"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"


The SALON Interview

Issue #9, March 9-22, 1996

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

By LAURA MILLER


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David Foster Wallace's low-key, bookish appearance flatly
contradicts the unshaven, bandanna-capped image advanced by his
publicity photos. But then, even a hipster novelist would have to
be a serious, disciplined writer to produce a 1,079-page book in
three years. "Infinite Jest," Wallace's mammoth second novel,
juxtaposes life in an elite tennis academy with the struggles of
the residents of a nearby halfway house, all against a near-future
background in which the US, Canada and Mexico have merged,
Northern New England has become a vast toxic waste dump and
everything from private automobiles to the very years themselves
are sponsored by corporate advertisers. Slangy, ambitious and
occasionally over-enamored with the prodigious intellect of its author,
"Infinite Jest" nevertheless has enough solid emotional ballast to keep
it from capsizing. And there's something rare and exhilarating about a
contemporary author who aims to capture the spirit of his age.

The 34-year-old Wallace, who teaches at Illinois State University
in Bloomington-Normal and exhibits the careful modesty of a
recovering smart aleck, discussed American life on the verge of
the millennium, the pervasive influence of pop culture, the role
of fiction writers in an entertainment-saturated society, teaching
literature to freshmen, and his own maddening, inspired creation
during a recent reading tour for "Infinite Jest."



Salon: What were you intending to do when you started this book?

DFW: I wanted to do something sad. I'd done some funny stuff and some
heavy, intellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad. And I
wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality
would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it's
like to live in America around the millennium.

Salon: And what is that like?

DFW: There's something particularly sad about it, something that
doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the
economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news.
It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my
friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of
lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't
know.

Salon: Not much of the press about "Infinite Jest" addresses the role
that Alcoholics Anonymous plays in the story. How does that
connect with your overall theme?

DFW: The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through,
was a real American type of sadness. I was white,
upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more
career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was
sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of
them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics.
Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it
played out in 20 different ways, but it's the same thing.

Some of my friends got into AA. I didn't start out wanting to
write a lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts
and I knew I wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of
meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously
powerful. That part of the book is supposed to be living enough to
be realistic, but it's also supposed to stand for a response to
lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to
make you OK, don't. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA
response to that was the starkest thing that I could find to talk
about that.

I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we
enter our early thirties, have to find a way to put away childish
things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably
the AA model isn't the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be
one of the more vigorous.

The characters have to struggle with the fact that the AA system
is teaching them fairly deep things through these seemingly
simplistic cliches.

It's hard for the ones with some education which, to be mercenary,
is who this book is targeted at. I mean this is caviar for the
general literary fiction reader. For me there was a real repulsion
at the beginning. "One Day at a Time," right? I'm thinking 1977,
Norman Lear, starring Bonnie Franklin. Show me the needlepointed
sampler this is written on. But apparently part of addiction is
that you need the substance so bad that when they take it away
from you, you want to die. And it's so awful that the only way to
deal with it is to build a wall at midnight and not look over it.
Something as banal and reductive as "One Day at a Time" enabled
these people to walk through hell, which from what I could see the
first six months of detox is. That struck me.

It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of
principles and values in this country is one of the things that's
gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me,
like "It's really important not to lie." Okay, check, got it. I
nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about
thirty and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you.
I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't
figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with
this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and,
really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you
pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be
nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't,
that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something
our generation needs to feel.

Salon: Are you trying to find similar meanings in the pop culture
material you use? That sort of thing can be seen as merely clever,
or shallow.

DFW: I've always thought of myself as a realist. I can remember
fighting with my professors about it in grad school. The world
that I live in consists of 250 advertisements a day and any number
of unbelievably entertaining options, most of which are subsidized
by corporations that want to sell me things. The whole way that
the world acts on my nerve endings is bound up with stuff that the
guys with leather patches on their elbows would consider pop or
trivial or ephemeral. I use a fair amount of pop stuff in my
fiction, but what I mean by it is nothing different than what
other people mean in writing about trees and parks and having to
walk to the river to get water a hundred years ago. It's just the
texture of the world I live in.

