David Lipsky is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Crafted out of transcripts of a five day-long conversation between Lipsky and Wallace on the tail end of the publicity tour for Wallace’s breakthrough novel Infinite Jest, the book reveals facets of the beloved author that have never before been seen publicly. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes]
I want to tell you one thing I imagine about the creation of this book. Tell me if it's right or wrong. As the listener probably knows by now, this book is made out of transcripts of tapes you recorded while you were on the road with David Foster Wallace for five days during his publicity tour for his big novel in '96 Infinite Jest.
Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
It sounds like it. You didn't end up writing the article that these notes were for, a Rolling Stone profile. That got canceled. So you had these laying around, I presume, stored somewhere. I would imagine, after David Foster Wallace's untimely death in 2008, your mind went immediately to these materials, all this conversation you had with Wallace. I imagine a huge, crushing sense of responsibility. You're thinking, “I've got to do something with themes, but what?” Is that accurate at all?
Well, no — it's interesting, but when I first heard that he had died, like a lot of people, I didn't think it was true. I got an e-mail from a friend, and I assumed it was a prank. Spending time with David, what you have a sense of is just how mentally healthy he was. If you had asked me in the summer of 2008 to name the most healthy, mentally, American writer, I would have without any hesitation, said David Wallace. He just seemed like he'd gone through something when he was younger, but he seemed healed. He seemed like someone who had a wise, funny, sharp way of looking at life, which would tend to make you live longer, not less long. I was shocked. My first response was just tremendous surprise.
You saw this health in him. Is that just from your experience with him in '96, traveling for a few days, getting the first-person encounter, or was that from his work as well?
It was from both. I only knew him for those five days, and in the five days what you read us talking about is just how he'd gone a very hard time when he was in his late twenties, and had found a way to experience the world after that. That was what I had been reading in his work, and what I'd then read in his work afterwards. The person who writes a story like “Good Old Neon”, the person who writes nonfiction like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again” or “Consider the Lobster”, is not somebody who hasn't had hardships or wouldn't know how to go through it. Somebody who has, in the full way of a life, tested themselves against hardship and come out with a kind of warm comic knowledge. That was one of the things you love about his work. That's one of the things readers always feel: he has seen all the crap stuff, all the hard stuff they've seen, but he's also still incredibly aware, incredibly alive and incredibly funny.
The story you mention, “Good Old Neon” — it's gotten a lot of re-reading in the wake of Wallace's death simply because of the character it describes. There's this character that goes toward an end by his own hand in the story, and it even holds up a character called David Wallace who has avoided that. You think of other stories like “The Depressed Person”, an illustration of this phenomenon of depression that it's now revealed he suffered from himself.
There seems to be so much there than indicates David Wallace understands all these problems and has somehow transcended them. I think of that as a big paradox of his life and how he wound up. Is that the same way you think about it? There's all this understanding, but he ultimately did succumb to the same thing it seemed he had a grasp on.
I did, and when I read “Good Old Neon” when it came out in book form in 2005 — I'm not a crying reader, but that's one of the only short stories I read and cried at the end of, because of this beautiful line when the narrator becomes David and says, “David Wallace emerging from years of literally indescribable war with himself, won with considerably more intellectual firepower than he had in high school in 1982. I felt that.
That's one of the nice things of spending time with someone: I knew what he was talking about. I felt this great sense of power and health in that line. As a reader, I felt that thing of what a life is, which is that someone who is awake and aware — the kinds of people who like to read, the kinds of people who turn to books to find a little bit more about their lives — they've all gone through that kind of internal, internecine conflict. To see him saying that — I hadn't seen him, then, for almost ten years — I felt very warm for him.
These transcripts of your five-day conversation with David Wallace that you've made this book of — after the profile in Rolling Stone you were going to write was canceled, did you ever have a suspicion you would do anything with these?
I did, and every couple years I would read them again. When you love a writer, you want their opinions of the world. I'm going to apologize to your listenership for quoting from early 20th-century French writers, but there's a great quote from Proust: the narrator says, when you really love a writer, what you want is an opinion from them on everything in the world. One of the great things about spending that time with David was that I'd gotten that. I would think about things he had said. He had said some great things about how to write, and he had said a lot of dark-night doubt stuff, which is very helpful to me as a reader, and as someone who also writes.
