Reviews: Books & Film
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Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (2012)

David Foster Wallace

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.”

 

David Foster Wallace

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Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy; I pass the winters in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I'm working on a memoir-based nonfiction book on the American Dream. I blog, quite frequently, and I also have a novel in process, set in Alaska.

6 Comments

  1. He’s one of my very favorites…I think about him so often, and wish he could’ve known just how much good he was doing in the world with his words. That thing of having the acute awareness of how short we fall of our own desires/ideals…that’s a painful thing indeed. But then, I think that some of us also really veer way more towards knowing how short we fall, and not knowing nearly enough how good we are, and it seems to me DFW was one of those. Yanno?

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      • “Big Red Son,” an essay about porn, is really amazing I think. It’s just crushing, but in such a different way than a moralizing essay about porn would be. At the end I felt nauseated and so incredibly grieved, which, there’s just no way that would’ve been accomplished by moralizing. Amazing. Let’s see…what else. The whole “Consider the Lobster” book. I also really loved “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again,” but when I read it the second time I found it to be more clever and slightly less substantial somehow than in the first reading. I haven’t read any of this fiction! What about you?

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      • I’ve read the Consider the Lobster essay, as well (though not Big Red Son). In Consider the Lobster DFW manages to reach the reader at a deeper level than moralizing and finger-wagging tend to do, as you said. I’ve read selections from Infinite Jest, from the David Foster Wallace Reader. I’ll go back and read the novel through, start to finish, someday. It was quite the unique work, according to D. T. Max, his biographer. Infinite Jest seemed to represent all the important strands of DFW’s writing. There’s also lots of correlations with Dostoevsky’s Brothers K, a work that Wallace admired…..I’m curious. Do you still come across people who love his work? Do you find that fellow writer/literary friends are fans and avid readers of DFW?

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      • Yeah, I definitely come across lots of people who like him. A lot of my millennial friends are into him. I sort of feel like my artist friends are divided into two camps–people who like DFW, and people who haven’t read him. I don’t recall coming across anyone who’s read him widely and doesn’t like him, although I’m sure such folks exist.

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