Salon: What's it like to be a young fiction writer today, in terms of
getting started, building a career, and so on?

DFW: Personally, I think it's a really neat time. I've got friends who
disagree. Literary fiction and poetry are real marginalized right
now. There's a fallacy that some of my friends sometimes fall
into, the ol' "The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to
go this deep. Poor us, we're marginalized because of TV, the great
hypnotic blah, blah." You can sit around and have these pity
parties for yourself. Of course this is bullshit. If an art form
is marginalized it's because it's not speaking to people. One
possible reason is that the people it's speaking to have become
too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.

If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too
stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde
pitfall, where you have the idea that you're writing for other
writers, so you don't worry about making yourself accessible or
relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically
cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate
intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring
about whether you're communicating with a reader who cares
something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read.
Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial
pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way -- essentially
television on the page -- that manipulate the reader, that set out
grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

What's weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other
and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a
contempt for the reader, an idea that literature's current
marginalization is the reader's fault. The project that's worth
trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge
and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary
stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than
ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it's also
pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to
him rather than striking a number of poses.

Part of it has to do with living in an era when there's so much
entertainment available, genuine entertainment, and figuring out
how fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of
era. You can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical
in a way that other kinds of art and entertainment aren't. And to
figure out how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose
sensibility has been formed by pop culture, without simply
becoming more shit in the pop culture machine. It's unbelievably
difficult and confusing and scary, but it's neat. There's so much
mass commercial entertainment that's so good and so slick, this is
something that I don't think any other generation has confronted.
That's what it's like to be a writer now. I think it's the best
time to be alive ever and it's probably the best time to be a
writer. I'm not sure it's the easiest time.

Salon: What do you think is uniquely magical about fiction?

DFW: Oh, Lordy, that could take a whole day! Well, the first line of
attack for that question, is that there is this existential
loneliness in the real world. I don't know what you're thinking or
what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside
me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a
certain way. But that's just the first level, because the idea of
mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a
contrivance that's set up through art by the writer. There's
another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There's a
relationship set up between the reader and the writer that's very
strange and very complicated and hard to talk about. A really
great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make
me forget that I'm sitting in a chair. There's real commercial
stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn't
make me feel less lonely.

There's a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels
about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn't
happen all the time. It's these brief flashes or flames, but I get
that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally,
spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep,
significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and
poetry in a way that I don't with other art.

Salon: Who are the writers who do this for you?

DFW: Here's the hard thing about talking about that: I don't mean to
say my work is as good as theirs. I'm talking about stars you
steer by.

Salon: Understood.

DFW: OK. Historically the stuff that's sort of rung my cherries:
Socrates' funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of
Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not
all that often, Keats' shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes'
"Meditations on First Philosophy" and "Discourse on
Method," Kant's "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic," although
the translations are all terrible, William James' "Varieties of Religious
Experience," Wittgenstein's "Tractatus," Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a
Young Man," Hemingway -- particularly the ital stuff in "In Our
Time," where you just go oomph!, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac
McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A.S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick -- the stories,
especially one called "Levitations," about 25% of the time
Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called "The
Balloon," which is the first story I ever read that made me want
to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver's best stuff -- the
really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he's not beating his drum, 35%
of Stephen Crane, "Moby-Dick," "The Great Gatsby."

And, my God, there's poetry. Probably Phillip Larkin more than
anyone else, Louise Glück, Auden.

Salon: What about colleagues?

