AJ Dehany'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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“..this awkwardest of post-Imperial decades, an age suspended between exhaustion and replenishment, between input too ordinary to process and input too intense to bear.” (“Westward”, David Foster Wallace)

The first published full-length biography of David Foster Wallace is the product of four years’ work by D. T. Max, and is a difficult book to approach even as a reader, with the wound still so fresh. Max’s preface gives a brief overview of why Wallace is so important to so many people. It’s chiefly the quality of identification. Max quotes from a contributor at themillions.com, that Wallace “was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform”. These are traits of a high achiever; so is it intellectual vanity mixed with our knowledge that we’re idiots that makes Wallace so appealing? The identification between Wallace and his writing was carefully wrought, and Max touches on it without trying to go too far into that area of the madness. The defining strand of the life is this contradiction between the flawed, damaged, earthy, boring, sides of his and of anyone’s nature when set beside the unique, brilliant, achieving, profound aspects. The story is of the feedback loop between the two, the brilliant writer struggling with his ambition and craft, the man struggling with his flaws and addictions. We are all unique snowflakes, though Wallace was more uniquer than most.

Thus Wallace is presented as a writer with the quality of capital-G Genius, of “universalizing his neurosis” (p94) - note Max’s retention of the notion that it is possible to universalize at all. On Radio 3’s Nightwaves the other night a critic registered a mistrust of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot’s reputation as a Grand Universalizing Text (my own term, a take off of Hawking’s “Grand Unifying Theory” which is the Holy Grail of theoretical physics) on the grounds that there are no women in it; so from the outset, Godot ignores 51% of humankind. A riposte to this would be to argue that there are aspects of the human condition that transcend sex and gender and that Beckett is concerned with these; but I find this notion ‘essential’ ie. dealing with essences and abstracts that might not exist. They’re certainly not helpful in novels, where our social and historical aspects are foregrounded, and in which philosophical notions can, if there’s to be any drama, only gloss the action, rather than replacing it. Philosophical novels rarely work. But David Foster Wallace was a philosopher-cum-novelist and ideally (I’m punning here) suited to giving it a go. Max has a good way of explaining some of the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of DFW’s writing without getting bogged down in them.

Max stays remarkably on track and doesn’t concern himself overly with critically evaluating the work on these or any other bases, but narrates DFW’s own wrestling with these and other problems with a broad brush. This biography is one that someone had to write first, and Max has done enough work in accessing Wallace’s archives, and talking with hundreds of people from Wallace’s life; it is not just a literary biography in that it is not wholly concerned with using biography only as a tool for textual exegesis; nor is it a psychological biography concerned with trying to analyze Wallace’s in theoretical or clinical terms; nor is it a rock n roll biography pruriently concerned with colourful episodes. It is a very competent work with a lightness of touch that allows the vying forces of the life to illuminate each other - theory, works, jobs, relationships, feelings - all that goes into a life, basically. It sounds kind of obvious, but it is impressively well handled given how it could have come out if it had been undertaken by, say, a fanboy from thehowlingfantods.com or someone from academia.

If it’s therefore hard to criticize, it’s more so because of the ethical question of reporting aspects of Wallace’s life. It is clear that Max had access to material that it would have been improper to communicate widely; interviews with other people from Wallace’s recovery groups and materials pertaining to this. Wallace spent most of his adult life attending these groups and Max is good at showing how its philosophies and maxims infiltrate and inform DFW’s mind and approach to writing, and his larger purpose behind writing - how he becomes a morally serious writer setting himself against the frivolousness of most writing (while at the same time being obsessed with trashy movies and TV). Max, like Wallace, never mentions the names of the groups or those involved, and this is responsible. There remains the slightly alarming possibility that in this Max is a more ‘ethically responsible’ writer than Wallace himself: Wallace mined his therapeutic experiences for material, of course never quite directly, but enough to raise a question of whether it was quite proper. Many novelists have been criticised or run into trouble for using their experiences (Max also shows us several examples of Wallace taking events from his friends’ lives and anecdotes and turning them into fiction), but the context of Anonymity that the group therapy experience depends on does give us some cause for concern.

There is undoubtedly a book to be written with more disclosure, more prurience even, about all this but it’s probably best left until everyone who might be implicated is out of the way. If you’ve read the lengthy article delving into DFW’s extensive library of self-help books, you do feel dirty by the end, and that’s only books, not case histories or private family stories. I suspect it is Max’s impulse of wishing to avoid incriminating, so to speak, any living personages that gives rise to the biggest lacuna in the book: the mother.

Sally Foster, the obsessive grammatist, casts a big shadow over the book. During his therapy, at one point we are told that Wallace stopped speaking to his mother for five years, but we are not really told why. Whether or not this information is available through interview or case histories or other sources, this kind of silence is understandable, but in a life in which analysis loomed so large, it’s kind of like talking about Elizabeth Wurtzel without mentioning Prozac. Okay, I’m being massively flippant. But the point is, it would clearly be improper to write the book about this that could be written. We can wait: it will be dark. Max does offer some telling examples of Wallace through writing “examining the shards of his childhood again and again, trying to construct a whole without bringing it so close it will hurt him again”. Wallace’s story “Self-Harm as a Sort of Offering” (later collected as “Suicide as a Sort of Present” wtf) is presented as “a meditation on his difficult relationship with his mother” in which it is the mother’s dominance, love and disappointment in her son that gives rise to his neurosis. While Max notes that his relationship with his mother got easier with time (p272), and while it is fiction, that DFW framed it like that is, I guess, revealing enough.

So let’s not go there. But the dark side of Wallace’s personality is not flinched away from. Max is obviously somewhat in thrall to his subject, seeing in him, as he said in a recent talk at the Royal Festival Hall in London, “the first Saint of the Internet age”, but fortunately Max refrains from excessive hagiography. He permits himself to universalize, to find in Wallace a profound worldview, a moralized stance that is trying to point each of us toward a better life:

“...that our passions are no longer our own. In the age of media, we are nothing but minds waiting to be filled, emotions waiting to be manipulated. There is a sense---again brought to full boil in Infinite Jest---that our obsession with being entertained has deadened our affect, that we are not, as a character warns in that book, choosing carefully enough what to love.” (p94)

Let’s face it, we’re internet kids now and in all kinds of in awe of our first saint, and the more we read of his problems the more we identify the man in D.T. Max’s book, and this man with the writer of Infinite Jest and this writer with the idea we have in our mind of who that writer was. Reading much of DFW’s work is like what Will Self comic-loftily said of listening to a Marianne Faithfull album, “an exercise in emotional excoriation.” The more human he is, the more we revere him. The womanizing, the jockism, the druggy behaviour, the arrogance of a man who would write a 1,400 page novel recommending it be read at least twice, there are plenty of examples of a troubled and very human character who emerges from the book’s very well rounded portrait. Every love story is a ghost story. Max is reasonably successful in finding the Man in the Machine, even if the Ghost in the Man remains necessarily obscure.
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Reading Progress

September 27, 2012 – Started Reading
September 27, 2012 – Shelved
September 27, 2012 –
page 40
October 3, 2012 –
page 200
October 9, 2012 –
page 262
October 13, 2012 – Finished Reading

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