Suicide as a Sort of Present: The Cult of DFW

A review of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D. T. Max (Viking, 2012).

For the flawless.

[Editor’s note: Hover over the footnotes to read them, or scroll to the bottom of the essay.]

You are, unfortunately, a scholar1 of the works of the late David Foster Wallace (suicide, a trellis-and-belt hanging, Sept.12, 2008).2 Early in 2002, while researching what would become your dissertation on DFW’s novel Infinite Jest,3 you submitted a query to Harvard Magazine4 regarding the source of a (perhaps real?) quotation from a DFW short story: “. . . that every love story is also [a] ghost story. . .”5  Ten years later you receive an email—“SUBJECT: Got yr email from Matt Bucher”6—from a D.T. Max Research Assistant, who buttered your parsnips—“just wanted to say I adore your Brothers Incandenza essay (Im sure you get that alot)”7—about the source of the quotation.  When the R.A. told you that D.T. Max, author of “The Unfinished: David Foster Wallace’s Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest,”8 would use the quotation for his title, you knew you’d have to review it—if only to find the source of the quotation.9

Your review copy was a seriously uncorrected proof.  You know from having reviewed proofs before10 that one should ignore indiscretions, but sentences like this—“In another [Mark Leyner] story a father lives in his basement centrifuging mouse hybridoma”—(155) give some pause.  You had to use three bookmarks: one for the “Notes,” another for the “Additional Sources, By Chapter” notes, and a third for the “Endnotes” section nearly identical to the AS,BC notes.  You’d hoped that Penguin would harmonize this weird bibliographic trinity for the final edition (they didn’t)11.  And there’s a bit of Whisky Tango Foxtrot to the notes themselves.  Chapter Six’s note three, for example, is a lengthy Jr. Freud affair about mother-children relationships and “Infinite Jest,” the samizdat video cartridge in IJ, but the primary text is about an irrelevant IJ character.  Most enigmatic of all is that the whole quotation/book-title mystery is never resolved: it comes up in an early note, but goes without discussion. Discussing DFW’s first published short story, Max writes that “‘The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,’ [. . . ] is more original in subject than in style” (35), and then the note says

That ‘every love story is a ghost story’ is a thought that stayed with Wallace from the beginning of his writing career to the end [. . . .] From ‘Planet Trillaphon’ to the posthumous Pale King[,] moments of happy love in Wallace’s works are rare.  (312 n. 8)

You don’t get how a statement about DFW’s first short story’s subject/style has anything to do with (i) the mysterious quotation or why it mattered to DFW (he doe

sn’t even use the expression in “Planet Trillaphon”), or (ii) why it comes up here then, or (iii) the concept of “happy love” in DFW’s oeuvre, or (iv) what “happy love” even is anyway. Further, if the phrase was so important to DFW, and you liked it so much yourself that you appropriated it for the title of your history-making first DFW biography, don’t you think that you should maybe talk about it in detail and where it comes from and why it matters? You further wonder why it only receives such second-class citizen’s treatment in a footnote of all places.

Max wants a good story and is willing to reach for it. He refers to DFW’s review-essay on American usage12 to make a specious biographical connection to drug-use: “In a later essay, he would remember the problem with getting high, recalling how under the drug’s influence one eats [. . . ],” and then quotes liberally from “Tense Present” (Max 11). But this is disingenuous, quoting far out of context; DFW is dismantling the colour fallacy in his essay, arguing against the possibility of a private language. He is decidedly not recalling anything about his personal drug use. It isn’t a personal essay. DFW uses a witty analogy to show how all featherless bipeds see green the same way—the essay’s example is of a kid on a couch, having eaten ChipsAhoy! cookies, and watching a televised PGA event, under the influence of cannabis, wondering if what he sees as green is the same as what others call the colour green. This kind of reach for a putative correspondence between DFW and his essays and fiction undermines the credibility of what is an otherwise thoroughly documented bio.13 Stick to the life, you say—there’s plenty there.

