"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

"Whad'ya Know?" with Michael Feldman
Wisconsin Public Radio
April 5, 1997

MICHAEL FELDMAN: You know, there's a book just out now called "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." The author is probably talked about more than any young author in the country right now actually -- David Foster Wallace, who is probably best known for this...book...here, "Infinite Jest," which is called in the business a ten-pounder. It's a good one. I've gotten about an inch into it. I have read the other one, "A Supposedly Fun Thing." It's a collection of essays done mostly I think for Harper's. Would you welcome please on the telephone with us from Bloomington, Illinois -- David Foster Wallace. [Applause] What a polite crowd. Isn't that nice.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: There are people actually there with you?

MF: No, actually these are all sound effects. [Loud applause] This is all digitalized, basically. I'm sitting here alone in my room.

DFW: My nervousness has just tripled.

MF: Oh has it? Don't worry about it. They're all from around here. And you're from around here. You're Midwestern, aren't you?

DFW: Yeah. I think Illinoisans try to draw a rather sharp distinction between ourselves and Wisconsin people.

MF: Yeah. We do too. We feel the same way from the other side.

DFW: [Laughs] Well, we'll get along fine.

MF: Did you go to school at Northern?

DFW: No, I went to school out of state. I grew up in Champaign, which is where the U of I is.

MF: Yeah. Urbana-Champaign they call it now. When did they change it from Champaign-Urbana? I was shocked to hear about that.

DFW: I don't know. We've always called it Champaign-Urbana. But then on the rare times when the U of I would get televised in sports, they'd call it Urbana-Champaign. I think it scans poetically better if you put Urbana first or something.

MF: It does? To you? I mean, you're the author. You're the poet --

DFW: Yeah. I don't write a whole lot of poetry, but --

MF: Yeah, but you know words. To me, Champaign should be before Urbana. Let's take just a quick one [addressing audience]. Champaign-Urbana or Urbana-Champaign? Champaign-Urbana? [Applause] And how many of you say Neenah-Menasha? Get out of here, you're on the wrong show...

DFW: Well, clearly you've got this crowd behind you.

MF: Yeah, they're behind me --

DFW: Yeah.

MF: The sooner they're behind me the better, given the monologue and everything. How are you, David?

DFW: Uh. Well.

MF: How are you dealing with all the fame, though? You're in everybody's literary list, these days.

DFW: I think the amount of people whose lists, you know, talk about literary stuff is small enough that I think it's sort of like being -- it's the amount of fame equivalent to being a small-market TV weatherman. [Audience laughter] But I think I'm bearing up surprisingly well.

MF: But the people who talk about you, write about you, too. So, I mean, you do get a lot of press and so forth. Do you get tired of being the representative of one generation or another?

DFW: Well, it's -- the nice thing about it, there's a silliness about the whole thing that keeps one from taking it seriously. I get called a Gen-X writer, but I was born in 1962, so demographically I'm a baby-boomer.

MF: You're a late-boomer.

DFW: Yeah.

MF: Yeah.

DFW: That's very witty of you. [Audience laughter]

MF: Yeah. Thank you. Uh, because I'm, well, I'm an early-boomer. I'm 49 --

DFW: There's medication for that, you know.

MF: There's what?

DFW: Nothing.

MF: I'm taking it -- Claritin. But it's not enough. It really doesn't go to the root.

DFW: It was a premature ejaculation pun.

MF: Oh, oh. I'm sorry I missed that.

DFW: No, that's fine. I was trying to get in on the witty repartee --

MF: Who told you about that? I was tired, though, you know. The whole boomer thing is ridiculous because -- I mean, why -- did they call Mark Twain representative of his generation, you know, when he wrote? Doesn't it seem like a modern preoccupation, like you've gotta represent your entire demographic if you do something?

DFW: Do you want a joke, or do you want the serious thing?

MF: Either one. Go ahead. Give me either one, I don't care.

