by Weston Cutter
I was never as simultaneously excited and sad about a book as I was for Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, DTMax‘s bio of David Foster Wallace, and I’m not remotely alone or unique on this: I was thrilled because it was the first bio of one of my literary heroes, and sad because the bio existed because the man no longer did. I spend so much time here talking about Wallace that I sort of forget that perhaps folks don’t even know who he is, or perhaps folks’ve started to understand him historically—he was some legend. He has after all now been gone four years as of one week from now. But here’s the thing: Wallace was huge and real, and his suicide was the rawest rip. This sounds cheesy, but it gets at something accurately: as soon as the news of his death spread (the story broke on a Friday night), the McSweeney’s website went entirely white (am I remembering this wrong? You could actually scroll down, like the whiteness was of depth and length), and instead of some cute phrase at the top (today’s: Timothy McSweeney takes his cookies straight), I think it just said Timothy McSweeney is brokenhearted or something. Maybe very very sad. The thing that was crucial, though, was the blankness of the page—McSweeney’s, which may be the most obviously in-Wallace’s-debt literary organization in the universe (in good ways, I think), just blank, as if something’d exploded and cast everythign in this huge, awful can’t-look light. Or anyway that’s the way it read to me.
And now it’s been four years, and now there are no more holy-shit essays to amaze us and force us to look at some aspect of the world in a new way, and now there’s likely no more fiction ever and The Pale King will have to be enough, and now the books-about industry for the man cranks to life (this year there’ve been now three; there was another in ’11, I think), and now every last aspect of the life and literary magic of Wallace’s life gets fast-tracked for publication, and we all read it (I’m talking the tiniest, least-consequential things: his senior thesis from Amherst, say), and and and. There’s no end to this. I bring all this up simply because…because Christ, it’s been four years, and this guy who wrote the absolute best stuff of anyone for a decade, he’s gone, and it still fucking sucks.
Which is where Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, by D. T. Max (whom I interviewed for the Kenyon Review Blog) comes in. It’s a book which will do lots of things for or to your insides, good and bad, some of which might include: make you remember how thrilling it was to read Jest in the first place (if you love Wallace for Jest, this bio will be very helpful and good; if you got into Wallace through the essays or stories, you’ll have a harder time: Jest is the only book which, ultimately, stands full straight in this book—every other book, fiction or non, is somehow a compromise; Jest is an Achievement [or at least seems one through all the correspondence Wallace did at the time] the whole way through, even as it was edited for publication); make you suddenly, deeply aware of just how huge was the depression in Wallace’s life (this is especially true if you’re not intimately familiar with clinical depression), and how huge a role the depression and its corresponding anxieties and struggles played in Wallace’s life; and, maybe, make you understand why Wallace was and will likely remain such a singular talent, and why his work is unlikely to be eclipsed in terms of heart or morality by anyone (simply because, as one can discover here, dude just cared about this stuff more than anyone, thought about it all in terms of fiction much more than anyone else I know of).
(Before going further: a piece of correspondence between Wallace and I is in Every Love Story. I wrote to Wallace, like lots of other folks, when I was in my 20s and his work hit and spoke like nothing else (the letter used in the book was one I sent basically immediately after reading Conjunctions 37, in which his “Good Old Neon” debuted and which is, I think, still a piece of fiction unlikely to be eclipsed). I bring up my involvement/inclusion in the book here just to acknowledge it—lots of us exchanged letters with the guys, and as rad as the letters were to get, and as glad as I am to have them, I’d of course burn any of them to have the man back alive, in the flesh, writing and being present for his friends and family.)
So, how is Every Love Story as an actual, you know, book? This is weird. I read the thing in a total of I think 6 hours, and I loved it, and I’m trying really, really hard to be clear with myself about how the actual book was, versus just how I thought and felt about it because of how I feel about the subject. I think this, more than anything else: Wallace was a tricky figure, or at least trickier than any of my friends or I are—there was a multivalent way of stories about the guy, according to Max’s narrative, and he provides plenty of evidence: all those times in interviews Wallace’d talk shit about something like the public perception of him, he’d be hand-wringingly hysteric about the same fact in private letters, as just one example. He lied, or led, anyway, various existences depending on audience. Maybe that was necessary for him. Hard to say. One feels a pain for Big Craig, the guy who was clearly the basis of Gately in Jest. And then one feels a sort of weird pain for having been so certain that Wallace was just inventing all this stuff, and for feeling a bit let down to discover that he wasn’t. And then maybe one feels even weirder about, say, having made such a stink about how much of a prick Richard Yates was—that bio was just merciless about him, that Blake Bailey one—only to here discover that Wallace was a pretty sizeable prick as well, and used just as much bio info in his stuff, in his way, as did poor old Yates.
So I guess what I’d like to say more than anything about Every Love Story is that it complicates the hell out of Wallace. The correspondence between he and I that’s in the book is about how one keeps doing work and believing in shit when the overwhelming evidence is that such pursuits are silly, fruitless, etc., and his response was: “This is like listening to a transcript of my own mind.” In the interview with DT Max, there was a line I didn’t include, which was this: he asked, during our phone conversation, how I felt when I got that letter from Wallace, and I told Max that I felt weirdly sort of let down. Wallace was basically just assenting to and agreeing with what I’d written in my letter, and I was 24 then, and I wanted someone to say IT GETS TOTALLY DIFFERENT LATER DON’T WORRY. But the truth was that I didn’t feel let down by the letter, or maybe I felt a little of that, but, as much as anything, I was thrilled that he said my letter to him was like a transcript of his own head. I was thrilled! My head and his head were alike! It was perfect. And I guess ultimately what Every Love Story is a Ghost Story makes any of us think is this: if we’ve fallen for Wallace, it’s because of his perfect, wonderful voice that made you feel like he was right there, smart and beside you, making you smarter, making you feel intimate, unalone. And I remember thinking, almost a decade ago, that something like that’d be a good goal, and what fun that’d be to write like that. And I suppose there’s still that enticement, to a degree, but Every Love Story makes shatteringly clear not just the cost of such effort on the part of Wallace, but also the reasons for his reaching out like that—his desire to make life be something bigger than just little games of showing off, being smart, whatever. What Every Love Story makes terribly, excruciatingly clear is how hard Wallace had to work to make his spark-casting genius secondary to his heart. Such an effort is, when you think about it, fucking incredible, and if you’re like me you’ll finish Every Love Story sniffling because of how unlikely it seems that such a combo of strength and frailty and genius and fear will come around again any time soon, and how lonesome it is without Wallace’s voice.