David Foster Wallace warms up
By Patrick Arden
"I am tired of David Foster Wallace," said a letter to the editor of Harper's last November. The single-sentence missive was reinforced by five footnotes, which went on to detail the disgruntled reader's obsessions with such personal problems as insomnia, grammar, and an identifying scar on his right index finger, caused by a broken drinking glass.
Sarcasm has become an increasingly common response to Wallace's self-conscious work in the years following the success of his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, a 1,079-page social satire and human tragedy with 388 footnotes. But that reaction may only be part of an expected backlash against the author, who has been described as "remarkable" (Newsweek), "brilliant" (Kirkus Reviews), "a genius" (Chicago Tribune), and "the funniest writer of his generation" (Village Voice).
Wallace followed his celebrated epic with an excellent collection of nonfiction "essays and arguments," A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and for the next two years he continued to show up regularly in magazines as mainstream as Elle and Spin. Journalists even waxed rhapsodic about his publicity photo, as if it were the very picture of his age -- an unshaven young man lost in thought, a bandanna wrapped around his long hair like a bandage protecting a head wound.
All this attention must carry a cost, so the 37-year-old Wallace, a professor at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, is protective of his privacy. He warns me that his unlisted telephone number will be good for only another month, when he'll have it changed. "My number has a shelf life of one year," he says. "Then some weird thing happens where I end up getting calls from people that I don't want to get calls from."
Heís curt when I first call. He picks up the phone as I'm leaving a message on his machine, and immediately starts laying down ground rules for the interview. First, no photos. "Little, Brown has like 12 different shots of me--can't you use one of those?" he pleads. "I'm tired of having my picture taken." He doesn't want to meet at his house; instead he directs me to a Cracker Barrel restaurant just off the I-55 interchange in Bloomington. His instructions are painstakingly detailed. One false move, I fear, and I'll wind up in the middle of a Missouri cornfield.
Our meeting promises to be grim--almost as grim as the new book we're set to discuss. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a collection of Wallace's short fiction; many of the stories first appeared in such publications as Harper's, Esquire, and the Paris Review. The title is taken from a series of one-sided conversations in which men discuss their problems with the opposite sex. The questions of the female interrogator are deleted.
The men's troubles range from the comic to the frightening. One can't stop shouting "Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!" while climaxing during sex, an affliction he will only describe as "just weird." An abuser seeks counseling for the sake of his own self-esteem. Another cites Victor Frankel's death-camp memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, while making the case that a woman can actually benefit from rape or incest ("Her idea of herself and what she can live through and survive is bigger now.").
Wallace says he's uneasy discussing the book. "I said I'd be happy to talk to you, but I have no idea what to say, simply because there isn't really an agenda with this book, except for a certain amount of technical, formal stuff that I don't know if I want to talk about and I don't think people really want to hear about." Great.
Driving the two hours south from Chicago is a grim experience as well. The landscape is mercilessly flat prairie, punctuated by an occasional farm house, refinery, or tree. The desolate surroundings seem strangely appropriate to an author so focused on the minutiae of modern neuroses. "There's no shortage of empty space in downstate Illinois," Wallace once wrote when recounting a visit to the state fair. "Rural Midwesterners live surrounded by unpopulated land, marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual. It is not just people you get lonely for. You're alienated from the very space around you, for here the land is not an environment but a commodity. The land is basically a factory. You live in the same factory you work in."
He has relented on his prohibition against photos, so when I pull up to the Cracker Barrel I have a photographer in tow. Wallace is immediately recognizable: a husky, unshaven fellow in a leather jacket and a University of Iowa jersey sits in a rocking chair on the front porch. He frets that the restaurant's manager will object to our taking pictures inside and refuses to pose near an antique Coke machine. "No one will believe that," he says. After the photographer snaps a few shots, Wallace visibly begins to relax.
"I don't know if you've ever enjoyed Cracker Barrel before," he says, leading the way inside. "It's easy to make fun of, but the food is really pretty good."
The restaurant is fronted by a gift shop, with shelves full of ceramic figurines and jars of jams and sauces. The air is thick with the smell of soap and potpourri. A variety of farm implements hang from the ceiling. A mechanical toy pig grunts, "Let me out of here."