DFW: [Laughs] My guess is -- it just seems -- I think things are so confusing now, and there's so much information, and we're so awash in the stuff, that we look for ways to pigeonhole and categorize stuff. Including ourselves. And I think it's one reason. The whole Gen-X thing, I think, you know -- "Infinite Jest" -- I got some caller on a radio show asking if I was the voice of a generation, and, you know, Generation-X is defined as not having a voice, you know --

MF: Right.

DFW: -- as having no unity. So, the whole thing is just very strange.

MF: Yeah, it is pretty strange. And I certainly don't represent anything except, you know, early middle-age onset. [Wallace laughs here] Actually, it's not early at this point, it's, you know, but demographically I guess --

DFW: Uh-huh.

MF: And, uh, "A Supposedly Fun Thing" -- now they sent you, for example, Harper's -- are most of these written for Harper's?

DFW: Yeah, most of them were written for Harper's. And then because of the Harper's pieces I got sweet little assignments from a couple other magazines, but, yeah --

MF: So like when they send you to the Illinois State Fair, are you supposed to come back with a witty, ironic thing that Eastern readers can relate to about Midwestern yokels?

DFW: [laughs] Well, that was kind of, that was the stance adopted in the piece, although I don't think that "yokels" is really -- I don't think it was particularly mean to the Midwest. Harper's is actually fiendishly clever. What they do is they give you really no instructions at all. They send you there and say do the best you can, and you end up being -- getting really anxious -- and I guess the anxiety translates into a certain amount of wit. Like, for instance, uh, "early boomer" --

MF: Yeah, a certain amount. [Audience laughter] A modest amount. Well, you know, it's like monkeys and typewriters. I don't mean your writing.

DFW: Uh-huh.

MF: But --

DFW: Well, the comparison's been made.

MF: No, I don't think so. It's just the footnotes. Now let me ask you something. You write a book that's 700-some pages -- why do you need footnotes at that point? Couldn't you cram all that in there without the footnotes?

DFW: Well, um, there are certain, there are certain reasons for -- they're actually endnotes, not footnotes, and uh --

MF: Oh, I'm sorry.

DFW: -- you know, other than throwing a lot of French literary terms at you and sounding really absurd and pretentious, I'll just go ahead and let you have made your shot. I think there's a fairly good reason for them. The problem is they get kind of addictive, and you can see in the book of essays -- the ones that were written before I started "Infinite Jest" don't have footnotes, and then the footnotes get kind of more and more extreme as the book goes on.

MF: Well, do you ever throw anything away?

DFW: I'm sorry?

MF: Do you ever throw anything away when you write, or do you just put it into a footnote?

DFW: You're being, you're being obliquely mean here I think --

MF: I'm not, I'm really not -- I'm just -- no, you're an excellent writer. I enjoy your writing. And actually your footnotes are interesting, too. But I'm wondering, you know, if it was a footnote, couldn't you have just crumpled that one and --

DFW: [Laughs] Um, all right. One of the advantages -- I personally now have declared a footnote ban, so I'm not using them anymore, but that's nothing against footnotes -- um, I just lost control of them. I think a footnote -- at least, for me -- I rarely, like, for instance --

MF: These are endnotes, actually, by the way, but that's a small point --

DFW: No, when this interview is done, the second voice in my head will take over, and I will begin thinking of all the stuff I should have said, and, you know, witty sallies that I should have --

MF: Me too. I do that, too --

DFW: I mean, most of my consciousness is sort of doubled, and one of the neat things about having a footnote is its a way to get kind of a double consciousness, or a sort of call-and-response on the page. The irritation quotient is fairly low, and so I think you've got to be fairly careful how much of that you make the readers slog through. Some people have suggested I sort of overshot the mark. Um, I think there are reasons for it other than just -- I do actually throw a surprising amount of stuff away -- there's reasons for it other than just to sort of record every thought that shoots across my consciousness.

