Knowing The Ending Ahead Of Time Makes Things Sadder – The Tragic Genius Of David Foster Wallace

If you’ll allow me to be, I’m going to be one of those insufferable twats who decides to praise something he doesn’t fully understand.

This is The Internet.  I’m sure you’re all used to it by now.  If not… allow me to be your introduction to the world of complete idiots who like to spout off for 500-1000 words about books they’ve never finished.

Don’t think I can do it?  I just used six words there.  And another six (with another eight here too).  I have complete confidence in my abilities to bullshit over David Foster Wallace, despite still not finishing one of his books.

The main reason I feel this confidence is because I recently finished DT Max’s biography entitled Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.  I particularly like the subtitle.  A Life of… not The Life of.  It certainly gives it a more unofficial air, though it is monumentally well researched and put together.

But more on that later!  First, I’ll give you a merry and tragical – yet tedious and brief – history of my time with David Foster Wallace.

It all began my sophomore year of college.  I was looking for new literary inspiration and (obviously) new ways to impress girls.  A girl I had been talking to since freshman year had mentioned Wallace in a conversation and I thought… I’m not above faking liking something to impress a girl.  Hell, I did it for Nirvana in 7th grade, why not keep up the trend?  That worked well, didn’t it?

And the next day, I was fingering the pages of Infinite Jest in the library stacks.  I read the opening chapter, where Hal has a serious mental breakdown during a college admissions interview, and stopped there.  It was good.  Too good.  Too painful, too real. I felt uncomfortable reading it.  It literally made me feel like was going to have a panic attack.

Future attempts to read the novel resulted in similar troubles.  The opening chapter was eventually conquered, but I kept getting put off by other aspects of the novel.  The chapter where the attaché first watches the video was similarly discomfiting, as was the first chapter to feature Erdedy, waiting for his pot delivery.  The strong emotional reaction, usually a positive thing when I’m reading, was too much.

So I says to myself, I says… why not try some short stories?  Oh brain, you never let me down! Except for those weird Freudian things you keep making me say… seriously, stop that, man.

Next on my list? Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, approximately a year ago.  The first story, “Death Is Not The End” was good.  I finished it without issue and rather enjoyed it.  But the second story, “Forever Overhead” gave me an extreme case of the howling fantods.  I just couldn’t do it.  I was overwhelmed by the narrator’s voice, his inability to decide, oh… and the fact that the piece is written from a second-person perspective… sheer madness. Felt like everything I ate for a week was going to hemorrhage from me in a violent vomiting session only seen to those who have administered and\or ingested ipecac.

So that’s it.  Two dismal failures to complete a book by DFW.  Game over, right?

Well, I’m a stubborn bastard.

I recognized that I enjoyed the writing enough to keep reading, despite the roiling gut issues.  I also realized that the extreme feelings the books were inspiring in me were probably a good sign… at least so long that I didn’t actually puke everywhere.

So in April, I began my third attempt to read Infinite Jest.  I may yet finish it.  I’ve been poking along at about 10-20 pages a week.  I’m taking extensive notes as I go, that way I won’t have to re-read the whole thing if I find myself again unable to finish the novel this time around (or if I go three weeks without reading a page, like I have recently).

But the perfect substitution to reading Infinite Jest?  Reading a David Foster Wallace biography!  First up, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by DT Max.

Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
DT Max
Viking Penguin
356 Pages
August 30, 2012

As I suggested up in my title, the saddest stories (for me) are the ones that I already know the end to.  Usually, a first reading of a book (or even viewing of a movie) is just to get the story down, enjoying the characters, the plot, the general feel of a piece.  I’ll use subsequent readings to really dig into a book, pick apart various themes and ideas, and typically then I’ll get more emotionally involved.

But I already know how this biography is going to end.  David Foster Wallace will hang himself while his wife is out, ending the life of one of our most prominent, and brilliant, writers.

But Max doesn’t let the unwavering outcome of his subject block out the significance of other parts of his life.  Unlike Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Max is more than happy to start at the beginning and (mostly) follow a straightforward progression to the end of the tale.

The biography is an interesting read.  I don’t know much about Wallace and have often been afraid to read too many autobiographical details into the text of Infinite Jest.  I still am, but there’s definitely bits of Wallace’s life throughout the novel (or at least 300ish pages into it, so far).

But don’t mistake an interesting subject for a good biography.  It isn’t straight up bad.  Max has combed through Wallace’s books and letters (published and unpublished) to provide a very interesting comparison between the man, his life, and his writing.  Max also quotes many important people from Wallace’s life to give a more complete picture…

But there are bits of minutiae that don’t seem to hold any sort of importance: for instance, why did one of Wallace’s rehab friends ask the author to take his pre-teen daughter to a movie? The story is a bit sweet, as Wallace took her to Titanic and had her cover her eyes during the scene where Kate Winslet made most of my preteen fantasies a reality, but… why is it there?  What purpose does it serve?  And, on top of that, why would someone ask a thirty-year-old to take his preteen daughter to a movie?  None of that is explained, which seems a bit odd to me.

