something unpleasant about watching these sweaty, creepy, neurotic looking young men approaching the microphone to stammer their questions. Also unpleasant that most of them looked like me.

I do vaguely remember the anecdote from this biography in which Wallace supposedly either bought or planned to buy a gun, with which to kill Karr's husband. Good that he didn't- we wouldn't even have Infinite Jest then.

It probably should have just been Max, Karr and Costello up there. Costello's description of Wallace the writer is haunting- 'like an animal in a cage.'

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