MF: Yeah, you're not like the guy who keeps a diary of everything he does during the day, and it's like for the past forty years --

DFW: That diary is actually supposed to be kind of cool. Mine wouldn't be, I don't think, so --

MF: Yeah. Well, he records his stools and everything -- we had the guy on, actually -- [Wallace laughs] you know, the quality of them, and the quantity and so forth --

DFW: Actually, stools would constitute some of the more interesting parts of my day. [Audience laughter] It's just that not much of my day could be given over to the -- No, I mean, both of those books, you know, at least 20% was cut by me and the editor of both of those books, so I get irked when reviewers suggest that it's, like, padded or, you know, first draft and stuff like that.

MF: No, I don't think it is at all.

DFW: I wasn't suggesting you were one of the people.

MF: I know, but you accused me of being some kind of mean before, but I --

DFW: Now we'll lapse into this sort of politeness roulette.

MF: No, I love your work. I really do. And I know you love mine, too.

DFW: Yeah. [Audience laughter] Well, I've actually listened to your show, although I got very anxious because I know there's a quiz element and I thought I was going to be quized.

MF: No, you're not on the quiz.

DFW: I was reassured about that. Yeah.

MF: You know what I liked in the State Fair piece -- the thing about the baton twirlers was funny -- I mean, all the damage that gets done during one of those exhibitions.

DFW: None of that was made up.

MF: Yeah.

DFW: This is non-fiction.

MF: You had a guy that caught one in the groin, in the audience.

DFW: Oh, yeah. No, the really bad ones were when people in the top rows would take one and then fall over on people in the lower rows. [Audience laughter]

MF: And we've all seen this at the State Fair. But was that the highlight for you at the Fair, or was it when they dangled the guy from the crane -- that was kind of a nice scene, too.

DFW: The Sky Coaster was probably the highlight, although, you know, the "high" would be -- you'd have to. Um, probably the highlight for me was the thing called clogging, which I'd always thought was like a kind of Jed Clampett, you know, goony people in boots, real slow -- and it turns out it much more like this thing "Riverdance," which is now sort of ubiquitous on PBS --

MF: Yeah, it's driving me nuts --

DFW: -- very fast and very cool, and there's no kind of hideous Michael Flatley sort of ego person at the front of it, and uh --

MF: I think it needs that, though.

DFW: Is there clogging in Wisconsin?

MF: We have clogging in Wisconsin, don't we? Do we have audience cloggers? Where are your clogs? They were here earlier, but they're off now.

DFW: I see.

MF: They clicked their way out of the room. Some do wear wooden shoes, but I think it's pretty, uh --

DFW: Well, no, I mean it just turns out it's sort of like country tap-dancing on methamphetamine --

MF: Right.

DFW: -- and I thought it was very, very cool. That was probably the highlight for me.

MF: Yeah. I liked the part where they got this guy from the East and they put him up on a crane and dangled him from his feet and swung him.

DFW: This was this thing called the Sky Coaster, which as far as I could see was supposed to mimic, you know, kind of a near-death experience.

MF: I'm having that now.

DFW: I don't think they knew he was from the East Coast. He was wearing aviator glasses and Banfi loafers --

MF: Right.

DFW: -- which for me suggest that he was either, you know, from Wisconsin or from the East Coast. [Audience laughter and groans]

MF: Or from the East Coast of Wisconsin --

DFW: Exactly.

MF: -- the hip region there right along the lake. It's hip for a mile inland, it's the lake effect.

DFW: Sort of Greenwich Village with a lot of snow.

MF: Well, not exactly. But we do have pollen and allergies there, I'll tell you that. Yeah, it was cool -- it was like they picked this guy out of the crowd because he looked wrong and they dangled him from his feet above the crowd. I thought that was --

DFW: And swung him back and forth at a height of about a hundred feet.

MF: Yeah.

DFW: Yeah.

MF: And, you know, what's interesting -- kind of -- these Fairs and things -- you do have the two crowds. You have the husbandry crowd --

DFW: Yeah.

MF: -- the people who are there with the animals, for the animals, and so the animals shall not perish from the earth. And then you have the city folk out there for the Midway stuff.

DFW: Yeah.

MF: And they don't mix.

DFW: Well, and then you've got a whole third venue, which is the people who go to the Expo.

