"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"


TUE APR.29,1997 PAGE: C3
BYLINE: DOUG SAUNDERS
CLASS: The Arts
DATELINE: Toronto ONT WORDS: 1388

The importance of not being earnest
IN PERSON / A 'semi-avant-garde guy' who got tired of
'the hip stuff,' David Foster Wallace seeks a
balance between writing that's sincere -- and too sincere.

BY DOUG SAUNDERS
The Globe and Mail
Toronto


THE plushly sterile Founder's Club in Toronto's SkyDome stadium may not seem
like the most natural setting for a meeting with a literary star, but for
several reasons it seems a likely place to encounter David Foster Wallace.

For one thing, the stadium was designed by one of the characters in Infinite
Jest, his novel of dark speculation, lapidary detail and 1,079 pages of dense
type (almost 100 of which are footnotes, some longer than chapters, some with
footnotes of their own). The character's engineering career comes to an abrupt
halt with the construction of the stadium and the discovery of its 70,000-seat
view of all the sexual antics unfolding in the hotel rooms above the field.

Like almost everything in the novel, this tale combines a seed of
historical truth, an outrageous structure of futuristic fabrication and an
incongruous reference to Canada. A writer who is deeply concerned with the
problems of the United States, Foster Wallace has invented a fictional Canada
that serves as both a Red Menace and a Godot for his floundering Americans of
the early 21st century.

From north of the border, though, his "Nucks" (the novel's oft-repeated angry
racial epithet) seem about as familiar as H. G. Wells's Martians. We sport
Hawaiian shirts, eat dinner at midnight and our Quebecois have a penchant for
jumping in front of trains.

"It's pretty distorted, the Canadian stuff," admits the uncomfortable
34-year-old hunched over an empty teacup in this odd palace of leather and
chrome. He's here to pitch a collection of his wonderful essays and journalism,
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. However, many of his essays read
like non-fiction riffs on his thick second novel, which has just been released
in a slightly less tendon-ripping paperback.

Foster Wallace has been to Toronto once before, in his late teen-age years,
just after he had stopped being a high-ranked junior tennis player from
Illinois (two of his essays concern tennis, one of these taking place in
Quebec) and shortly before he became a student of mathematical logic at Amherst
university. Both of these aborted career trajectories have left a trace in his
multivoiced narrative, whose plots revolve around tennis and advanced optics,
along with drug addiction, waste disposal and about 300 other things.

The teacup becomes an embarrassment for Foster Wallace as it begins to
fill up with the sludgy remains of the chewing tobacco that has been sitting in
his mouth throughout the conversation. A muscular but still slightly weedy guy
dressed in a black leather jacket, Levi's and a pair of Kodiak-type work boots
with the laces tied around the back, he looks as if he would be far more
comfortable cutting lawns in his native Illinois than talking about the effects
of TV dependency on U.S. society.

"It seems as an early middle-aged person in America that America has a
certain relationship with freedom and pleasure that is not terrifically unlike
the relationship that someone who gets compulsively attached to drugs gets -- it
starts out free, as a special treat, and then a lot of the fun of it goes out,
then you find yourself compulsively spending beyond your means, and this is
what happens with television."

In the novel, a band of thwarted Quebec nationalists take their revenge on
the United States by disseminating a device known as The Entertainment, which
is essentially a videotape so pleasurable to watch that viewers give up
everything else, including their bodily functions, to watch it. If Infinite
Jest is "about" anything, it is about the tendency among Americans (who watch
an average of six hours of TV daily) to abandon all higher values for
ever-increasing doses of sensory stimulation, whether through drugs or TV.

Foster Wallace has similar worries about the literary world, in which
contemporary novels, including his own earlier works, are often "about" little
more than dark humour and self-conscious irony.

He still laces his work with plenty of both, but says Infinite Jest was
born of a desire to get beyond the sort of cool, dismissive remove that has
made stars of Martin Amis and Tama Janowitz and the reflexive
self-referentiality of modern masters such as John Barth. (One of the essays in
A Supposedly Fun Thing is a strange ode to filmmaker David Lynch, whom Foster
Wallace admires for his sincerity and lack of irony.)

"I felt that for myself as both a reader and a writer I'd sort of come to
the end of a line with the theoretical and metafiction stuff, and the black
humour in and of itself, which in the sixties was very cool and I think has
been rendered slick and facile," he said.

This argument is brilliantly made in E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S.
Fiction, a startling polemic that originally appeared in the little-read Review
of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, when Foster Wallace had just turned 30 and
began to worry about what he'd become.

"I was really, really, really upset about this because everything I had done
seemed wrong, everything I had gone to school to learn since I was a little
kid and everything that had become part of American letters just didn't seem
useful to me any more. And I had no idea what else to do."

Somehow, this crisis of faith gave rise to a most unlikely bestseller. And
though he dreads discussing it, the novel's most engaging plot concerns the
search for faith -- some intelligent atheist's version of faith, at least -- in a
halfway house and at Alcoholic's Anonymous meetings in a futuristic Boston.
When he was being treated for a drug problem he developed in the wake of his
early novelistic successes, Foster Wallace became compelled by the paradox of
the AA 12-step program, which requires utter submission to a higher power in
order to give up just such a submission to addiction.

"I got very interested in this idea of AA being people who had absolutely
gone to the wall with their idea of freedom, and now were forced, in order to
stay alive, to develop something like a spirituality and something that makes
sense of deference and subordination. Their own autonomy has brought them to a
place that in fact turns out to be the best thing for them. If you think about
it it's really powerful."

As soon as he hears himself say this, Foster Wallace becomes uncomfortable.
He writes difficult, polyphonic novels, and worries that they'll be reduced to
simple "issues," like so much of the simple feel-good fiction that climbs the
bestseller charts. And faith is a dicey notion to toy with in fiction,
accounting as it does for many of the worst things in U.S. society, the
overweening power of religious fundamentalism and the blind subservience to
creepy leaders.

"I really was a lot more scared when I was doing this," he said. "I've
never tried to do something sad before. And never tried to do something that
was going to seem sentimental or melodramatic. It causes some conflicts in me,
because I consider myself to be a semi-avant-garde guy, and I'm used to selling
2,000 copies and getting a short little review in The New York Times. So I've
developed this whole defence system that whatever does get a lot of attention
is therefore shit. So when this book gets a lot of attention, it worries me
that I did something wrong."

It still worries him that he's coming across too earnest, too sincere. At
one point he stops midsentence and rolls his eyes. "I'm sounding like William
Bennett. This is great," he said, referring to the saccharine author of
pop-theology bestsellers. "Seriously, fearing that chasm I think causes a lot
of the hip, defensive, slick stuff in American writing, it's the fear of
appearing Bridges of Madison County -earnest, not very smart, easily accessible
stuff."

Once again, he looks uncomfortable. "Hey, look over there," he suddenly
points -- a cheap dodge to draw attention away from another unpleasant gob of
tobacco heading toward the teacup. He smirks, apologizes for his own
discomfort, asks about the interviewer's, and returns to the perilous business
of conversation.


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