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The Salon Interview

by Laura Miller
Salon ()


The SALON Interview DAVID FOSTER WALLACE\n\nBy LAURA MILLER\n\nIllustration by Harry Aung\n\nDavid Foster Wallace's low-key, bookish appearance flatly contradicts\nthe unshaven, bandanna-capped image advanced by his publicity photos.\nBut then, even a hipster novelist would have to be a serious, disciplined\nwriter to produce a 1,079-page book in three years. "Infinite Jest,"\nWallace's mammoth second novel, juxtaposes life in an elite tennis\nacademy with the struggles of the residents of a nearby halfway house,\nall against a near-future background in which the U.S., Canada and\nMexico have merged, Northern New England has become a vast toxic\nwaste dump and everything from private automobiles to the very years\nthemselves are [Sneak Peeks: New from Julian Barnes, Angela Carter\nand the Ragin' Cajun] sponsored by corporate advertisers. Slangy,\nambitious and occasionally over-enamored with the prodigious intellect\nof its author, "Infinite Jest" nevertheless has enough solid emotional\nballast to keep it from capsizing. And there's something rare and\nexhilarating about a contemporary author who aims to capture the\nspirit of his age.\n\nThe 34-year-old Wallace, who teaches at Illinois State University\nin Bloomington-Normal and exhibits the careful modesty of a recovering\nsmart aleck, discussed American life on the verge of the millennium,\nthe pervasive influence of pop culture, the role of fiction writers\nin an entertainment-saturated society, teaching literature to freshmen\nand his own maddening, inspired creation during a recent reading\ntour for "Infinite Jest."\n\nWhat were you intending to do when you started this book?\n\nI wanted to do something sad. I'd done some funny stuff and some heavy,\nintellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad. And I wanted\nit not to have a single main character. The other banality would\nbe: I wanted to do something real American, about what it's like\nto live in America around the millennium.\n\nAnd what is that like?\n\nThere's something particularly sad about it, something that doesn't\nhave very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy,\nor any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more\nlike a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in\ndifferent ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether\nit's unique to our generation I really don't know. \n\nNot much of the press about "Infinite Jest" addresses the role that\nAlcoholics Anonymous plays in the story. How does that connect with\nyour overall theme?\n\nThe sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through,\nwas a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class,\nobscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could\nhave legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends\nwere the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were\nunbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night.\nYou could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it's the same\nthing.\n\nSome of my friends got into AA. I didn't start out wanting to write\na lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts and I knew\nI wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of meetings\nwith these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. That\npart of the book is supposed to be living enough to be realistic,\nbut it's also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what\nyou do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don't.\nThe bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the\nstarkest thing that I could find to talk about that.\n\nI get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter\nour early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and\nconfront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model\nisn't the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the\nmore vigorous.\n\nThe characters have to struggle with the fact that the AA system is\nteaching them fairly deep things through these seemingly simplistic\nclich{é}s.\n\nIt's hard for the ones with some education, which, to be mercenary,\nis who this book is targeted at. I mean this is caviar for the general\nliterary fiction reader. For me there was a real repulsion at the\nbeginning. "One Day at a Time," right? I'm thinking 1977, Norman\nLear, starring Bonnie Franklin. Show me the needlepointed sampler\nthis is written on. But apparently part of addiction is that you\nneed the substance so bad that when they take it away from you, you\nwant to die. And it's so awful that the only way to deal with it\nis to build a wall at midnight and not look over it. Something as\nbanal and reductive as "One Day at a Time" enabled these people to\nwalk through hell, which from what I could see the first six months\nof detox is. That struck me.\n\nIt seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of\nprinciples and values in this country is one of the things that's\ngutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me,\nlike "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod\nat that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and\nI realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that\nI'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why.\nThen I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really\nnot to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically\nuninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting,\ncomplex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta,\nironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That\nseems to me like something our generation needs to feel.\n\nAre you trying to find similar meanings in the pop culture material\nyou use? That sort of thing can be seen as merely clever, or shallow.\n\nI've always thought of myself as a realist. I can remember fighting\nwith my professors about it in grad school. The world that I live\nin consists of 250 advertisements a day and any number of unbelievably\nentertaining options, most of which are subsidized by corporations\nthat want to sell me things. The whole way that the world acts on\nmy nerve endings is bound up with stuff that the guys with leather\npatches on their elbows would consider pop or trivial or ephemeral.\nI use a fair amount of pop stuff in my fiction, but what I mean by\nit is nothing different than what other people mean in writing about\ntrees and parks and having to walk to the river to get water a 100\nyears ago. It's just the texture of the world I live in.\n\nWhat's it like to be a young fiction writer today, in terms of getting\nstarted, building a career and so on?\n\nPersonally, I think it's a really neat time. I've got friends who\ndisagree. Literary fiction and poetry are real marginalized right\nnow. There's a fallacy that some of my friends sometimes fall into,\nthe ol' "The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to go this\ndeep. Poor us, we're marginalized because of TV, the great hypnotic\nblah, blah." You can sit around and have these pity parties for yourself.\nOf course this is bullshit. If an art form is marginalized it's because\nit's not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people\nit's speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems\na little easy to me.\n\nIf you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid,\nthen there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall,\nwhere you have the idea that you're writing for other writers, so\nyou don't worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You\nworry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge:\ninvoluted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual\nreferences, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether\nyou're communicating with a reader who cares something about that\nfeeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end\nof it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are\ndone in a formulaic way -- essentially television on the page --\nthat manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff\nin a childishly riveting way.\n\nWhat's weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and\nreally they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt\nfor the reader, an idea that literature's current marginalization\nis the reader's fault. The project that's worth trying is to do stuff\nthat has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual\ndifficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader\nconfront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a\nway that it's also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone\nis talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.\n\nPart of it has to do with living in an era when there's so much entertainment\navailable, genuine entertainment, and figuring out how fiction is\ngoing to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You can try\nto confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way that other\nkinds of art and entertainment aren't. And to figure out how fiction\ncan engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been formed by\npop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop culture\nmachine. It's unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but\nit's neat. There's so much mass commercial entertainment that's so\ngood and so slick, this is something that I don't think any other\ngeneration has confronted. That's what it's like to be a writer now.\nI think it's the best time to be alive ever and it's probably the\nbest time to be a writer. I'm not sure it's the easiest time.\n\nWhat do you think is uniquely magical about fiction?\n\nOh, Lordy, that could take a whole day! Well, the first line of attack\nfor that question is that there is this existential loneliness in\nthe real world. I

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