"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
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National Public Radio
SHOW: WEEKEND SUNDAY (NPR 12:00 am ET)
MAY 18, 1997, SUNDAY
Transcript # 97051816-215
WEEKEND SUNDAY (NPR), MAY 18, 1997
HEADLINE: David Foster Wallace
BYLINE: Tom Vitale, New York; Liane Hansen, Washington, DC
Tom Vitale profiles David Foster Wallace, one of today's "hot young
Wallace got great reviews for his second novel, "Infinite Jest,"
and has just published a new book of essays entitled "A Supposedly
I'll Never Do Again."
LIANE HANSEN, HOST: David Foster Wallace has been called one of
talents of his generation. The 35-year-old author's second novel "Infinite
Jest" had one critic raving: "So brilliant you need sunglasses
to read it!" A
slightly less enthusiastic review called it: "A huge, garish book with
more daring than the novel proper."
Wallace has just published a new book, a collection of essays which explores
popular culture and entertainment, themes at the heart of his fiction.
Tom Vitale has this profile.
WEEKEND SUNDAY (NPR), MAY 18, 1997
TOM VITALE, REPORTER: Two years ago, "Harper's" magazine sent
Wallace on a seven-night celebrity cruise in the Caribbean. They told him,
says Wallace, to write something. And that's all they told him.
WALLACE: These "Harper's" editors -- they're very nice, but they're
sophisticated. And they figured out that I function best under intense anxiety.
And so, that what they would do is give -- really give me absolutely no
assignment. And what happens then, is I'm so scared that I'm going to miss
something that everything gets jacked way up. I'm far more observant when
on some sort of assignment than I am in regular life.
I couldn't be that way all the time. I mean, my ears would bleed.
VITALE: Wallace's week in a state of what he called "hypervigilance"
pages of detailed observations of cruise life that comprised the title essay
his new book, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."
WALLACE: I now know the difference between straight bingo and prize-o (ph),
what it is when a bingo jackpot -- quote -- "snowballs."
I have seen camcorders that practically required a dolly. I've seen fluorescent
luggage and fluorescent sunglasses and fluorescent pintsnez (ph) and over
different makes of rubber thong. I have heard steel drums and eaten conk
fritters and watched a woman in silver lame projectile vomit inside a glass
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF THE BEE GEES "STAYIN' ALIVE")
WALLACE: I have pointed rhythmically at the ceiling to the two- four beat
exact same disco music I hated pointing at the ceiling to in 1977.
THE BEE GEES, SINGING "STAYIN' ALIVE": Well, you can tell by the
way I use my
walk I'm a woman's man No time to talk Music loud...
VITALE: In 1977, David Foster Wallace was a 15-year-old tennis prodigy growing
up in central Illinois where his father was a philosophy professor at the
university and his mother an English teacher at the local community college.
WALLACE: The town that I was living in, Champaign-Urbana, is -- it's almost
an Air Force base in a foreign country. There's an enclave of academia,
it's big, because the U of I is big.
But Champaign-Urbana itself is a fairly conservative, rural Illinois factory,
trailer park, farmer town. And they don't have very much in common, you
with academics. So there's a weird kind of schizoid quality about it.
VITALE: Wallace developed an ear for the disparate voices he heard growing
says "Time" magazine's Walter Kearn.
WALTER KEARN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: He sort of embraces all forms of
speech. If you
look at his novel, "Infinite Jest," he's got characters from all
society, from the WASPiest prep school professors and students to AA
down-and-out drug addicts.
And the voices he gives them are, to me, authentic and moving and complicated.
And I don't know of many other writers who can put together that cast of
VITALE: One of the characters in "Infinite Jest" is a nationally-ranked
tennis player, as was the author. But after high school, Wallace packed
tennis racket and headed east to pursue more intellectual interests at Amherst
WALLACE: I didn't really find out I was bright until I got to college. In
school, I mean -- we all did well in high school. But I played a lot of
sports and, you know, was one of these guys who drove around Friday night
yelling the name of the high school out the car and stuff. I wasn't bookish.
