Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

The writing of David Foster Wallace was a fairly recent discovery for me. Last summer, at the urging of a colleague, I took about a month to plough through “Infinite Jest.” It was a weird read: as compelling as a page turner, brimming with absolutely virtuosic writing, but the prose was missing a necessary element of… emotion? I’m not sure if I can put my finger on it. Many people describe DFW’s writing as being full of “pyrotechnics,” and I agree, but things like the development of Don Gately toward the end are so full of soul that I’m helpless not to include “Infinite Jest” on any list of my favourite novels henceforth.

Excited, I soon picked up “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” and disliked it enormously. It wasn’t that I didn’t find it well-written or emotionally engaging (the many autobiographical references to depression are hard to read, sometimes), but overall I was bored, something I didn’t come near to experiencing with IJ.

So I gave him a break, and brought his famous essay collection “Consider the Lobster” with me on my recent trip to France. And again it blew my mind. I’d never read essays like these before (I might do a book talk on his essays, after I get around to reading “Supposedly Fun Thing”), at once extremely intelligent and compelling, but also funny and playful. It made me think with shame of all the high school and university essays I wrote that were just flat on the page, lacking any life or interest. And it throws down the gauntlet for any essays I dare to write in the future.

All this is a preamble to my having recently finished “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,” D.T. Max’s biography of DFW that’s recently out in paperback. Wallace’s untimely suicide in 2008 notwithstanding, I was excited to read about the life and development of someone who on the strength of his writing I must consider to be at least something of a genius. And there were definitely uplifting and inspiring parts to the story.

But what struck me most deeply was the sense of sorrow and struggle that seems to have pervaded his life. He struggled with addiction, depression, anxiety, and what I would identify (mostly through his letters to friends, an astonishing number of which Max seems to have gotten his hands on) as a total lack of confidence in what he was doing; he seemed to be always second-guessing, always under pressure, and after reading Max’s book it’s not hard to see the forces under which he failed to publish another novel, in his lifetime, after the powerhouse “Infinite Jest.”

The recipient of the famed “Genius Grant,” regarded by many as the greatest American writer of his generation, successful as a university instructor and eventually finding a soulmate in Karen Green, committed suicide at the age of 46. These are the things I knew about DFW before I read this bio. I was shocked to see, despite apparent appearances, what a sad life Wallace seems to have lived. And for me as a young writer, he’s now become both an inspiration, and the ultimate cautionary tale.

DFW-B

 

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