"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
Interview with David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace did not expect to be the
from Stim e-zine by Valerie Stivers
Spring '96 literary posterboy. After all, Infinite
Jest is only his second novel and it spends its
1000-plus pages satirizing and decrying consumer
and media culture. But the media has made him their
darling nonetheless, and book-buyers are, well,
buying it. And now, this self-effacing young
author-and his bludgeon-sized book-have found
themselves riding a self-perpetuating hype wave.
His publisher's intense publicity campaign began
last summer and apparently it paid off: the novel
was already in its fourth printing when it arrived
in bookstores this February. Reviews and profiles
have appeared everywhere from the New York Times to
Salon, from the Atlantic Monthly to Puncture.
Fittingly, the hype merited media coverage of its
own. A book mocking products, it seems, can still
be a hot one.
But my fear, as a reader of Infinite Jest, was that
the joke was on me.
Audiences in Infinite Jest are pretty much fucked
You see, audiences in Infinite Jest are pretty much
fucked. At the novel's core are a group of
recovering drug addicts, a pair of government
agents, and the three sons of filmmaker James O.
Incandenza, who inhabit a not-so-distant future in
which Mexico, Canada and the United States have
formed O.N.A.N., the Organization of North American
Nations. It is a culture ruled by mass
entertainment that is consumed mostly in solitude.
The Quebecois, however, want out. In Infinite Jest,
the French Canadian residents of what is in our
world the Canadian province of Quebec, wage a
terrorist campaign against the rest of the
Onanites, whom they view as selfish,
immediate-gratification seekers. Their secret
weapon is Incandenza's seminal film "Infinite
Jest", which, as it turns out, is a fatal kind of
fun. The film is said to be so compelling, so
mind-numbingly satisfying, that its viewers slip
into near-comatose states. For the fun-obsessed
Onanite entertainment consumer, "Infinite Jest" is
an irresistible commodity.
But as I said, all this fun fatale made me
paranoid. After all, I was actively enchanted,
slack-jawed, and entertained by Infinite
Jest-thankfully the book, not the film-so where did
that leave me? It was a funhouse mirror and I had
It was with no small amount of trepidation, then,
that I approached the Sheraton Manhattan where
Wallace was staying during the New York leg of his
nine-city book tour.
More cause for nervousness was the fact that
Wallace, a 34 year-old writer who teaches creative
writing at Illinois State University in
Bloomington, Ill., was never smiling in his
publicity shots. Also, he wore an unsettling
bandanna for every photo, forcing me to wonder,
what's underneath the bandanna? Why does he need
the bandanna? What's wrong with the top of your
What's wrong with the top of your head, brother?
My worries were totally unfounded. Wallace showed
up, sans bandanna, showing a broad expanse of
normal human forehead, and appeared more terrified
of me than I was of him. With him was a woman I
took to be either his mom or the Illinois version
of a flack. "Are you his publicist?" I asked. She
laughed-at me, I think, but nicely-and identified
herself as Erin Poag, a friend from home.
Like his book, and like Don Gately, one of the
novel's recovering drug addicts, Wallace is big and
sort of square (in shape, not in attitude). While
we talked about fiction as a medium of media
critique and what exactly about our media-saturated
culture Wallace objects to, the author of this
wickedly funny, brilliant book fidgeted in his
chair like a child, smoked, and inserted ungainly
wads of tobacco between cheek and gum. "I know I'm
really disgusting," he disclaimed. "I'm just
Talking to Wallace is like edging a large reluctant
boulder onto a slope-hard to get started and
difficult to stop. I got dizzy just watching him.
But, despite my expectations, he was very nice. And
my fear that the book was personally mocking and
threatening me, the faithful reader, was, well,
paranoid and off-base. Wallace does not consider
his book the same kind of media entertainment that
he is critiquing. It should have been obvious.
Not mistaken, however, was my conviction that
Wallace, with his yarn of drug addicts and
devotees, was engaged in a denouement of the human
condition in a media-saturated,
entertainment-mediated world. Infinite Jest is a
futuristic burlesque of entertainment, a novel
concerned about what we choose to get ourselves off
on, and where we find ourselves when we turn away
from the television or the drug wears off.
Valerie Stivers: What would you ask your reader, if anything?
David Foster Wallace: You mean about the book?
VS: Sure. It's an open question. However you want to take that.
DFW: I wouldn't know how to be clear about it. I wanted to do something
sad. I think it's a very sad time in America and it has something to do
with entertainment. It's not TV's fault, it's not [Hollywood's] fault, and
it's not the Net's fault. It's our fault. We're choosing this. We are choosing
to spend more time sneering at hype machines, [while still] being enmeshed
in them, than we are living.
My secret pretension...I mean, every writer wants his book to change the
world, but I guess I would like to know if the book moved people. I assume
that the future the book talks about, while it might be amusing, wouldn't
be a fun future to live in. I think it would be nice if the book could maybe
make people think about some of the choices we are making, about what we
pay attention to and give power to, so maybe the future won't be quite that...glittery
VS: The technology in "Inifinite Jest" is basically a more developed
version of what we have now. Do you think that as technology gets more sophisticated
things get worse?