And when I got to college, I discovered I was bright. And where I discovered
were philosophy classes.
And philosophy's very weird kind of writing because you're aiming for maximum
clarity and maximum persuasiveness. And there's -- there's a certain very
beautiful but very totally cerebral structure about it.
And I think that I kind of matured intellectually in that environment. It's
pretty clear to me that my brain is circuited that way.
VITALE: Wallace's philosophy professors urged him to take up creative writing
since his papers were, he says, "abnormally chatty." So he majored
in English as
well as philosophy.
And for his senior thesis he wrote a novel about the relationship between
language and reality. He called it "The Broom of the System."
And when he
graduated, he took it with him to the writing program at the University
WALLACE: Well, of course, being full of arrogance and having spent the summer
rewriting this book and just convinced it was really, probably the best
movable type since, you know, the King James Bible, as anybody who's 23
Ended up -- I ended up sending a chapter out to these 10 agents. And it
really funny. I got nine responses. One response was almost: "Best
with your janitorial career," you know, or, "You need some kind
VITALE: But one agent liked it. And she sent the manuscript to her former
Viking editor Jerry Howard. His reaction...
JERRY HOWARD, VIKING EDITOR: Astonishment really. I thought, "Oh, boy.
Thomas Pynchon in gen-X clothing.
VITALE: Howard acquired "The Broom of the System" in 1985. Viking
novel two years later.
HOWARD: This was a time when Jay McInerny and Brett Ellis and Tama
Janowitz were riding high. And they didn't have that quality of
intellectual play that David's work did, or ambition.
And here was a writer who I thought really harked back to the imperial novelists
of the '60s -- Barth and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover and people
of that nature -- who just made the novel do all sorts of tricks.
VITALE: Wallace has most often been compared to Thomas Pynchon.
WALLACE: I bristle sometimes at getting compared to some older -- like some
these classic post-modern guys. The -- the -- the "P" guy comes
into mind. I
won't even say his name. Who -- whom I was very interested in in college,
am just not that interested in anymore.
And nothing against him. I just -- I think he's got a very large kind of
scientifically-based conception of the universe. And it's real interesting.
And he's got an IQ that's probably three times what mine is.
I think whatever I'm interested in, it's much more having to do with people,
which sounds very trite. I think these are very lonely times. And most of
sad human stuff is what interests me.
VITALE: Sad, odd, lonely characters populate the fiction of David Foster
Wallace. In "Infinite Jest," an eccentric lives in the Tennis
WALLACE: "An oiled guru sits in yogic full lotus in spandex and tank
maybe 40. He's in full lotus on top of the towel dispenser just above the
shoulder pull station in the weight room of the Infield Tennis Academy,
"Saucers of muscle protrude from him and run together so that he looks
crustacean. His head gleams, his hair jet black and extravagantly feathered.
His smile could sell things.
"Nobody knows where he comes from or why he's allowed to stay. But
in there, sitting yogic about a meter off the rubberized floor of the weight
"His tank top says, "Transcend" in silk screen. On the back
it's got "Deus
Providibit" (ph) in day-glow orange. It's always the same tank top.
the color of the spandex leggings changes."
VITALE: Despite favorable and sometimes ecstatic reviews, "Infinite
to garner any major literary awards. "Time" magazine's Walter
Kearn was one of
several critics who complained publicly when Wallace's novel was not nominated
for a national book award. Speaking from his home in rural Montana, Kearn
says it was a ridiculous oversight.
KEARN: Yeah, I was outraged, because somebody like David Foster Wallace
for fame in the old-fashioned sense, you know, in the sense that maybe Milton
did when he sat down and dedicated 10 years to writing "Paradise Lost,"
however long it took him. And to ignore these efforts made in the name of
seems ridiculous when they're so exemplary and obviously ambitious.