But the book is entirely irresistible, and will be received that way for the DFW aficionado and novice alike.14 It’s worth humping through the silly Intentional Fallacy fields and superficial treatment of the fiction—“the car, an AMC Pacer, would later surface, with Wallace’s mother’s Gremlin, in The Pale King” (33). And the lit-crit bumbling: “though it [‘The Planet Trillaphon’] was not pure autobiography [right, because it’s fiction], the authorial “I” [the writer?] and the “I” of the narrator [so, just the narrator?] parallel one another in the story [where else?] in a way [such as?] they never would again in Wallace’s fiction [because DFW didn’t write cross-over fiction?]; the sense of dismay at being mentally ill is still fresh [?]” (34, your emphasis). And the first-draft-like confusions: “the layers of asserting and then hedging those assertions to assert slightly more emphatically and imaginatively that would constitute Wallace’s style are beginning to form” (34). DFW dramatized our interior experience and the horror of trying to articulate such in meaningful, sincere English for another person—for the lonely pleasure of the other. The fiction is not an AutoCAD rendering of DFW’s mind or motives or anything, you say.

Ultimately, however, Daniel T. Max has changed the way you think about David Foster Wallace. The book is a revelation: you discover more than you ever wanted to know. And much of what you thought you knew about him through his sculpted public persona—“both affected and genuine in some way,” for the novelist Robert Boswell (57)—was a bit wrong.15 DFW was a sick man. And he did what all writers do: he wrote what he knew: his sick self.16 You see that he was a sex addict like IJ’s Orin Incandenza (especially with the whole MILF-thing), and an alcoholic—who yearned in sobriety for “just one tall cool frosted bar-glass of Wild Turkey” (146); that he was “jealous” of “that fucker”  William T. Vollmann (316 n. 19), “so sickly searingly envious” of “Vollmann, [Mark] Leyner and even David Fuckwad Leavitt” (143); that he was a whiner (who bitched about velvety teaching jobs, which people’d got for him); that he could be vicious, once snarling at Harvard professor Stanley Cavell in a seminar to “make himself intelligible” (133)17; and was cripplingly insecure—an occupational hazard, sure, but not for this guy, you’d always felt. Worst of all, you discover that DFW suffered from “black-eyed red-outs” (151), and rammed a car in anger (150), and contemplated murder (162). Former girlfriends, a long list of temporary occupiers of his heart, are to be felt the worst for; DFW was not the type to let the grass grow under his relational feet, and always had a spare GF. He never really considered that he was hurting them, either, which surprised you, considering that his fiction is centred on empathy. Although not initially. Part of the intrigue of this book is observing his writerly maturation. In a letter he writes that he did “not feel even the hint of an obligation to an entity called READER” (145). But later you witness his softening: “I feel like I have changed, learned so much about what good writing ought to be” (158), as he ultimately breaks forth into, as he writes to Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch in, you presume, 1992 (uncited letter), a statement of artistic faith: “I want to improve as a writer, and I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff” (173).

Infinite Jest was the result of his restructuring of worlds, and you feel it to be the finest present any reader of this dark age could ever hope for. But it is his felo-de-se that has given rise to the sillier worlds orbiting him and his fine work: the academic careerism; the quest to publish his Post-It notes; the happy coincidence of finding more material for The Pale King just in time for the trade-paperback; publishing a 3,500-word speech as a book; the pilgrimages of tenure-jockeys and amateurs to his shrine at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas18; and the constant gedenkschrifts and conferences where wince-inducing honorifics like “Our Man” mated with laugher terms like “post-post-modern” are bandied about.19 And sometimes you feel like you can almost hear him, faintly, buzzing in your brain-voice, saying in his slow and deliberate way, it’s okay, and but so just abide.


1 To be precise, you are “a Canadian scholar” to the author of the work presently under consideration (Max 288, your emphasis added).  You also note, as it were, that today’s use of footnotes does not represent a winking grad-schoolish homage to DFW’s trademark style: you just know that there’s lots of peripheral insiderish stuff perhaps of interest to the potential reader of the DFW biography, and that notes may just be the best way to convey that stuff.

