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The Salon Interview

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Salon (1996)

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Abstract

The SALON Interview DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

By LAURA MILLER

Illustration by Harry Aung

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 U.S., 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 [Sneak Peeks: New from Julian Barnes, Angela Carter
and the Ragin' Cajun] 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."

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

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.

And what is that like?

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.

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?

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 30s, 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
clich{é}s.

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." OK, check, got it. I nod
at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 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.

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.

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 100
years ago. It's just the texture of the world I live in.

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

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.

What do you think is uniquely magical about fiction?

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

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