There are also many places where the narrative comes off the rails and we’re left with Max’s speculations on what Wallace was thinking, or feeling.  In some cases, there’s an end note, or source information, but not always.  This is a bit frustrating at times.

But these are minor complaints.  There seems to be very little in the way of contribution from Wallace’s mother, but given that she was a rather large inspiration for Avril Incandenza in Infinite Jest, perhaps that isn’t terribly surprising.  Overall, the biography is a good read for someone like me who wants to know more about Wallace, and there’s a bit of literary analysis thrown in for good measure.

And please note the subtitle of the book: A Life of David Foster Wallace.  This won’t be the last biography we see of DFW.  This is just the story that Max was able to tell from the information provided to him.  David Lipsky expanded a Rolling Stone article into another fine book about Wallace titled Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and there is sure to be more on the horizon.

Maybe by the time the next one arrives, I’ll have finished Infinite Jest.

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Numbers, Letters, Names – Brian K Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man

Y: The Last Man was Brian K Vaughan’s first really successful comic.  About six months after the first issue of Y hit shelves, he followed it up with the excellent Marvel teen-superhero tale Runaways, and about another six months after that, Vaughan introduced us to the Mayor of New York, who could somehow communicate with machinery, in Ex Machina.

I’ve made no secret that Brian K Vaughan is one of my favorite comic creators.  His early Marvel stuff on titles like The Hood and Ultimate X-Men is good.  Vaughan’s DC work, on a couple of Batman titles and a small run on Wonder Woman is also good.  Even his 20-issue run on Swamp Thing is serviceable (though harmed by an early cancellation).  But Vaughan always (ALWAYS!) works better with his own characters.

Y: The Last Man wasn’t just his first success, it was also his first completely new, creator-owned series and it. Is. AWESOME.  Why?  Well, let’s discuss!

And as always: this post may contain SPOILERS.  I’ll try to steer clear of them, but this book is particularly difficult to talk about without delving at least somewhat into the deep end of the spoiler pool.

Be warned of that if you haven’t read (or finished) the series.

Y: The Last Man
Co-created by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Pia Guerra (art)
Scripts by Brian K Vaughan
Pencils by Pia Guerra (various), Goran Sudzuka (various), and Paul Chadwick (various)
Inks by Jose Maran Jr.
Colors by Pamela Lambo (various) and Zylonol (various)
Letters by Clem Robbins
Covers by JG Jones and Massimo Carnevale
Editor: Will Dennis
Published In Single Magazine Form by Vertigo Comics\DC Comics From Sept 2002 Through March 2008
A Whole Lot Of Pages

I’d like to just take a moment in case I missed anyone in the credits up there… A whole mess of people worked to make what it is and… it shows.  Great art teams, great lettering… and the writing ain’t bad either!

The story focuses on the travels of one Yorick Brown, as he crosses a post-apocalyptic America… the last man on earth.  A global plague has wiped out any mammal with a Y chromosome (including any sperm, or fertilized ovum) and Yorick is crossing the country with a special agent code-named 355, and an expert geneticist named Allison Mann.  Oh and Yorick’s helper monkey named Ampersand, the only other male mammal to survive the death of the Y chromosome.

The characters have many motivations.  Yorick’s main goal is to find his girlfriend (slash maybe-fiance), Beth, in Australia, but has been tasked by the surviving remnants of the US government to go with Dr Mann to her lab in San Francisco so she can figure out why he has survived.  Agent 355 is their bodyguard and escort… and is a complete bad-ass, and my second-favorite comic book character (after, naturally, Morpheus from Sandman).

Brian K Vaughan does a really good job with dialogue.  While I don’t believe people of the world are as clever, verbose, and intelligent as he portrays them to be… he still writes his characters realistically, and even if one were presented with a speech-balloon without any other context… it wouldn’t be hard to identify the speaker.

Plotting and pacing is also a strong suit of Vaughan’s.  Foreshadowing is rampant throughout the series, and Vaughan really works at showing Yorick’s development from a selfish, Beth-obsessed slacker into a contemplative, intelligent young man.

Of particular interest is the cause to the plague: no single, definitive answer is ever provided in the comic.  It could be the genetic cloning that Dr Mann’s father was involved in.  It could have been a mysterious amulet that was removed from Jordan by Agent 355.  Maybe it was a disease set-off in China by American agents, in an attempt to cripple the Chinese economy.  But none is presented in a way that gives any more credence to one over the other.

And this is endlessly frustrating.  The book has a distinctive sci-fi bent (especially given the plague at the crux of the plot), but everything else about it is much more grounded (unlike some of Vaughan’s other series, such as Ex Machina and Saga), so none of the answers are particularly satisfying.

Still, Vaughan has stated in an interview that the answer is given within the story, but that it isn’t explicitly stated (and apparently won’t be by anyone involved on the creative team).  He also hinted that it could be a background image, or something from Issue 3, no doubt sending large groups of mad readers, such as myself, scrambling to scan every panel in exquisite detail.

If you’ve never read a comic book… you would be hard pressed to find a better starting point that Y: The Last Man.  Relentless action, emotionally evolving characters, mystery, suspense, and great art to boot… This series is what got me into the Vertigo line of comics (followed closely by Sandman and Swamp Thing).

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