The Deaths of David Foster Wallace
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide, his death wasn’t just mourned—it was read. It was read like code, like apology, like an event in a novel—not simply a plot-level event but a meta-level event, a commentary on the history and future of the novel itself. Theories went something like: Wallace killed himself because he’d lost faith in postmodernism and/or his own efforts to replace it (“killed himself if only to prove that postmodernism was dead”)1; because he was sick of irony but couldn’t see a way out of it; because his own virtuosic mind was no match for its own despair; because he’d lost faith in the ethos of daily attention to which his writing paid homage—as his friend Jonathon Franzen put it, had “arguably…died of boredom.”2 Insofar as one could find hope in his magnum opus Infinite Jest—“no single moment is unendurable”—his death seemed to negate this hope, to proclaim that this hope was not—ultimately, in the final analysis—enough.
Wallace’s widow, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about his suicide in terms of aesthetic or metaphysical despair. “It was just a day in his life,” she says, “and a day in mine.”3 She folds his death back into the longer story of his life—it was one day amongst many—and robs it of the sense of inevitability that others have forced upon it.
Even the title of D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, suggests the size of his suicide’s shadow: it has become impossible to love Wallace’s work without reckoning with his ghost, how he ghosted himself. The book’s structure reinforces this suggestion of totalizing importance by closing, somewhat abruptly, with the event of the suicide itself. There’s no closing retrospective glance—no depiction of the mourning or eulogies—only the hanging and the unfinished manuscript left behind.
Max generally steers clear of the “Was his suicide an expression of generic/metaphysical anxiety?” fray, but his final lines nonetheless linger on an uneasy parallel between life and art:
“This [manuscript] was his effort to show the world what it was to be ‘a fucking human being.’ He had never completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen” (301).
He had never completed it to his satisfaction… Vague pronouns offer a syntactical slide between living and writing; the uncompleted “it” refers to the struggle of being “a fucking human being” and the struggle to write a manuscript about what this struggle was like; “this” means both the end of Wallace’s life and the nonexistent ending of his book.
Max closes with Wallace’s act as an expression of agency (“he had chosen”) and with a suggestion about the way in which his agency worked against the desires of others—“not an ending anyone would have wanted for him.” In this, Max closes his book by glancing towards the people left behind—editors and loved ones and the fans who were also, for Wallace, “loved ones” of a different stripe.
Wallace often spoke of his readership in terms of love:
"…it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved."4
In his biography, Max gives us both sides of Wallace—the part of him that could give love, and the part of him that desperately wanted it. His writing was always courting both ideals; his suicide felt—to some, to many—like a betrayal of both.