A Review of DT Max‘s “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”

by Paul Jessup

All biographies, all memoirs, all these kinds of books we slap with the label non-fiction and parade around as truth are mostly lies and more lies and all sorts of lies. They’re built mostly on recollections and memories and things spun out from friends and relatives, with a few hard facts like pictures and court documents to back things up and make them spine straight and truthful. But memories are weird things, things that are easily corrupted and changed and mutate with each remembering and with each telling, becoming more and more like fiction, and more and more like a story, and more and more they mold into our archetypes of what stories are. I guess in some way memories are ways that our mind takes the chaos of our world and starts to apply a rigid form of sense to it, that slowly pins it down like butterflies on a piece of wax paper, with each part of your life labelled and fit together to form a whole narrative that makes sense to you somehow.

What stands out the most in Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, by D. T. Max is this way we have of creating a narrative for ourselves out of the fragmented puzzle pieces of our lives. Take David Foster Wallace, the person who this biography is essentially about, and you can see that he was basically a person struggling with himself, struggling to nail down this internal narrative of who he was and make sense out of his memories and his actions and try to somehow keep it inline with the person he thought he was and who he thought he should be.

Reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story gives you a fractured, uneven glimpse into who he was as a person, and who he thought he was as a person as well. You can see the persona he built for himself and tried to maintain as long as possible, this idea of tortured artist, this idea of a nice guy, a philosopher, someone who was ethical and true. A good person, one who seemed to despise the very irony he wields in his fiction and praises the sincerity he often sought for externally. I wondered if this quest for sincerity was a way of finding a way to excuse his actions, especially the ones that didn’t gel with the internal concept of self he’d built up for himself.

You may be wondering what I’m getting at here. Every review so far (even if it mentions some of the more salacious things) praises this as a study of a genius and a voice of a generation, and they talk about how tortured he was, how much he was in internal pain and suffering that was gnawing at him daily. It’s basically look, see, pity him. Poor David Foster Wallace, oh tortured soul, whose greatest work (The Pale King) was his grand undoing.

As you can tell, this is a basic character. This is not a human being, this is a persona in a movie, a classic archetype of tortured mad genius who struggles and struggles and then kills himself. We’ve seen this story in film and in books. He’s the person who feels too greatly, as an artist, and can’t survive in this world because he’s too sensitive.

This is not who David Foster Wallace was. He was a person that was sick, not in an ewww gross way but as in need of help, of constant help. His chemical imbalance was part of what made him this tortured artist, and we can’t give the disease the credit of making a person who he was, even if the disease controlled him and ate away at him. Also, even through his time of drug recovery, he wasn’t the person he wanted to be, not in the end, not at all.

His relationship with Mary Karr is the strongest example of how these biographies are founded on sketchy memories. The actuality of what happened with them could be worse, could be better, who knows? Either way, she brought out a deep-seated rage and violence in him. He claimed he loved her, yet he smashed her furniture, and he arranged to buy a firearm from an ex-con to murder her husband. This is not the action of a traumatized artist, of someone who feels too much empathy for the world around him. These were the actions of someone who had so much anger he did not know how to deal with it, unless he smoked pot or got drunk or something like that. When he went to recovery to stop all that, the rage came out unchecked, and later, when he stopped taking his anti-depressants, suicidal thoughts followed.

I’m sure this book was meant to show every bit of the human he was, and his genius and how he worked. Yet, what I find interesting is you see a human being struggling with his own internal narrative, with the identity he chose for himself. A rebel artist, who wanted fame yet hated it when he achieved it. A tortured soul who felt too much, yet at the same time the kind of person who contemplates murder and goes into violent fits of rage when he doesn’t get the one he loves.

This brings to mind a quandary: what to do we do when we find out an author we thought was great, amazing, a voice of a generation, a person whose writing shows him as sympathetic and human and honest—is really not such a great person after all? Wallace isn’t alone in this discovery- Philip K. Dick was known to turn up Wagner so that his neighbors couldn’t hear the sound of him beating his wife. What do we, as readers, as fans, do with this knowledge?

Can we keep on reading on no matter how horrible of a person he was, or does this taint the work? Or, are they good people who did one or two terrible things and struggle with guilt and the meaning of who they are? We know it was guilt with Wallace, evidenced by the countless letters he wrote apologizing for everything bad he had done to all his friends and family.

Can we blame these ills on madness? Dick was known to be schizophrenic, and Wallace was diagnosed as a depressive who was constantly fighting his own inner darkness. Is it all right then, to blame these actions on their chemical imbalances and move on?

The biography doesn’t attempt to flavor our opinions one way or another, and in this way it’s written in a journalistic manner, without any direct commentary or thoughts or inklings of sympathy or hatred. In a way this is preferred, but in the same way, the journalistic style is very strange for a biography about a writer as experimental as Wallace. The ‘just the facts’ approach leaves something to be desired, and you expect it to go experimental in some ways, or reach beyond a journalistic workman-style tone.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a fragmented, circular view of a person who struggled with life and who struggled to stay alive for so long and eventually fell to his mental illness.

I know some people will lay the blame on his suicide with his struggle with work on The Pale King. And I think the biography does seem to paint this picture, even saying that he went off anti-depressants so that he could finish it, and that since he was happy it made it a struggle since he was writing a story about enlightenment through boredom.

But I’m not sure that’s quite it. In the biography it’s mentioned that Wallace wrote a biography for George Cantor, the mathematician that struggled to find a way of understanding infinity and went insane. Wallace flat out says that the insanity was there residing in Cantor before he started working on his famous set theories. That it was a romantic and flawed notion that his work to understand infinity made Cantor insane. And I wonder if the same thing could be said for Wallace and The Pale King.

In the end, the book didn’t kill him, his struggles with depression did, and his struggles with his medication did, and his struggles with defining his own self did. I have a feeling he struggled with the idea of what kind of a person he was as much as any reader did in tackling the biography. In the end, he was as complex as many of us are, and I think studying David Foster Wallace’s life and work and who he was helps us somehow understand our own flawed humanity.