Our table is in the middle of a teeming dining room, halfway between the kitchen and the toilet. Wallace apparently feels at home in such places. His new book includes an acknowledgment to "the staff and management of Denny's 24-Hour Family Restaurant."
He opens a tiny cardboard box and places a pile of toothpicks on the table. He explains that he's trying to stop smoking, and chewing toothpicks beats his previous solution -- chewing tobacco.
"We're attempting a new regime here," he says. "You guys get in a toothpick mood, please feel free to partake. I think it's easy to stop smoking; it's just hard not to commit a felony after you stop. I have like one-tenth the temper speed that I used to. I have road rage, phone rage. If I was snappish with you, I apologize. My girlfriend said I was, and then I snapped at her for telling me that I was."
As we peruse the menu, Wallace advises, "Get something nice and generic -- there's no way you can go wrong." He says he's ordering the meatloaf dinner, though he objects when I attempt to follow suit. "If you get the meatloaf and don't like it, you could blame me."
A NORMAL LIFE
Wallace grew up in downstate Illinois, the son of schoolteachers. His father is a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; his mother teaches English. He says he has a younger sister but hesitates when it comes to discussing his background in detail: "It was a very kind of quiet, semi-nerdy life in a mid-sized academic town in Illinois. I don't mind telling you about it. I'm just highly aware that it's not very interesting or dramatic."
He graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College in 1985, having studied philosophy, his father's subject. "That was one of my majors, but my area was very different from his. Dad mostly taught medical ethics, and I was mostly interested in math, logic, semantics, all kind of weenie-ish stuff." He turned to fiction writing in his senior year, when he helped publish a humor magazine and earned money doing term papers for hire. "It was really good training for writing in different voices and styles -- you'll get kicked out if you get caught," he says. "In my last year I was still trying to decide whether to go to grad school in writing or math. It's funny -- looking back, there was no question that I would go to grad school, which just goes to show what a little academic weenie I was."
Wallace ended up getting his MFA from the University of Arizona. "Then I sort of drifted for a while," he says. "I lived in Boston and New York for like five years before I moved back." He came to Bloomington-Normal to take a part-time job at Dalkey Archive Press, which had made its reputation resurrecting out-of-print works by early-modern writers, including Gertrude Stein, Flann O'Brien, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
"I don't do well in big cities," Wallace says. "It's not the cities' fault -- it's mine. I can't stand noise, and I like to choose how many people are within 100 feet of me at any given time. A lot of my college friends are in New York, and when they come here, they can't stay more than a few days. It creeps them out -- it's very boring. But I'm alarmingly happy. I just want to be left alone to eat my meatloaf.
"I have a lot of advantages. I live in a small town. If anybody wants to talk to me, they have to drive a long way and come to shitty restaurants."
By the time he moved back to Illinois, Wallace had already published two well-received books: the 1986 novel The Broom of the System and the 1988 short-story collection Girl With Curious Hair. But for better or for worse, his reputation may now rest on his big book -- Infinite Jest. Fans found his digressive method perfectly captured a world saturated by data, while his detractors claimed he was reckless in his plotting and loquacious to a fault. Yet his verbosity came as part and parcel of a potent world view -- the new realities of media hype and information overload have not exactly made people happier.
"Infinite Jest got a lot of attention, but it wasn't my first book, and I wasn't a kid when I did it," Wallace says. "That meant I knew a little bit about how hype worked. And Little, Brown's braintrust found a certain way to hype the book that was successful."
Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch, has said he was initially intimidated by the sheer size of the novel. "I had no clue how the characters connected, except they were either doing drugs or playing tennis," he admitted in one interview. Eventually Pietsch decided to turn the book's length into a dare: "Have you finished David Foster Wallace's gargantuan masterpiece?" A Little, Brown sales representative told me, "We put more effort and money behind marketing that book than we ever had before. We did a lot of prepublication work, and it paid off."
