It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair
Gaspar Noe’s 2002 film Irréversible is unforgettable. Its roving camera and rhythmic, guttural Thomas Bangalter soundtrack leave an enduring mark once experienced. It is one of only a handful of films, at least according to Wikipedia, which plays in reverse order. It takes a narrative device that we’re familiar with – the flashback – and takes it to an extreme conclusion. That instead of a scene showing the audience a previous event or occurrence, the entire narrative can be given over to memory – throwing backward, instead of forward. Starting with a horrific act of violence, we learn what led to this event. It is a horrific film, but the most horrific thing of all is that Irréversible has a happy ending. It is only at the end we’ll realize the true gravity of what we’ve seen – of what the characters have to come.
Biopics, and their literary equivalent the Biography, whilst not often using such an innovative narrative structure as the one employed by Noe, create a similar problem for their audiences. The audience knows what is going to happen. This knowledge clouds everything that is written or shown.
My recent David Foster Wallace obsession has led me to Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, DT Max’s biography of the author. It is tragic tale. On the one hand we see how a prodigious talent would grow into a brilliantly assured voice – portraying a generations hopeless addiction to drugs, booze, love and pleasure like no other. On the other, we already know what is going to happen, that despite the author’s unequaled mastery of the written word and that despite his ability create brilliantly crafted work, he would lose his battle with the depression that had fought him his entire life. Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, aged 46.
As someone with vague aspirations of someday making money from writing, Foster Wallace is the target – the thing to aim for, professionally at least, if not personally. He has a range unlike any author I’ve encountered. Equally able to write sprawling, dense and complex prose in his works of fiction like Infinite Jest as he is writing straight, compact and workmanlike pieces of journalism focusing on events such as the Maine Lobster Festival; a review which is hilariously scathing of the event, a situation made all the more amusing given that it was commissioned by Gourmet magazine, a publication with a fairly reverential opinion of Lobster you’d imagine; or the Adult Video News awards ceremony in Las Vegas in Big Red Son, another equally hilarious article which presents it’s seedy subjects without bias to the reader, informing them of their deeds but stopping short of casting the first stone.
In one of his articles, entitled How Tracy Austin broke my heart, he describes the pain he feels at realizing he’ll never be as good a Tennis player as the eponymous athlete.
I am about the same age and played competitive tennis in the same junior ranks as Tracy Austin, half a country away and several plateaus below her…I remember meditating, with all the intensity a fifteen-year-old can summon, on the differences that kept this girl and me on our respective sides of the TV screen. She was a genius and I was not…I wanted, very much, her side of it.
Any aspiring author or writer reading this would be left with a similar feeling to Foster-Wallace watching the Tennis prodigy. How do I get to be as good as him? This is also a sad passage, for in light of how we know the Foster-Wallace story ends, it would appear that sometimes the grass is indeed greener, that despite extraordinary gifts you’re ultimately only able to play the hand you’re dealt. It is a burden that you, and only you, can shoulder.
The use of the word ghost in the title of DT Max’s book is apt. Foster Wallace’s specter haunts every page, and whilst Max is a capable writer – to pen a biography of a man so gifted with the written word must have been a daunting task to undertake. In a world awash with banal, vapid and vacuous Auto-Biographies such as Tracy Austin’s Beyond Centre Court: My Story one can only imagine how brilliant a Foster Wallace memoir would have been. Every Love Story… makes for a compelling read, and although we know how the story ends, it has given me a new perspective on the author.
It performs it’s duty as a biography adequately, but could also be used as a preface to the authors work, a piece which introduces readers, primes them, lending context and insight into what they are about to read. The ‘why’ or Foster Wallace is just as important as the ‘what’, and fuelled by the rafts of letter Foster Wallace wrote, this book is uniquely placed to give insight into the authors life.