Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story

By D. T. Max

David Foster Wallace wasn’t a great fan of literary biographies, but not because he was overly concerned about becoming the subject of one himself and feared what Judas was going to say about him. Thus far at least he’s had little to worry about on that score, as a cult of Saint David (the dismissive tag comes courtesy of a twittering Bret Easton Ellis) seems to be already firming up.

No, the obvious reason for not being excited about literary lives is that, as Wallace put it in a review of a Borges bio, “the personal lives of most people who spend fourteen hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill-rides to hear about.” Trying to imagine his future biography he came up blank:

“‘Dave sat in the smoking lounge of the library, pensively taking a drag from a cigarette and trying to think of the next line.'” He added, “Who wants to read that?”

And in fact a biographer of David Foster Wallace has very little to work with. Most writers lead dull, uninteresting lives, but even among writers Wallace stands out for not standing out. Aside from his writing, the things that seem most notable – he suffered from depression and had a history of substance abuse that frequently landed him in rehab – are details that in anybody else’s life would be the kind of sad, everyday stuff we would not want to hear about.

It is, in other words, an average story, and judged solely as representative of its genre, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is an average effort. The emphasis throughout is on Wallace’s work, which becomes a lens through which to understand his life. Along the way I learned some things I was happy to know (Wallace was a great dog lover, and got a sitter to stay with his dogs if he was going to be away from them for more than a couple of hours), and a few things I wasn’t (a lot of Wallace’s “non-fiction” was made up).

In terms of critical analysis, too strong a case, in my opinion, is made for Wallace’s breaking with postmodernist tradition and forging a “new kind of writing.” It seems to me that while Wallace did manage to get over his undergraduate infatuation with people like Derrida (recognizing, a bit belatedly, that theory was a total dead end), he always remained firmly in the Pynchon camp. His turn against irony and adoption of “single-entendre” fiction didn’t mark any profound break from someone whose early motto was “be cool but care.” Sincerity has always been a core value of American literature; what made Wallace’s attitude so sad was his awareness that there was no going back to a pre-ironic aesthetic.

On other matters I felt Max was holding back. Left particularly baffling was the nature of Wallace’s relationship with his mother. For a long time they weren’t getting along, but it’s never made clear what the cause of this was. In his acknowledgements Max mentions receiving “welcome support from Wallace’s family, especially his sister” but there is little evidence he got much out of either parent. Elsewhere, Wallace’s letters to Don DeLillo are quoted from quite extensively, but there’s almost nothing of what DeLillo wrote back. And finally I’m always suspicious of intellectuals who take a “professional” interest in the porn business. I came away thinking there was probably something more than that behind Wallace’s long fascination with the adult industry. This was, after all, a highly-sexed loner with addiction issues. Was it all just “research”? I have my doubts, but Max has no interest in going there.

What makes this particular literary life so valuable, however, is the fact that it’s about someone who was our contemporary, making this a portrait of the writer in our own time. Which is not a happy time to be a writer.

Three points jump out:

(1) Wallace was one of the first of a mass cohort of writers who were trained in creative writing programs and then circulated back into the system as teachers. “Writing means teaching,” was the central fact of this new dispensation, and one that Wallace understood from the beginning. Furthermore, despite excellent sales (for a literary author), Wallace was also a writer supported by special funding. The sad irony being that he became rich and famous only at a point where it no longer meant anything to him, and money and fame were things he not only didn’t need but didn’t even want (he ended up giving a lot of his MacArthur grant money away). These matters are neither good nor bad in themselves, but the next time you hear someone complaining about CW programs and their pernicious influence on today’s young authors, it’s worth keeping in mind that Wallace was very much a product of those same programs, however out of place he might have felt in them.

(2) Though not a digital native, Wallace was there at the dawn of the digital revolution. Evidence of this is referenced in Max’s note on sources, where, after mentioning the extraordinary trove of letters Wallace left behind, he remarks that “David may have been the last great letter writer in American literature (with the advent of email his correspondence grows terser, less ambitious.)” The times were changing, and while Wallace’s work was infused with a concern over the new spirit of the age (media fragmentation, information theory, narcissism), that doesn’t mean he felt personally in synch with what was happening. The Internet scared him. “Digital = abstract = sterile, somehow,” he wrote to DeLillo. “Thank God,” his wife remembered him saying when he got a new piece of computer equipment, “I wasn’t raised in this era.” And God help, one wants to add, those who were and who still want to be writers.

(3) There are few second acts in American literature, and in our time many of the first acts have been remarkably brief. One of the hot new names contemporary with Wallace was, according to Max, Mark Leyner. I had never heard of him before reading this book. Meanwhile, is any member of the “brat pack” of Conspicuously Young Authors – Jay MacInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz – read today? (The fourth “official” member of the pack, Mark Lindquist, isn’t even mentioned here.) Elizabeth Wurtzel (who Wallace tried, unsuccessfully, to bed) seems to have vanished without a trace. Even among Wallace’s acolytes the process of dynamic obsolescence is working in overdrive. How many people can name a David Eggers novel after A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and this despite the fact that he continues to receive excellent reviews? The painful fact is that by the time he was 40 Wallace knew in his bones that his fifteen minutes were over, and indeed said as much.

What, then, is a serious, literary writer today but a kind of ghost, haunting the information/media wasteland Stephen Henighan has dubbed the afterlife of culture? Every literary bio is a ghost story. Sadly, Wallace didn’t stand at the beginning of anything, but at the end of a lot.

Review first published online January 14, 2013.

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