"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

Hosted by Michael Silverblatt
Santa Monica College

Interview with David Foster Wallace
May 15, 1997

MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: Hello and welcome to Bookworm. This is Michael Silverblatt and today my guest is David Foster Wallace, author most recently of a collection of essays and arguments, called "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." He's the author as well of "Infinite Jest." Listeners to Bookworm know that I consider him to be the rare thing: someone who knows how to build something new that's complicated and rich, and maybe among the last who knows how to create technologies that result in these kinds of structure. I noticed when I was reading the essays in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," that at a certain point most of things that you are looking at yield an addictiveness quotient -- the, um, the tennis gets to a point where the volley turns into a trance; um, the pampering on board the cruise -- in the final essay -- becomes something that yields a desire for still more mega-pampering. And I wanted to ask you to address this. I found as I was reading the essays that I was growing addicted to them, that the essay itself -- in its length, in its repetitions -- were forming a counter trance-like addiction. And I wondered if you could talk about that.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: You know, there's about four questions all at once. I do know that, um -- I think the oldest essay in that collection was written in like 1990, which is when I was making the first stab at "Infinite Jest." There's a lot of addiction stuff in "Infinite Jest." And it's odd, I mean I went to a lot of open AA meetings, and I've read a lot of, um, sort of addictionology books. And it does become a kind of model or lattice through which you end up seeing a lot of stuff, particularly American stuff -- advertising as seduction. I mean, the ultimate [garbled] demand is an addict, which is, you know, terrific for commercial interests. I think, um -- I'm not sure about addiction so much. I know, I know that a lot of the essays ended up being about, um, certain kinds of seduction. And seduction can, on one hand, be a neat thing -- it can make us feel a lot better -- and on the other hand, seduction is literally, you know, promising more than you can deliver. And there seems to be something particularly American about that experience.

It's also true that, you know, I'm not a journalist. And a lot of these pieces came about because Harper's commissioned one thing and other magazine editors liked it and commissioned me to do other stuff. And I don't think it's -- I really don't think it's all that surprising that a fair amount of the sort of theory behind "Infinite Jest" comes out in the essays because I didn't really have any idea how to write non-fiction. I was bascially walking around paying as close attention as I could and then trying to form it into something.

MS: Well, one of the things that interests me here is that it reminded me a good deal as I went along in it of James Thurber. And I thought the James Thurber technique of humor is to find a way for the person narrating the event to be exactly the wrong person to be participating in the event. In other words, the thing that the humorous essayist must first do is disqualify himself --

DFW: Uh huh.

MS: -- at which point -- having become Charlie Chaplin -- everything that happens to him is hilarious.

DFW: Interesting. It's -- I hadn't thought of it that way, and I don't know that much about Thurber. I know that particularly starting with about the third essay -- the State Fair thing -- there was a certain persona that I found to do these things. A great deal of it was that I was petrified because I feel like I know a certain amount about writing fiction -- didn't know anything about writing non-fiction. I'm just now teaching a class at ISU in non-fiction and I'm realizing how illiterate in the genre I am. I hit on a tactic fairly early on of simply being candid about that and actually developing a persona who was -- who came out in the essay and said, "I'm not a journalist -- I'm petrified -- the terror is making me pay a whole lot of attention." And then there is -- and then it becomes, yeah, kind of lovable schmuck. Um, one guy in New York kept asking if I'd gotten it from Woody Allen, you know. And there is a kind of Woody Allen -- it's another reason why, like, I wanted to collect them all together in the book and then not do anymore for a while because by the last one I was finding that it was a particular kind of narrator.

MS: Yes, and yet the reason I think of Thurber is that he's from the Midwest -- Columbus -- um, that he famously looks into a microscope in "University Days" to examine his own eye, and that --

DFW: That's the stuff about Ohio State?

MS: Yeah.

DFW: Yeah. Okay. I've read some of that.

MS: Um, but there's the endearing tone of a man who in your case will find himself in the beautiful legs contest. In Thurber's case is a man who by the end of his life is blind and is drawing cartoons.

