Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, by D.T. Max

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a biography of the writer David Foster Wallace, acclaimed (by many but far from all—he was a controversial figure) for both his fiction and his nonfiction, who committed suicide at age 46.

I knew going in that reading this book would be an emotional, and almost certainly emotionally difficult, experience for me. As I’ve talked about in other of these essays, I feel a strange connection to Wallace, like I’ve very rarely felt with someone I know only through their writing.

I don’t mean to imply there’s some weird mystical thing going on, or even that what I feel toward him is all that unusual or noteworthy. Pretty clearly he was the kind of person—both in writing and for those who knew him in real life—who had a sort of charisma or something about him that generated strong feelings like that in a lot of people.

If you look at message boards on the Internet related to him—e.g., the comments on YouTube videos of his interviews and readings—it’s striking how deeply he seems to have touched people. Not everyone by a long shot, but those who are fans seem to have quite intense feelings about him. People talk about how they “love” him in a way that seems somehow stronger and more personal than the way people might state that they love some popular author like Stephen King or J. K. Rowling because of how much they enjoy their books.

For me, the connection is based more on his nonfiction. (The only fiction I’ve read by him is his magnum opus Infinite Jest, though I’m planning to read more soon. There were things that spoke to me in Infinite Jest, but I didn’t react to it nearly as enthusiastically as many readers, and doubt I would have liked it even as much as I did if I hadn’t already felt a certain attachment to him based on the nonfiction of his I have read.) I admire his ethical sensibilities, and the way he’s especially troubled by a basic phoniness to contemporary human behavior, so ubiquitous that most people never perceive it, or if they do they quickly dismiss it as nothing to concern oneself with since that’s just the way the world works that you need to adjust to rather than fight. (I know that’s quite a house-that-Jack-built sentence, but what the hell.)

I like not only that our moral worldviews overlap significantly, but also that he presents his views with humor, intelligence, and humility. His informal, conversational, self-conscious (i.e., he comments on what he says and how he says it), sometimes aw-shucks, self-deprecating style appeals to me—and like I say, seems to strike a chord with a great number of people.

I feel a certain kinship with him based on resemblance, again mostly having to do with moral worldview (or directly or indirectly related to that, in terms of personality, social style, eccentricities, etc.), and also in more mundane ways (e.g., same gender, very similar in age, both studied philosophy in college, and were graduate students at the University of Arizona at roughly the same time).

I’ve read a little bit about his life here and there, in addition to what you can pick up from his writings (much of his nonfiction is autobiographical to a degree, and in a different sense you could say the same about his fiction), but nowhere near the equivalent of a book-length biography. I was hungry to know more. So I came to this book with more interest and intensity than usual.

But also, as I say, more than a little trepidation. Knowing how the story ends, I dreaded feeling closer to him as I learned more about him, but on the other hand I didn’t relish the prospect of being disillusioned and realizing we really weren’t compatible at all or he wasn’t worthy of my attachment.

Getting ahead of myself for a moment, I suppose in the end both happened to a degree. The more I read, the more I learned what a flawed person he was, and what reasons there might have been for me not to like or admire him or get along well with him had we known each other in life. (An odd way to look at it I know, but that’s sort of the standard in my mind, like I have some weird pseudo or hypothetical friendship with him—one that he’s capable of betraying I suppose.) Yet the account of the suicide was every bit the gut shot I’d anticipated.

In certain respects this is a bare bones biography. If the typical biography is a “life and times,” this is almost all “life” with minimal “times.” Wallace is born in the second sentence of the book, and his corpse is found in the last paragraph. There’s no extended family history or set up, no retrospective on his life and work.

Reading this, you become aware of just how dependent a biographer is on the degree of cooperation he gets from those who best knew the subject of the biography. There are constant references throughout the book to interactions Wallace had with a small number of individuals, or things about him that they’d be in a position to know. Clearly they opened up to the author. (And especially important, shared with him the correspondence they’d had with Wallace. While routinely suffering from torturous writer’s block, the one kind of writing Wallace apparently almost always was able to produce in great quantity was correspondence.)