DFW: Here's one thing I know: The people who think there is a technological
solution to the problem are wrong. The solution to the problem is not more
sophisticated shows or higher resolution screens or more options...
VS: Or even more responsible shows...
DFW: The only way there will be more responsible shows is if there is demand
for them. Television is not conscious. Television is extremely conscientious
about doing one thing, which is giving us what it believes we want. We either
want shit or we are somehow sending the message that we want shit. And if
we don't want shit and we want a kind of television or a kind of entertainment
that does not put us into a trance but wakes us up, then it's our responsibility
to make [that] clear.
I don't think the proliferation of things like HDTV, virtual reality, and
the Web are going to introduce any new problems. They may, [however], make
[the old ones] worse because they are going to make an electronically-lived
life seem more seductive, so they may enhance the illusion that we are actually
living. The problem is going to be, "Let's see, I spent all day staring
at a computer screen and then at night my most meaningful relationships
are with the two-dimensional characters who aren't in fact two-dimensional
characters...gee, I wonder why I'm lonely and doing a lot of drugs? Could
there be any connection between the fact that I've got nothing to do with
other people, that I don't really have a fucking clue what it is to have
a real life and the fact that most of my existence is mediated by entertainment
that I passively choose to receive?
VS: Today, this is the reality even for fiction writers. You've grown up
with these same mediated experiences. How would you say television influenced
DFW: "My generation" of writers are people who were raised with
television. They may have read a lot but [they] also spent a lot of time
watching TV. Some of our primary ways of relating to the culture and to
other people were shaped [by TV]. I don't know about you but I had seen
maybe 100,000 kisses before I ever kissed a girl. Every time I kiss a girl
I have to like...it has to stack up...We are oddly but emptily educated.
VS: Arthur Krystal wrote an essay in the March 1995 Harper's Magazine about
how books are somehow less necessary. In the past, books were your only
window into worlds that weren't yours, whereas now, worlds that aren't yours
have been all shattered open completely before you are even cognizant.
DFW: But it's an illusion. You are not seeing those worlds, you are not
smelling them, you are not interacting with people in those worlds -- but
TV makes you think you [are]. I think it's one of the things that reversed
the function of books. Fiction used to be people's magic carpet to other
places...You know, "Oh, a really boring formulaic story but it takes
place in Tibet." But now you turn on PBS and watch someone milking
a yak...Which means that one of fiction's fundamental jobs has been supplanted.
But it has another one now. TV's illusion of access to other cultures is,
in fact, an illusion. TV itself cannot comment on that.
Some sort of art has to talk about what it's like to live in a world where
I feel like I know what a Tibetan yak-herder is like, [although] I don't.
And in a way, I'm less lucky than people before me who didn't know what
a yak herder was like but at least they knew it. Now I THINK I do because
I've seen Nigel Twithead on PBS........what's not OK is the illusion; [the
belief] that because of TV, we know stuff, and that's really pernicious.
VS: How is reading books different from watching TV? ...Both are done alone.
DFW: I think you are more spectatorial with television. With TV you can't
stop and pick it back up and you can't yet carry it around with you. Also,
with TV, the fact that somebody's talking right to you is, to an extent,
an illusion. Whereas a book really is talking right to you. When you are
writing a book you kind of have an "every reader." [As a writer]
you are talking to someone.
God knows, I watch my fair share of movies and television, and they're powerful
in their own ways. But I think fiction is more powerful. [It's certainly]
a more powerful anodyne for loneliness. I enjoy TV, but I always feel lonelier
after I've watched four hours of it. I feel like I've pretended to be with
people but I really haven't. In fiction you both feel like the writer is
talking to you and [that] you are intimate with people in a book; you can
be inside their heads; you can hear their brains' voice[s]. I'll never be
that intimate with anyone in person.
When I'm bored or restless I will watch television. When I want to feel
like I'm talking to someone, I will read, and not read anything, I mean
stuff that works.
VS: In "Infinite Jest" you didn't mention online services. Is
there a reason for that?
DFW: To do a comprehensive picture of what the technology of that era would
be like, would take 3500 pages, number one. In the book, what I was most
interested in was people's relation to filmed entertainment. There were
other things, too. This is one of the ways that the cuts hurt. There was
some more stuff that would have explained, for instance, the allusions to
a virtual reality fad.
My guess is that what's going to happen is that these things are going to
be real exciting for a while, but the sheer amount of information on them
is going to be overwhelming. What is going to become particularly valuable
are various nodes and filters and sites that help you lock in and specify
sorts of things that you want. In the book, "Interlace TelEntertainment"
has become one of those sites.
In the furture, [it is likely that] concentrations of economic power are
also going to be concentrations of informational power. For instance, in
a way it'll be great when fiction goes online; anybody who wants to is going
to be able to publish a book on the Net. The obvious problem, if you've
ever worked at a magazine or at a publisher, is that a lot of people write
books but very few of them are any good. The person who is on the Net, who
has got maybe two hours to find something that's any good, [will go to]
Net magazines that act as filters and exert some sort of editorial control,
which of course will simply mean [that] online we have the same elitism...
