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Every love story is a ghost story: David Foster Wallace's struggle for brilliance

Author David Foster Wallace has a surprising lesson about second acts: they come when you least expect them.

David Foster Wallace, the American novelist and essay writer, was beloved during his lifetime for his stylistic invention and heartfelt, if erratic, genius. But since his death by suicide in 2008, he has become as famous for how he lived as for what he produced. Wallace’s life followed a tragic arc. He was unquestionably brilliant, but he struggled with severe depression and addiction. And while his early work was complex and thematically slight, his later writing tackled deep questions in a voice that was both hilarious and seemingly revelatory about the writer himself.

Still, Wallace had a gift for writing personally without getting bogged down in personal details. And the man behind the myth has never been effectively fleshed out—at least not until now. In Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D. T. Max offers the most convincing portrait of Wallace yet written. Relying on hundreds of interviews and unprecedented access to the writer’s papers and letters, Max paints a picture of a complicated, often-flawed man. The Wallace whom Max sketches wasn’t always likable (the man tried to throw his girlfriend out of a car at one point) but he was deeply, fascinatingly obsessed with work and success. For anyone in business who is interested in inspiration, second acts and the burden of having once been brilliant and the struggle to do it again, the book is a captivating read.

Wallace lived most of his adult life in the shadows of one of his achievements or another. He came to writing late, but once he started, results came fast. His first novel began as a senior thesis at Amherst College, and he wrote it with ease. During one three-hour session, he pumped out 24 finished pages. He was typing so fast and hard that a student in a neighbouring dorm room had to move his bed away from the wall. He told one friend the book was “coming out so fast it was like a scroll unwinding in his head.”

The resulting novel, The Broom of the System, was published in 1987 after Wallace graduated. It was generally well received, and for a while after selling the book, Wallace kept up his original verve. After Amherst, he enrolled in a master’s program in writing at the University of Arizona. During that period, he “continued to write well and fast and anywhere he wanted, caught up in gusts of inspiration,” Max writes.

But for Wallace, troubles were never far away. The stories he was working on in those years were eventually published as the collection Girl with Curious Hair. Reviewers greeted the book with a shrug—a devastating blow to the psychically delicate Wallace. What was worse, he didn’t know what to do next.

“I always had great contempt for people who bitched and moaned about how ‘hard’ writing was and how ‘blockage’ was a constant and looming threat,” Wallace wrote to his friend Jonathan Franzen. But by his late 20s, Wallace was blocked in a serious way. He spent those years trying and failing to recreate the flow that allowed him to write Broom of the System as quickly as he did. He changed cities and apartments and even enrolled in a PhD program at Harvard to try to replicate an academic setting. None of it worked.

While at Harvard, Wallace suffered a severe breakdown and was hospitalized as suicidal. Soon after, he started treatment for his addictions to alcohol and drugs. From those experiences he emerged to write the novel that became his greatest success: Infinite Jest. Published in 1996, it was a massive achievement in scope and tone—a thousand-page magnum opus that was unlike anything he had done before.

Infinite Jest was innovative, influential and for a time, unique in the market. It was sincere without being cloying; dense, but not needlessly so. But Wallace had trouble moving past his greatest achievement. Infinite Jest is considered one of the great novels of the late 20th century. Unfortunately for Wallace, it set a standard for his future work that was almost impossibly high.

There is an obsession in the business world with genius, especially young genius which results in precocious success. Everyone knows Microsoft was founded in a garage; Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his dorm; Henry Ford got his start working for Thomas Edison. But while origin stories are business book staples, rare is the sequel that is just as captivating.

Wallace spent the last dozen years of his life trying to surpass his own high-water mark. And to be honest, his work following Infinite Jest was in many ways brilliant. His non-fiction from that period—including essays on John McCain and Roger Federer—was so good it deserves its own genre. His fiction, too, was better and more polished than Wallace himself might have believed.

Interesting parallels can be drawn to the business world. Research In Motion, for instance, rolled out the BlackBerry in 1999 and has struggled to top its original stroke of genius ever since. When it was released, the BlackBerry challenged the very definition of what a phone could be. For the majority of the 2000s, RIM enjoyed a reputation for being innovative, influential and unique in its market. Many would point to 2007, the year Apple launched the iPhone, as the first inkling of the crisis to come.

In RIM’s case, the success of the BlackBerry was blinding: the company’s founders were so pleased with what they accomplished, they hardly noticed when they were overtaken by not one competitor (Apple) but several (Google and Samsung). In Wallace’s case, the author was paralyzed with the fear that he couldn’t repeat what he’d done; RIM was paralyzed by the assumption that no one else could. In both cases, success turned out to be a destructive force. The lesson? You have to forget it somehow in order to focus on a path forward.

Ultimately, second acts can and do happen—and they come when one least expects them. David Foster Wallace never finished his sequel to Infinite Jest. After his death, Wallace’s longtime editor cobbled together the pages he’d been working on before he died and published them last year as the novel the Pale King. In 2012, the book was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.