I got interested in reading Every Story Is a Ghost Story, the biography of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max,* after Bret Easton Ellis kept complaining about it on Twitter. I don’t actually follow Ellis on Twitter, but one hears things.
These and other tweets gave me the impression that 1. Ellis was consumed by jealousy for Wallace’s reputation and 2. the biography was a breathless panegyric.
The second thing, at least, isn’t true. The biography makes it clear that Wallace could be a terrible jerk, particularly to women. On a more trivial note, he was kind of gross: he chewed tobacco (the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel told him he would have a better chance at getting women into bed if he didn’t, but it seems like he had plenty of success there anyway), and he let his dogs lick food out of his mouth. He also sweated a lot, which was hardly his fault, and that’s why in many photos he’s wearing a white bandana around his head: it looks like a bandaged head wound, a visible metaphor for a frequently traumatized mind. In college, he was an insufferable know-it-all, but many of us were, and Wallace really was brilliant.
I was particularly interested in Wallace’s biography because it covered some familiar territory for me: the MFA program at the University of Tucson, depression, and addiction. In the murky Venn diagram of my own experience, these three things overlap quite a bit. Wallace smoked a lot of weed and seemed to become an alcoholic after lots of binge drinking with the already very wealthy Jay McInerney when they were both at Yaddo, the artists’ colony. Wallace later turned to AA and became a big proponent of the program.
Because he attained such remarkable early success, it would be easy to imagine that he was the kind of genius who just naturally turned out masterpieces. In fact, he did tons of work that went nowhere (an ill-conceived project about porn, for instance) and wrote hundreds or thousands of pages that never got printed. His life didn’t follow a typical path of success: he had to go back home after breaking down at college, and later he spent time at a halfway house.
He worked in between, and sometimes through, devastating bouts of depression, which he fought so hard against that his suicide in the book comes as a kick in the gut, even though you know it’s coming all along. When he hangs himself, D.T. Max ends things abruptly, an appropriate choice. Wallace had gone off his antidepressant when he ended his life. Most people I’ve met who have attempted suicide did so after giving up their pills. For God’s sake, if your meds are working, stay on them.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is a thoroughly engrossing read that also talks a lot about literary ideas of the time, which made me want to read a lot more. It also covers the almost hilariously torturous process of editing Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, which made me want to read that book in particular.
My edition of the book began with a foreword from Dave Eggers asserting that the novel’s form is really, well, novel. I didn’t wind up agreeing. Eggers also assured me that I didn’t need to be scared of the book’s length, which I found silly. Bitch**, I read War and Peace. Twice!
I won’t read Infinite Jest a second time. There is just not enough happening. Revolutionaries, for instance, hang out on a mountain near Tucson talking throughout most of the book. Real-life revolutionaries probably do sit around talking most of the time, but I don’t want to read about it for long. Most of the action happens at a tennis academy (Wallace himself was quite a good player) and at a halfway house/rehab center, and I found the latter scenario by far the more interesting. Eggers writes about depression and addiction better than any other writer I’ve read. He describes depression as a kind of nausea and pain on the cellular level. His description of a pot smoker who plans to quit, and who’s anxiously waiting for his dealer to come by, is flawless.
Even though the book was light on plot, I read it very carefully, because Wallace’s prose is outstanding. He has unforgettable images and metaphors, he can be very funny (even if he talks more about farts and shit than I would like him to), he has a wild imagination, and makes a lot of wise observations.
He also does some very stupid things, revealing some real insensitivity toward women, people of color, and gay people. I believe he got a pass for this because people thought it was ironic, or something. I expected the story to be less ironic than it was, based on his essay about the “new sincerity” in fiction. Although there is some real feeling (particularly between two brothers in the book, and between a staff member and a resident at the halfway house), I would have preferred more. Maybe his writing would have gone more in that direction if he had stayed alive, and I like to think he might have become more enlightened. I don’t believe that madness fuels creativity–Wallace’s biography suggests the opposite–but they do unfortunately go hand in hand way too often, and it’s a shame.
*It seems appropriate in a post about David Foster Wallace to use footnotes, given his love for them, so I thought I would mention here that I keep mentally referring to D.T. Max as “T.J. Maxx.” I bet I’m not the only one who does that.
**I think the world of Eggers as an author, so I’m using “bitch” affectionately here.