There's that lovely thing where he says what you should do as a writer, that writers aren't smarter than other people, but what they might be is more compelling in their confusion. Then he says what a writer really does is wake the reader up to stuff the reader has seen all along. When you were with him, you could see just how charming and incredibly smart he was, but the way he saw himself was, “Look, I'm not the smartest writer going, but I work really, really hard. I may not be that smart in a room in person, but if you give me 24 hours alone, then I can be really, really smart.” So I would often think, if I had a deadline with 24 hours to go, I would think, “Okay, your favorite writer says, in 24 hours, you can be really, really smart. You're not him, but maybe you can rise to the occasion the way he would.”
I would think about those things, I would read that time together, and after David died, some people called who knew I'd spent that time with him and asked me to talk about him. I didn't really want to at first, and then I had this terrible fear that people would begin to see David not as this incredibly funny, brilliant, bright writer who had changed the way prose works. Every good writer who now writes, part of what they're doing takes into account the way David improved and streamlined prose, right? I was afraid people would forget that David and just talk about the David who had died, and begin looking through his work to see hints, kind of a clue search.
I didn't want the David who did the work, the David who was incredibly fun to be with, to be lost. As I began to report the story you were talking about earlier, Rolling Stone story, when it became clear that what he had died from was not anything personal but kind of a medical situation, it became more and more clear that a way I could help people keep in mind what he was really like, what he actually had been like as a writer, was by saying, “Look, here's how it feels to spend time with him. Here's what he was like on an hour-by-hour basis.”
Since you had these transcripts and would re-read them periodically, and they were so much your own thing to go back to, your own piece of Wallace to re-examine periodically, was there a feeling that you were taking something that was very much your own private thing and bringing it into the world? How much did you think about what kind of a challenge it would be to convert this from a thing just for you to something you could make for David Foster Wallace's fans?
I'm smiling because there's a great moment earlier in the book. Do you remember, David and I are at that pizza place? It's about page ten or fifteen; it's one of the first things he says. He says, “You're going to be managing the impression of me, and that's extremely disturbing, because I want to shape and manage the impression of me that's coming across.” When I was reading through the time we had together, I though the best thing was not to say my assumptions about him and not to say, “Here's how he probably felt when he was growing up,” but just to have him tell his own story.
In the book, we're on his book tour and we fly off to the last event he's doing for Infinite Jest. He's incredibly relieved to have the tour over, because he has very mixed feelings about publicity. But then on the way back, for some reason, he seems to have decided to tell me how he grew up, to tell me how if felt to write his books, to tell me hoe he decided to become a writer. That, to me, seemed incredibly valuable: just him telling his story as himself. As I was reading the transcripts, that seemed like an incredible thing to give readers.
What was your relationship like with his work before this road trip? Had you read all his books up to that point?
You can't avoid it. His first book came out my last year in college, and you're always looking out, saying, “Hey, who else is publishing?” It was this giant book that was incredibly smart. I'm laughing because he had very mixed feelings about that book. He says to me, Broom of the System — that's his first novel — “had a lot of fans, but unfortunately they're all about eleven.” His book of stories came out about two years later, which he was much harder on than we were. When that book came out, I was in New York trying to find ways to write and also not feel incredibly tense and nervous in supermarket lines.
That book came out, and everyone passed it around; it was one of those books were other writers and other really smart readers would say, “Look, you have to read this.” I'd say, “Oh man, another Wallace book, this is great.” There stories in there that were just incredibly sharp. There's a critic David really loves who we talk about in the book names Pauline Kael, the New Yorker's critic for a long time, really a brilliant writer. Wallace was making this march toward the capital city of readers.
About four years after that book came out, Pauline Kael was giving her last interview; she'd retired from the New Yorker. She just mentioned, kind of out of the blue, that her favorite two short stories by a young writer in the last couple of years has been two stores from that book: the story about Lyndon Johnson called “Lyndon”, and the story about a young actress going on the David Letterman show called “My Appearance”. At Rolling Stone there's a thing we do every year called the “Hot List”, where we say, “Here's what's coming that you have to pay attention to.” It became a bit of a joke in the meetings we had every year: me and some other people kept saying David Foster Wallace. After a couple years, those meetings would begin with people saying, “Look, don't say David Foster Wallace.” There was this great thing in late '95 when his cruise ship piece came out and literally everybody in the city who read seemed to be talking about it. We could turn to the magazine and say, “Look, he's great!”
