Sunday, October 14, 2012

Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story by D. T. Max

Every time I read David Foster Wallace’s writing I feel like a hamster on an exercise wheel. The more I read the faster my mind moves until I become intellectually exhausted and have to slam the book shut and go do something mindless. D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, had the same effect.

I suppose I should tell you a little about David Foster Wallace, so here you go, in 25 words (a personal challenge): Born into academia, brilliant, driven, sometimes professor, published, a substance abuser, constantly depressed, suicidal, and horribly insecure about his looks, women, penis size, and writing.

I didn't even know who David Foster Wallace was until shortly after he committed suicide in 2008, and a book club friend recommended Wallace’s book, Consider The Lobster, which is actually one of his lighter tomes. I really loved how Wallace made me think differently about things, so I read David Lipsky's book,  Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, about a road trip he took with Foster Wallace.  Around the same time, I stumbled upon Mary Karr’s fabulous book Lit, and found out that she and Wallace were ill-fated and ill lovers – both brilliant writers and substance abusers. So long story short, I've become a bit of a David Foster Wallace junkie, and had to read Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story. 

Did I enjoy it? Well yes, in the way that you enjoy a long, hot, sweaty run. You know it is good for you and you feel magnanimous in your discipline, and even in love with the run once it is completed. The major difference being that unlike running, while reading Every Love Story, I didn’t want to stop. To the point, neither David Foster Wallace nor D. T. Max are casual reads. They delve deeply and use big words.

In spite of author D. T. Max’s intellectually challenging writing about Foster Wallace's intellectually challenging writing, I was mesmerized by his dissection of Foster Wallace’s mind. Foster Wallace’s writing is so elegantly simple in it’s awkward and complex self-exposure, that I couldn’t quite imagine how D. T. Max could sort it all out in a more meaningful way than what Foster Wallace has already given us. But he does, but I’m not sure if I can explain why other than to say that Every Love Story is sort of the Hubble telescope view of Foster Wallace, revealing things not previously seen.

At this point you may be wondering how Foster Wallace's writing and thinking, and D. T. Max's writing and thinking about Foster Wallace, can be complex and simple, intellectually challenging and elegant all at the same time. Well, therein lies the key to why this book kept sucking me in, regardless of the fact that it is not even in the same universe as fun.

I was curious about the book’s title, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and found this statement from an interview with author, Max (pictured):
It seems to me that it captures so perfectly what he always felt was the futility, the difficulty, of not just writing about people, but actually being with people. He had a great deal of trouble in his relationships and a great deal of trouble understanding relationships. And then, of course, I also felt like that was really the reader's relationship with David. It wasn't really just a reference to his suicide, but obviously contained a big aspect of the fact that he was gone now, and whatever love readers felt for him was now going to be a love for an absence, for a ghost.

Although I have yet to tackle Wallace’s 1,000-page novel, Infinite Jest, named by TIME magazine in 2005 as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present, his description in Infinite Jest of depression as “the Great White Shark of pain” is depressingly clear:
A level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it… a nausea of the cells and soul…a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible… a radical loneliness in which everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution.

Wallace wanted to live “in the moment,” but it was not something he could do. He couldn’t shut down the frenetic voices in his head, always questioning, always analyzing, and it was torturous.

Wallace once said, “I’m an exhibitionist who wants to hide, but is unsuccessful at hiding; therefore, somehow I succeed.” In fact, Wallace is such a bundle of conflicts, that I think it would be hard for anyone not to see themselves somewhere in his writing.

Furthermore, he examines the things we’d really rather avoid, but in a way that makes us feel less weird, and which makes sense, and that is comforting.

I’m not done reading David Foster Wallace, or about David Foster Wallace, or D. T. Max's other writings, and I doubt seriously that this exceptional book is the last we’ll see about Foster Wallace, who was so enigmatic that people will be picking him apart forever.

The sad irony is that David Foster Wallace just wanted to be liked, and now that he is dead, he is.

1 comment:

  1. DT Max uses Wallace's works as a proxy for the momentum of the story as opposed to uncovering the real drivers behind Wallace. I didn't get a sense of the depth of Wallace's struggle towards the end. His death is almost a footnote, last par, of the whole book. Yet it was this act that was so astounding given his insights to his own problems and problems facing society.