Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
by D.T. Max
Viking, 356 pp., $27.95
D.T. Max’s short biography, the first to be written about David Foster Wallace, comes out of an article he wrote in 2009 for The New Yorker. The article, which contained a compressed account of Wallace’s life, was primarily about his struggle to write another novel after his virtuosic Infinite Jest, published in 1996. In expanding the article into a longer account of Wallace’s life, Max offers much new, engrossing information, though he has lost some of the tension of the original: Wallace’s problem was what to do after you’ve written the best—and also the most ardently beloved and influential—avant-garde novel of recent decades. Infinite Jest, Max wrote in The New Yorker, was a
vast investigation into America as the land of addictions: to television, to drugs, to loneliness. The book comes to center on a halfway-house supervisor named Don Gately, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who, with great effort, resists these enticements. “What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all,” Gately thinks near the end. “But he could choose not to listen.”
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is steadily chronological, following the trail of Wallace’s life from his birth to his suicide in 2008 at age forty-six. Although Max discusses the writing that Wallace was working on at a given time, the weight of the book falls on the detailed, factual account of events, pieced together from Wallace’s archives and interviews with his family, friends, colleagues, and students.
But there’s an odd moment when Wallace’s fiction suddenly looms out of the background and occludes Max’s facts. It happens when Max is introducing a person in Wallace’s life called Big Craig. Big Craig was a supervisor at Granada House, a Boston-area halfway house where Wallace lived in his late twenties, after having had a breakdown, dropped out of the graduate philosophy program at Harvard, and completed a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at McLean Hospital. His four weeks at McLean, Max writes, “changed his life.” Wallace, a heavy drug user since his teens, had first joined AA several years earlier, but sobriety hadn’t stuck. Only at McLean did the staff convince him that “if he didn’t stop abusing [drugs and alcohol] he would be dead by thirty,” and further convinced him that he couldn’t simply return to his old life after four weeks in rehab and expect to stay sober. Wallace followed the advice of the McLean staff after his program ended and moved into Granada House.
Here, we learn from Max, Wallace was quick to apprehend the literary possibilities of his situation. Residents sat around for hours talking about their lives. Wallace listened and took copious notes. Big Craig was a recovering Demerol addict, former burglar, and ex-convict from a working-class family on Boston’s North Shore who came to Granada House as an ordinary resident and then stayed on as a staff member—and he became the inspiration for Don Gately. Gately is the hero of Infinite Jest, the character through which Wallace was able to project his most humane, intelligent sympathy, and also to reach his highest pitch of world-sadness. Gately’s character also offers a kind of moral key to Wallace’s later work—he could be said to be the presiding spirit over everything Wallace wrote from Infinite Jest on.
There was clearly something about Big Craig that unlocked Wallace’s moral imagination. What was it? An Infinite Jest fan can’t help but go a little slack-jawed with wonder: What is Big Craig like? But Max keeps Big Craig mostly under wraps. Instead of, for instance, an eyewitness physical description of Big Craig, Max substitutes Wallace’s description of Gately from Infinite Jest (“less built than poured, the smooth immovability of an Easter Island statue”). Instead of a description of the actual Granada House, Max quotes a passage from Infinite Jest about the fictional Ennet House. We wonder just what Big Craig made of Wallace, but his observation is hidden in a one-sentence footnote, albeit a majestic one, in which Craig says that he didn’t trust Wallace when he first met him: “My suspicions were that he was looking for material for a book.” It’s as though Max and Big Craig are colluding to send us back to the novel—an inadvertent tribute to the power of Wallace’s fiction, which seems to scramble the biographer’s attempts to pin down the verifiably real.
Yet we long to see more of Big Craig precisely because, when it comes to the way that life intertwines with fiction, this passage in Wallace’s life is fascinatingly dense and knotty. The halfway house and the AA meetings that its residents are forced to attend are the moral center of Infinite Jest. But Wallace is not simply writing about sad, desperate people in trouble. If his recovery at McLean and Granada House transformed Wallace’s life, he in turn transformed the process of substance abuse recovery, and especially the AA program, into a kind of vessel for his new ideas about the future of fiction.