DFW: Uh-huh. Well, I actually -- I would claim that I belonged in the best legs contest. I actually have -- I'm not the best looking guy in the world, but I have been complimented on my legs more than once. It's weird, and since I'm on a coast this might be news to somebody -- there is a kind of, there's a Midwestern persona that's very useful to use, particularly in New York, which is just shy of the "Golly, the buildings are so tall" thing, where I think people from the Midwest are expected to be not only non-hip but several I.Q. points slower. And it can be extremely useful. People will reveal themselves to you in ways that they wouldn't to another East Coaster. And I think a lot of these were complex -- because not only was I dealing with topics that I didn't know all that well, but I was also doing them for magazines, and East Coast magazines. I'm not used to being edited very closely. I was very anxious. And I think there's a certain amount of construction of the kind of -- and it is, it's somewhat of an ironic pose, because I'm bright, and I'm a good writer. And so it's not like, you know, shaking the straw out of my hair as I'm going to these things. But there was this kind of extremely anxious, compulsive, agoraphobic person who, um, um, -- I guess part of it, too, is a lot of these -- the danger of a lot of these seem like they were set ups to just sneer at stuff, you know: the East Coast guy returns home and sneers at the State Fair; the egghead goes on a cruise and sneers at, you know, the gross consumption. And that setting myself up as sort of vulnerable, and neurotic, and in-bent, was a way to have at least a lot of the humor directed at myself rather than them. I don't know if that makes any sense, but that was the thing I was most concerned -- I didn't just want to do, you know, literate Spy magazine parodies of things.

MS: But the effect that is most visible here has something to do with the information gathering in the essays. The writing is presented as a kind of hunger. In fact, I think one of the book's funniest moments is when you have the historian of the Illinois State Fair give a whole set of very hard-to-remember facts that are recited dutifully in prose in the paragraph, and you say, "I wish I had a pen." Um, there's a certain aggressiveness about the amount of information and how to parse it out, which is also true of "Infinite Jest." The situating of the reader in "Infinite Jest" comes around a third of the way into the book when we find out what year we are in fact in --

DFW: Uh-huh.

MS: -- what is past, what is present, what is future. And "how do you take in new information and arrange it?" seems to be part of your subject.

DFW: See, this is one of the things that's neat about coming on this show -- is because you will point out stuff to me that I haven't realized. I know, I know that with the non-fiction book -- particularly the first few essays were extraordinarily stressful to me because, number one, you can't lie. Fact checkers call you up and they get very nervous. Number two, non-fiction is incredibly different because what's real is just -- I mean, we could spend three hours describing the inside of this room, which is not very lavishly decorated. And I had a tremendously difficult time knowing what was important and what wasn't, and I was myself overwhelmed. And what I did -- the rhetorical strategy I hit on -- was simply to be really candid about it and invite the reader to kind of empathize both with my anxiety and with the overload.

MS: Now, some of the overload effect takes the form -- at least visually, spatially, reader-consciousness-wise -- of footnotes: having to go to the bottom of the page, the information not fitting on the page itself. And it began to make me think of something you say about television -- that the television effect depends upon a splitting of the word -- the image -- and what you hear about the image. And that this seems to be a kind of tennis game that goes on in these footnotes as well -- a whole resetting, actually. And the footnote form has become yours -- you're using it now it seems virtually for everyone.

DFW: Well, you're getting now in the later essays -- which I wrote when I was typing "Infinite Jest" -- I mean, the footnotes get, um -- they're actually addictive, somehow -- there's a certain way that, um -- a kind of call and response thing that's set up in your head. They're a terrific way, um, to sort of draw back a dimension, or do a meta-comment on the thing that you're doing. In the essays -- since I decided there was no way I could pass myself off as a journalist, and was in fact going to do these as kind of meta-essays and have part of the essay be about the anxiety of producing the essays -- the footnotes were great places to do that. The way that the editor of the book helped me is that the footnotes can become for me very compulsive, until I can -- what will happen is there's an anxiety that I haven't made something entirely clear -- or that "Oh dear, an element of reality has escaped my pen" -- and so what I'll do is drop it down to the bottom of the page. And Pietsch -- Michael Pietsch, the editor -- pointed out to me that it's seems about a third of the footnotes -- particularly in the Lynch thing, and the cruise thing -- were cut out -- because he can nail when I have forgotten that the footnotes have to be read exactly the same way the text does. That to me they become sort of corollaries or afterthoughts, but for the reader actually they're even more demanding because the reader has to stop, hold his or her place in the text, go down, you know, read the interpolation and then return to the text.

