A Review of Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, by D. T. Max

Thu Sep 6, 2012

The publicity for this book worried me. I thought that some of the revelations sounded improbable or sensationalist. In just about every case, however, this worry came from the journalists responsible for exaggerating or misrepresenting the book. I was promised by those who had read the book already that it contained much that I didn’t know about Wallace, and that’s certainly true. Max’s sources go far beyond what’s been published about Wallace and what’s available in the Harry Ransom Center. It is not clear to me how many of the letters Max consulted will be eventually made available to scholars, though I know that as of this June very few of them were in the archive.

As I see it, there are three major revelations in this biography: 1) the extent of Wallace’s mental illness and suicide attempts, which were much more serious and numerous than existing accounts had revealed. 2) The extent of Wallace’s antagonistic relationship with his mother, including the astonishing fact that Wallace’s mother recognized enough of herself in Avril Mondragon to be offended. (I never would have guessed this, having assumed that the grotesquerie of the characterizations combined with the obviousness of some of the superficial details would preclude any biographical identification.*) And 3) The nature of his relationship with Mary Karr.

I don’t know if the confusion in the biography about items 2) and 3) above results from circumspection or the nature of the source material, but they made very little sense to me in the narrative. Relationships, particularly difficult ones, do not often make sense to the participants, of course, so there’s no reason to expect a biographical account based largely on the surviving member’s account to clarify much. The suggested relation between 2) and 3) was particularly intriguing, however. Max states that Karr got Wallace to begin reading the self-help books whose revealing annotations Maria Bustillos discussed.** She notes in that article that “It will not come as news to any reader of Infinite Jest that Wallace had some complicated and deep-seated issues with regard to the subject of motherhood generally. The relationship between Hal and Avril Incandenza is to some degree a replay, one could not help but think, of the author’s relationship to his own mother.” This claim did come as news to me, personally. I never would have accepted it without the quite-convincing evidence found in the archives by Bustillos and the additional context Max supplies.

Why not? Well, I frankly thought that it was too banal of an emotional complex for such a sophisticated author. (“Good Old Neon” shows that this recognition of ordinariness was itself a source of anguish.) And I’m far from certain how much these revelations would undermine any interpretations of the book that depend up the deliberate distortion of seemingly autobiographical correspondences. The layers of recursion and self-consciousness that obsessed Wallace were frequently mediated in his fiction through the autobiographical. His sister notes that the family learned to look for truth about his life in his fiction, as opposed to his non-fiction. (I fail to see why anyone is surprised or cares that Wallace fabricated many details in his essays. This seemed obvious to me from the beginning.)

Wallace developed the idea that his relationship with his mother was troubled because of her own repressed childhood trauma, and Max provides some evidence that Infinite Jest addresses this. (Max also notes that Wallace apparently completely abandoned this idea later in his life and professed not to understand why he had ever thought it. I find this all very curious.) It’s difficult not to see a complex transference between Karr, his mother, and the various single-mothers that Wallace favored dating (again, an apparently confessional characterization that I never in a million-years would have guessed had any basis in the author’s life). Wallace’s venom toward Edwin Williamson’s biography of Borges seems like an anticipatory defense against what now seem to be an inevitable psychoanalytic interpretation of his own (nb: “Be warned that much of the mom-based psychologizing seems right out of ’Oprah’: e.g., ‘However, by urging her son to realize the ambitions she had defined for herself, she unwittingly induced a sense of unworthiness in him that became the chief obstacle to his self-assertion.’”)***

D. T. Max is not a literary scholar, and this is not a critical biography. At the same time, however, I thought that Max’s research could have been used to shed more light on Wallace’s later fiction, which I am presently valuing more than Infinite Jest. (Max did discuss the very intriguing note on a draft of “Good Old Neon” about A. O. Scott’s essay that I had also noted when I was in the archive.) But there was nothing that I found harmful or offensive in his characterizations of Wallace’s work. I mean, Nabokov did teach Pynchon; but he didn’t remember him (Vera remembered his odd handwriting) and the lecture class is unlikely to have influenced Pynchon’s writing in any specific way. I also disapprove of the uses of the words “sensual” and “enormity” in the book, and I’m far from a “smug descriptivist douchebag,” as I was delighted to learn that a Syracuse linguistics graduate student had called Wallace. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story is impressively researched and professionally written. It is a great boon to Wallace scholarship.

*Meaning that I assumed Wallace was making metafictional gestures about fictionalization and memoir similar to those seen in earlier and later work.

**The books in question are no longer available to researchers at the Harry Ransom archive.

***This is not to claim that Wallace doesn’t make valid claims in here about the nature of the artist’s work affecting the usefulness of biographical context, though he is clearly much closer to Kafka than Borges himself in this regard.