Not long after leaving Granada House (at about the same time that he was hitting his stride in the novel that would become Infinite Jest), Wallace wrote an essay on television and fiction for The Review of Contemporary Fiction. During certain periods of his life Wallace spent a lot of time (six to eight hours a day, according to Max) watching television. Television’s allure, its transformation of American audiences, and the kinds of pressures it puts on American art were all subjects of great interest to him. In the long, densely argued essay, Wallace writes that avant-garde fiction is in a moral crisis. He cites a number of 1980s and 1990s novels and story collections—A. M. Homes’s The Safety of Objects, Michael Martone’s Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist—that attempt new ways of depicting the pop-culture-saturated consciousness of Americans who grew up with television. Some invent private lives for public figures, or portray the intense relationships between “real” human characters and mass-culture products or characters. They build on some of the tactics of Don DeLillo (in Great Jones Street) and Robert Coover (in Burning).
Wallace uses the term Image-Fiction for this kind of writing, and he argues that, while it is smart and inventive, most of the time it “doesn’t satisfy its own agenda. Instead, it most often degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacey look ‘behind the scenes’ of the very televisual front people already jeer at….” The problem for these writers is that they
render their material with the same tone of irony and self-consciousness that their ancestors, the literary insurgents of Beat and postmodernism, used so effectively to rebel against their own world and context. And the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails to help the new Imagists transfigure TV is simply that TV has beaten the new Imagists to the punch. The fact is that for at least ten years now, television has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing, and re-presenting the very same cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of Low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative.
Citing numerous examples of television shows and commercials from the 1970s and 1980s (an episode of the hospital show St. Elsewhere about a lonely mental patient who watches too much TV and comes to think he’s Mary Tyler Moore; commercials for Pepsi and Isuzu that make fun of TV commercials and the consumers who fall for them; the whole television-mocking apparatus of Saturday Night Live), Wallace shows how broadcast television mastered and made ubiquitous a certain attitude of knowingness, a winking, ironic mockery of both itself and its viewers.
The challenge for the novelist of the 1990s was to stop relying on an overfamiliar cynical tone that could now say little more than, Hey, isn’t this absurd? You and I are in on it, but what can we do but go along for the ride? “The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’” Wallace quotes critic Lewis Hyde (writing about John Berryman): “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”
But how does a novelist actually get outside the familiar stance of “self-consciousness and hip fatigue,” as Wallace puts it? How can he lodge a more powerful criticism of his television-enthralled times, a criticism that takes into account the corrosive effects of television-stoked cynicism itself? The experience of addiction and recovery allows Wallace to be able to imagine a situation—a type of private experience—in which dropping one’s self-protective ironic stance might be a pressing matter of survival. Through the stories of his addicted characters in Infinite Jest, Wallace dramatizes the moral urgency of simplicity and sincerity, and the potential hazards of overintellectualization and cynicism.
Infinite Jest is well known for having a many-stranded, complex, and partially unresolved plot, set (mostly) in near-future Boston and toggling between two main sets of characters: students at an elite, high-pressure tennis academy and the much more downscale residents of Ennet House, a drug rehabilitation halfway house operating on the edge of the tennis academy’s property. Much of the Ennet House sections is told loosely from the perspective of Gately.
Among his other staff duties, Gately shepherds Ennet House residents to their mandatory AA meetings. AA meetings in Infinite Jest are a kind of theater. And the audience of recovering alcoholics has a particular sensibility:
The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.
It’s an audience acutely sensitive to emotional honesty. They are turned off by pretensions or cleverness or showing off, but not because they feel competitive or judgmental: they see through cleverness to the terror or callowness or numbness underneath. This audience is, of course, idealized. It’s a model for us as readers, and the ideal audience that Wallace is writing for. It’s a tough crowd, especially for a young writer who has delighted in his dazzling cleverness.
Infinite Jest makes a big point of its narrator’s omniscience. Wallace moves in and out of Gately’s perspective, able at a crucial moment to give us information that Gately himself couldn’t or wouldn’t want to. For example, when his fellow AA group members
presented him, on the September Sunday that marked his first year sober, with a faultlessly baked and heavily frosted one-candle cake, Don Gately had cried in front of nonrelatives for the first time in his life. He now denies that he actually did cry, saying something about candle-fumes in his eye. But he did.