“Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story succeeds in offering the clearest glimpse yet of what it must have felt like to live in Wallace’s head . . .”
David Foster Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” begins with its narrator, Neal, declaring himself a fraud. Every interaction he has, he explains, is merely the means to an end: to get people to like and admire him. Whether getting good grades, making out with a pretty girl, or hitting for a high average on his high-school baseball team, everything he does is a pose he adopts to receive validation.
Neal develops something called the “fraudulence paradox,” which posits the harder you work to make people find you attractive, the less attractive—or more fraudulent—you feel inside. And the more fraudulent you feel inside, the harder you keep working to make people find you attractive so they don’t discover just how fraudulent you are.
“Good Old Neon” is perhaps the quintessential Wallace piece, a story of frightening intensity, because it takes a banal premise—what it means to “be yourself”—and then drills so deep into the “vicious infinite regress” of Neal’s mind that it inevitably raises questions about the author who wrote it.
Since Wallace’s own death in September 2008, his work has been reevaluated, his newly unveiled archives pored over, all of us looking for the hidden-in-plain-sight clues for what led him, as Neal eventually does, to kill himself.
D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, the first full-length exploration of Wallace’s life, provides some much-needed context about the man who since his death has become a beatified figure, a generational spokesperson without peer.
Expanding on his devastating New Yorker profile from 2009, Mr. Max ably tracks Wallace’s life from his Midwestern upbringing to his rise as a leading American fiction writer, covering his mental breakdowns and substance abuse, and through to his anguished final days when he finally succumbed to crippling depression.
But the portrait of Wallace that emerges is much more complicated than the romanticized version most people know.
A product and stone disciple of the television age, Wallace was ever aware of his projected image, doing as much as anyone to further the mythology surrounding him (the subtitle of this book is A Life of David Foster Wallace, not The Life, and that distinction cannot be incidental).
More than once, Mr. Max quotes Wallace in an interview or personal letter making claims the public record cannot corroborate or his closest friends find unlikely.
Contradictions abound: Wallace comes across as a deeply thoughtful and particularly sensitive person who was still given to explosive bouts of insecurity and pettiness (he once, however fleetingly, considered killing poet Mary Karr’s husband when she wavered on divorce).
An author uniquely skilled at capturing the unceasing inner monologue rolling around other people’s heads, but a man surprisingly disinterested in the real-life concerns of the many women he slept with.
At its best, Every Love Story defends Wallace’s stature as a major literary figure—why his death cut so deep. More than just reciting biographical facts, Mr. Max uses them to show how they informed a body of work whose main preoccupation was exploring “what it means to be a fucking human being” in a heavily-mediated age.
The thrust of the narrative focuses on the years leading up to the publication of Infinite Jest, which has become the Great White Whale for readers (and writers) of a certain age. Wallace’s ambition—one he would struggle with for most of his writing career—was marrying the playful, postmodern gags he loved as a college undergrad with sincere “single-entendre” writing that was not afraid to speak emotional truths without first drenching them in irony or air quotes.
“Literature,” Mr. Max writes, “especially from the sorts of writers Wallace felt in conversation with, was about delving, extracting, and then layering a complicating layer of language on observed life . . . In Infinite Jest, Wallace was proposing to wash Pynchonian excess in the chilling waters of DeLillo’s prose and then heat it up again in Dostoevsky’s redemptive fire.”
Wallace, the book convincingly argues, was never able to fully reconcile these warring impulses. His final work, 2011’s posthumously-assembled The Pale King, featured some of the most vivid, unfettered prose he had ever written, but he still couldn’t help himself: One of its main characters is the author David Wallace, and footnotes, his trademark affectation, were in ample display.
Though Mr. Max spoke with many of Wallace’s family and friends, he relies mainly on his subject’s public appearances and print interviews to round out his profile. But he also had full access to Wallace’s handwritten correspondence—and those letters prove the book’s single greatest feature, illuminating Wallace like nothing else in the book.
Wallace was a letter-writer in the old-fashioned tradition: not just writing them to keep in touch but to conduct full-scale inquiries about the nature of life and writing (his exchanges with Don DeLillo, in particular, feel like a decade-long Socratic dialogue). In these letters, one can see Wallace working out the anxieties that would recur in his writing.
In this letter Wallace wrote to Karr, you can hear the gist of his future protagonist Neal’s dilemma:
“I go through a loop in which I notice all the ways I am . . . self-centered and careerist and not true to standards and values that transcend my own petty interests, and feel like I’m not one of the good ones; but then I countenance the fact that here at least here I am worrying about it, noticing all the ways I fall short of integrity, and I imagine that maybe people without any integrity at all don’t notice or worry about it; so then I feel better about myself; but this soon becomes a vehicle for feeling superior to (imagined) Others.”
Later in the same letter, he concludes: “I think I’m very honest and candid, but I’m also proud of how honest and candid I am—so where does that put me.”
Ultimately, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story succeeds in offering the clearest glimpse yet of what it must have felt like to live in Wallace’s head—in all its brilliant, recursive, exhausting glory.