I recently finished Every Loves Story is A Ghost Story, a biography of David Foster Wallace. It was one of the best biographies I’ve read in quite a while, which is perhaps a bit surprising when you think about it, because a writer’s life doesn’t really tend to be the stuff of compelling story telling. Wallace himself joked about this. The writer’s life is not necessarily the stuff that makes for a tense, action-packed thriller.
Even so, I was hooked. Maybe it’s just that I’m a writer and reading about the neurotic life of another writer is appealing, therapeutic even, but I think D. T. Max in truth just knocked it out of the park. It was easy to empathize with Wallace, in his struggle to write something in a form that both resonated with and challenged his contemporaries, all the while dealing with very intense periods of depression and self-doubt.
For me, the thing that stands out about Wallace’s life and writing are his contradictions. He seemed to struggle most greatly with the contradictions that he saw in his own life and the contradictions that he saw in contemporary culture. Wallace’s sensibilities were deeply moral, verging on the spiritual, yet his personal life often was at odds with these lofty ideals and intuitions, as he himself was well aware. Yet, it was from his own struggle and his own honesty about his failures that he wrote about himself and the culture in a way that captured these same internal concerns, from an audiance of self-aware, self-conscious Americans grappling with their own difficulties with addictions and disconnect.
As an example, takes Wallace’s crusade against irony. Irony, Wallace notes, is the tool of the powerless, but irony as a way of life is dangerous, and carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage…is critical and destructive, a ground clearing, irony is singularly unuseful in constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies that which it debunks. In other words, irony is defeatist, and for Wallace, sincerity suddenly became a virtue.
Yet Wallace himself could never, truly, make a break from irony, as much as he labored to find a form of fiction that allowed him to do so. A. O. Scott notes that Wallace is more “meta-ironic” than anti-ironic:
Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth. Janus-faced, he demands to be taken at face value. “Single-entendre principles” is a cleverly tossed off phrase, but Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity—to a quality he has called, with reference to the filmmaker David Lynch, “bothness.” He wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark. (The Panic of Influence)
This isn’t a strike against Wallace. As James Wood in Newsday put it (commenting on Wallace’s nonfiction writing), His contradictions are his strength. I would agree.
Whatever neuroses he had, they seemed to reflect us. As Max puts it, summarizing Wallace’s perspective, “Our passions are no longer our own. In the age of media we are nothing more than minds waiting to be filled, emotions primed to be manipulated. We do not chose carefully enough what to love, as Wallace notes in Infinite Jest. His generation was suspended between exhaustion and input too intense to bear.”