Toby'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 14, 2012

it was ok

The problem with the biography as a genre, is that inevitably, the vast majority of persons given such immortalising treatment are figures whom the biographer believes people will be interested to read about, not people whose lives are fantastically, in of themselves, intriguing or literary in nature. The problem then, is the fact that when one writes about, for example, Bob Dylan, it can be hard to discern the intrinsic quality of the text itself because there is, for the reader, a cushioning effect, that we fans simply enjoy hearing about our hero, and so will read or watch terrible work about his life simply because it’s Dylan, man! And the sound of Subterranean Blues is echoing in our head and connections between this and that and the other are made by us, in our delirious fandom. The notion that the “he” discussed is Dylan, or in this case, American writer and cult icon David Foster Wallace, is all it really needs, the book it’s self is hardly relevant.
Equally true, however, is that die-hard fan’s whom artists such as Foster Wallace boast are scavengers, desperate for more, who feel a desperately personal connection to the artist, and so are never satisfied by what they have. We wanna know what time he woke up on Sunday 15th September 1992, or what his cereal of choice might have been. The nature of a writer like Wallace, who bares- at least, did all he could humanly manage- to bear his soul, makes us feel okay approaching his life with a kind of voyeurism. And if you give us an inch, we’ll do our damndest to take a mile. It’s a contradictory impulse almost fit for Wallace’s work; we feel deeply enough for the artist to want to tear him apart until no semblance of what we loved remains.
What is promised, with an artist whose life ended like Wallace’s, with something of an ellipsis, is not necessarily closure, but at the very least, that little bit more of the man.
With all that said, the ultimate effect on a reader (who one has to assume has at least a passing interest in Wallace’s work) is that we are conflicted in our analysis. I found D.T Max’s biography brought out in me a horrendous schizophrenia, on the one hand desperate for more, for better, for something I really didn’t know that really would’ve shocked me, that I couldn’t have figured myself, something that reaffirmed everything I wanted to be true about the man, and the rest of the time almost preposterously happy to sail through page after page, despite an almost complete lack of substance, simply because I enjoyed thinking about the life of someone I truly admired.
This all goes towards saying that “Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story” is really quite a weak biography, which I have no doubt most fans of Wallace will find at least something to treasure in. Throughout, Max’s goal seems to be to render a lionised and worshiped figure mortal, and in doing so he really goes a fair way to make him sound pathetic. For one thing, there is a strong epistolary motif throughout, quoting Wallace’s correspondence with various figures in his life- chiefly Jonathan Franzen and Don Delilo- and Max almost singularly gives us Wallace’s side of the interaction. As pedantic as it may sound, the effect this has on a reader is of making Wallace come off almost as the whiney kid consistently bugging other writers to help him. Equally, a lot is made throughout of Wallace’s instability and social anxiety, all of which is true and relevant I’m sure. However, there seems consistently to be an insufficient level of analysis into how this truly manifested its self- i.e relatively few anecdotal accounts or examples of such happenings-, and little to no real meat in the way Max draws a connection between Wallace’s real life anxiety and the anxiety self-consciousness ect which is at the backbone of almost all of his work.
Perhaps what Max is trying to say, is go back and read all of his work again. In which case, why bother wasting time reading this at all?
What seems to have happened, really, in the time between Wallace’s death in 2008 and the release of this book, is the question was asked “Does there really need to be a biography of DFW?” and more importantly “why?”. Wallace would have been (or would he, really?) the first to make clear his disgust at Tombstones being erected in Waterstone’s above a table of his complete works, all half price, and so why, ultimately, is it important we have more to mourn?
The answer D.T Max has clearly come up with is that Wallace has become a messianic figure, and needs to be given back his flesh. That we need not more to mourn, but a more accurate understanding as to what it is we are mourning. Sadly, the end-result is that the whole book rings with a sense of ironically forced honesty. While the blunt way Max often states facts about Wallace’s life, or how straight-on he tackles the realities of Wallace’s cruelty or self-absorption is effective, but eventually it feels as if he is trying too hard to sell us something, and that what he’s selling is simply a reaction to what he assumes we already know or feel.