Among those individuals are Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, fellow writers and, especially in the former case, friends of his. There are a small number of his friends from college or graduate school, especially Mark Costello. There is his agent Bonnie Nadell. His sister Amy seems to have been at least fairly cooperative. And a small number of others. You could say this is Wallace’s life through their eyes.

I get the impression his parents were less involved, if at all, in the project than his sister. Certainly they, and Wallace’s relationship with them, are talked about in the book, but not to a degree to match their level of importance in his life, and all or most of that information feels like it came from third parties. I’d say the same about at least most of the main girlfriends of his life.

As far as some of the things about Wallace that most stood out to me, there are a lot, but for reasons of space I’ll mostly address just a few, including his lack of conventional maturity, his addictions/obsessions, his depression, his teaching, and his dishonesty.

Let’s start with what a man-child he was. You can make a case that he finally grew up—to a limited extent—in his 40s (for one thing, he got married and seemed reasonably able to adjust to that), but for at least most of his life he seemed much younger than he was.

Some of this overlaps with the ways I feel I’ve resisted growing up and becoming a conventional adult, and some doesn’t. Some of it is an admirable non-conformity to adult norms, and some of it is unappealing immaturity. Some of it was intentional in reflecting his values, but much more of it seems to have troubled him as not at all the person he wanted to be.

Some of it is childlike, but I think it’s mostly more reflective of young adulthood. He seemed stuck for a very long time at roughly a college-years level of development.

He spent a lot of his time stoned or drunk. He avoided having a “real” job. He was promiscuous, sowing a lot of wild oats sexually. He liked having an available, sort-of-steady girlfriend, but only if it was a part time thing—maybe someone who lived in another town—so as not to make him feel cramped and unfree, or require more of a commitment from him. Periodically he swung to the opposite extreme and in an impulsive, extreme way treated one of the women as his soul mate that he absolutely had to be with and marry. His living space was sloppy and cluttered, and was routinely compared to a college dorm or at best a bachelor apartment. He was socially awkward in some ways. He cared a great deal about ideas and ideals—the kind of thing (some) college kids get very serious about in 3 AM bull sessions.

Doesn’t he sound about 19 (in both good and bad ways)? But whereas most people evolve beyond this stage and pragmatically adjust to the adult world (in both good and bad ways), most of these same things describe him as well when he was in his 20s, 30s, and 40s as when he was 19. Even when he did change—like when he finally got married in his 40s and seemed to settle into marriage reasonably well—it sometimes had a kind of self-conscious, novelty feeling to it, an attitude of pride and mild surprise of “Look at me of all people, doing this regular grown-up thing!”

Again, I see some of myself in this reluctance to just automatically, unthinkingly conform to the expectations of normal adulthood. But at the same time, I found this man-child aspect of him a little off-putting or disappointing.

I would admire a refusal to grow up insofar as it reflects a realization that some of what most people leave behind from their childhood and young adulthood is actually worth retaining, but I don’t know that there was all that great an element of idealism or non-conformity to the way he was slow to adjust to the adult world. Too often the picture painted of him is of a quite conformist, conventional college kid who happens to be older than a college kid.

The partying, the social clumsiness, the living like a slob, the not always very responsible or mature behavior in his friendships and in his relationships with women—when I think in terms of holding onto what’s valuable from one’s youth, these aren’t the kinds of things I have in mind.

We both did (or do) not fit smoothly in the conventional adult world, but there’s only quite limited overlap in the ways or the reasons we don’t fit. I think I expected a little more overlap, so I was disappointed that apparently we weren’t quite as much kindred spirits as I might have hoped.

I’m somewhat less certain after reading this book that we would have connected very well and understood each other had we known each other in real life.

I suppose he had what would be called an “addictive personality.” He was heavily into drinking and drugs for a long time. Eventually he more or less beat those addictions, but he was one of those people who overcomes them by transferring to other addictions, including the anti-addiction programs themselves.

Alcoholics Anonymous played a huge role in his life. Briefly he was in live-in rehab institutions too, but mostly he dealt with his drug and alcohol problem by becoming a full timer at AA, attending as many as five meetings a week (he did that for quite a while even when he was still getting high regularly—I guess it took some time for it to “take”), having “sponsors” who became a big part of his life, and doing way more than his share of sponsoring others and involving himself in their lives.