MS: Uh-huh.

DFW: And so, the reason why I was lucky -- Pietsch has been, Michael Pietsch was a really good editor of both these books -- is that he was able, he gets it, and he sees, he sees some of the virtues of the footnotes, but he was very good at figuring out where I had just kind of lost it with ceasing to identify with the reader in any way, which is kind of working out this weird kind of addictive quality the footnotes have. And by the way, I am in cold turkey from footnotes. I don't -- I'm not doing them anymore.

MS: Um, I wanted to talk to you about style. You are the inventor -- as far as I know -- of the compound-conjunction: paragraphs beginning, "And but now..." I've never seen them before and I wanted to ask you about them. You do it ferociously. And so, I assume, not unconsciously.

DFW: Well, you're referring I think -- what I'm interested in more than style is just pace. And it's one reason why these tours are hard for me because I don't think my stuff's meant to be read out loud. And I get terrible breathing problems; it's like the text's revenge. Um, I just have a lot of friends, and I myself when I get -- you know, when somebody's talking and they get on a roll, and they start talking faster and faster -- and they don't breathe -- one of the things they'll do is have, um, compound-conjunctions because you're really -- you're wanting that sentence to serve a number of things. It's both a contrast and a continuation, and it's also, you know, an extrapolation. And it's, it's, I think, a little unconscious clue to the reader that he's more listening than reading now --

MS: Uh-huh.

DFW: -- that we're in a -- we're in a speed -- we're, we're at a pace now that's supposed to be far more sound and pace and breath than it is these, you know, short contained sentences.

MS: When I was in college I knew a girl who -- speaking so fast and furiously as she would -- at the point where she would want to say, "you know, like," she would say, "y'knike."

DFW: Yeah.

MS: And we used to write it on walls with spray-paint. It was, you know, like a motto.

DFW: The other thing that's annoying is that when people say "like" in speech -- you know, "I'm like 35 years old" -- there's never a comma. And I would always read this stuff where writers trying to be hip would have, like, um -- "I'm comma like comma 35" -- which, which is just absolutely wrong. It makes it easier to read, but it doesn't sound -- it doesn't make your brain-voice mimic the sound of somebody actually saying it. Which is one reason why I guess when I'm writing stuff that's going to be read very fast there's not much punctuation. And there's a lot of stuff that's strictly speaking ungrammatical, although the syntax is kind of strategic.

MS: Well, I'm glad you used the phrase because I was about to use it -- in fact, I thought I had invented it -- that I would say that these things -- at least these books that I know -- are written in the "brain-voice."

DFW: To an extent. I think -- I don't know whether anybody else sees this -- there's a real progression -- I mean, the first two, the first two things in here were done before I wrote "Infinite Jest." And "Infinite Jest" is the first thing that I wrote where the narrator -- it's supposed to sound like the narrator's talking to you.

MS: Uh-huh.

DFW: The first few pieces of fiction that I wrote were very -- what I thought was literary -- they were very "written," and very kind of distant and contained. And, um, I think as the essays in the book go on -- they're in roughly chronological order -- more and more of that voice creeps in, creeps into the voice of the essays. I'm not sure that it's entirely intentional, although I'd be happy to pretend that it was -- it would make me sound more impressive.

MS: Well, what's nice -- I guess -- is that impressive as these books are there's also a countervening desire not to sound impressive. In other words, from time to time, in both places -- the essayist who's writing "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" calls himself a looney -- the world of "Infinite Jest" is also full of people who are saying brilliant things to you and apologizing for saying them, apologizing for being the kind of people who think these things and think them at this rate and express them at this length. And that's what I mean, I guess, by the brain-voice -- that somehow or other there is that self-interrupting capacity. Everything that a writer does is not peculiar to a writer -- it's something that he's located somewhere in the culture or in his head that -- finally put onto the page -- people stop and say, "yes, people do that -- " And your work seems to be the result of something that developed in America when everyone started going to college. They read things their parents hadn't read -- maybe not your parents, but mine. And suddenly all sorts of locutions entered speech that previously had only been on the page.

DFW: For example?

MS: The "inasmuch as" stuff.

DFW: Uh-huh.

MS: Meta-language.