MF: Oh, yeah.

DFW: I don't know if the Wisconsin Fair has an Expo --

MF: You betcha.

DFW: -- but these are the people who, you know, have toilet paper with jokes on them, and, you know, T-shirts that, like -- "I go from zero to horny in 2.5 beers." [Audience laughter]

MF: Right.

DFW: And if any of the people are wearing that T-shirt in the audience I hasten to apologize, but it just -- [audience laughter and groans]

MF: This is a public radio audience.

DFW: The weird thing is the three different crowds seem to have very little to do with each other.

MF: Yeah.

DFW: I mean, you never saw the Midway people at the agriculture stuff, and you never saw the Expo people on the Midway. It was interesting.

MF: Every bad bumper-sticker comes from those things.

DFW: Yeah. It was fascinating because I'd wondered, you know, where this stuff comes from, you know. Um, and it comes from State Fair Expos.

MF: Yeah. But, you know, there are those kids who come there with their -- you know, I always wondered about the farm kids, like 4H kids who come there with their little heifer, you know, and they sleep with that -- I mean those kids like sleep with it. I don't mean sleep with it, I mean they nest there with it, they sleep there with it in the barn, and see that nothing happens to it --

DFW: Yeah.

MF: -- and they brush it, you know. And the thing's immaculate for a heifer. It's a clean heifer.

DFW: Now, here was the horrible thing -- because it's really kind of sweet, I mean, these kids -- they do sleep with their animals, and they sleep with their animals because they have to get up at like 4, you know, to start the training. The horrible thing was these sweet little freckled-faced gap-toothed kids trying terribly hard to win ribbons, and on the judges' rostrum are sitting three guys in string-ties and it turns out they are from meat companies [Feldman and audience laugh] -- which, you know, buy the winners. And it wasn't at all clear from the kids' faces that they knew, you know, what was going on, you know -- "Congratulations! You get a thousand dollars," and, you know, Daisy's gonna be chopped up for hamburger.

MF: Yeah. "There's a man here from Armour Star wants to talk with you and give you a little ribbon."

DFW: Yeah. That was what lent kind of the tragic air to the whole thing.

MF: Yeah. Then there's the carnies. I mean, there's a book -- has someone done the book on carnies yet? I suppose someone has.

DFW: Harry Crews has a thing in a book called "Biography of a Place," about sort of his relationship with carnies. But I don't think so. I just thought they were scary.

MF: And they're the same guys who -- they come up here to Wisconsin, I don't know, before or after Illinois --

DFW: Yeah. Wisconsin is right after Illinois. So they're pretty well hungover, I betcha, by the time they get up to you. [Audience laughs]

MF: They're in some continuous state.

DFW: Yeah.

MF: I can't figure out what it is. I never really talked to one of the guys. Did you get to know any carnies while doing this piece?

DFW: I actually for a couple of days went with a old girlfriend -- who turned out to be really pretty -- and she was able to talk to the carnies. The problem was that they were not terribly interested in me, brandishing my press credentials at them and asking them, you know, deep questions and stuff.

MF: That's good. And I guess the one thing you couldn't do was the chicken house, the chicken barn --

DFW: I have chicken issues.

MF: Yeah. Chicken issues. You were pecked?

DFW: I was pecked.

MF: All right.

DFW: I was pecked. I really don't even think I can talk about it without a support person here.

MF: Yeah. And we don't really have one at the moment.

DFW: This I can tell.

MF: Jim's the closest we've got, and he hasn't been a lot of help to me.

DFW: Chickens are scary. It's actually now -- I live near a slaughter house and, uh, my second date with my current girlfriend we went to watch a cow get slaughtered.

MF: Uh-huh.

DFW: Don't ask. I can't eat red meat anymore. I can, however, briefly eat chicken.

MF: Yeah. And are you going out with her?

DFW: Uh, yeah, we're actually still together. The quality of the dates, I think, has increased. She sort of pointed out to me that this was probably not a good early date.

MF: Yeah. Her suggestion or yours?