We know that, before the cruise ship piece, before Infinite Jest, he had a definite following: a campus following and readers like yourself, writers around his age reading what people of their generation were being published, the Pauline Kaels of the world. But this moment you're with Wallace in the book — 96, Infinite Jest, he's just looming on the cultural scene. You mention the cruise ship piece coming out, and that being what got the sort of Hot List attention. How much of what was breaking him through to the wider world was Infinite Jest? How much of it was those pieces, like “Shipping Out”, as it was called again, or “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again”, as it's called now. What was breaking him through?
What a great sentence that is, right? If you're looking at how to construct, if you want to see what's great about David's writing, just that title is so great, the way that sentence works. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again”. So great.
It's very funny: I talked to one of the people at the time who were helping David to become known, one of the people kind of marketing him, and I asked the same question you asked. They said yeah, that had been on purpose, and those things don't normally work, but it's nice when they do. The cruise ship piece would cut the landing strip, which the great jumbo jet of Infinite Jest could descend to and land on. Everyone knew. Before that double punch came, everyone knew.
He'd published a very long piece of journalism in Harper's magazine, which is also where “Shipping Out” premiered, about his visit to the state fair, calleed “Ticket to the Fair”. When I read that in the summer of '94, as someone who'd been following him I could see he'd taken an incredible, incredible jump. When he turned in “Shipping Out” to Harper's, there's a great thing that his editor there, Colin Harrison, said: “As readers, we knew we had pure cocaine on our hands.”
I love that.
Isn't it great? It was that good. It was an amazing thing when that piece came out, because the readers and writers who are around David's age were just then coming into their late twenties to early to mid-thirties, as that sense of, “Who's going to sound like us? What are we as a group? How do our brains work?” There's a great phrase of David's: “brain voice.” “What's our brain voice?”
There's a very funny story, I think it's Joan Didion, who writes about, in the sixties, being at a party in Greenwhich Village. For listeners who aren't New York-centric, that's the artistic solar center of the city. She talks about hearing a “Sarah Lawrence type.” If you're a Sarah Lawrence type, that's like the exact middle of the sun in terms of New York artiness. But hearing a Sarah Lawrence student drop down, cross-legged, to the floor at a party and announce that the only person in the world who could understand her was J.D. Salinger. That's kind of how it felt watching people read “Shipping Out”, and then Infinite Jest. There was just this sense of — it's a flattering way to think about yourself — “This is the way my brain sounds privately, and here this writer's come out of nowhere and he's sounding the way we all think we sound.” It was incredibly, incredibly thrilling.
He was such a great writer that people I knew at Harper's at the time would brag about talking to him when he came through the city. They would say, “Yeah, I talked to Wallace in the hallway,” or “David Foster Wallace was here.” I'm laughing because there's a moment before I went to meet David: my girlfriend was visiting me in February of that year. I went out the the kitchen and came back into my bedroom, and on my computer was an e-mail from a person at Harper's she'd written to, describing what David was like: “He's a big, hulking guy with stringy hair. Looks like a rock star. Wears a bandanna. Is unmarried, I believe. What were your other questions?” That's what it was like.
The great thing about his work was, there are people all of us look to as very serious readers, and often they'll recommend things to me that are too serious. They'll want you to read a difficult, long book. Those people, of course, had been talking about David for a long time. They were talking about the cruise ship piece and Infinite Jest, but the great thing about both those books, and about the cruise ship piece when it came out, was, people who didn't normally read for fun — or people who read for a different kind of light fun — were talking about that piece everywhere. They were faxing it to each other. They were reading it out loud to you on the phone. It was an incredibly exciting time, and they it was just weird. It was one of those weird things to get as a reporter: Jann Wenner, the guy who owns our magazine, said, “Okay, Dave, go spend a week with him.
Indeed. I want to touch back on that line you mentioned from the editor, “pure cocaine on our hands.” I hear similar sentiments about the addictiveness of Wallace's writing. It's often said about, of course, the cruise ship essay, the fair essay, more recent ones, about the radio host — all the essays he's written, I hear people talk about how addictive they are, how like cocaine they are.
I can't help but notice I hear that said a lot less about his fiction. I maybe don't hear it at all. I hear a lot of admiration for his fiction, I hear, “Oh, you've got to read Infinite Jest.” I neve hear, “Infinite Jest was so addictive that I couldn't put it down. It strikes me that that's so tied in with his image during the time of your book — this is the publicity tour — this is this huge thing he's tied with that's so in the zeitgeist. David Shields was on this program recently. We were talking about your book. He was saying to me, “Colin, you'll notice you read David Lipsky's book and they talk a lot about the essays. They're not talking that much about Infinite Jest. He thinks that means something. Do you think that means something?