2 DFW’s autopsy.

3 Jacobs, John Timothy.  “The Eschatological Imagination: Mediating David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Unpublished dissertation.  McMaster University, 2003.

4 Harvard Magazine, “Chapter & Verse: a correspondence corner for not-so-famous lost words,” March 2002.

5 Quickly now: (i) the quotation’s editorial interpolation is part of the apparatus of the fiction; (ii) the story is “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Little, Brown: New York, 1999. 209; (iii) the expression also appears somewhere in The Pale King—without the interpolated article (“[a]”)—DFW’s posthumous, Frankensteined novel, which you’ve not read yet because the whole DFW Industry is so depressing, so sue me, you say; (iv) Nick Maniatis, founder of the—largely—reliable DFW fansite, The Howling Fantods, informs that D.T. Max himself “revealed that the first[-]time appearance of the phrase[,] [‘]every love story is [also] a ghost story[,]’ is in a letter Wallace ascribes to Virginia Woolf on the Merv Griffin show.” You don’t get it either.

6 Wallace-l list-serv gate-keeper and DFW-enclyopedia incarnate.

7 Jacobs, Timothy. “The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.3 (2007): 265-292—and, no, you don’t get that a lot.

8 The New Yorker, 9 March 2009.

9 R.A.: “I’ve got reason to believe it is a quot[ation] from (or a paraphrasing of) Virginia Woolf, perhaps on [sic] her essay[,] “Henry James’s Ghost Stories[,]” [Times Literary Supplement, 22 December 1921, available online for an extortionate £5, which you paid] but I haven’t had the chance to take a look at the full text of the thing.”  You found nothing resembling the mysterious quotation in your reading of VW’s essay, sadly.

10 Like William T. Vollmann’s surprisingly clean and massive proof of Imperial.

11 D.T. Max himself graciously loaned you his personal copy of the finished edition at the eleventh hour, no thanks to Penguin INC (Canada and USA) as they were obdurately unhelpful, highly bureaucratic, and surprisingly territorial.

12 “Tense Present,” Harper’s magazine, April 2001. 39-58.

13 In an email (18 July 2012) Matt Bucher confirmed that the book’d been “fact-checked half to death—anything that could not be doubly substantiated was cut.”  You believe him.

14 You know that publishers’ PR flaks scan reviews for just such clipped phrases that can be manipulated to promote future printings, but you can’t help but say it anyway because it’s true.

15 Including some sugary stuff you’d said in the Rain Taxi Review of Books.

16 It’s not surprising that “The Planet Trillaphon” ends with a readerly fill-in-the lacuna—“Except that is highly silly when you think about what I said before concerning the fact that the Bad Thing is really [you]”—considering that DFW saw himself as diseased/sick and admired Norman O. Brown’s work (he dedicated “Girl With Curious Hair” to N.O.B.), and whose Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History posits for its broad thesis that “the disease [is] called man” (3). You felt like you saw DFW’s figurative fingerprints all over this book when you first read it, especially the chapters “Art and Eros” and “Language and Eros,” as they’re like a guide to DFW’s mature aesthetics.  Highly recommended.

17 Stanley Cavell, replying to your email query, shared this anecdote: “I was told several years ago [. . .] that Wallace came to a seminar of mine once and was offended by something I said or the way I said it, and never returned.  Since I don’t regard myself as careless of other people’s feelings, I was pained to learn of my bad behaviour, and can only hope that it was an aberration on my part.  I do not recall the incident” (26 January 2002).  It seems that DFW was behaving badly.

18 Qv. for two takes on the Wallace Industry: (1) “David Foster Wallace: the Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline,”  the Irish Journal of American Studies (June 2010); and (2) “The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 6, 2011.

19 By academics at “Footnotes: New Directions in DFW Studies,” a conference held at CUNY’s graduate center, November 2009.  See Scott F. Parker’s delightful account of the conference, “Notes from Footnotes: New Directions in David Foster Wallace Studies,” with its snoring moderator, psychotic philosophy professor, and that poor hurt guy from the City College of NY, whom you wish all the best.

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