DFW: Her suggestion. I got sick, and she's like, "Let's go get some breakfast." So I ended up not eating the meal.

MF: Interesting girl, I must say. Or young woman. Excuse me. Uh, now this other thing here, basically, though, I like your take sort of on this, what we call the irony, this rampant irony that's sweeping over the country. How's that for metaphors? I could write books like this, huh? And I'd footnote that, explaining what I tried to say right there, and give you examples.

DFW: You're going to ask me a deeply ironic question about irony?

MF: Yeah, forget it. Let's skip the whole thing. Now this chicken house... And then they sent you on a cruise, too, the same people. And the object there was to see how much you could be pampered?

DFW: The object there was, you know, once again they give no instructions --

MF: Yeah.

DFW: -- which I think they figured out works well for me because I get so terrified that I'm not going to do a good piece that I end up paying really close attention to everything. Uh, the object there, I think, was sort of talk about what a cruise was like. And I guess because the cruise is sort of the ultimate fantasy vacation, to talk a little bit about Americans' relationship to pleasure. It sounds incredibly lame, you know, talking about it this way, but --

MF: Okay, we can talk about something else.

DFW: No, no, no. I'm talking about my description, not your question.

MF: Oh, thank you. But it is, you know -- I live in dread of taking a cruise, you know. I mean, there's a certain point in your life where you feel, you know, it's appropriate that you take a cruise. But you eat twelve times a day and you're on the ocean and you know what it does to your system.

DFW: Yes.

MF: I mean, you know, probably the third day out you're going to have a movement, possibly.

DFW: It's, uh -- there's all sorts of problems. The biggest problem is -- I don't know if you're like me -- I have a really hard time having fun anytime that somebody, like, gets in my face, grabs me by the labels and screams, "We're having fun now!" You know? The cruise ship has all sort of these Julie McCoy figures whose entire job it is to walk around with high-watt smiles, sort of exhorting you about how much fun you're having.

MF: Right. And then they never come back.

DFW: And I just can't -- I stick my lower lip out then and decide I'm going to show them that I'm not going to have fun.

MF: Well, what fun is there that you gotta dance -- there's like ballroom dancing, isn't there? You got Arthur Murray-style ballroom dancing, -- is that the thing? --

DFW: There was pretty much every kind of fun venue -- legal, you know, and moral fun venue -- available. Some of it was a bit cheesy, you know, the Electric [unintelligible] -- the kind of cheesy, Borscht Belt stand-up comedy. Um, but a lot of it was fairly fun. I mean, there was fun Ping-Pong, there was fun shuffle board. Um, there were impromptu sort of art sales. There was [laughs] an entire art sale that consisted of an auction of Leroy Neiman prints. Not original Leroy Neiman -- Leroy Neiman prints. And the bidding was spirited --

MF: Sofa art. And you don't have your sofa there, so you don't know how long the painting is supposed to be.

DFW: Exactly.

MF: Yeah. The other thing I wanted to -- you know, I have met David Lynch.

DFW: Have you?

MF: At a party.

DFW: Uh-huh.

MF: You know, he has a house here in Madison. No one knows where it is.

DFW: Really?

MF: Yeah. For some reason. We don't know why. But he has a house -- I don't think he's ever in it. But I met him at a party, and I was so awe-struck I couldn't say a word. It was one of my major great moments, because he said something about English -- about chimneys in England or something --

DFW: Uh-huh.

MF: -- which was my lead in, and I was ready to say something, and then I thought he'd say, "Oh, so you've been to England?" And then I'd be stuck, you know -- one of those situations. So I said nothing, but it -- is Lynch a hero of yours?

DFW: Uh, he's a hero in kind of a weird way. I don't like all of his films, but the ones that I like I like a whole whole lot. The neat thing about the Lynch piece -- I mean, I never had to talk to him. I sort of orbited him, you know, and watched him from like ten feet away, but -- I wouldn't -- you know, I would have immediatey wet myself, I think, if he'd come by me --

MF: Yeah. I did that, too, but I left that out of the description --

DFW: Yeah.

