Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. D T Max.

Max, D T. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Penguin Viking, New York, 2012. NF;7/16.

I didn’t make any notes on this book which I read during a binge on some of Wallace’s short stories. I guess I felt if you’re as keen on an artist as I am on Wallace, you should know a bit about his life. Max is apparently a New Yorker staff writer or at least was, and he’s reasonably intuitive and has a nice clear nonfiction style.

Characteristics of Wallace as a writer are filled in a bit with some insight into his life. He really was quite eccentric, veering from egotistical and bombastic to terribly self-critical. Not so much the charming nice guy I pictured based on his spectacular sense of humour. He was a fantastic student at everything from philosophy to physics, but spent much of his life broke or close to it, feeling defensive and worried about his writing, drunk or stoned, chasing women.

After he got clean and sober and stayed that way for many years, his life certainly changed and there is a sense that his romantic relationships culminating in his marriage to Karen Green sort of became more coherent and his work more consistent.

This biography leaves no doubt in my mind that just about everything Wallace wrote is based in his life, maybe more so than with many other authors. The tennis academy and drug recovery house in Infinite Jest are real venues for him. But to me more important is confirmation of the instinct I had that many of his characters are too stark to be entirely creatures of the imagination. I was sure for example that the man who perspires in adolescence in Pale King, and his hideous inescapable embarrassment in a classroom, could only have been rendered by someone who had experienced it. Sure enough Wallace himself sweated fiercely (so do I, enough to have been preoccupied with it for many years).

Depression of course is deconstructed in a lot of his fiction and again there’s no question the experience is doubly real. The short story The Depressed Person in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is about someone unable to escape hating herself not just because of her mood but through her unavoidable conviction that she is shallow, self-serving, basically worthless. Wallace’s depression is presented in brief blurbs I’ve read as very severe and his treatment fraught with drug side effects. That’s not the impression I get from this biography. It actually looks like he was doing fine on phenelzine, but stopped it not long before his suicide because of a perception, possibly even false, of its causing a not-very-important side effect.

Which, if his death needn’t have happened, makes it even more dreadfully tragic.

Recommended for committed fans. This will hold your interest and it contains a fair bit of intriguing information. 8.0/7.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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