Yeah, you know, I thought David's book was great, and he is an extremely smart man, but I'm going to question his word count, actually. We spend much more — I think we only talk about his nonfiction a little bit. He says a great thing about nonfiction: “The nonfiction is, 'Welcome to my mind for 20 pages. Here's all the French curls and crazy circles.'” He said that stuff's really interesting, narratively, because it's a way of making our thoughts interesting, and most of our thoughts aren't that interesting. They're mostly just confused. Really, that kind of writing is how to be sincere with a motive, which I thought was kind of brilliant.
But we only talk about his nonfiction a little. He's very irritated; he's about to put out A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never do Again, he's been working on putting those essays into book form, and he says he's done too much nonfiction for the past year and been jacklighted by these projects. To me, it's a nice irony that what a lot of readers who find their way to Wallace, what they first love are these pieces at the time he was kind of irritated about having to put together. I was thrilled to be talking to him about how he put this gigantic book together.
He was really funny about it. He talked about being very nervous about the length and sending one of the first written-on-a-computer drafts of Infinite Jest to his editor in New York, trying to do a very clever thing of printing it in nine-point type — so great — and then being very nervous the three days it took to print, seeing just how long the thing was going to be.
I'm not saying that I don't think there was any talk about Infinite Jest, because of course there's so much I love from him talking about writing it, like the final stretch where he puts on the headphones with nothing coming through them.
So great, yeah.
He walls himself in and doesn't have any money, just him and they keyboard…
I love that, too.
I enjoyed all that, but I think it's significant that David Shields remembers only talk about subjects he associated with Wallace's nonficton. I don't know this to be a fact, but I do imagine — tell me how off- or on-base it is — that most of the public appreciation for his work goes toward the nonfiction, and it sounds like he was less into the nonfiction than he ever was into the fiction, by far. Do you think that was the case?
I remember reading a quote in a piece that Dan Max wrote about David in the New Yorker, this really strong long piece that came out in the spring of 2009. David was writing to his fellow writer Don DeLillo, who's a great novelist David really, really admired. He's saying he doesn't understand why it's so much easier, in a certain way, to write nonfiction than fiction. But the way I think about it, the essays are really fun, and just for sheer fun value, there's nothing more fun. In Harper's, the piece was cut by about half.
For listeners who want to start on David Wallace, harpers.org has an in memoriam page. They did this great thing after David died, which was trying to remind readers of what Wallace as a writer was like. They have a page where you can download, for free,everything he published in the magazine. It's all great stuff. You can download “Shipping Out” if you haven't read it, and it really is just the most fun 40, 50 pages of prose published in the last fifteen years. It's incredibly fun.
One reason people love his nonfiction its that, when you read it and when people talk about it, the cocaine thing is nice: reading it changes you after you've put the stuff down. It changes the way you're thinking about the world. It makes you smarter, which is one of the great things books do. One of the nice things about David as a person, what made him different than other writers, is he has a sports background. He talks about this in the book: he grew wanting to play football, then the kids were hitting a lot harder and he wasn't as big when he was about twelve, so he found tennis and became a serious junior tennis player, then began writing when he was 21. He went into the writing world with all the experiences of someone who'd grown up in the midwest, always around sports.
People talk about him sometimes, I think incorrectly, as being a tough writer to read, that the sentences might be long and stuff. In fact, what makes him so charming and fun and different for readers than more eyeglass-wearing writers — I speak as someone wearing eyeglasses myself right now, so I'm betraying my tribe — is that his background isn't only literary. To look as books not just as sentences but for use value, one of the great things — if there's a situation where you want to feel a lot smarter all at once, just pick up one of those essays. You feel suddenly much more alive — just what he said fiction does, where it wakes the reader up to things they'd noticed all the time. You'll feel much more mentally alive and awake.
The fiction does that and other things, too. One way I came to think about this — and maybe it's wrong — is that the journalism seemed like a public act. It seemed like somethings that was the way you would talk about yourself at a party, the way you would speak socially. The fiction is more private. It's like when you get to know somebody as a friend, right? There's this great, glossy social self you'll meet in your office or you'll meet in the classroom or you'll meet walking around with your other friends, and that person seems incredibly sharp and funny and is great to be around. Then as the friendship deepens, you'll see what their life is actually like. That, to me, seems to be the difference between David's nonfiction and his fiction.
