Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Letter 1


Dear Dave,

After reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,[1] I thought I would go back and blog my way through each chapter. But it was the quote from ‘Good Old Neon’ before the start of chapter 1 that caught my attention, begging me to respond. It reads:

“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

I’ve studied and taught language and literature for quite awhile now, and the more I do so, the more I am convinced that – as this quote alludes to – language simply fails to take us into the deepest depths of the human experience. The inner turmoil, the hurt feelings, the confusion. But also the joy, the elation, the rapture. So much of what we experience – whether physically or mentally or emotionally – goes beyond our ability to articulate those experiences. Our vocabulary can only take us so far; can only scratch the surface at best.

In the introduction to his Holocaust memoir, Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel recounts how language failed him in writing the horrors and atrocities of his story. He explains:

“I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle… All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless” (Night, ix).

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that language can be a powerful tool for expression. Like paint on a canvas or notes from an instrument, words can evoke strong feelings and passions.[2] No matter the form – narrative, poetry, whatever – there are incredible examples of what language is capable of. There are poets and novelists who can weave a wonderful tapestry to words that when we hear or read them, we proclaim, “I know exactly what that feels like.” There are those who can give words to thoughts and feelings when words escape us regular folk. They help us better understand “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

But their words can only take us so far, “barely sketch[ing] the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given moment.” They bring us closer to understanding ourselves, but so much still remains an unknown mystery.


[1] It was a very fast and frantic read. DT Max agreed to do an interview here on Letters to DFW, and I needed to finish the book before we spoke. I’m working on writing up the interview and hope to post it soon.

By the way, we had a wonderful conversation. Max was extremely gracious and a pleasure to talk to. I only wish I had more time to ask him more questions.

[2] It wasn’t until after I started reading Wallace that I truly understood the meaning of the term “language arts.” In the introduction to a reading that he did at the Hammer Museum, he was called, “America’s most radical language artist,” and it just clicked.

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5 thoughts on “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Letter 1

  1. I think each medium has its own power. Words have power, but so do images, or music, and people respond to different media in different ways. While some may have the ability to “sketch the outlines” of the Holocaust with well chosen words (The Book Thief, for example), another might paint a picture and capture the essence of the thing without words. But it could only communicate the absolute truth to one that had been there, that could resonate with the imagery. Others would just have to try.

    This reminds me of the vetrans would would sit in the back of theaters watching Saving Private Ryan, crying, remembering the horrors of D Day. They didn’t need words to drag them into the minds of those men. They WERE those men. And the visuals dragged them back there.

    Interesting stuff.

  2. As a visual artist I often feel the failure, the inadequacy of language. Love the DFW quote on this – as always, he nails it, beautifully. Great to read your post on Every Story is a Ghost Story, and I await your interview with DT Max with excitement. I’ve been thinking of curating a fanzine dedicated to DFW, and wonder if you and any of your readers might be interested in contributing.

  3. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likeable.

  4. Whenever I think about literary juvenilia I think of a line from Steven Millhauser’s masterful faux-biography of a child novelist, “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright”: “Third grade surprised me: I had not anticipated desks.” All the same there is something about the aura of mystery and discomfort enfolding the adult David Foster Wallace that makes you want to search even his childhood writing for clues. You are looking both for evidence of his later mental travails but even more for the seeds of the spiny, sideways muscularity of his mature prose style. Such a distinctive style—really a way of seeing the world—can’t come out of nowhere, can it?

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