What frustrates me is that people have this idea that the Internet and the
Web are going to be this tremendous democratizing force, that people can
do anything they want. What they fail to understand is that people can't
receive it all -- their heads will bleed, right? So [people] are going to
need help choosing. The places they go to for that help will have the power.
They will decide; they will have the credibility -- this is good since it
isn't exactly the way it is in the publishing and informational world now
[but it isn't entirely different either].
VS: Something that people have been saying about your book is that the way
that you present information is somewhat unfiltered. There is at least the
illusion of sources for things...Sven Birkerts called it "internalizing
the decentering energies of computer technology."
DFW: But some of [references] are real and some of them aren't. In the first
draft, which was longer, [I tried] to create something that would feel the
way the culture would feel, which was a sort of tsunami of information.
Most of the cuts were in the end notes; there used to be almost 400 pages
of end notes, now there are 100.
I wanted there to be this enormous amount of information, some of which
meant something, some of which didn't. Theoretically this is very interesting.
And for one reader out of 1000 who had nothing else to do, that would be
very interesting. But some sort of balance had to be struck. There had to
be some way to get that point across without making the book impossible
to read. This is where a really good editor can help, because I, of course,
get all wrapped up. "I know. I'll have an allusion to a Russian thing
that's half true and only people who speak Russian will know." Great,
you are now talking to exactly one person on the planet earth.
VS: [Speaking of being just one person on the planet earth,] as a reader,
I felt as if you were training a spotlight on us, asking what it means that
we are an audience, and what it means to be a consumer of entertainment...
DFW: The project of the book -- the reason why I'm kinda proud of it --
is [that] I was trying to [do] something very hard: to write a book that's
hard [but still] fun enough, so that someone is willing to do the work.
[Also, I wanted to write fiction] that's about entertainment and the culture...there's
academic stuff that talks about how analytic we are when it comes to entertainment
but a lot of it's not very entertaining [itself]. It's usually boring and
dry. The idea of being able to do that and be entertaining at the same time
-- now, this is going to start sounding like an acid trip but you have to
indulge me -- so that the entertainingness of the book, and the entertainingness
of the stuff that the book talks about, enter into a kind of intercourse.
The writer has all his little schemes.
I know it works theoretically, and I know it's [difficult], but the best
part of the fuss for me is that it makes me feel like I pulled it off; that
I made something hard, fun.
VS: The length is the one thing that anybody can tell by looking at the
book, and hence really appealing to talk about in things like reviews...
DFW: It's not that [long]. "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth was
250 pages longer, came out two years ago. [Joseph] McElroy's "Women
and Men" [is] longer than this book. [Q.] "So, how'd you write
such a long book?" [A.] "Well, you wouldn't believe it, but I
wrote it all in one sitting. I had a catheter, and I had a drip in one arm."
I mean, how do you answer that question...You do it for a while, with a
long book, you just don't stop as soon.
VS: Where did you start?
DFW: Page one.
VS: What was the last thing you wrote before starting "Infinite Jest"?
DFW: I did an essay for Harper's about playing tennis when I was a little
boy. Originally I [wrote it] for a book of essays about the midwest. That
was in October or November of '91. I hadn't written any fiction for publication
for, like, four years before I started that. Harper's always fucks with
my titles. The thing at Harper's was called "Tennis, Trigonometry,
and Tornadoes." It's funny because Sven [Birkerts, who reviewed "Jest"
in The Atlantic Monthly] saw that essay for all these autobiographical references
in the book. It was actually kind of naive of him, when in fact, the names
I was using were names that were already in my head 'cause I was starting
to think about the book. There was some fiction in that essay.
VS: So the reference to Antitoi being your best friend?
DFW: There was no such person. I needed a fake name for this poor guy. It's
also really sloppy of me -- "Oh, I'll just use this name again in a
book, no one will notice..." But it was an odd moment of naivete on
Sven's part -- Sven's usually very cunning.
VS: Have you read the OED?
DFW: I have read the OED, but I have a vastly abridged version of the OED.
I wouldn't say that I've read it all. When I was 13 I decided to try to
get through it all and I got continuously up through K and then I began
to skim. Unlike Hal, I do not remember it all, nor could I spout etymologies.
Our family is weird. We would collect words -- both my parents are huge
readers. Whatever autobiographical stuff in the book is enhanced and, through
some coincidence, slightly more impressive.
VS: How do you know all these things about how to break into houses?
DFW: There [are] enormous amounts of information out there; the question
is, how is it to be deployed. Fiction's job isn't just to list the information,
but to show the information being used, to make it plausible, contextual.
Then [the information has] a taste to it. Yeah, I learned a lot.
I would go to halfway houses and just sit there. I lurked a lot. Nice thing
about halfway houses is they are real run-down and real sloppy and you can
just sit around. And the more it looks like you belong there. Some of the
people knew this [breaking and entering] stuff very well and they loved
to talk about it. And nobody is as talkative as a drug addict who just had
his drugs taken away. They are eager to tell you their life [stories].
VS: Who is F. P. Foster?
DFW: My mother's father, who died before I was born.