"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

Infinite Jester

Writer David Foster Wallace tweaks American culture

By Tom Laskin

Madison, Wisconsin
February 7, 1997

The publication of David Foster Wallace's enormous comic novel "Infinite Jest" was one of the big literary events of 1996. A brutally funny examination of American addictions, the book's length (more than 1,000 pages crammed with crazed characters, mocking erudition and a thick sheaf of nose-tweaking endnotes) got the quick once-over from some critics, but favorable comparisons to William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon and even Laurence Sterne signaled that Wallace had become a postmodernist to be reckoned with.

That may be part of the reason the self-described shy-boy sounds a little weary talking about the book tour for his new nonfiction collection, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which will bring him to Madison's Canterbury Booksellers Coffeehouse at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13. Having spent a good deal of "Infinite Jest" gazing with fascination at America's love affair with corporate hype, Wallace finds himself being packaged and sold a little harder these days. Fact is, his publisher, Little, Brown, isn't about to let last year's sensation languish on bookstore shelves.

"I told Little, Brown that I didn't want to do a paperback tour," he laughs over the phone from Bloomington, Ill., the college town where he teaches and lives with a pair of really big dogs. "So they're calling this the hardback tour for 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again,' but it's beginning to dawn on me that the hardcover is coming out at exactly the same time as the paperback of 'Infinite Jest,' and probably a nonfiction collection doesn't really warrant the size of the tour that they've got."

Wallace is being modest, of course. The pieces in "A Supposedly Fun Thing" (most of them originally published in respectable national magazines like Harper's and Esquire) certainly stand on their own merit. Among the best are a mordant, absolutely dead-on portrait of the Illinois State Fair and the title essay, a sardonic description of seven indulgent, increasingly hellish days on a luxury cruise, both of which provoked the occasional charge of "you elitist asshole" when they first appeared in print.

Wallace knows that his nonfiction bites down hard on various American preoccupations, particularly the determined pursuit of pleasure. But he insists he isn't interested in simply lampooning regular folk and admits that the charges of elitism exposed something basic about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction: i.e., the truth hurts. The thing is, when he began doing profiles and essays, Wallace assumed he'd affect a "hard, Jack Webb" style, and tell it like it is about the subject at hand. But he found that writing nonfiction also meant facing the music when the objects of his humor didn't get the joke.

"What's weird is that anything mean or funny in 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again' is absolutely true," he explains, noting that after the essay was published, the correspondence he'd struck up with some of his fellow cruisers came to an abrupt end. "You think, 'So why am I responsible for hurting these people's feelings if they're the ones who really did these things?' But then you know deep down that you are because you're the one doing the writing, and they didn't mean it for public consumption."

Reaction to the piece on the Illinois State Fair left him even more befuddled. "I thought the fair was full of incredible, moving little moments punctuated by these just absolutely surreal things," he explains. "But the point of the stuff was certainly not to make fun of what idiots people in the Midwest are. It's more like: God, what idiots we all are when we decide to have fun with a capital F. But there was this whole swivet in the Springfield, Illinois, newspaper about the state fair piece and how this elitest butthead goes off to this Eastern school and then comes back and makes fun of the people he grew up with and calls them fat and stuff. That really hurt. If that's true, then I did a poor job."

The upshot of Wallace's hand-wringing over hurt feelings and negative criticism? Well, he says he discovered that he really doesn't have the stomach for nonfiction, and, with the help from a recent grant, hopes to hunker down to fiction full-time after the book tour is over. Still, somehow you doubt his sincerity. The guy's too good at nailing the culture to the wall...and he knows it.