Even when he wasn’t doing the drugs and alcohol, he smoked and/or chewed tobacco for most of his adult life.

More broadly, he’d get intense and obsessive like that about other things in his life. His behavior with certain women maybe didn’t cross the line into stalking, but it got uncomfortably close. And they didn’t even seem that great. I mean, just from what little I can glean about the female objects of his obsessions from this one book, I didn’t get the feeling of, “Wow, she sounds amazing! I can see why he’d fall in love with her and why it would become his all-consuming quest to be with her as his soul mate.” It felt more like it was about him than them, like he was one of those “in love with being in love” people who would periodically go nuts over whatever random woman he happened to be dating, only to do it again with someone else a year or five years later.

Television was another addiction of his. One of the main themes he explored in both his fiction and his nonfiction was the way pop culture, especially television, has altered the consciousness of modern humanity. I think he was fascinated, and a little appalled or frightened, by this because it had such a mesmerizing effect on him. (For that reason, did he perhaps overstate its impact by implicitly universalizing his experience? An everyman he decidedly was not.)

But he watched hour upon hour of television day after day from a young age, all kinds of shows, whatever happened to be on. When he got a little older, he became one of those micro-attention span people who can’t sit still and watch one thing, but who constantly flip through the channels, concerned that there might be something better on that they’re missing.

Ultimately, like with the drugs and alcohol, he had to pretty much eliminate television from his life entirely or it would have rendered him unable to write, or do much of anything else. So for much of his life he didn’t even own a TV. He’d backslide periodically and buy one, but within days or weeks, as he felt the addiction coming back, he’d give it away or just put it out to the curb with the trash.

Probably wisely, he stayed away from the Internet and e-mail as much as possible when those came along, because he knew how easily that could suck him in.

I don’t know whether to put his writing in this same category of obsessive or addictive. It’s a little more complex than that. Maybe one could say that simultaneously he was drawn to it in this extreme, obsessive way, and he suffered from crippling writer’s block. You can imagine what a conflicted existence that was.

He’d have rare bursts of writing activity where he was able to throw himself into it like a madman and produce a great deal in very little time—he was apparently fortunate enough to be in that mode for a lot of the time he wrote, at a very young age, his first novel The Broom of the System—but more often he was beating himself up because it wouldn’t flow like that.

As he put it in an interview with Charlie Rose, he’d typically spend an hour a day writing, and eight hours a day feeling guilty about not writing.

In some ways that seemed to get worse over time, at least in terms of his novel writing. He still was able to come up with short stories and nonfiction essays, albeit sometimes with a considerable struggle, but Infinite Jest didn’t come to him nearly as easily and smoothly as The Broom of the System had, and his third and final novel, The Pale King, had to be published posthumously in incomplete form because, although he tried very hard for years, he never could come up with that push he needed to organize all that material into just the form he wanted and put the finishing touches on it.

Maybe you could characterize his dependence on prescription anti-depression medication as yet another addiction.

Certainly the book makes clear just how devastating his depression was.

He had a breakdown during his undergraduate years at Amherst, and had to return home for an extended period to recover. He had plenty of significant episodes after that, but generally not as severe since he was on the anti-depressant Nardil from that point on, and even if that didn’t make him fine, it apparently did keep things from getting too extreme.

He didn’t like being dependent on Nardil, and he often wondered if it might be adversely affecting him, in addition to however it was helping him with his depression. As writing became more and more difficult for him, he became more concerned that Nardil might be messing with something in his brain just enough to keep him from being able to consistently, smoothly organize his thoughts and get them down on paper.

He had had really bad writer’s block on and off drugs, on and off alcohol, when he was in a relationship with a woman and when he was not, and when he had money woes and when he’d received generous grants so he didn’t have to work. After several years of frustration where writing was harder than ever, he decided to try going off Nardil.

At least as this book tells it, that decision was what led to his suicide.

He didn’t go off the drug in defiance of doctor’s orders. Indeed, the medical advice he received was that Nardil was something of an older drug that had been surpassed by recent advances in anti-depressant medication, and that if going off the Nardil brought back severe depression he’d probably be better off switching to a different drug anyway.

