We come to the end of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story knowing maybe more factoids and ‘things that make you go hm’ about DFW than we otherwise might have, but not enough more about the people in his life…the people Amy refers to when she devastates listeners of her interview by saying, “the hardest thing about this is fighting so hard for someone and still losing them.” And what is it that they – including DFW – fought so hard for/against?” The other main qualm I have with this rendering of DFW’s life is that D.T. Max did not challenge the narrative of mental illness – odd, since this is David Foster Wallace we’re talking about. But, to be fair, nothing else I’ve read on DFW challenges the narrative, either.
But speaking about endings, the last chapter, if not the entire biography, seems to have been written with the end – DFW’s suicide – in mind. The last chapter is incredibly rushed, which could incidentally just be Max being orderly (DFW did, by the accounts I’ve read, seem to collapse at the end very quickly, especially compared to his earlier breakdowns). But the impression the reader is left with is that DFW’s suicide itself is the explanation for the rapid downfall, a recursion similar to the ones that captivated DFW, but in terms of policy and treatment, it’s been pretty much an unmitigated disaster. I’m glad I already knew how DFW’s story ended (this is not to say that I’m glad at all about how it ended) before I read this book; I would have walked away from it feeling like I’d missed something…structurally, in the book I mean, though also a bit in DFW’s story. The common rejoinder is that “we’ll never understand” a suicide, but that, along with the grotesque treatment DFW received – of which he said “was like his psychiatrist’s were throwing darts at a dartboard” – and simply who DFW was to literature and those that loved him are why we need to challenge the narrative.
Here, in no particular order, are some things Every Love Story is a Ghost Story does well: 1) It strikes just the right tone for a story told by someone who never met the subject about a deeply complex, at times contradictory man who took his own life recently enough ago that many, many people who knew him, including his parents, are still living. Tone is crucial – if you get it wrong, people can’t hear what you say or will think you aren’t talking to them. 2) It talks to the right people. It’s for people who, like its author, never met DFW and find themselves compelled to come as close as they can. 3) It collects and informs of great source material – DFW’s ‘papers’ (weirdly now housed at the University of Texas in Austin) and such – for people wanting to do their own research.
4) It summarizes key works of DFW. Most of us are not going to put in the month or more of hard labor to read Infinite Jest or The Pale King (unfinished at the time of DFW’s death); his short stories are not really less work even as they may take less time to read. For the literarily inclined, this work is worth it; for those who just want a nourishing something to read, I’d recommend sticking with his nonfiction, starting here (this, if you can believe it, is the short version of this piece), if you like. For those who aren’t going to read any DFW, the summaries of his work are not only interesting in their own rite, but crucial to understanding their creator, as would be words from any writer who “sits down at her desk and bleeds.” (For that matter, if you’re not going to read the whole of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, here’s a summary/sections of it.) 5) It doesn’t shy from the truth. DFW had a dark past and a dark ending. He was a womanizer. Great moralist as he is touted as, DFW lied about big things. He was angry, struggled with addiction, depression and anxiety and “what it means to be a fucking human being” in self-destructive and extreme ways. He felt everything all the time and had no defenses. He ultimately died by suicide, having made at least two serious attempts before. This is what happened and D.T. Max’s work tells it as easy-to-follow as possible. But if this – ‘what happened’ or at least the most popular explanations for the ‘mental illness’ aspects of it – is enough for you, then, to quote Jonathan Franzen, who knew DFW for what amounted to about half of DFW’s life, “you don’t need his stories.”