Between the Covers
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, by D.T. Max
I have often wondered how my orbit could come so close to David Foster Wallace’s without somehow managing to intersect. He grew up about 45 minutes away from the town where I spent my childhood, in the flat, stark farm land of Central Illinois. He came to teach in the English Department at Illinois State University just two years after I received my B.A. (and a year before I would decide that doing postgraduate work in English wasn’t something I could afford financially). Wallace dated someone who was in my childhood dance classes; in the acknowledgments portion of Max’s biography, he credits someone who is a true friend of mine (and former neighbor) as providing valuable information. Eventually, Wallace would leave Bloomington-Normal at almost the same time I did, though this is where our paths diverged, never to cross again. I would become fascinated by the author independent of this nearly intersecting path; Infinite Jest is a book I could pick up and read any time and be as absorbed by it as I was the first time I read it. Even so, trying to make sense of the measure of the man is something that Max tries to do with Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Some might argue (and have) that it’s an unnecessary endeavor, but I appreciated having some understanding of Wallace’s changing motivations, his evolution as a writer (and when some critical shifts in perspective occurred) and how both his fiction and non-fiction fit in with his growth as a writer.
Since I aspire to write (but like Wallace, often find myself just not writing), reading about his challenges and the methods he used to try to overcome were pretty fascinating. I’m not sure that Wallace wrote the way he wanted to. His brain had big ideas that he had a great deal of difficulty putting on paper in a way that was satisfactory to him. For anyone looking for enlightenment about Wallace’s creative process, they are not going to find it in Max’s book. Or perhaps I should say that they will, but it won’t be the sort of thing that inspires someone to adopt any of his methods.
I do think that what I enjoyed about Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is the fact that I really, truly liked David Foster Wallace as a character. I guess in a lot of ways, I read this biography as a story about someone unreal, who could only be made up. I wonder if Wallace wouldn’t be pleased by this aspect of the book, since he inserted himself as a character into one of his own works at one point. Additionally, I liked Max’s nod to Wallace with the notes at the end of the book. Although certainly not as creatively used or as comprehensive as Infinite Jest, the technique felt wholly appropriate.
Perhaps the most impressive quality about Every Story is a Ghost Story is the fact that I think anyone would enjoy it. I don’t think any familiarity with Wallace’s actual writing is necessary. The story created here is one that is fascinating in its own right. If anything, it made me want to revisit Wallace’s work a little bit at a time, absorbing it and considering it in relation to his timeline. “Oh, this is where he wanted to reinvent literature. And here is where he believed sincerity to be all-important.” I’m looking forward to working through Wallace’s fiction and non-fiction with fresh eyes.