VITALE: Wallace's 981-page "Infinite Jest" is followed by another
of mind-bending notes, a device he's carried over to his non-fiction. For
example, in the title essay of his new book, Wallace writes about the pampering
of cruise guests.
WALLACE: "I've ended up availing myself of cabin service every night,
though I find it extremely embarrassing to be calling up extension 72 asking
have even more rich food brought to me when there have already been 11 gourmet
eating ops that day."
Then there's a tag to a footnote: "The 11 is counting the midnight
tends to be a kind of lamely lavish theme/costume partyish thing with
theme-related foods, and which I plan in this essay to mostly skip except
that Tex-Mex night out by the pools featured what must have been a
seven-foot-high ice- sculpture of Pancho Villa that spent the whole party
dripping steadily under the mammoth sombrero of Tibore, table 64's beloved
and extremely cool Hungarian waiter, whose contract forces him on Tex-Mex
to wear a serape and a straw sombrero with a 17-inch radius, and to
dispense four-alarm chile from a steam table placed right underneath an
sculpture, and whose pink and bird-like face on occasions like this expressed
combination of mortification and dignity that seemed somehow to sum up the
plight of post-war Eastern Europe."
VITALE: David Foster Wallace writes like he speaks -- in long branching
sentences that reflect the jumps of a mind crackling with ideas. But some
critics have complained that his prose is out of control.
A New York Times reviewer wrote that, like "Infinite Jest," Wallace's
is sorely in need of editing. Even its liveliest, most compelling pieces
larded with repetitious self-indulgent digressions.
Jerry Howard, who edited Wallace's first two books, including his collection
stories, "Girl with Curious Hair," says Wallace's writing can
HOWARD: Oh, he's incredibly self-indulgent, but he has a great self to indulge.
And that's part of his aesthetic, which is one of glorious excess and willed
I mean, the thing about David is that he has the quickest mind of any human
being I've come across. And he plays out that quickness in his prose.
And so, reading him is -- is itself a challenge to be as quick as he is.
and that accounts for a lot of his style, which can drive some people nuts.
once you're on the Wallace wave length, it's a wonderful ride.
VITALE: Wallace is aware of his excesses. He says he needs a good editor.
WALLACE: Because one of the things that I have trouble with -- I have friends
back home who claim to be ADD, whatever ADD. But one of the analogies they
is that life seems to contain too many frames per second, that there's just
much and they can't process it all.
I don't think I feel that way except when I'm writing. And when I'm writing,
there just seems like so much. And -- and I have a difficult time figuring
what's important and what isn't. And an editor is -- is quite important.
VITALE: But the title essay of his new book is twice as long as the same
that was published in "Harper's." Wallace says he saw the book
opportunity to restore passages that the editor's cut -- like the sensory
catalogue that now begins the piece.
WALLACE: I have had escargot, duck, baked alaska, salmon with fennel, a
pelican, and an omelet made with what were alleged to be trace amounts of
Etruscan truffle. I have heard people in deck chairs say in all earnestness
that it's the humidity rather than the heat. I have been thoroughly,
professionally, and, as promised beforehand, pampered.
I have, in dark moods, viewed and logged every type of arrythmia, keratinosis,
pre-melanomic lesion, liver spot, eczema, wart, papular cyst, pot belly,
cellulite, varicosity, collagen and silicone enhancement, bad tint, hair
transplants that have not taken: i.e., I have seen nearly naked a lot of
I would prefer not to have seen nearly naked. I have felt as bleak as
I've felt since puberty and have filled almost three Mead notebooks trying
figure out whether it was them or just me.
VITALE: David Foster Wallace says that even after two novels, a collection
short stories, and a book of essays, he's still scared to write, still afraid
fail. He says he's working on another novel. But he doesn't want to talk
about it. He will say he has sworn off footnotes. His latest book is
called, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." For National
Radio, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.