Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
Hardback, 272 pages, ISBN: 978-184708494, £20.00
It has not taken long for D.T. Max’s biography to grate amongst those suspicious of David Foster Wallace’s cult status. Bret Easton Ellis has sparked controversy, multiple blog posts and, evidently, a corollary increase in his followers (340, 697 and counting, 17th September) following his scathing responses to the biography’s publication on Twitter (6th – 12th September). For Ellis, ‘DFW is the best example of a contemporary male writer lusting for a kind of awful greatness that he simply wasn’t able to achieve. A fraud.’
Such public panning of a writer held as the supreme talent of his generation smacks of envy toward Wallace’s success. It is all too easy to replace ‘DFW’ with ‘BEE’ and apply Ellis’s critique to himself: Ellis ‘lusting for a kind of awful greatness’ by removing Wallace from his pedestal in order to insinuate himself atop it. Jonathan Franzen, Wallace’s close friend and long-term correspondent, has also indulged in the iconoclastic act. In a 2011 article for The New Yorker, he cautioned against hero-worship of Wallace in the wake of his suicide: ‘He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself.’
Ellis’s reading of Wallace as ‘fraud’ does hold some substance, but too crudely disregards Wallace’s own self-critical self-awareness. Take a letter to Franzen that Max quotes at length, in which Wallace reluctantly acknowledges that he might suffer from:
a basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and poststructural and linguistically calisthenic – this is why I get very spiny when I think someone’s suggesting this may be my root motive and character; because I’m afraid it might be.
Wallace’s cult appeal stems from this apparent candour: his willingness in his writing to admit when he catches himself in a double bind. Max insightfully coins the term ‘single entendre’ to gloss Wallace’s literary intentions: to write without reliance on irony, with sincerity, and to give his readers, in a phrase Wallace pick-pocketed from the late rock-critic Lester Bangs, ‘an erection of the heart’.
Wallace’s virtuoso experimental prose may in part be read as ego-massaging – an attempt to outdo his literary compeers and be the finest writer of his generation. Yet such ambition was coupled from Infinite Jest onwards with a self-effacing modesty and a conviction in the affective moral purpose of literature. This is best evidenced in Wallace’s famed 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech:
Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
Max’s biography, particularly in its compelling last 150 pages, illustrates how deeply Wallace suffered on the way to this realisation. Severe clinical depression met with prolonged drug and alcohol abuse, and an intellect willing to ask those questions of himself and others that really mattered:
The crux, for me, is how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his (her) loving me. It’s just about that simple in the abstract. In practice it’s a daily fucking war.
Max teases out the implications beautifully: ‘Not just: You are loved. But also: You love being loved. You are addicted to being loved.’
What is apparent is that Max’s biography is not just another supplicant to the DFW ‘statue’, Wallace’s own wary term for the idolatry of literary celebrity. Its crisp, refined prose, and the ample room given to excerpts from Wallace’s correspondence and the words of those he knew is at odds with Wallace’s periphrastic adumbrations, his characters’ self-consuming monologues (see particularly the eponymous hideous men of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, or the neurotic speakers of Oblivion) and his informal yet glib journalistic voice. In avoiding parroting Wallace’s idiosyncratic style Max should be commended. Its disinterested tone does not intrude on a readers’ evaluation of Wallace the man or Wallace the writer. Even Ellis admits, rightly, Max’s biography is ‘really well-written’. Benjamin Markovits’ Guardian review goes one better in its praise for how Max ‘has managed to write the biography without falling in love or out of love with his subject.’
Wallace’s own appraisal of biography, ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’, would scare many off from writing Wallace’s own. It contains a series of peculiar asterisked paragraphs, seemingly irrelevant to the main article:
** Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking? **
These sections are later explained backhandedly. For Wallace, post-modern, or even post-post-modern writers have become overly reliant on ‘sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.’ Such probing questions should be those by which a novelist is judged and not on stylish sleights of hand.
Max does not withhold details which, in some eyes, may damn Wallace according to his own convictions. As the biography progresses, what becomes evident is Wallace’s proclivity for prevarication and hyperbole in narrating his own life. In doing so Max depicts that aspect of Wallace who ‘only want[s] to seem like a good person’ in seeking out approval. One striking revelation is Wallace’s concealment of his leave of absence from Amherst due to clinical depression. Wallace fibbed that it was due to the death of a close friend, this story drawing sympathy from his contemporaries and those he met later in life. This then filters into The Pale King, where Wallace provides yet another fiction for his absence: rustication after being found guilty of writing other students’ papers, entailing the enrolment of David Wallace, his fictional avatar, as an IRS inspector in Peoria Regional Examination Center 047.
That said, Max pays fitting homage to one of Wallace’s favourite forms in saving some of the best bits for the book’s endnotes. Placed among them is an explanation of the title quotation, ‘Every Love Story is a Ghost Story’. A phrase from a letter during his time at the University of Arizona, Max writes ‘he is still turning it over in his mind twenty years later when he slips it into a scene in which IRS examiners silently turn pages in The Pale King’. Another endnote is harrowing in its implications:
The problem of how to use an innovative writing style to carry out a conservative fictional purpose would become Wallace’s biggest artistic challenge and would prove insurmountable in The Pale King.
Here Max leaves open-ended one of those deeply troubling questions Wallace would have been proud to have voiced. Wallace’s final fall into ‘the black hole with teeth’, his mother’s phrase for her son’s depression, could have been due to fears of his failing novelistic powers. Max’s is a bleak, uncompromising and utterly desolating statement of what it is to be a novelist so committed to pushing his art as far as it can go. The poise Max shows in not avoiding such possibilities makes this biography essential to coming to terms with Wallace and the work he has left.