31. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, by D.T. Max

18 Nov

The experience of reading D.T. Max’s David Foster Wallace biography has been so riveting and enormously gratifying that it’s taken a while for the dust to settle and me to be able to consider it as a book.

On the personal level, I’ve been waiting since the mid-90s for answers to my many curiosities about David Foster Wallace. Who was he, where was he from, why did he live and teach in the Midwest, why did he wear the bandanna, why did his work mean so much to me and to the many other young people who connected with it so intensely, why wasn’t he writing more…and what was up the night of the Infinite Jest launch party, at the 10th Street Lounge, when he invited me back to his hotel to watch Baywatch? Was he serious? Joking? Did he want to fuck me? Should I have gone?

It’s both an enormous achievement and a little bit frightening that D.T. Max’s book answers all of those questions. He captures Wallace’s work and its meaning so elegantly, and puts forth such a detailed, coherent and revealing portrait of the author, that it’s easy to be distracted from how unsparingly harsh the book is.

Max does not flinch from revealing any of the author’s flaws. The voluptuous acne-picking, the womanizing, the Clearasil-spotted bathrobe, the OCD compulsions with the towels, the self-absorption, the betrayals of friends, the preoccupation with fame and status, the diet soda, the blondies, the meditation retreat Wallace bailed on because the food was bad, the way his dogs slurped food from his mouth. Ouch. God save any one of us from success and a few icky personal habits.

Even the redeeming parts of Wallace’s history come across like they were probably for the wrong reasons. He was by all accounts a great teacher, but the bio implies that the reason was perfectionism rather than love of the students. DFW’s drive to write world-changing literature was immensely complicated and not all that noble. The author’s possible best self, Max speculates, was seen in his friendships with the “real” people from his addiction recovery group. But these friendships were at least somewhat a put-on, a show, a theory.

The biography provides an eye-popping level of intimacy, like what you would get if a gang of your bright, critical, informed, pissed-off best friends sat down to sandbag you. I will now, with curiosity, await the bio of the bio (2040?), which will reveal who cooperated and who didn’t and why, and what everyone involved thought of it. Johnathan Franzen was obviously a major source, and that is not a person I’d trust in an alley with a lead pipe late at night.

The easy answer would be to be outraged, and claim that Max has committed a crime against morality or taste. But I keep coming back to the feeling I had while reading this book, which was…comforted, less lonely. I was sad for David Wallace but, overall in the world, less sad.

This makes me think that Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is too true to be criticized for the ugliness of the portrait that emerged. I think the book was truthful to what Max found out when he went looking, that it stuck to the truth of the people he talked to, and probably close to the truth of Wallace’s excoriated self-image. Honesty and technical proficiency are two of the greatest virtues in art, and this book has both.

It may also be an appropriate coda to a heartbreaking tale. Dave Wallace’s better self wanted to expose himself and us (the reader). He strove for the real, and failed, and flayed himself for his own striving, and for his own failure. Now he has been exposed. And we have been exposed for enjoying it. It’s a love story and a ghost story and one that the subject would recognize, if not deserve.

I should end there, but here is where I start wishing instead. David Foster Wallace revolted me with his first published story after Infinite Jest,  “the Depressed Person,” and lost me on Brief Interviews With Hideous men. I really don’t believe in hideous men. I wish that he’d gotten out of that box, and learned to forgive himself, and by extension the rest of humanity. I wish for something softer and deeper. I think he’d still be alive if he’d learned that, and I think he would have figured out something better to write. I wish he’d had children. I wish he’d surrounded himself with nicer people than Johnathan Franzen. I’m sorry that this story was his story.

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