In odd ways my life ran parallel to that of David Foster Wallace. And to that of DT Max, the author of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the first biography of a man many have named the voice of his (our) generation. Like Wallace, I had the midwestern childhood, the years in New York, and a consuming passion for language and literature.
Early in Wallace’s career, I attended a reading in New York, compelled by friends to tag along, having no idea who the shaggy, unconventional writer on stage was. But I was impressed. He was clearly brilliant. And earnest–deadly earnest. He spoke of wanting to find a new language to express an ever shifting, fast paced, increasingly fragmented experience.
My head was full of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, and James. Narrative continuity. At that time, contemporary writing was ‘not my thing’. At bookstores, I dipped into Wallace’s books, but never purchased one. They were too cartoonish for my taste, too clever and recursive, too ironic. Having never been seduced by postmodernism (though I read my share of theory in grad school), Wallace’s ‘maximalist’ response to it was like reading a foreign language. And there were too many other wonderful books in towers around me.
Still, Wallace remained in the corner of my consciousness. Now and then, I read something about him. Occasionally, I’d stumble across one of his books in a used bookstore. I knew he resided in the literary firmament, the recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, friends with DeLillo and Franzen and many others, but that he eschewed fame, something he referred to as the ‘red eye of Sauron’*. I respected that. And maybe because he managed to maintain humility and earnestness and a scathing work ethic in spite of his success, when I heard about his suicide in 2008, I felt as though I lost someone I knew.
Max’s biography of Wallace does credit to his subject. He never met Wallace. Like me, the closest he got was a literary party in New York in the ’90s. But one senses he knew Wallace the way I felt I knew him. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story is a tightly packed, straightforward account of one writer’s life, but it has something to say to all writers. Max exhaustively details the depressions, the battle with substance abuse, the hospitalisations, antidepressants, and electroconvulsive therapy. He recounts the affairs, the recoveries, Wallace’s insecurities, rages, even his murderous thoughts. We learn about his dogs, the TV shows he liked, and his penchant for wallpapering his bathroom with pages from his manuscripts.
And yet, this is a biography not only of the writer but of the writing. We are given an intimate view of the creative process in all its highs and lows. When Wallace was working well, he was prolific. He claimed to have written 750,000 words on Infinite Jest alone. Wallace’s energy and the constant whirring in his brain jump off the page. In fallow periods, when Wallace produced nothing, he worried about his lack of output through every drawn out, painful moment of the day. Max details Wallace’s commitment to the writing process in such a way that it becomes a masterclass for writers of all kinds.
There is something unnerving about Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, an ever-present note of sadness that hangs over the biography from the first page, from the title itself, looming like the red eye of Sauron, in this case not Wallace’s growing fame but the chilling fact of his suicide. This makes for a painful life to read. To his credit, Max resists sensationalising Wallace’s fate. Even in the final pages, when we know the act is not far off, Max recounts Wallace’s last days and moments in a hushed, understated way.
The tragedy is a heavy one. After years of sobriety and meditation, after finding happiness with Karen Green, a woman to whom he was singularly well-suited, Wallace felt emboldened to get off the antidepressants he’d been taking for two decades. Nardil is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that has problematic interactions with certain foods. But this wasn’t the only reason Wallace wanted to try life without it. He was struggling to write The Pale King, the novel he’d been battling for years, and wondered if he would be more inspired and energetic off his meds.
It was an act of hope rather than desperation. Finally calm, mellowed, contented, believing his demons were behind him, Wallace wondered if another way of being was possible. Sadly, it proved not to be.
* From Tolkien.
D.T. Max is a graduate of Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new book, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, was published by Viking Penguin on August 30, 2012. He is also the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, their two young children, and a rescued beagle who came to them named Max.