EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY: and every ghost story is our story
The most important thing to tell you about reading Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story (D. T. Max, Viking) is that every few pages I would need to pause, close the book on my thumb to keep my place, and feel a little bit icky at a recurring thought:
What would David Foster Wallace think of this?
Since his death in 2008, efforts to enshrine Wallace in text have run rampant. Despite a hypersensitivity to any whiff of literary rubbernecking, I’ve gravitated toward all the interviews, speeches, and unfinished works as they’ve appeared. It’s macabre. It’s cheap. It’s the best and only way we have to read “new” work from him.
I had my suspicions even before reading Every Love Story, but the details of Wallace’s personality offered in the biography itself confirm it: He would have hated this book.
Don’t get me wrong; Every Love Story is a good biography. D. T. Max narrates a straightforward and absorbing account. His familiarity can be unsettling—how do you know what Wallace was feeling on this particular day when you weren’t there? But the lengthy acknowledgments section offers ample evidence of Max’s thorough research and dedication to his subject.
In fact, the book is so intimate and inviting that it makes Wallace seem nearby. Now, during the course of my day, I catch myself thinking Dave would think this is funny or Dave would say I’m being solipsistic or WWDFWD? The comparisons bounce around my brain like Wallace’s own ambivalences about his work and his worth. I’m in a vicious cycle of seeing likeness, denouncing likeness (who the hell do I think I am?), seeing likeness in denouncing likeness, denouncing that likeness, ad nauseum. I feel as though I’m in his head and it looks just like mine, and this freaks me out a little, since, you know. It’s more than a little unnerving, but I like it. I like having him around.
No doubt any biographer’s objective includes conjuring empathy in the reader, and Max does a good job of this while not dismissing Wallace’s flaws. Perhaps he even focuses on those flaws a little too much. The biography is an amalgamation of countless interviews with Wallace’s friends, family, peers, but at times the personal details of his tumultuous relationships read like he-said-she-said, minus the chance for Wallace to respond.
Max focuses on how these relationships are filtered into and reflected by Wallace’s writing, which is interesting but only in the way reading a gossip magazine is interesting—its idle speculation makes you feel gross after reading. Lines like “Infinite Jest had been driven by [Wallace’s] dysfunctional yearning for Mary Karr” give serious pause—that a work so advanced and comprehensive could be reduced to any one impetus seems a giant oversimplification. Sure, an author’s writing could be driven by existential issues embodied in a relationship, but such blips of conflation and sloppy prose lead only to scoffs and eye rolling, not insight.
For both its merits and its failings, the biography left me with an urge to return to Wallace in his own words—to reread the novels and follow up on all the essays and stories and marginalia I missed (some I learned of thanks to Max’s book). It’s a happy impulse and I’m in luck because a new collection of previously uncollected writings is slated to appear next month: Both Flesh and Not (creepy title) includes several of the articles and essays Max contextualizes in Every Love Story, as well as a piece called “Borges on the Couch,” which is (get this!) Wallace’s review of a biography.
Maybe it’s the worst kind of literary rubbernecking to Frankenstein together an opinion to attribute to Wallace retroactively, but I trust his own words before a biographer’s or my own assumptions. So what did Wallace think of biography and would he have hated Every Love Story as I expect? Let’s go to the video cartridge:
[…It] often seems that the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire. And the more intimate and thorough the bio, the stronger this feeling usually is. […] It is not merely that Williamson reads every last thing in Borges’ oeuvre as a correlative of the author’s emotional state. It is that he tends to reduce all of Borges’ psychic conflicts and personal problems to the pursuit of women.
Replace Williamson with Max and Borges with Wallace and you could be reading this book review instead. Perhaps Wallace is a teensy bit defensive of Borges because the offending biographer’s words hit close to home, because Wallace feared that some day his work would be interpreted the same way. It turns out this would have been a justified fear. Still, it goes deeper than self-defense: “Stuff like this misses the point,” Wallace writes. “Even if Williamson’s claims are true, the stories so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.”
The literary biographer, in humanizing a subject, always risks chopping him down to size (or smaller still), risks reducing works of art to the byproducts of a messy life. This is a disservice both to art and to artists. However, that does not mean we should ignore the lives that make art possible, avoiding the spots where literary analysis veers into the dark or personal and instead glossing over the less-flattering details of creativity and human existence.
Ego aside, maybe gritty and complicated is how Wallace would want it. In part, Every Love Story charts the evolution of his work from post-modern pyrotechnics into a more committed, more involved, more exposed sincerity. Max quotes Wallace in an interview:
“Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” The writer’s job was to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. […] Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
Wallace’s project in his writing and in his life was the real, emotional, tangible project of how to live in the world—and Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story continues that project by showing us the writer as human, showing us ourselves in him and vice versa (WWDFWD?), showing us our shared struggle to be creative and alive.
Of course these, too, are oversimplifications. All of knowing another person is oversimplification, is contradiction. To his credit, D. T. Max cops to this up front, choosing his epigraph from a section of Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon”: “What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.” The biographer knows his limitations and knows this is the story of a life still worth telling. He makes sure we love the work no less for having known the man a little more.
The purpose of biography isn’t cautionary tale or the airing of dirty laundry, but we need these stories even with their imperfections. They are necessary because they teach us how to live. They show us “what it is to be a fucking human being.” Witnessing another person struggle with the very problem of how to stay alive helps us figure that out as well. We read David Foster Wallace to keep his work alive; we read it to keep ourselves alive. His ghost story is our story.
- Read an excerpt in The New Yorker
- Read Max’s original essay on Wallace, “The Unfinished”
- Read an interview with Max at The Believer | NY Times
- Read more reviews: The Independent | The Guardian | NPR (listen) | The LA Review of Books | AV Club | Boston Globe | SF Chronicle
- Watch Max read and discuss Every Love Story at The Booksmith
Sarah Ciston runs Bootleg Books, an Oakland-based book editing and design studio that helps independent authors and publishers go rogue. She is managing editor of the small-batch literary zine We Still Like.