If you step back, or if I step back and think about certain things that Wallace published — I think about him being known for a very large novel with a lot of footnotes with so much information, so much detail, and being known for a number of essays as well, being known for these deep critiques of society and the way we relate to information and entertainment and one another. I think of comparable writers. Who did these sorts of things before him? I'll think of writers like William Gaddis, for example. I don't think of them as particularly accessible. Yet Wallace, I can't make the argument that he's inaccessible. What do you think the difference is?
What he always said is, reading is this weird thing he did on the side. The way he began writing was, his college roommate, another great writer named Mark Costello, wrote a senior thesis that was a novel. David said he hadn't known you could do that. I grew up a big comic book reader — let me apologize to readers who don't know what's great about comic books — and he's kind of talking about what, in a comic, would be his origin story. He said one way he realized how good a writer he could be was that, in his dorm when he was, say, a junior in college, he began writing papers for other people, as a favor if they were in a bind. What he would do is look at other papers they's written, as a way to — I'm just quoting him now — “get their verbal music.” It's a great phrase.
He said, “I realized I'm a weird kind of forger. I can kind of sound like anybody.” He'd also come at that by, he and Mark had resuscitated a humor magazine at Amherst College. When he moved into writing his novel after he saw Mark could do one as a senior thesis, I think what was in his mind was just being fun. I'm not sure that's always in writers who are though of as difficult — it doesn't feel to me that that's paramount in their minds, but it seems to have been something that David was aware of, and that his readers reward by loving his work in a way they don't really always love other writers.
“Being fun” in a sense that he is making something he knows other people will find fun?
What he said was that, when something works for him, it becomes alive for him. My sense is that, for him, part of what makes something alive is that it has these brilliantly fast connections, and it sorts and — the verb he would use — decocts knowledge. Part of the experience he wanted to get across to readers, and I think, again, why he made this incredible connection with readers, is that when he read other kinds of fiction — we were arguing about writers like John Updike, who made life seem more clear than it felt to Dave — he would say, “I read those things as a relief from what's true.”
He said that, for him, what life was like, what a day was, was about a half million pieces of discrete information coming at him all at once and he had to sort through and find the 25 that were actually important. That's, of course, one of the things that makes the cruise ship piece so fun, and what makes Infinite Jest so fun: the experience that we now have as people, which is going through a world where there is so much information thrown at us all at once, and trying to keep our funny, smart selfhood separate from that, and also trying to figure out what from that tsunami of information that we have to absorb into ourself.
How much of this way that Wallace described life, in terms of pulling out the 25 pieces of information you need from the tsunami, was modern life, with all the sort of clichés that brings along with it —
Wouldn't you agree that bringing up modern life, the way I'm saying it, saying “modern life is complicated,” I'm saying a cliché?
He had this great thing, which I think about literally every day a couple of times, he just said that what modern life is about now is being on one end or the other of electronic data transfer, which is so brilliant. That's how it feels when I'm working. That's how it feels when I'm answering e-mail or sending e-mail or going on Twitter or going on Facebook. I think, “God, he nailed it, and he nailed it in 1996.” But you were saying, the stuff about incorporating modern life?
I'm saying he put that in a better, more accurate way. You can say, “Modern life is tough. Oh, these modern problems. Technology…” It's easy to make that sound clichéd. He put that in a clearer way. But how much of that was the life itself, how life has become for everybody, and how much of it was simply the condition of Wallace's mind, that even in the early 20th century, or the 19th century, he would've had this same deal? He noticed so much, that he would've felt information-bombarded no matter what?
I'm smiling because that's one of the things we argue about. Later in the book, when we've been talking for five days and we're both really tired, he says, “Look, it was probably always that way. It's heightened for us because we have better distribution systems for information.” There's part of me that wants to say yes, it was always like that. We had that sense that we're the only people who can't make an easy distinction between what we've seen in movies and TV and what's happening in front of us on the page.