DFW: Uh-huh.

MS: Little bits of apologies for being smart. Um, self --

DFW: Or as if looking as if you're trying to sound smart.

MS: Yes.

DFW: Which is -- for me -- I find what you're saying flattering -- um, but I think you're overestimating some of the reasons -- like this thing about the constant self-consciousness and apology. Somebody at the reading in San Francisco last night was very acute and made me very uncomfortable because she talked about the second essay in the book, which is this big thing about writing fiction when you watch a lot of TV and you live in this kind of very hip, ironic culture, and how hip irony can become toxic and blah blah blah -- I won't rehash the argument. But she pointed out that, you know, this essay makes that argument and then a great deal of the rest of the essays in the book employ a certain amount of hip, ironic self-consciousness that is -- to me that isn't that attractive. And the apologizing for being smart, I think, can very easily become trying to head off the central criticism from you by acknowledging that I can get there first and deprecate myself so that you don't get a chance to do it. And it's very much of a piece with a certain kind of insecurity -- what to me seems like a very American insecurity -- that I have fully internalized, where I'm so terrified of your judgment that if I can show some kind of hip, self-aware, self-conscious judgment of myself first, I somehow am defended against your ridiculing me or parodying me or something like that -- um, to the extent that I don't think I'm the only person who suffers from it. I may be affective, but a great deal of it is, I think -- that's expressive stuff that I'm not comfortable with -- I think a lot of that's just a tic about my own psychology that I think my work would be better if there wasn't quite so much of that in there. Because it really is manipulative. I mean, it is acting out of terror of another's judgment, and so trying to look as if he can't possibly come up with a criticism of you having to do with how you appear that you haven't gotten there first.

MS: One of my favorite things to talk to you about follows from this. We both share an admiration for a barely known book called "Wittgenstein's Mistress" by David Markson, which is published by Dalkey Archive Press. The books by David Foster Wallace -- "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and "Infinite Jest" -- are published by Little, Brown.

DFW: Nice of you to insert the plug. "Wittgenstein's Mistress" now, by the way, available in paperback for, I think, only $8 [sic; actually $11.95] from Dalkey Archive Press.

MS: Yes. But what we like about it is its mixture of extraordinary intelligence and, at the same time, sadness. And the intelligence in it is really swallowed by a narrative situation that wants to compress it and make it nearly impossible to express. So that the book alternates between weeping, really, and extraordinary observation.

DFW: Or both at the same time.

MS: And we talked about that kind of book -- I say that Rilke and Kafka do it -- that manages to be extremely self-conscious and yet to attain some kind of sanctity or purity or holiness or humanness or all at the same time -- that I sense is the alternative to the massive book of "Infinite Jest" and the massive self-consciousnesses and paralyses this kind of book involves. I wanted to talk about that.

DFW: I think -- I mean, I agree with you, and I think "Wittgenstein's Mistress" is a magical book. Not because it alternates between incredible intellectual stunt-pilotry and pathos, but because it manages to marry the two in a way that -- I mean, that's what my dream is: to someday be able to do something like that. I think there's a difference, though, between the kind of self-consciousness that you're talking about with "Wittgenstein's Mistress" or "The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge" or "A Hunger Artist" or "The Metamorphosis." The self-consciousness there is a far, sort of deeper, wiser -- it's a more autonomous, almost solipsistic self-consciousness. The kind that I'm talking about is far more concerned with the perception by others -- what others' judgments are of you. It's a way of kind of positioning one's self to prevent something terrible happening that only you think is going to happen -- or something that's, um -- I think we need more words for self-consciousness the way Eskimos have for snow. Because I think you're right: there are some kinds of self-consciousness that are much -- it's more like self-awareness -- or a kind of deep -- a very involved, sophisticated acceptance of human limitation versus "I want to make a certain kind of impression," you know -- I want to show you, number one, I'm very smart, but number two, I'm not pretentious at all, I'm not hung up on myself, so I will therefore everytime I say something erudite make very clear to you that I'm not all puffed up, because if for a moment I show myself as puffed up, well, we know from watching American sit-coms what happens to the character who shows himself as puffed up or pretentious -- I mean, the analogy's somewhat forced -- but I think there are moments in some of my later stuff where I've managed to hit a note of that kind of self-consciousness that for me is wise and timeless. But there's also times when I know that I get scared, um, and I'm positioning myself a certain way -- particularly in the non-fiction -- that I don't think that's interesting or productive self-consciousness. In a perverse way, though, I think it's far -- I think it's mimetic of a very kind of late twentieth century American experience, which is -- I think this is a time when we're terribly afraid of one another. And there seems to be very few venues for talking about it. And so if betraying some of that neurosis in these essays is at least a way of inviting some kind of conversation between me and the reader about it, that's one thing. But I also know that, you know, I'm very bright, but I'm also terrified of coming off as someone who thinks he's very bright -- because people who think they're very bright are buttholes.

