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.
And it’s a recurring joke of the novel that its characters will sometimes wax improbably eloquent, at which point Wallace will insert a footnote saying, for example, “none of these are Don Gately’s terms.”
Wallace is leading us somewhere with all this emphasis on his God-like knowledge of his characters. He is going to stake his omniscience, his authorial authority, on something, a particular point that he wants to put across to us readers above all.
Submission to AA is not easy for a skeptical thinking person, Wallace makes clear. In his early months of sobriety Gately would regularly
raise his big mitt in Beginner Meetings and say publicly just how much he hates this limp AA drivel about gratitude and humility and miracles and how he hates it and thinks it’s horseshit and hates the AAs and how they all seem like limp smug moronic self-satisfied shit-eating pricks with their lobotomized smiles and goopy sentiment and how he wishes them all violent Technicolor harm in the worst way.
The part of the AA meetings that most annoys Wallace’s characters is the repetition of mottoes. New members “are always encouraged to invoke and pay empty lip or hypocritical lip-service to slogans they don’t yet understand or believe—e. g. ‘Easy Does It!’ and ‘Turn It Over!’ and ‘One Day At a Time!’ It’s called ‘Fake It Till You Make It,’ itself an oft-invoked slogan.”
For Wallace, brilliant student, philosopher, novelist, the submission to “goofily simple,” trite, sometimes ungrammatical slogans is the essence of submission itself. There could be no more dramatic symbol of the depth of trouble that the addict is in than his agreement to hear and repeat these truisms. It represents a submission not just to AA methods, but to the idea that you are not different from everyone else, not exempt from ordinary suffering and ordinary consolations.
But it’s not just that these poor addicts are desperate enough to try any fool thing. It turns out that the clichés actually mean something:
The palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of [AA]… then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work.
Wallace risks the credibility he has built up over three hundred–plus pages of funny, irreverent, macabre, showily agile and complex and original prose, to tell us something that we probably didn’t go into this novel expecting to hear: that sometimes clichés are true, and we avoid or scorn them at our peril. This is what Gately discovers, for instance, after a few months of miraculous-seeming sobriety, when he finds himself helplessly remembering all kinds of scenes from his childhood that years of drug abuse helped him to forget. Some of his memories are mundane (the precise look of his childhood home’s front steps and mailbox) and some of them are more obviously emotionally charged (his mother’s nightly passing out in front of the television with a bottle of vodka), but they are pretty much all unbearably painful for him to relive. This, he realizes, is what is meant by the AA talk about Getting In Touch with Your Feelings—“another quilted-sampler cliché that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real.”
That clichés contain truth might not seem like a startling observation in itself, but it’s a startling thing for a novelist of the first order to make a point of telling us—especially this particular novelist. You don’t have to read Infinite Jest for very long to appreciate Wallace’s sophisticated grasp of all kinds of colloquial, visual, pop cultural, and literary clichés. In one offhand clause he can disassemble some familiar phrase or image, draw attention to it, show us its component parts, implicitly chuckle at its silliness, yet also acknowledge its inescapable importance as a mental reference point for his readers. His dense weave of specific and generic pop references—Reebok athletic clothing in particular and the “centerless eyes,” “ravening maw,” and “canines” of horror movie ghouls in general—is worked in alongside spectacular descriptions of New England weather, the acoustics of a boys’ locker room, and other non-brand-name physical details. Infinite Jest is also a novel that relies, much more than it is given credit for, on fine-grained, psychologically realistic portraiture, at least with regard to its two main characters, Gately and the teenage tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza.
Having established that he is hardly someone who would confuse low art for high, or an original insight for tediously familiar received wisdom, Wallace gives us permission to find solace in common self-help truisms without feeling that we have lost our critical faculties. In other words, he cleaves aesthetic standards from moral ones, and shows us that it is possible, and sometimes necessary, to do so.
This, really, was Wallace’s break from his contemporaries and from earlier generations of the American avant-garde. You would not find a statement affirming the truth of any kind of received wisdom in a novel by Pynchon or Barth or DeLillo. In the history of the novel, clichés have usually fallen on the immoral side of the ledger: received wisdom and received language are a threat to the development of sensibility, to the emergence of a thinking, judging, morally responsive self. If you’re a character in a Pynchon or a DeLillo novel you can be neurotic, paranoid, disoriented, deranged, violent. Indeed, you can be drunk. These are sensitive responses to your times. But the idea of submitting fruitfully to some kind of group intervention or therapeutic program is antithetical to the cultural criticism of these novelists. What is such a program but a simple, uniform solution fit for a simple and sheeplike populace?
