Review of Every Ghost Story is a Love Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

“For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.” – David Foster Wallace, “Federer as Religious Experience”, New York Times, 8/20/2006.

 

I just have a problem with the last sentence of this book.  Let me just get that out from jump.  The sudden, judgmental tone, to me, referring to his suicide slightly tarnishes the entire account: “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.”  The first part is true.  But in contrast, the second part, too bluntly put.

Nobody chooses to be born with a neurochemical disorder, where by adolescence symptoms of depression and anxiety begin to appear, and had begun with him.  And as indicated, from the first paragraph of the bio’s final section, the medication for which he had been taking for twenty-odd years started to simultaneously give him heart palpitations, and caused him to sweat profusely.  The physician he subsequently saw referred to his medication as “a dirty drug” and so recommended a different one.  The plan then was for him to flush out the old before starting a new anti-depressant.  His only questionable choice here was to try and go cold-turkey from anti-depressants altogether.  Though he valued life more than writing, he was financially obligated to finish the novel he was working on and was worried it was taking too long to finish.  With a healthy degree of skepticism, he wondered if this medication for which he had been taking for over twenty years had been affecting his ability to write fiction.  He had been taking it for over twenty years, and so carefully decided to see how not taking it might go.

I never read his final book, The Pale King, published posthumously and unfinished (by him), but I wonder if the idea of self-deprecating his now idolatrous image as a prominent literary figure — fully constructed and ironically marketed even by those influenced by him as a result of his major work, Infinite Jest — would have freed up the creative juices.  It appears he at least touched upon the idea of tearing down his ‘statue’, as he generally referred to his new status.  Such singularly honest, no-holds-barred satire has a way of bringing out one’s sincerity all the more, for anything big, bold, and ‘new’ which becomes a success has a way of turning disingenuously and overly marketed. 

But, the cold-turkey approach to medications would very unfortunately prove not to work.  By the time he tried taking a new set of anti-depressants — one of which, the potential side-effects included anxiety — the pain proved too much to reverse and again stabilize.  He even suggested going back onto his original medication (Nardil), but according to the bio, “was too agitated to give it the weeks it takes it to work.”

And this all slightly harkens to my confusion over the book’s subtitle: “A Life of David Foster Wallace”.  As for the choice of article, why not “‘The’ Life…’?  Was it meant to convey choosing to side-step a little discussion, or interview with an expert, on the effects clinical depression can have upon the life and work of a writer, or an artist in general?  I would have thought it fundamental to include.  This author was, however, understandably self-conscious about even discreetly revealing or talking about his condition, publically. 

Yet, overall, such a discussion might better serve in order to promote and defend his as well as other author’s work.  For, if people felt Infinite Jest[1] was too much to ingest at first (including myself), they will want to try soldiering through it again after reading this biography.  From a universal perspective, this biography was a very important undertaking, illustrating just how much care and responsibility is at the ready towards making a substantial and creative difference.  Halfway through, some of the remembrances may start to feel a little redundant, or unsparsely depict him as too self-involved (which could very well be chalked up to his condition).  But, much of it feels like a shared conversation with friends and family about something you love to do.  No one would criticize a farmer or doctor for being too dedicated to each of their callings. 

Support from family and friends in order to excel at something just as risky as being a very conscientious artist is crucial.  It is reassuring to read that he had a good amount of this, growing up (Dad, a philosophy professor, and Mom a literature teacher).  These foundations helped fuel his competitive desire both as an excellent student on into his undergraduate years, and as a junior tennis player (before retiring as an amateur).  As his depression and anxiety started to reveal themselves, such support would prove more prevalent during his struggles with addiction, his feeling overwhelmed as a graduate student and attempts at being a teacher/professor (working a few odd-jobs instead) which had resulted in a couple of breakdowns, as well as primarily during romantic struggles throughout his turbulent twenties.  He would ultimately find his greatest personal and professional niche in his early forties.  And all of this stuff went into his work, for which he was very thorough, honest, and discreetly unabashed to share.

I just wish the final sentence in this otherwise objective account was differently worded.  The last sentence of the following obituary published by the New York Times, two days after his death, could be supplemented instead: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/15/books/15wallace.html.


[1] ‘Thought-provoking’ would be too great an understatement; maximized with purpose in every way, shape, and form, simply distilled, it is a satirical novel about the taken-for-granted effects of commercialism and consumerism upon society.  (…And, with this here being said, prepare yourself for plenty of footnotes.  The book has 388 of them.)

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