So while it is interesting to have more than cursory information about Wallace’s time in a half-way house, or to hear how he really felt about his own work and its relevance (who’d have known he felt so strongly about “Westward the course of the empire”?!) or his romantic troubles, honestly, you have to ask, is any of it really enough? It all feels like a consolation prize. His fears about being over taken by Eggers or Franzen, or the conflict caused by betraying somehow his fellow AAers trust in writing “Infinite Jest”, are the more the kind of gritty, vital challenges this book could have done with more of, or perhaps more importantly made more of. And while I feel dangerously close to saying, and know it would be unfair to say, that “Every Love story…” would have done better if it were more like Wallace’s work itself, I can’t hide the fact that the feeling I walked away with from “Every Love Story…” is a conviction that a biography’s right to existence has to be earned not by the life it denotes but by the way it denotes it, and so to assume relevance based on the quality of Wallace’s work rather the quality of this biography itself, is not right. A literary biography must be at once a love letter a critical dissection and an act of revenge, and “Every love story…” really is none of these. It feels more, despite its intentions, like a eulogy. The looming fact of Wallace’s suicide was always going to smear his biography, and indeed to a sensitive reader at times reading this book, knowing how it has to end, can feel a little like watching a ghost live his death in reverse. The prose bare quality is somehow haunting, intentional or not, but it deprives us of the human connection with Wallace as a man which ought to be this biography’s purpose.
It is somehow impressive that Max had the gall to give the man’s final act less than a page’s credence in the work, and perhaps this was the best way to approach the subject, but it feels as though that were a calculated decision, and one which undermines the reality of it. The fact remains that Max seems to write the book, even though he does so in an inverse, subversive way (by trying not to), as a reaction to Wallace’s death, rather than to his work, his gift to his readers, his life.
Max tries to both tell the story of a life, and also to give literary insight, and while the text is hardly weighty enough to do either, the fact he tries to do both means each attempt ends up being almost non-existent. You have to wonder how literally Max takes the notion of a “life story”, because he seems to believe all that is relevant is what literally happens directly to a person. While a large strand of the work is devoted to Wallace’s complicated and resentful relationship with his mother, for example, almost nothing is given in the way of indication as to her feelings towards him, about his work, or about his feelings about her. Similarly, a fair bit is made of Wallace’s guilt at having mistreated his sister Amy, yet exactly one endnotes worth of space is allocated to her own feelings on the matter. It all has the effect of making Max’s work feel like a sketch, and on a very human level, leaves us feeling that Wallace as a man is being misrepresented.
Discussing the brilliance and humanness of Wallace’s best work, Max seems almost incapable of delving into the real nitty gritty detail of it’s qualities and failures, or of dropping the rather stand offish biographer persona and describe a moment of personal engagement with the work. Equally, Max at once makes a nice, if under developed agreement for deeper biographical reading of Wallace’s work, but in doing so simultaneously makes us mourn for the lack of such careful insight in Max’s own work. It’s the constant refusal to engage with the rich overwhelming complexity of Wallace’s psyche, whilst simultaneously referring back constantly to the man’s work- which, if nothing else, is a monument to that complexity-, which seems churlish, and perhaps, dare I say, lazy?
If theirs is one truly successful point made in Max’s book it is that Wallace’s work speaks for itself and its author, and while retrospectively watching interview’s with the man Wallace appears a somewhat unreliable narrator of his own life, his fiction is much more truthful to the man than the reality of his life.
That successful point Max’s biography makes is that no biography of Wallace is truly necessarily. However, because on most other levels it fails to live up to scrutiny, “Every Love Story…”, aside from anything else, undermines that. We’re left wondering why no time was given to the assembly of “The Pale King”. Just because it was posthumous? Or what Jonathan Franzen wanted help from Wallace with. Is it just that this was tangential, not to do, strictly speaking, with Wallace’s own life. And yet the reason this biography exists to begin with is that people still, even if he isn’t here to see it, want more from the man, his life in some way goes on. Didn’t Wallace, in his work, ask us to be humble, to remember other people are alive, and remember how little of our own lives have anything to do with us? All of these thoughts, questions, buzzing around my head when I put down “Every Love Story…” left me stone-cold certain of two things. A book about Foster Wallace’s conflicted, confusing and perhaps profoundly normal life was and is deeply necessary to his fans. And that this one wasn’t it.
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