I remember I was reading some old Hemingway journalism, which I hope makes up for the Proust thing earlier, and Hemingway was on one of the beaches at Normandy, and he was talking to a colonel. The colonel said, “Ernie, there were times when I didn't know if it was real or if I'd stepped into a B movie and wondering, 'Hey, this is where we came in.'” There's part of you that wants to say this is always what it's been like to be a person, but I do think that's very heightened. And I don't think it was necessarily just David. That's one of the funny things, one of the weird things, about only getting to have one go-through of being alive: you tend to think that everything you feel is a reflection of how you grew up, mistakes your parents made or good things your parents did, where you went to school. You think those things are why you see the world, and it often turns out — or you'd find out if you got to live a second or third time — that, oh, that's just what it is to be alive.
That's part of what's great about David's work, and why it connects with people: the way he experiences life now, the modern life we're talking about, is kind of the way it feels to everyone. It's one of the things he wanted writing to do. He said that writing is the only way. This was before the web was the great attention competitor it's become now for writing. He was saying, “How do you keep writing alive and attractive to people at a time when movies and TV were making such noisier appeals, grabbing people on the shoulder and saying, “Watch this, see this”? He said writing was the only way you could jump over that wall of self and make people feel a little less lonely because you realize, “Ah, another consciousness like mine exists in the world.”
How much, do you think, of Wallace's appeal was that he thought about, he perceived, he noticed things in the world differently, or was he just better — I mean, exquisite — at writing all this down, at thinking the same things as other people but transferring them into words much better than anybody else could?
God, that's a great question. I think there's two things a writer has to do. First is — God, more quotes. David keeps making fun of me in the book for using lit quotes, so, another apology. Henry James was talking to people who wanted to be writers in the 1890s, 1880s, and he says, “You have to become one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” There's this great quote about Gertrude Stein meeting Hemingway, and she says, “I just met the most interested young man.”
What a writer has to develop first is an ability to notice these things, to be awake and register everything that's going on around you, which can be painful. Obviously, right? The second thing you have to develop is a way to express it that people can follow, that's fun for people and that they can read and say, “Yep, that's how it feels inside me too.” You have to both develop the reception factory and then develop a highway to get the information out to other people. Writers can often have one or the other, but he seemed to, as you said, have exquisite talent at both.
There is a pretty incisive point he touches on a few times in the book. It's a theme he's brought up elsewhere as well. He's talked to Jonathan Franzen about it, the idea of the reader-writer contract, and how much is it communication to the reader you're doing, and how much is avoiding trying to make yourself look smart? He has a lot of points about how he had to transition away from his message being “Look how smart I am.”
I want to get your own opinion, as a writer, on this as well. There's so much that Wallace always said about this relationship one has to the reader. Did this loom as large as for you as it did for him, how a writer relates to the reader, what sort of messages are being sent to the reader, avoiding simply trying to impress the reader, this whole suite of things Wallace seems to have thought so much about. Did these questions affect you as well, since you're also a writer?
For me as writer — life is confusing, right? That's something David and I are talking about. The thing we're debating in the book, afterwards he looks at me and says, “I'm not sure you're a very nice man or not,” because I'm disagreeing about how difficult it is to move through the world with a sense of a narrative unfolding for you. To me, life is grindingly chronological, grindingly narrative. There tend at any moment to be one or two things you really want — a piece you want to get finished, a book you want to do, a person you want to meet, and there's a lot of other stuff — the middle of a book that you have to trudge through to get to that point.
But there is that incredible, blistering sense of stuff coming at you, and then confusing responses. Often, my responses to people surprise me, or they disappoint me, more often than I'd like to say. One of the great things I find in the writing I love — I love Updike, who David and I disagree about a lot, I love Tolstoy and Nabokov and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Flaubert — those people make life clearer for me. When you read them, they have extracted the shining line about how it feels to be with other people, why one is saying the things one is saying. They found that, and they found a beautiful way to express it inside all the mess of what happens in a day.
It doesn't make those writers seem smart; it makes those writers seem aware and a live, and that's the kind of writing I've always loved to read, and that's the kind of writing I've always loved and hoped to do. It's one of the reasons why all the writers now will say — look, there's not a good writer you can find who wouldn't say that the best writer of the last 20, 30 years has been David. The reason why is that he does that better than anybody. Why the cruise ship piece, for listeners who haven't read it yet, is a great place to start is, it so extracts from the glop of the world. He's so funny about the glop of the world, but it extracts from that glop that shining note which is me being a person going through the world.
