David Foster Wallace, the greatest writer of his generation, began captivating my attention in late 2014, over six years after he hanged himself in his California home, not even mostly as a writer (though his Infinite Jest gave me, among other things, howling compassion for drug addicts), but more as a person. He had what I and so many other writers pine for and he didn’t want it. And yet, I get it. Much more, I get it. DFW has since become my favorite theologian. I will qualify that I never met David Foster Wallace; but then, neither did his biographer, D.T. Max, and he wrote a whole book about him.
This book on one level feels more opportunistic than enlightening. DFW’s death shocked and rocked a whole lot of people back in 2008. This book was published in 2012. It’s not so much that it was “too soon” (that’s really not for me to judge) as that it’s both too much and too little somehow. There are portions that are oddly repetitive, and not quote in an illuminating way; then there are places that shed more darkness than if they had simply be left out (critics have said this of many of Wallace’s works, too, both fiction and not). The reports of DFW when he was still young enough that the use of his full name would likely have meant he was in trouble, lashing out cruelly at his younger sister are disturbing, not because brothers (or older siblings…) don’t ever do that sort of thing, but because neither Amy nor their parents factor into these interactions at all. It’s all about DFW.
And that is exactly the problem. I get that Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a biography about DFW. But Max does to him what he clearly experienced in real life and had major problems with: DFW is not the star of the show, he’s the only one in the theater. In an interview his sister Amy gave circa 2012, she was asked to describe David to someone who never met him and she said, without hesitation and deadly serious, “He was an alien.” Yes, he had extreme reactions to the “normal” world that are not familiar to most people and he was the smartest person anyone who met him had ever met…smart enough to realize how isolating such intelligence and awareness and reactivity makes a person. D.T. Max could have just been attempting to recreate the crushing aloneness DFW alludes to feeling many times in the interviews he gave (and certainly in his stories, if you take any of them to be veiled autobiography, which Max is adept at pointing out).
But when you want to know about a person – because you care about them, because they have touched you, because you feel seen by their story in ways previously unknown to you – the only way to stay on the respectful side of the vouyerism line is to know about who was important to them. We get snippets from DFW’s letters (he was probably the last great letter writer but that’s more circumstantial than anything; the Internet/email took over the world less than ten years before his death) but we don’t get a lot of responses to these missives. The book I read just before this – The Body Keeps the Score – says “we barely exist as individuals.” It could have been that Max was attempting to recreate the isolation and aloneness that plagued DFW his whole life; my sense, though, is that the exclusions of relational reciprocity are not that intentional.
As a brief excursus, ‘intentionality’ is a fairly major Thing for me. I want how people treat me to be intentional – good or bad. I know that sounds weird, but I’d rather have someone do something bad to me that they thought about doing than simply not think about what they’re doing at all. “I didn’t mean to” is not an apology and rather serves to negate any one that may be forthcoming. I assume you ‘didn’t mean’ to do whatever it is you did that hurt me. That’s sort of why I’m telling you, because I assume that you didn’t think or know it would hurt me and I want you to know that it did anyway. If I thought you meant to hurt me, it’s unlikely we’d be in relationship. That’s my current take on “let your yes be yes and your no be no;” meaning what you say requires thinking about it. It’s hard to do, DFW struggled with it – or, rather how, exactly to say what he meant – maximally. But sometimes, the hard thing and the right thing are the same.
Overall, I couldn’t put the book down (and have several bruises on my shins from walking around my apartment trying to get parts of chores done while refusing to take the book away from my face). It’s not because of the book, though, it’s because of the story. And, even if you don’t care about DFW, the questions he cared about, the ways he tried to answer them and what he tried to do with that relentlessly reeling mind he could never get to rest are worth considering in their own rites.