Josh Gaines'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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Oct 25, 2012

it was amazing
Read in October, 2012

Max, the author, never even met Wallace, but he really did his homework for this work. Thankfully, most of Wallace’s friends were quite open to sharing correspondence with him to be included in the book. It is chock-full of excerpts from personal letters (he was an avid letter-writer, and only converted to email, reluctantly, very late in life). These excerpts are the richest marrow of the book, as they give insight into the sort of man Wallace was, and show with greatest clarity just how funny, but also how devastatingly sad, he could be. Quotations from Wallace’s many essays and fiction pieces are also woven-in meaningfully and often, and Max does an impressive job of connecting these pieces with where the writer was emotionally when he wrote them.

Logically enough, the book starts with Wallace’s birth and spends a small amount of time on his childhood and high school years. Although as Wallace matured, he showed intense signs of someone from a very broken, troubled upbringing, the book expresses that he actually had a pretty pleasant childhood. His parent’s were both teachers; his father read to David and his sister Amy nearly every night, and David’s mother was a ‘grammar Nazi,’ no doubt a founding factor in Wallace’s own perfectionism as a writer. The other piece of his childhood that he brought up often in later interviews was that although he grew up reading, he also watched “perverse amounts of television.”

Once he enters college is where things get more interesting, for while he was an incredibly bright and masterful student, he had to go home twice in a four year period because of severe depression. This depression, as you may know, was unfortunately a recurring presence throughout Wallace’s adulthood. For his senior thesis, he wrote a novel, which would later be published as The Broom of the System. It was met with mostly middling reviews and meager sales, as was his follow-up collection of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair, but there were some reviewers and colleagues that could see that Wallace had potential and that his stories were really saying something fresh.

The book from there on maintains a gratifying balance between Wallace’s publishing history, his further schooling and various teaching jobs, and his many, many relationships of varying length. During and after his college years, he went in and out of addiction to marijuana, alcohol, and television. Perhaps the most damaging part of these addictions was that it pushed him into a sort of deeper self-loathing and lack of motivation to write. He ended up going to recovery groups, as well as briefly an intensive rehab center, and by his late twenties was completely sober and drug-free, and would stay that way for the remainder of his life.

A large chunk of the book focuses on the origins and writing process of Infinite Jest. This section is fun, if not almost as infuriating as that book itself can be. It is uncertain of exactly when Wallace first started the novel proper, but hints and ideas involved in it date back to 1987, making it roughly ten years from conception to publication. Wallace was a freak when it came to research; both a blessing and a curse to his person, it seemed. He preferred to write longhand in notebooks, then type and revise as he went on a typewriter or ancient computer. He pasted pages from the manuscript all over his bathroom walls, and in general had notebooks crammed full of ideas, scenes, passages, notes to himself, character profiles, dialogue, and other things indecipherable. Wallace really lucked out with the editor for Infinite Jest, Michael Pietsch, senior editor for Little, Brown. Not only was he willing to undertake the mammoth task of editing what was once close to a 2,000 page (or more) novel, he was excited to publish the thing, itself a fiscal risk. The series of back and forth letters and conversations between Pietsch and Wallace are fun; Pietsch was patient with Wallace wrestling him playfully (or gravely) on every single suggested cut, and Wallace seems to cringe and pull his hair out at every piece removed, panicking that other portions will have to be completely re-written to adapt the narrative to the cuts. Eventually Wallace was able to compromise with 200 pages of endnotes, an idea Pietsch was initially opposed to, but once he read Wallace’s re-edit he found that the endnotes actually freed up the plot a little for the reader. Wallace also enjoyed how the constant physical ‘back and forth’ the reader would have to do would only add to the overall themes of the novel.

The biography touches on the roots and publications of Wallace’s other works, but certainly spends the most time on IJ. In his late thirties, Wallace began work and research on what he had intended to be another big novel, the unfinished The Pale King. He was still teaching at the time and his attentions were constantly drawn away by other projects. He was becoming increasingly depressed and cynical as he entered his forties, was switched to a different anti-depressant (which he resented being on in the first place), and for the last several months of his life could not be left alone. He beat himself up over not writing, which only led him to more distracted and depressed thoughts. His letters to friends during this period are dire, and friends like Jonathan Franzen encouraged Wallace as often as he could, urging him to keep on, and that the worst was over. After several suicides attempts and a short bout in the hospital on suicide watch, he suddenly seemed to be finally on the way to recovery in late summer 2008. His wife thought he seemed normal for a while, then was certain he was lying to her about wanting to still kill himself. One evening, he encouraged her to go prepare for an art opening she had coming up and insisted he would be alright. He went to his finished garage (and makeshift office), wrote her a two page letter, compiled the unfinished manuscript for The Pale King on his desk, and walked back inside the house and hung himself.

It goes without saying that Wallace’s friends and fans would not have wanted this end for him, and it is a shame that such a bright, insightful mind that had already given much to his generation this early way out. Although it is a cliche, Wallace was a troubled artist, and I tend to think he was cursed by his own genius; bogged down by a brilliant mind that could do marvelous things, but also took him to places of deep, profound discouragement and hopelessness. The book is not shy about the uglier sides of Wallace. In his college years, he was an arrogant, self-important prick, as he would even personally acknowledge in later interviews. He was a womanizer, having taken a countless number of sexual partners and even using his meager fame as a tool to this end. The passages about his teaching methods make me think he would have been one of those professors that is never satisfied.

However, I think growing in age and maturity humbled him, as is evident in the audio interviews. The man speaking is one of severe insecurity and constant apology for not wanting to be misunderstood or considered arrogant. His lazer-vision pierced right through the falsity that is the American Dream, and both his fiction and non-fiction call out for individuals to not be slaves to media and to consider where they place their affections. In all, David Foster Wallace was a genius to a fault, gave much to the literary community, and fought hard to keep on, but ultimately was defeated on the battleground of his own psyche.

I would encourage every writer or aspiring writer or even any creatively inclined person to take a look at this biography. Much is said of Wallace’s writing process, which I think many will find fascinating.

I would furthermore insist every fan of DFW to look into this book, which you probably hardly need to be told. Parts of it will make you love him all the more, parts will make you despise the kind of person he was, others will just make you sad that you hadn’t the chance to talk with him or just be his friend. The fact of the matter is that love him or hate him, DFW is a guy whose legacy we can hardly ignore.
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