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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