Evidently going off the Nardil had about as bad consequences as he could have anticipated. His life became very painful. Certainly he wasn’t better able to concentrate on his writing. He could barely function at all. It took everything he had not to fall apart completely as he hoped his body adjusted to not having the Nardil anymore.

Soon he decided he couldn’t endure it any longer, and so he had to go back on medication. As advised, instead of getting back on Nardil he took a different medication. Then another, then another, because, to his horror, none of them seemed to have any effect. He continued to suffer from crippling anxiety, extreme fatigue, and nausea. He dropped a lot of weight. He’d burst into tears unpredictably.

He didn’t try to hide how he was feeling, or that he had suicidal thoughts. If he had a day where he seemed to be functioning slightly better, and a friend remarked how there seemed to be improvement, he’d frankly tell him that however it looked from the outside, he knew things were still not right with him and he was miserable.

Then came a sort of suicide attempt. The description of it in the book is so brief—part of one paragraph—that it’s hard to say just how determined he was to kill himself. I would say he wasn’t fully committed, as he took a lot of pills but not enough to get the job done, and then he called his wife to come get him, indicating that he’d decided he wanted to stay alive after all.

He was watched very closely from that point on. His wife rarely left the house, and when she did there was usually someone from AA or someone else there with him. Evidence was found that he was planning to commit suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide. Twice he was hospitalized. He underwent shock treatment.

Since nothing was working, he went back on Nardil. That had had its drawbacks, but it had never been as bad as this, and it was time to admit the experiment had failed and he was better off returning to Nardil dependence.

But then he was thrown into an even worse panic when that too didn’t work. Evidently, he thought, he had screwed something up by going off it and now he could never go back on it again. (Actually, according to the author, he was just too impatient and in too irrational a state to give it the several weeks it takes to be effective again.)

He waited for a rare opportunity when he was alone, and he hung himself.

I don’t know how he felt about it, I don’t know if he’s wired at all like me in this respect, but one of my phobias I guess you could call it is having my freedom to commit suicide taken away from me.

I know 90% of people, or maybe more like 99% of people, think that of course if someone is at risk of killing himself it is justified to coercively prevent him from doing so—institutionalize him, keep him on 24 hour suicide watch, put him in a straitjacket, etc. I find that appalling, and when I imagine myself in the suspected suicide’s shoes, it feels like that would be a nightmarish situation. I think if I were already in some sort of emotional crisis situation, being coerced like that would only intensify it. It would be a form of torture.

Think about it. Things are so bad in your life, that as undesirable as ending your life is to you, any alternative is even worse. Then imagine that that least bad option is coercively taken away from you. Where does that leave you?

Again, I don’t know if Wallace had any feelings like that. Maybe he wanted to be stopped, maybe he was all for being hospitalized and being closely watched and all that. But it worries me when I read that his wife “had him hospitalized.” Not he “chose to go to the hospital,” but she “had him hospitalized.”

If someone did that to me, I’m not saying that alone would be enough to cause me to commit suicide at the first opportunity as an act of protest and defiance at that coercion, but it would certainly be a significant factor pushing me in that direction.

But enough about suicide. Allow me to move on.

I thought some of the things said about his teaching were quite interesting, and I saw plenty of similarities with my own teaching experiences.

He was frustrated by the fact that very few students take college classes motivated by a sincere desire to learn, that instead teaching becomes this cat-and-mouse game where you try to use your grading power to come up with the right set of incentives to get them to do the reading, do the homework, etc., while they try to figure out how to get the highest grade with the least effort. For me, and apparently for him, that was always incredibly draining and depressing, to be in an implicitly antagonistic relationship with your students, rather than working together toward a common goal.

But in spite of his distaste for certain aspects of teaching, in some respects he was hyper-responsible about it, putting way more into it than an ordinary teacher would. Most notably, he would sometimes go into extraordinary detail in his written comments on student papers. I had to smile when I read that, because I did that in some of my classes too. I remember one in particular where my comments were probably on average about half as long as the papers themselves, and in some cases may have been equally as long.

Probably the fact that he cared so much about what he was teaching explains both why he was able at times to put such extraordinary effort into it, and why he was more bothered than the average teacher would be by student apathy. I know that’s the way I felt teaching.