"It's a good book," Wallace says, a little defensively. "But it's a difficult long book and there's no reason why it should have gotten that kind of attention. Much of the attention was hype attention rather than literary attention, and so it didn't get to me all that much. The book is partly about hype and sort of the spiritual consequences of hype, and then the book itself became an object of hype -- its promotion and sales were a consequence of the very mechanisms that it was doing a jeremiad about. For a while I was amused by the irony, and then it just kind of made me feel empty."
He doesn't expect to receive the same attention for Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. "I kind of hope that this will just be a normal mid-list book," he says. "Maybe you, a couple other people will want to talk about it, and that will be it. I don't know that I'm quite up for another circus, which the last two books were. It's not fatal, but it takes a weird energy from you. I don't know if I designed it for that or not."
Design is an apt word to describe Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Wallace was obviously concerned with form. In fact, the book's architecture may come off as somewhat precious and picky: titles recur, characters carefully dissect their own emotions, every idea or feeling is fastidiously annotated. ("I've got to keep myself amused," he says. "It's late at night when I'm typing.")
One story is split in half: "Adult World I" concerns a young, sexually naÔve newlywed; "Adult World II" continues her story, but the narrative breaks down into a diagram as the main character becomes more sophisticated and alienated from her passions and Wallace allows the reader a glimpse into the very mechanics of storytelling. "There's a certain amount of formal stunt pilotry in the book," he explains. "I as a reader don't like stunt pilotry if it doesn't have much of a reason. The big reason to have 'Adult World II' in outline form is that for myself as a reader I don't buy epiphanies done dramatically anymore. You know: 'She gazed out the window. Suddenly, the revelation hit her face.' I begin wincing when I'm reading shit like that. I don't think readers can buy epiphanies anymore. . . . I like stuff that's moving, but I don't want to be perceived as manipulative, and I don't like to be manipulative. So some of the stories that look the weirdest at least were designed to try to access emotional stuff in a different way. It's maybe easier to swallow. Or, to be more honest, it's easier for me to write about, where I don't feel like I'm being that, you know, Bridges of Madison County guy."
The waiter sets our plates on the table -- slabs of meat and mashed potatoes smothered in brown gravy. Wallace eagerly picks up a fork and inquires about the photographer's breaded shrimp. "I've never had it," he says. "I've come close a couple times."
He's been surprised by the reaction the new book has received so far. "Some friends who've read the thing have come back and said, 'Man, there has got to be a part of you that's a pretty serious misogynist because you do misogyny pretty well.' I don't know what to tell them. If you do a convincing thing about a serial killer, does that mean you have murder in your heart? Well, maybe, I guess. . . . More than the average person? I don't know."
The brief interviews were meant to be "powerful and scary," Wallace says. His girlfriend has just moved in with him, and though they've made a pact not to discuss each other's work, she's actually reading this book. "I don't want her to hear about misogynist stuff and not know what is being talked about," he says. "She's only read 10 percent of it so far, and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"I really love this woman, and I am a little worried that she is going to read this thing and . . . she is not in the business . . . I'm worried I am going to have to explain intentional fallacy to her, that this is not in fact me talking."
He sighs and shakes his head. "There's no denying itóthis is pretty sad. One of my friends said, 'Everyone is so completely fucking doomed in this,' because they are. They have a reasonable sense of what's going on and they're very self-aware. God knows they're self-conscious. And yet they're trapped."
He rejects criticism that his work is unnecessarily complicated: "I don't have any strong feelings about that, unless if somebody says, 'You know Dave, I read your book and it seems like it required all this hard work just basically for the sake of saying, "Hey fuck you, reader, I can make you work hard."' Then I know with that reader I have failed. Then I really feel that they think I'm a putz. And I hate books where, you know, those books where you get halfway through and you get the sense that the author is so stupid that he thinks he can fool you into thinking that the book is really sophisticated and profound just because it's difficult. It's an epidemic in academic writing. And it happens about half the time in avant-garde writing. And it's the thing I most fear as a writer because it's the thing I most hate as a reader. And I'm sure I'm guilty of it sometimes."
Wallace says he continues teaching part-time not for the money -- he only makes $17,000 a year doing it -- but because "it is real good for my work. If I am by myself for like a week, I get weird. Teaching forces me to talk to other people. All the lights are on, and you have to speak meaningfully.
