Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by TD Max
I first read Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men about ten years ago and hated it. But I was reintroduced to him, as many were, when I saw a video of his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. It, I believe, captures in example what Every Love Story captures in biography—a man who was brilliant, insightful, humorous, kind, caring, self deprecating, hyper-self-aware and generous.
Much has been written about David Foster Wallace’s significance as an author. He helped usher fiction out of the post-modern and into the post-post-modern, or whatever followed post-modern. This book provides insight into the stories and struggles behind Wallace’s work.
Max makes few judgments and neither sensationalizes Wallace’s life nor evangelizes for the church of Wallace. When it comes to the more tabloid-friendly topics, Max errs on the side of blandness, something Wallace would have appreciated. Wallace himself downplayed his drug and alcohol problems, reckless love life and bouts of severe depression—all the characteristics the media likes in their artists. He wasn’t embarrassed of his shortcomings as much as he was embarrassed by the triteness of them. As he said in his 1997 interview with Charlie Rose,* “It sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do. ‘Oh, he’s out of rehab and back in action.’”
Although he was a brilliant man, what I find most likable in Wallace’s character is how generous he was with his students, awarded several times for his dedication and loved for his sometimes childlike enthusiasm.
One day he put the words “pulchritudinous,” “miniscule,” “big,” and “misspelled” on the blackboard. He asked his students what the four words had in common, and, when no one knew, happily pointed out that the appearance of each was the opposite of its meaning: “pulchritudinous” was ugly, “miniscule” was big, “big” was small, and “misspelled” was spelled correctly. The students had rarely seen him so happy.
The biography also chronicles Wallace’s demons. He struggled to stay sober and drug-free, and his dependency on anti-depressants became a kind of clean-living moral dilemma. But beyond his depression, there was a deeper dissatisfaction with his public self image and his need to maintain it. It was an oppressive self-awareness that became pervasive in his writing and even more so in his life. In a letter to a friend, he wondered if he had become a “literary statue…that I want others to mistake for the real me.” He loved being loved by his fans, but he also felt “frozen by his own need to be the person others saw him as.”
Wallace ultimately lost his battle with depression, committing suicide in 2008. He was such a harsh critic and so hyper-self-aware that it’s not hard to imagine him complaining of the predictability of his own end. It is unsatisfying, unspectacular, and Max treats it as such. With a note of bitterness, the biography ends: “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.”
Every Love Story is better as a companion to Wallace’s work than a stand-alone biography. If you’re into Wallace (I’m going through a bit of a phase myself), it’s a good read, but probably not so much if you’re looking for pulp. There are plenty of artists who enjoyed their wild celebrity lifestyle. Wallace was not one of them.
* Below is Wallace’s interview with Charlie Rose from 1997. My favorite part of that interview comes in the second part (at about 7:54) when Rose is asking Wallace about the footnotes in his book, and Wallace responds that he’s going to look pretentious.
ROSE: Stop worrying about how you’re going to look and just be.
WALLACE: I have got news for you…coming on a television show stimulates your “what am I gonna look like gland” like no other experience. You may now be such a veteran that you don’t notice it anymore. You confront your own vanity when you think about going on tv.