19 September 2019

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D. T. Max


The last author biography I read was The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty. I remember thinking it was both dull and dense but when you're captivated by someone you'll take whatever you can get to learn more about them. I have read all of Didion's bibliography, as well as all of Jonathan Franzen's - another author I bought a biography of. I have only read a few of David Foster Wallace's works (Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Girl With Curious Hair) but even though I read the least amount of his work I'm still fascinated by him as a person. Another Wallace enthusiast recommended I check out Wallace's biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max and so here we are.

I read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky almost four years ago and was obsessed with it. I immediately read Infinite Jest afterwards and have been meaning to get to Wallace's biography ever sense. I will say that although this bio is only 300 pages, it took me just as long to read it as it did for me to get through the 750-paged Didion one. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story feels dense even though it is far shorter. I think a lot of it is because there were time frames of Wallace's life I was substantially less interested in. There were parts that really slowed me down (Wallace's time at Amherst College) and then parts I flew through (his relationship with writer Mary Karr, his writing process for Infinite Jest). 

There's a lot of humour involved in the book as well, which makes sense given that Wallace's work is stuffed with comedy. One of my favourite passages was when Max was describing how a lot of people tried comparing Wallace and Kurt Cobain - both at the peak of their careers. Wallace wrote to his friends that he went to class telling all his students that he just heard this amazing band called Nirvana and asked if they knew of them. He claimed his students were too embarrassed to tell him how successful the band was. His friends doubted this story was actually true.

David Foster Wallace and the infamous bandana 
The Nirvana story is sort of a theme in Wallace's depiction of his own life. He would constantly downplay his intelligence or play the "aw shucks" midwestern role he felt he was entitled to. But this was the sort of demeanour I loved in Wallace. There's a line in Lipsky's book where Wallace says "the parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever, almost made me die," and I found it to be so moving. This stuff comes up in the biography whenever Max interviews journalists or other groups who wrote about Wallace:

Journalists in general were unsure what to make of the sincerity Wallace had worked so hard to earn. Interviewing him for Infinite Jest, Laura Miller of Salon.com described him as having the manner of a 'recovering smart aleck.' Wallace, though, was clear in his own mind that the change from who he had been was real."

Even though this book was recommended to me by friends who have read Wallace's work, I decided to read it after a brief moment in an essay by Chuck Klosterman. In the essay he talks about how famous people present themselves even when it is at odds with the truth. He uses Wallace as an example. How the author was able to build up this idea that he could have been a professional tennis player, or that he had a passionate romance with writer Mary Karr, and how these are all dispelled in his biography. I wrote the name of the book down right away and picked it up at the bookstore soon after. I ordered a ton of books at the time and the Wallace biography was packaged with Mary Karr's memoir which I found funny.

There's this great line in the biography where Amy Wallace describes how the family saw her brother's work: "We quietly agreed that his nonfiction was fanciful and his fiction was what you had to look out for." I loved this line because who isn't fanciful in their ideas of themselves? It's also interesting because everyone is always obsessed with learning how much of "real life" is in an author's fiction. We always conflate characters with the authors, and in this case Max recognizes that there's a ton of Wallace's mother in Infinite Jest character Avril Incandenza (grammar extremist) and a ton of Karr in Joelle Van Dyne (the PGOAT - prettiest girl of all time).

The more disturbing elements of the book are seeing how painfully depressed Wallace really was. It's so easy to romanticize depression and addiction, but not when it is laid out plainly as it is in Max's writing. Wallace self-describes in one section as his "particular neurological makeup is extremely sensitive: carsick, airsick, heightsick; my sister likes to say I'm 'lifesick.'" Some of his relationships with women were uncomfortable to read about as well. His obsession and stalker-like involvement with Karr was especially tough.


Again, the main aspects I took away from this book came directly from Wallace himself. I loved when he described his writing and how it evolved since he was an undergrad to when he completed his first book of short stories. I especially enjoyed the section where he talks about being a surrealist:

It was my first hint that being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn't exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it obligated, it upped them... That whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real... I mean, most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It's extra-realism, it's something on top of realism. It's that one thing in a Lynch frame that's off, that, if everything else weren't picture perfect and totally structured, wouldn't hit."

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to Wallace's work on his last book (published posthumously) The Pale King. I have this book on my shelf and will have to tackle it fairly soon, especially after reading what Wallace saw as the thesis for his new work of fiction:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all of our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention."

Jonathan Franzen (middle left) and David Foster Wallace 
The toughest part of this book is the last three pages. Max doesn't cover Wallace's suicide for a full chapter, he sums it up quickly and painfully at the very end. The biggest hit is that Wallace seemed to find happiness near the end of his life, especially with his wife and artist Karen Green. Wallace's obsession with television extended throughout his entire life, and the two of them loved to watch The Wire together. Green also knew how to deal with Wallace while he was working on his writing and they seemed to fit together perfectly. All this is especially painful to read when Max mentions Green returned home on the evening of September 12th, 2008, to find her husband had hanged himself.

The biggest shortcoming I find with biographies is how the subject is often uninvolved. Max's book is obviously written after Wallace's suicide. The majority of the book is pieced together through letters Wallace wrote to writer and friend Jonathan Franzen, as well as Wallace's mentor, writer Don DeLillo. There are also brief inserts of comments made during interviews such as with Wallace's sister Amy, and his publishers. The reason I was so enthralled with Lipsky's road trip book was that it all came from Wallace's mouth. It was more a reflection on his past and his depression rather than a description of it in the moment. And that's no fault of Max, its just my personal preference.

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