DFW: There's the whole "great white male" deal. I think there are about
five of us under 40 who are white and over 6 feet and wear
glasses. There's Richard Powers who lives only about 45 minutes
away from me and who I've met all of once. William Vollman,
Jonathan Franzen, Donald Antrim, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody.
The person I'm highest on right now is George Saunders, whose book
"Civilwarland in Bad Decline" just came out, and is well worth a
great deal of attention. A.M. Homes: her longer stuff I don't
think is perfect, but every few pages there's something that just
doubles you over. Kathryn Harrison, Mary Karr, who's best known
for "The Liar's Club" but is also a poet and I think the best
female poet under 50. A woman named Cris Mazza. Rikki Ducornet,
Carole Maso. Carole Maso's "Ava" is just -- a friend of mine read
it and said it gave him an erection of the heart.

Salon: Tell me about your teaching.

DFW: I was hired to teach creative writing, which I don't like to
teach.

There's two weeks of stuff you can teach someone who hasn't
written 50 things yet and is still kind of learning. Then it
becomes more a matter of managing various people's subjective
impressions about how to tell the truth vs. obliterating someone's
ego.

I like to teach freshman lit because ISB gets a lot of rural
students who aren't very well educated and don't like to read.
They've grown up thinking that literature means dry, irrelevant,
unfun stuff, like cod liver oil. Getting to show them some more
contemporary stuff -- the one we always do the second week is a
story called "A Real Doll," by A.M. Homes, from "The Safety of
Objects," about a boy's affair with a Barbie doll. It's very
smart, but on the surface, it's very twisted and sick and riveting
and real relevant to people who are 18 and five or six years ago
were either playing with dolls or being sadistic to their sisters.
To watch these kids realize that reading literary stuff is
sometimes hard work, but it's sometimes worth it and that reading
literary stuff can give you things that you can't get otherwise,
to see them wake up to that is extremely cool.

Salon: How do you feel about the reaction to the length of your book? Did
it just sort of wind up being that long, or do you feel that
you're aiming for a particular effect or statement?

DFW: I know it's risky because it's part of this equation of making
demands on the reader -- which start out financial. The other side
of it is publishing houses hate it because they make less money.
Paper is so expensive. If the length seems gratuitous, as it did
to a very charming Japanese lady from the New York Times, then one
arouses ire. And I'm aware of that. The manuscript that I
delivered was 1700 manuscript pages, of which close to 500 were
cut. So this editor didn't just buy the book and shepherd it. He
line-edited it twice. I flew to New York, and all that. If it
looks chaotic, good, but everything that's in there is in there on
purpose. I'm in a good emotional position to take shit for the
length because the length strikes people as gratuitous, then the
book just fails. It's not gratuitous because I didn't feel like
working on it or making the cuts.

It's a weird book. It doesn't move the way normal books do. It's
got a whole bunch of characters. I think it makes at least an
in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a
page-by-page level so I don't feel like I'm hitting the reader
with a mallet, you know, "Hey, here's this really hard impossibly
smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it." I know books like
that and they piss me off.

Salon: What made you choose a tennis academy, which mirrors the halfway
house in the book?

DFW: I wanted to do something with sport and the idea of dedication to
a pursuit being kind of like an addiction.

Some of the characters wonder if it's worth it, the competitive
obsession.

It's probably like this in anything. I see my students do this
with me. You're a young writer. You admire an older writer, and
you want to get to where that older writer is. You imagine that
all the energy that your envy is putting into it has somehow been
transferred to him, that there's a flipside to it, a feeling of
being envied that's a good feeling the way that envy is a hard
feeling. You can see it as the idea of being in things for some
kind of imaginary goal involving prestige rather than for the
pursuit itself. It's a very American illness, the idea of giving
yourself away entirely to the idea of working in order to achieve
some sort of brass ring that usually involves people feeling some
way about you -- I mean, people wonder why we walk around feeling
alienated and lonely and stressed out?

Tennis is the one sport I know enough about for it to be beautiful
to me, for me to think that it means something. The nice thing
about it is that I've got Tennis magazine wanting to do something
about me. For me personally it's been great. I may get to hit with
the pros some day. It has that advantage.

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