Though he was kind of an eccentric hippie type guy who was casual in manner and treated his students largely as equals, he was also something of a (reluctant) hardass as a teacher, trying to hold his students to high standards. Again, I think that was largely true of me as well.

To me, one of the most disappointing things about Wallace is that he was dishonest in his nonfiction. That’s something I already had found out—and for that matter suspected from the very first essay of his I read—so it didn’t come as a big surprise to me in this book, but there are more details here.

I know for a lot of people what he did wouldn’t be a problem, especially in his humor pieces. I mean, does anyone really think every detail in an autobiographical tale by James Thurber or Calvin Trillin is exactly how it happened in life, or needs to be?

What about a stand-up comedian who gets some of his material from his life experiences? I’m guessing Richard Pryor really did have pet monkeys at one time, but I’m pretty sure his monkey didn’t run up the arm of a Warner Brothers executive to fuck him in the ear, nor did the mean dog next door jump the fence to come over to Pryor in his yard and have a conversation with him, in English, about his monkeys.

So maybe some embellishment, some fudging to make things funnier or more interesting is to be expected and is unobjectionable.

That’s my devil’s advocate take on it, but in reality I can’t excuse it so readily. The pieces where he evidently made some of the details up, including his account of his trip to the Illinois State Fair and his account of his Caribbean cruise, are humor pieces in part, yes, but I’d say they’re primarily journalistic. As such, the social commentary and the humor should come from reality. If someone tells me, “I had this really bizarre and thought-provoking experience on a cruise ship,” I’m a lot more interested in hearing about it than if he says, “I can imagine having a really bizarre and thought-provoking experience on a cruise ship.”

Not that fiction is inherently objectionable or less interesting, but fiction masquerading as nonfiction is.

Apparently a lot of people knew or strongly suspected all along that he was embellishing in some of these pieces, including people at the publications that published them. It gave some of them serious misgivings, but generally they worked out some kind of compromise that they’d let a certain amount of questionable material through as long as it met certain conditions (like that there wasn’t too much of it, it wasn’t provably false, etc.).

Wallace himself was mostly evasive on the subject, dishonestly downplaying the extent of his embellishing. On occasion, for instance, he claimed that he only changed details when there was a compelling reason to do so, like to protect the privacy of an AA member, since the group is predicated on confidentiality. At one point he commented that you have to expect a little fudging when you hire a fiction writer rather than a journalist to write such pieces.

Questions about it seemed to make him squirm, and I don’t think he was ever fully comfortable with engaging in this form of dishonesty. Toward the end of his life he seemed to concede that he had been in the wrong:

We all knew, and know, that any embellishment is dangerous, and that a writer’s justifying embellishment via claiming that it actually enhances overall ‘truth’ is exceedingly dangerous, since the claim is structurally identical to all Ends Justify Means rationalizations.

I’ve seen debates on this issue online, with some Wallace fans seeking to defend him with the usual “Everybody does it,” “You’re naïve if you don’t expect nonfiction writers to play a little fast and loose with the facts to make a better story,” “What is ‘truth’ anyway? Surely it’s all relative, and to violate some Western simplistic conception of truth in the service of a higher truth is justified,” etc. But I just think about his quote above, and how they’re doing him no favors defending him when he himself knows he was wrong, with arguments that he would recognize as lame rationalizations.

It turns out, though, that dishonesty wasn’t just a flaw of some of his writing. Apparently he lied a fair amount in life.

Like 99% of males he wasn’t totally honest when sex hung in the balance. There are several incidents in the book where he claimed something concerning his writing that almost certainly was not true (e.g., telling a friend in a letter about how he’d taken a certain stand in his correspondence with a publisher, but a search of his file with that publisher—who keeps all correspondence with its writers—indicates he never sent anything remotely like that to them). He was apparently deceptive at the very end of his life in getting his wife to leave him alone long enough to commit suicide.

His family and some of the people who knew him best kind of had the view of him all along that he’d always been something of a fabulist who was prone to exaggeration and embellishment to put himself in a better light or make what he had to say more interesting so people would like him.

It all makes me wonder what Wallace himself would have thought of this book.

