Interview with DFW
The Boston Phoenix
March 21 - 28, 1 9 9 6
David Foster Wallace winces at
the suggestion that his book is sloppy in any sense
"It may be a mess, but it's a very careful mess," he says. "A
lot of work
went into making it look like that. That might sound like a pathetic lie,
but it's not. Now, as you can see, my dander's getting up."
Wallace's dander, however, isn't perceptibly on the rise. Seated in his
hotel room at the Copley Plaza, shortly after doing Christopher Lydon's
radio show and before heading out for a reading, Wallace looks tired but
entirely calm. And he remains that way except when he thinks he might be
coming off as pretentious or self-promoting, when he's forced to face a
photographer, and when he's asked to talk about himself. "The less
watched, the more I can watch, and the better it is for me and for my work,"
he explains. "If people really want to know what I ate for lunch, I
that's okay. But it's kind of toxic."
Whatever the cost of celebrity, Wallace, at 34, is about as famous as
serious writers get in this country before they've been dead for quite a
while. Although he's glad that Infinite Jest has attracted attention, he
seems genuinely baffled by all the fuss about him. "I'm somebody who
much of his life in libraries," he says. "I'm just not that interesting."
Asked why he chose to be a writer, Wallace dodges, saying, "There isn't
else I want to do," and talks instead about writers in general: "Most
writers I know are weird hybrids. There's a strong streak of egomania
coupled with extreme shyness. Writing's kind of like exhibitionism in
private. And there's also a strange loneliness, and a desire to have some
kind of conversation with people, but not a real great ability to do it
"When I was younger," he goes on, "I saw my relationship
with the reader as
sort of a sexual one. But now it seems more like a late-night conversation
with really good friends, when the bullshit stops and the masks come off."
Why the conversation took the form and direction it did in Infinite Jest
isn't something Wallace is anxious to explain. "You do what you do,
afterwards you think up why you did it, so there's an element of bullshit
about any explanation," he says. "I'm not going to run some lit
on you," says Wallace, who teaches English at Illinois State University.
"But the book doesn't work the way novels normally work." He inhales
and then pushes the air back out through his teeth in spurts, making a noise
like a kid's imitation of a chugging locomotive. "It's really designed
like a piece of music than like a book, so a lot of it consists of
leitmotifs and things that curve back. And there's all this stuff about
movement within limits and whether you can puncture the limits or not."
When Wallace's erudition starts to show, he seems to feel obliged to explain
it, as if it were a broken leg. "I come from a weird background. My
are academics, and they read a lot. And I read a lot," he says, neglecting
to mention that he also studied philosophy at Harvard. "So I come to
from a pretty hard-core, abstract place. It comes out of technical
philosophy and continental European theory, and extreme avant-garde shit.
I'm not just talking Pynchon and Gaddis. That's commercial avant-garde.
talking like Beckett, and Fiction Collective 2, and Dalkey Archive."
Suddenly, he slaps his forehead, swears, and makes the train noise again.
"On the other hand," he continues, "I'm somebody who can't
even own a TV
anymore, because I'll just sit there slack-jawed and consume enormous
amounts of what is, in terms of art, absolute shit. But it's very
"If you're torn in these two different directions," he says, "it's
The project, at least with this book, was to do something long and difficult
that was also fun. I'm not saying it succeeds. I wanted to write something
that would make somebody say, `Holy, shit, I've got to read this,' and then
seduce them into doing a certain amount of work. And that -- if I can be
pretentious for a second -- is what art ought to do."
One task he requires of his readers "keeping track of enormous amounts
information." Others include "being required to pay attention
to some of the
strategies that regular entertainment uses" and "having certain
expectations that go along with reading commercial stuff fucked with. Not
just disdained. Fucked with."
Case in point: the ending. "I think that some of that commercial stuff
evidences a real contempt for the reader, by having such a reductive idea
what the reader wants. Like they're children and have to have their
fantasies enabled and have a happy ending," says Wallace. "Plot-wise,
book doesn't come to a resolution. But if the readers perceive it as me
giving them the finger, then I haven't done my job. On the surface, it might
seem like it just stops. But it's supposed to stop and then kind of hum
project. Musically and emotionally, it's a pitch that seemed right."
-- Anne Marie Donahue
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