Wallace’s depiction of AA registers these criticisms but turns them on their head: he uses a program that urges blind submission to argue for thoughtful broadmindedness. For he is not, of course, celebrating clichés in general; he is issuing a corrective, one meant mainly to address the biases—the fixed ideas—of his own generation of readers: don’t be too quick to dismiss what sounds obvious, familiar, or unsophisticated.
In writing about AA, Wallace supplies his own description of the nightmare of addiction, uses his own voice to tell the universal story in a way that is vitally intelligent and self-consciously literary and funny. (And he must be funny, for he has to show that getting away from jeering cynicism does not mean getting away from humor.) “If you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own,” Wallace writes, and proceeds to sketch the basic outlines of every AA testimony. At first, you have
fun with Substance, then very gradually less fun, then significantly less fun because of like blackouts you suddenly come out of on the highway going 145 kph with companions you do not know, nights you awake from in unfamiliar bedding next to somebody who doesn’t even resemble any known sort of mammal, three-day blackouts you come out of and have to buy a newspaper to even know what town you’re in; yes gradually less and less actual fun but with some physical need for the Substance, now, instead of the former voluntary fun; then at some point suddenly just very little fun at all, combined with terrible daily hand-trembling need, then dread, anxiety, irrational phobias, dim siren-like memories of fun, trouble with assorted authorities, knee-buckling headaches, mild seizures, and the litany of what Boston AA calls Losses…then more Losses, with the Substance seeming like the only consolation against the pain of the mounting Losses, and of course you’re in Denial about it being the Substance that’s causing the very Losses it’s consoling you about—
Wallace is famous for his ear for idiomatic expression, but he is often assumed to be merely listening rather than reconfiguring his generation’s impoverished English at every turn. Jonathan Raban, for instance, has written in these pages of Wallace’s “absolute fidelity to the patterns of [American] speech and thought I hear around me.”* Would that this were the case. In fact Wallace takes our unremarkable, stammering colloquialisms and works them into monologues that are verbally and grammatically complex and highly literary, while also sounding like a real voice speaking to us. But it could only be the voice of one person, and it could only be written. Imagine trying to adapt the above passage for dialogue or voice-over. Could you make the words sound natural if you had to speak them? Wallace has worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods, to the firmament of high literary art.
If irony is only good for emergency use, the same might be said of clichés. Infinite Jest limns states of personal emergency. In these circumstances, we take Wallace’s point about the need to pay attention to people trying to help us who are saying simple, obvious-seeming things. But what about non-emergency times, when we go about our business suffering no more than ordinary unhappiness?
Wallace’s books after Infinite Jest turned to more or less normal life, to the “trenches of adult existence,” to characters who are able to keep up with domestic and professional demands and moderate their pleasures—if they are capable of experiencing pleasure in the first place. “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a story in the collection Oblivion (2004), introduces a subject that Wallace was also pursuing in his new novel (which would be published posthumously in 2011 as The Pale King): the state of extreme, crushing boredom brought on by tedious white-collar office work. The narrator recalls that the look in his father’s eyes when he would come home from a deadening day of actuarial work inspired a series of childhood nightmares about
a large room full of men in suits and ties seated at rows of great grey desks, bent forward over the papers on their desks, motionless, silent, in a monochrome room or hall under long banks of high lumen fluorescents, the men’s faces puffy and seamed with adult tension and wear…. The men’s expressions were somehow at once stuporous and anxious, enervated and keyed up—not so much fighting the urge to fidget as appearing to have long ago surrendered whatever hope or expectation causes one to fidget.
“I could never convey just what was so dreadful about this tableau of a bright, utterly silent room full of men immersed in rote work,” the narrator tells us, but, he adds later, “the dream’s bright room was death, I could feel it.” As a vision of office work, or adult responsibilities more generally, this seems precisely childish, touched with a note of hysteria. But you could see it too as an alcoholic’s vision of a life of sobriety, or a vision of clinical depression.
Wallace suffered from depression from his teenage years on, and had several breakdowns, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations. Max writes that after one of these breakdowns, in his sophomore year of college, Wallace described himself in a letter to a friend as “obscurely defective.” Even when he was not in acute crisis, Wallace often had trouble finding a comfortable way to be around other people, to interpret their actions or imagine their internal states, to go with the grain of various kinds of social expectations, or just to be in his own skin.