My first thought is that he’d be appalled. The book doesn’t go out of its way to be a hatchet job, but it doesn’t shy away from recounting such things as seemingly every little white lie he ever told out of convenience. Who would ever come out looking good if after they died we went through their private correspondence with the attitude of a fact checker to catch any inaccuracies? I don’t think you’d like it if you were to be judged based on all the little imperfections of your behavior that were never intended to be public.

Then again, he had a strong self-critical streak, and any flaw recorded in these pages is probably something he was already beating himself up about, and something about which he might well agree that the best punishment for it would be to suffer the embarrassment of having people know about it.

One of the “steps” of AA that he threw himself into with the most relish was the “making amends” one, where you have to come clean to anyone you’ve wronged and try to make things right with them. His sister recalls that for most of their adult life, seemingly every time they talked he’d apologize to her.

So I think at first he’d probably be offended (he was thin-skinned about anyone criticizing his writing, if that’s analogous), but he had quite a guilty streak, and sometimes was quite open about his flaws, so in the end maybe he’d want to be humbled by having people know all the ways he fell short of his ideals.

Wallace has come to be such an important figure for me, and there’s that aforementioned weird sort of connection I feel with him, that I found myself as I read this book kind of monitoring how it was affecting my feelings about him.

I don’t know quite how to describe it, and I’m sure my feelings on the matter are too complex to fully capture in a short description regardless, but the way I’m thinking of it now is as a “the whole isn’t equal to the sum of the parts” thing.

That is, if I’m listing pros and cons, merits and demerits, I’d score Wallace a little lower now than before I read this book. I think he was a more flawed person than I would have guessed, from his bullying his little sister growing up, to his exploiting women for sex, to his being a more or less pitiful and unappealing pothead for much of his life, to the ways he was insincere in his writing and his life.

Yet at the same time, I don’t know that the connection I feel with him is diminished much if at all—the connection that had me close to tears reading those last few pages about his final suffering and suicide. And it’s not because I deny those flaws, or can somehow rationalize them away as not being flaws.

Is it just stubbornness? Am I refusing to reassess because I’m emotionally committed at some level to being a Wallace fan, and I don’t want to go through the psychological discomfort of changing that?

Maybe there’s some of that. But maybe some of it is vaguely akin to the way you might feel unconditional love for a person in your life.

If there’s someone—your close friend, your brother, your child, what have you—that triggers something inside you where you feel they’ll always be a part of your life, always be someone you root for in some sense, always be someone that you feel joy when they’re happy and pain when they suffer, I don’t think those feelings have to necessarily change as your objective assessment of how good a person they are moves up or down. They can disappoint you, do something you disapprove of, and regardless, “Hey, he’s still my brother,” “She’s still my friend.”

Is that just a romanticized version of stubbornness? I don’t know. But I think it’s possible to feel that someone is a part of you, or you’re on the same team, regardless of the particulars you find out about them, and that it’s somehow good that we’re capable of feeling that.

But then the question is, why do I feel this connection with Wallace that has that unconditional aspect to it, or at least that wasn’t much shaken by whatever disappointing things I might have learned about him from this book?

Again, I’m sure there’s a lot to it, but I’m inclined to say a big reason is my recognition that he was a lot harder on himself than I could ever be on him anyway.

He was a very morally minded person, and he hurt very much over his failing to live up to his ideals (and hurt over the world’s failure to do so). Sure, he was a hypocrite in some ways, but I think he tried a lot harder than most people to do the best he could.

I’m not mad at Tolstoy because his life didn’t match the pacifist ideals of his Sermon on the Mount philosophy. Nor would I prefer that John Lennon had never written “Imagine” since he didn’t live a life of renunciation of material possessions.

There are things from Wallace’s writings and from his life that have touched me deeply, and that have convinced me that we were/are engaged in similar quests to be better, more loving, more caring people who add positive things to the world. The fact that he fucked up plenty in that quest doesn’t change that, especially given how much I have too, and given how much his aforementioned tendency to judge himself harshly takes the bite out of any inclination I might have to judge and abandon him.

You know that well-worn question, “If you could have dinner and converse with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?”? Well, I’d still put Dave Wallace very high on my list.


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