MF: He said something about English people living in their fireplaces, or something. And I thought, well there's a Lynchian -- I could see that, you know --

DFW: Yeah.

MF: -- people coming out from the fireplace --

DFW: Yeah.

MF: -- like the radiator thing.

DFW: Yeah. He's a man who's pretty completely un-ironic. I mean, if he said that, I don't think he meant it as a joke.

MF: Yeah. Probably there are English people living in fireplaces.

DFW: He's a man for whom the adjective "keen" is sort of the highest praise he can give something. And so it's very weird, you know, to hear somebody speak that way and then to see, you know, homicidal dwarves, you know --

MF: Yeah.

DFW: -- eviscerating people on the screen and stuff. His house, by the way, in L.A. -- the house that's in, um, "Lost Highway," that's Bill Pullman's and Patricia Arquette's house, is two houses down from his house. It's weird. He got some neighbor to like move out and let him use his house.

MF: That's cool. And, uh, I haven't seen this latest movie, but you seem pretty enthusiastic about it.

DFW: I was enthusiastic about the rough cut. I'm afraid the movie itself is kind of a dink.

MF: Really?

DFW: Uh, I went and saw it a couple weeks ago.

MF: Yeah.

DFW: So I look a bit stupid in the essay.

MF: So the paperback will have a few more footnotes in it.

DFW: Yeah. Very kind of you.

MF: Yeah. Well, just the use of Richard Pryor, though, you talk about. The problem I have with David Lynch is -- if he's not ironic -- I mean, the things he portrays, what is the take on it -- the severed ear, the [garbled] with the fly on it -- that was cool the first time you see it.

DFW: Yeah.

MF: But then you see, like in "Wild at Heart" or something -- you say where are the people of color in his movies -- there was a black man in that movie got his head bashed in very graphically --

DFW: Yeah.

MF: You think: why is this happening and when's it going to stop? And then there was a dog carrying someone's head around or something --

DFW: I believe it was an arm. Yeah, somebody gets their arm shot off with a shotgun. Yeah. "Wild at Heart," I think, is probably his worst movie.

MF: Yeah. So what are we supposed to think about all that? I mean, if we're just -- he's looking at things as objects, right, basically?

DFW: I think in certain ways. Like in "Lost Highway" Richard Pryor's got a cameo part and it's really disturbing because of course he's not the Richard Pryor we remember, he's Richard Pryor, you know, with m.s., and he's in a wheelchair and he looks like he weighs about 8 pounds. And the movie itself is sort of about, you know, identity -- two people are actually -- you know one person really changes into another. So, kind of theoretically it's interesting to have Richard Pryor, you know -- he both is and isn't the Richard Pryor we remember. But the big thing about it is it just seems like it's mean, you know. I'll bet Richard Pryor didn't know that he was on there to be some kind of weird image-to-object for theoretical scrutiny. I mean, I'll bet he thought he was being hired to act, and so Lynch -- there's a coldness and a meanness about Lynch that I don't like and that also kind of fascinates me. You know, we like to watch sadism from a distance.

MF: Yeah. Plus, he's so good at it.

DFW: Yeah.

MF: There are things going on -- you don't know why they affect you the way they do in his movies, but they do.

DFW: Yeah.

MF: There's some weird element there.

DFW: They're a lot like dreams, and they make us vulnerable sort of the way dreams do.

MF: How's your tennis game, still good?

DFW: My tennis game is not all that strong. I got hurt in my late-twenties and I'm not as mobile as I'd like to be. But I still play just for fun.

MF: Yeah. I actually loved your description of your tennis days, your Midwestern tennis days where you play the wind and you play the cracks in the court, right?

DFW: Yeah. Yeah. If you learn how to play in rural Illinois you play it as it lies.

MF: Yeah. And wind is a big factor.

DFW: Big one.

MF: David, I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us.

DFW: Thank for taking time --

MF: I hope it hasn't been too painful.

DFW: No, it was fun.

MF: The book is called "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" by David Foster Wallace. Thanks, David.

DFW: Okay.