I want to make sure I have this absolutely clear: you had these disagreements with Wallace, but you also hold him as an example of doing the things he disagreed about the necessity of doing?
The disagreement you're talking about is our first dinner in the book, and then there's all the pleasures of being on the road and being on an airplane on which he's incredibly funny, being in hotels, being at a reading, being with his dogs, being at his house. He came to writing, he'd also been a philosophy major, something a lot of people kind of know about. He'd been a philosophy major at Amherst, and a promising one, so promising that people were saying to him when he decided to go do writing graduate school, “Look, you're crazy. Your thesis was so good that you could publish it. You could have a career as a philosopher. Why are you not following this up?”
I think he took that kind of philosophical rigor to his fiction. He said he thought his first fiction was too cerebral, and he was nervous about entertainment value. He was nervous about, in a culture where entertainment is dragging you away from focusing on what's serious — you mentioned Jon Franzen. I just read his new novel, which is terrific, and that's one of the things he's talking about. This is a book called Freedom, which is coming out, I think, in early September. One of the things he's talking about is the way American life — and, I think, Western life in general — distracts us from thinking about anything serious and acting on anything serious.
In the beginning, David mistrusted how entertaining writing can be and how entertaining his writing could be. I think there's still a little bit of that mistrust. Part of him also wanted to write things that were harder to read, that were as up to date as fictional documents, as prose documents, as good philosophy would have to stand a sort of test as being totally up to date and modern, taking into account all the philosophizing that had come before it. I think that was on his mind, even though, again, he writes prose that is simply more entertaining than anyone else's.
And I want to get an idea as well of being a writer like Wallace, being quite close in age to him, being published around the same time as him — did that deepen the sort of conversations you were able to have with him, or did that make it more fraught with issues of, “Oh, we're in the same 'industry'”? Does that make it more complicated, or more interesting?
There's two things. As a writer, you think, “He did it.” There are drawbacks to that. As a writer, A, you're always trying to get that sound, get that brain voice. When David did it, you had to say, “Okay, he did it.” But then, B, you're like, “Okay, he's found a way to do it, he's shown a way to do it.” C, as a reader, you're like, “This is thrilling. There's this person who's going to be writing great stuff forever,” so there's that immense gratitude. I think B and C tend to outweigh the very selfish initial A.
I got a chance to talk to Jon Franzen about David's work after David died. I asked him if he had shown The Corrections — that's the novel that won the National Book Award in '01 — to David, and he said this great thing. He said David said exactly what you want form a friend who is also a reader and also a writer. He said, “As a writer, I'm envious. You bastard, you pulled it off. But as a friend and as a reader, I'm just immensely happy that this book exists.” That's how I think any good, honest writer feels about another writer who's done something great.
I want to talk a little bit as well about the hype Infinite Jest received. This is in the same league as the hype a book like The Corrections received. Wallace, in your book, comes across in your book as being not afraid, necessarily, but questioning, that the hype is, to an extent, about itself. What do you remember as being the nature of his concerns there?
He just said, “The phenomenon you're here to report on partially consists of your coming here and reporting on me.” He thought it was feeding on itself, and he said a lot of the reporters that he would meet on the tour were smart people, nice people, and they would say, “Look, it's a really long book and I haven't gotten through it yet, but what do you think about the hype?”
I think it's funny, because there's a thing called Infinite Summer, people making a march through Infinite Jest last summer, which took about two months. David said the novel takes two months to read well. He had no idea people would do a group online read of the book, but that was exactly the time he thought should be allotted to reading it. I think he said he thought people might buy the book and wouldn't read it, and that, for him, was pretty cold comfort. Of course, you write to be read. He thought people might buy the book for its entertainment value, and then, after reading 150 pages, say. “Eww, this isn't what I thought it would be at all,” which was not, of course, what he wanted for the book.
That idea of someone putting it down after 150 pages, saying —
Yeah, they're making a mistake, because there aren't a lot of books you can say this about, but the book gets better every page.
And I wonder, if someone says, “This isn't what I expected” — surely you've encountered people who have said that. What do you think people expect, if not exactly what Infinite Jest provides?
Do you want to talk about that book specifically?
Sure, because if someone's going to put down a David Foster Wallace book, let's be honest — they're going to put down that one.