"If anything, my big complaint about the people drawn to writing programs is that they've had a lot of English, and English these days is literary theory, which has very little to do with the pleasure of reading. I have been on the theorists' side for some time, but I don't want to be in a department dominated by theorists because fun never comes up once. You know, like, 'God, that was fun! I enjoyed this!' It never comes up -- it's just not an issue. That seems to be a large-sized baby being thrown out with the bathwater."
He glances at the photographer's shrimp. "Is that all right? Not a little heavy on the breading?"
LOSING HIS RELIGION
The 1991 edition of Contemporary Authors shows a 20-something Wallace, looking earnest, or at least clean shaven. Under "Religion," it says "Catholic," a surprising assertion considering that after "Politics" it lists the "Communist Party of the United States." Seven years later, his entry lists no religion or political persuasion.
Wallace explains that he tried to join the Catholic church twice, once in the mid-80s and again in the early-90s. "I've gone through RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] a couple of times, but I always flunk the period of inquiry," he says. "They don't really want inquiries. They really just want you to learn responses." He sounds angry. "I'm a failure -- I couldn't get in.
"My parents are atheists of the 60s brand. You know, religion for them equals central suppression from authority. But their parents -- so my grandparents -- were very, very religious. My grandmother was basically raised in a convent. . . . I think religion kind of skips a generation. Most of my best friends are religious in a way that's cool, where you don't even know it for several years. They're not the type to show up at your door with a pamphlet under their arms.
"You know, I enjoy church and I enjoy being part of a larger thing. I think it's just not in my destiny to be part of an institutional religion, because it's not in my nature to take certain things on faith."
He peers once again at the photographer's dinner. "Could I just have one shrimp?" he asks.
Leaning across the table, he adds softly, "The area around here is dominated by charismatic Protestants. They get very upset with debate and argument, which I really sort of like. With atheists it's fun to say, 'If you presume that religion has no force, not just literal force but sort of moral or metaphorical force -- that none of the point of being here resides in religious stuff -- then what is the point of being here?'
"America is one big experiment in what happens when you're a wealthy, privileged culture that's pretty much lost religion or spirituality as a real informing presence. It's still a verbal presence -- it's part of the etiquette that our leaders use, but it's not inside us anymore, which in one way makes us very liberal and moderate and we're not fanatics and we don't tend to go around blowing things up. But on the other hand, it's very difficult to think that the point of life is to double your salary so that you can go to the mall more often. Even when you're making fun and sneering at it, there's a real dark emptiness about it."
Wallace sits up straight in his chair and pushes his plate away. "That's simply my opinion as a private citizen -- I don't know that it has all that much to do with the stuff that I write about."
A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING
Wallace turns to the photographer. "This has got to be boring for you," he says. "Try this game." He picks up a triangular piece of wood with pegs jammed into several holes. It's been provided by the restaurant, right next to the salt and pepper shakers. "I want to see if somebody else can do this. It's sort of like checkers. You try to jump one thing over another thing. Whatever you jump, you can take out. The object is to be left with only one.
"I am not good at this. All I've figured out is that you have got to keep the fuckers close together, or else things get very dicey." He notices our reluctance. "It will be fun."
Instead, we order dessert. "Should we talk about your guys' jobs now?" Wallace asks.
We talk about ourselves, the glory days of Esquire in the 1960s, Wallace's boyhood trips to the old Comiskey Park, and his fondness for the defunct humor magazine Might. Finally, the check comes, and he offers to go dutch. That's OK, I tell him, I'm on assignment.
"Well, this hasn't hurt at all," he says. "It was easy."
Back in the gift shop, Wallace says, "The thing to realize is how fast this will move across everybody's brain but yours and mine. You'll care about the story, and I'll care about the story. Everybody else, like people in dentist offices . . . " He shakes his head but then thinks better of it. "That doesn't mean you don't have an obligation to the truth."
I thank him for the advice. The piece is supposed to be short.
A few thousand words.
"Oh, Christmas! Just take out all the articles."
We walk into the parking lot, and Wallace puts his hand on my shoulder. "I'll be interested to see what you do with it." He smiles. "Compression has never been my forte."