The older I get the more I truly believe ignorance is bliss, especially if you’re the type to put heroes on a pedestal. I am that type and while the crumbling of the pedestal is a painful process, the knowledge that your heroes are really people with actual human failures is oddly comforting, after you get over the disappointment.
Reading D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace turned me into a twenty-year-old with a crush.
At first I was eagerly eating up every detail Max dished out in his very matter-of-fact completely devoid of emotion way. I would celebrate every connection I could find between me and DFW. He likes gin & tonics! I love gin & tonics! He likes to eat Nutter Butters. I love Nutter Butters!
It was ridiculous. And then like a twentysomething with a crush who finds her affection not returned things started to rot.
He voted for Reagan. Barf! He sleeps with his grad students. Barf!
In fact, DFW was a dog, sleeping willy nilly with his grad students and lit groupies with the occasional bout of monogamy. He was an obsessive, abusive stalker. Though I still maintain there’s a whiff of bullshit around his relationship with Mary Karr that I can’t quite put my finger on. And even though I’ve finished the book I still can’t quite figure out what happened between DFW and Karr.
Also, I’m unclear as to why there was so much tension between DFW and his mom. There is much made about this tension, specifically how she would react to the character of Avril Incandenza in Infinite Jest, but it’s never clear why or how they overcome it.
For me I was stunned to learn that DFW was a liar who included a lot of fabrications in his “non-fiction.” I don’t if I was surprised that he did or that the editors let him get away with such utter bullshit. He was not a particularly adept liar, and the situations he made up were coincidental to the point of absurdity. Like the crack pipe falling on a state trooper at the Illinois State Fair. Someone’s glasses leaping from their face to become lodged in a woman’s ample cleavage. Come on!
But even with all his very human foibles, Max manages to humanize St. DFW and present him as an actual human being who was not perfect, a man who took his writing very seriously and tried really, really hard to be a better person and a better writer.
The book is devastating in the same way Wallace’s suicide was. Even though you know how his life ends you see the book racing to that conclusion and it sucks. The ending is quite abrupt and I don’t know if that’s by design (to show the abruptness of DFW’s death) or just more of the creeping coldness of the biography that cannot be denied. Max is completely hands-off when it comes to showing any emotion towards his subject, so the book often comes off as cold.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this biography is the role women play in the literary world inhabited by David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen and Jay McInerney and Mark Leyner and John Updike: and that’s none at all. Elizabeth Wurtzel gets a passing reference but only as a potential bed post notch and there is mention of Tama Janowitz. But other than that there is hardly a mention of a woman who isn’t a relative or a conquest. It’s beyond disappointing.
The book, however is not a disappointment at all. In fact, it works wonderfully as a companion piece with David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace which is much more fun, but still has the shine of the DFW’s halo about it. A little halo tarnishing is a good thing and Max’s book does just that.