First off, it's heavy. He said that one of his friends, getting a copy of the book thrown on his porch by a postman, said it sounded like a car bomb going off. It's heavy. It's very funny, because people I talk to always take that point about 150 pages through, and I think David, in writing that book — because he said there were certain things about entertainment that were kind of sinister, in that it's a very easy pleasure — he said that he was really trying to avoid things that were as fun as TV. He said the meta-lesson about TV is that you're dumb, and that you want things to be simple and easy and that this is all you're capable of, and that we need to have writing remind us that there are parts of us that are a lot more ambitious than that.
There are times, also, when you just want to pick up an airport book, when an airport book's incredibly fun. One of the great things people who took classes with David at Illinois State and Pomona know is that, on his course reading, he would assign Tolstoy and he would also assign Stephen King's Carrie, or he would assign Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs, of which, by the way, Martin Amis is a huge fan too. He knew what was great about stuff that's really fun, and he also knew stuff that was sinister — his word — which is that it kind of makes you try less hard. What he wanted to do, particularly in the opening of Infinite Jest, is set up a thing where you're cutting around to a lot of different characters and it's not clear to the reader. He wanted to give the reader that sense. That's part of what he said the endnotes were supposed to be like, too. He wanted to give the reader the sense of how information is coming at you all at once.
Infinite Jest is also a book that is really fun to read the first time through, and then incredibly fun to read the second and third time through, the fourth time through, because you know how all the characters are going to link up. But in the first 150 pages or so, there are so many different situations and characters that I think it can be a bit of a difficult thing for a reader. For readers who haven't started the book, if you just get through to page 151, there isn't a more fun or complete novel that's come out in the last 30 years. Just an incredible book, and a book that makes you feel well and also alive. It makes you feel more awake. There's a very famous — we're back to his journalism — piece of journalism he wrote that won the National Magazine Award in, I think, 2001. It was a piece about John McCain that was in Rolling Stone. The last line is so great: he says, “Try to stay awake.” Infinite Jest is one of those books where you close it and you have that great feeling of being more awake.
We mentioned the meta-lesson of TV being, as he said, “You're dumb.” The meta-lesson of Infinite Jest could be “You're smart,” but really, that wouldn't have been what he wanted. More the sense of, “You're able to be this aware, so you should.” Is that more the meta-lesson from Infinite Jest?
He talks about it in the book. He thought of that book, which is also incredibly funny, as being sad, because it's about people needing to commit themselves, having to give themselves to something. In this country, he felt, you don't just like food; you become a foodie. You don't just like video games; you become a gamer. You don't just like drugs; you become an addict. In his sense he's talking about in the book, addiction is a metaphor for the way we deal with all the things we love in this country.
For better or for worse, for people who like comic books, who really like them. they don't just know comics; they will tell you all origin stories and variant origin stories. People who love food will tell you different grinds of coffee bean until they're blue in the face — your eyes are half-masting, and your only desire is to get out of the room and find some coffee to wake yourself back up. One of the things he had wanted Infinite Jest to be about, and one of the things he said it is about, is that tendency for us, as American.
One of the things I feel his prose almost uniquely does is make you smarter as a reader, then smarter as a person. It makes you see both those things that he saw in our modern life, as you were saying before, but also just makes you aware of the way you feel. It makes you hear the sound of your own brain voice as you're talking to your friends or your husbands or your parents. It makes you more aware of the voice that's talking to you internally. And that is just an amazing and immense gift.
What work of Wallace's do you find yourself returning to with the most frequency these days?
I keep reading Infinite Jest, particularly — the ending's kind of violent, so, for me — the middle section. There's great stuff about one of the heroes in the book, Don Gately, living in a halfway house. It's an AA program, but it's for recovering addicts. That stuff is just incredibly… there's a list there of things you learn, and it shows how funny David could be he. He said, “Macho posturing aside, male weeping can actually feel good (reportedly).” So great.
As a professor at NYU, I teach the cruise ship piece as a way to get people to start reading David. I read a story of his called “Octet”, which is in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which I think is a brilliant story. I read “Good Old Neon”, and a story at the end of that book called “The Suffering Channel” that I think is great. I read his piece about a tennis player named Michael Joyce. I won't give the full title because it's very long and involves the word “paradigm,” but that's also in Supposedly Fun. I read “The Depressed Person”. I'm kind of a Borges fan, so there's a great story in Oblivion called “Another Pioneer”, which I think is a great, great story. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is intercut with Q&As of men who have some unappealing attitudes about dating and women and life in general, and some of those are incredibly, incredibly funny.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.