Reading his story collections Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)and Oblivion, one has a feeling that some part of Wallace just doesn’t believe in normal life. The appearance of normalcy is at best a scrim hiding desperate internal states. And even if some of us are able to lead a decent and maybe even satisfying personal existence, Wallace observes, our national political and civic life is in a state of emergency. The main plot of The Pale King has to do with a struggle within the IRS in the (fictional) 1980s over the possibility of a computer-automated tax enforcement system that would replace a lot of accounting employees. This was part of a deeper struggle “over the very mission and raison of the Service,”
between traditional or “conservative” officials who saw tax and its administration as an arena of social justice and civic virtue, on the one hand, and those more progressive, “pragmatic” policymakers who prized the market model, efficiency, and a maximum return on the investment of the Service’s annual budget. Distilled to its essence, the question was whether and to what extent the IRS should be operated like a for-profit business.
Our narrator, Dave Wallace, who spent thirteen months working for the IRS during this crucial period of upheaval and presents this book as a memoir, tells us that most of the changes at the IRS are not known to the public:
The reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull….
Fact: the birth agonies of the New IRS led to one of the great and terrible PR discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if the sensitive issue of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. No one will pay attention because no one will be interested, because, more or less a priori, of these issues’ monument dullness.
Wallace was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, and it’s not hard to see the wider political implications of the boredom problem, of our marked collective preference for televised entertainment over muckraking articles about the tax code. While we have been devoting our scant daily hours to professional and personal obligations, and maybe squeezing in a little recreation, there is another category of obligations that has been going unmet, and that is civic ones. There is, we infer, a reason we should vote in congressional elections and join neighborhood councils and take an interest in zoning laws, but the reason is not that doing these things will bring us personal pleasure. It’s that they will improve the character of communal and national life.
This is the moral claim that seems to me to be latent in The Pale King, certainly the most urgent moral claim, although there are fuzzier references to universal brotherhood and the potential “bliss” and “gratitude at the gift of being alive” that will supposedly accrue to us if we practice concentrating on boring things. Beginning with Infinite Jest, Wallace’s writing has had a streak of small-c communism, most clearly visible in his portrait of Gately.
We can think of Gately’s portrait as a triptych, roughly corresponding to the beginning, middle, and end of the novel, that shows the three main elements of his heroism. The first panel shows Gately resolving to change his life and undergoing the trials of early sobriety—a process that every addict who quits must undergo. The last panel repeats and amplifies his heroic commitment to sobriety by posing an extraordinary version of the addict’s dilemma: Gately has been shot while defending an Ennet House resident from two angry thugs, yet because of his narcotics addiction, he refuses painkillers for his nearly unbearable pain.
But the middle panel shows us Gately going about his quotidian duties (“divided pretty evenly between the picayune and the unpleasant”) as a staffer at Ennet House: he cooks the communal evening meals, meatloaf or boiled hot dogs, to the best of his modest abilities, which are usually met with oblique derision by the residents; he makes sure residents are doing their assigned chores and observing the nightly curfew; he works a night shift as an on-call counselor to talk newly sober residents down from graphic nightmares; he supports himself with his job as a janitor in a homeless shelter, where he cleans soiled toilets and showers. He doesn’t especially like most of these responsibilities, but he believes in the halfway house. He takes all these parts of his job seriously and, with a touching vulnerability, tries to do his best at them.
The scenes in the middle panel suggest the highest possible use to which a newly sober life could be put. In a novel in which every parent betrays his child in one way or another, and every child is estranged from his parents, and there are certainly no mutually devoted spouses or couples in love or loyal friendships that do not eventually get sundered, the highest form of human relations is this example of adults who are not related by blood or marriage, or even especially fond of each other, who nonetheless take care of each other with dutiful good humor.
Outside of halfway houses and actual communes, the way that adults unrelated to each other by blood or marriage routinely take care of one another is to participate in the many forms of civic life, from cleaning up after their dogs to running for PTA to voting. These community relationships are not particularly intimate; they don’t usually change anyone’s life or offer intense interpersonal rewards; and they can be quite boring as pastimes go. But they are the well person’s version of making meatloaf for Ennet House residents. I have no idea how you write a good novel dramatizing the urgency of civic responsibility. On the other hand, a plot about sweeping, revolutionary changes in the enforcement of the American tax code that no member of the American public can be bothered to take an interest in is a brilliant start. I join the rest of Wallace’s fans in wishing he had been able to finish it.