MS: After around what was it -- fifteen years? -- of waiting for William H. Gass to finish "The Tunnel," I said to myself: Wouldn't it be wonderful if after all this time -- during which time we know that he's been working like a dog -- if he published a book and it was 77 pages long. For me, that would have been extremely heroic --

DFW: Yeah.

MS: -- because, you know, it wouldn't have been one of those little tiny aperitif and toothpick kind of books -- it would have been the exudation --

DFW: It would have been "The Philosophical Investigations" is what you're talking about, right?

MS: Exactly.

DFW: Yeah.

MS: And I'm very curious about that ability to heroically throw away what might be brilliant stand-up stuff, set-pieces, wit, extravagance -- and to have the essence. It seems to me that a lot of the questions that get asked in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" -- that is to say, how you get out of the loop of addiction and consumerism and everything else, is to tell not the truth, but the essence of truth -- to get past the process of truth-telling and go to the truth itself.

DFW: I agree with 90% of what you're saying in principle. The problem is in practice. What you're talking about is a very condensed, aphoristic -- you're talking about "Thus Spake Zarathustra" or "The Philosophical Investigations" or "The I Ching" or really really good, really really good poetry. And the problem with doing something like that kind of in non-fiction is that I think then you're setting yourself up as a, as a teacher, rather than as a companion. And I think part of it -- I agree, I agree with a lot of what you're saying, and in fact even though "Infinite Jest" is really long, the thing I'm most proud of is that for once I did not reptilianly fight and hang on to every single page that I did. And I let -- I allowed myself to have faith in a really smart editor and cut some of it -- and like that, that for me was what was valuable about that process. But I am not yet good and smart enough to be able to do what you're talking about. I agree, I agree with you about what would be magical about that, and I think one of the most toxic things about the movement called minimalism in the 1980s was that it aped the form of that without any of its spirit, or any of what would truly be magical -- it's moments in Carver, maybe the end of "So Much Water So Close to Home," but for the most part it got Americanized: it got reduced to a set of formal schticks, an appearance, a persona. For now, given my limitations -- at least like in the non-fiction book -- I wanted much more to set myself up as the sort of companion with whom the reader could tell might be somewhat annoying but was not going to be [garbled] the reader, and was not going to adopt a certain kind of posture where I'm up here and the reader's down there, or I'm up here and the other cruisers are down there. And was going to be a kind of companion or tour-guide who was very observant but was also every bit as bound up and Americanized and self-conscious and insecure as the reader. Now, I realize that what I'm giving you is a literary defense for a kind of literature that is inferior to the kind you're talking about. But I don't think, I don't think it's without value.

MS: No, you're very present. And I guess what I'm talking about is a literature that implicitly takes to heart the Zen maxim, "Live as if you were already dead."

DFW: Oh yeah. Well, you're talking about an effaced narrator where it's not a literary choice, but it's in fact a truth. And, except for very rare, transcendent pieces of fiction, I haven't seen that done anywhere except spiritual and religious literature. Or, you know, at the end of Wittgenstein's "Tractatus." I mean, you're talking about the sort of thing that an absolute genius -- I mean, a Mozart of living -- comes up with after decades of effort. And I'm comfortable, I'm comfortable saying I'm not there yet.

MS: I've been speaking to David Foster Wallace on the occasion of the publication of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." Thank you, David, for joining me. [Laughing]

DFW: Thank you. I'm now going to beat my head against the wall for 30 seconds.

MS: The engineer today -- you won't hear this -- is Jennifer [garbled]. I'm Michael Silverblatt, join me again -- no, he actually IS -- stop! -- on Bookworm........