Thursday, February 27, 1997

An Interview with David Foster Wallace

An interview with David Foster Wallace, discussing

his books A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again 

and Infinite Jestwith a full transcript of the interview 

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
February 27th, 1997

To Watch or Not to Watch

By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, $23.95

By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, $14.95

Walk into any bookstore and pick up any new novel more than 500 pages long, and chances are it will say something like this on the dust jacket: “A sprawling masterpiece in the high comic tradition of Swift, Sterne, and Pynchon.” Or else, “Only William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon can compare to [insert author’s name here].” Besides giving a slight hint of instant nostalgia, these comparisons betray the blurbist’s laziness, because any writer as good as William Gaddis is way too good to be compared to William Gaddis. So good or bad, the writer doesn’t deserve the comparison.

The past few decades have produced a fistful of American writers who may be in the latter “too good to be compared” camp: William T. Vollmann, definitely, and maybe also Richard Powers and Carol DeChellis Hill—and now David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who’s just thirty-five and has already written four critically acclaimed books, is proving himself to be the new wunderkind of American letters. He released his first novel, The Broom of the System (which the New York Times compared to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a book Wallace claims he had not yet read), at age twenty-five, and his last book of fiction, Infinite Jest, made it onto just about every American critic’s list of best books last year. He’s just released his newest book, a collection of essays called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, as well as a paperback edition of Infinite Jest, and he spoke with A&E about both books when he came to Minneapolis to promote them.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again collects seven of Wallace’s essays written over the last ten years or so. His topics range from state fairs to luxury cruises to television to fiction to tennis. Depending on what he’s writing about, he approaches his subjects from either a thoroughly learned and authoritative position or an absurd and dazed angle. His essay “E Unibus Pluram,” a treatise on the tenuous relationship between fiction and television, takes the former stance, and the results are stunning. Although he now considers the essay to be a bit dated (he wrote it in 1990), “E Unibus Pluram” is a nearly lexicon assessment of the state of modern entertainment. At the time he wrote the essay, Wallace had been watching a tremendous amount of TV, and even though he watches less now, he still stresses the importance of writers keeping engaged with popular culture.

“I think writers, say, under forty-five or forty or something who aren’t in some way having to deal with the impact of popular culture on America—unless you’re writing a historical novel, I just don’t get it,” Wallace says. “I don’t watch television as research or anything like that, but it just seems as if television, advertising, popular culture, media intrusion, now the Internet and circuits of information, are part of our environment the way clouds and trees were part of the environment a hundred years ago. I don’t know that there’s any way to escape it.”

While Wallace says that fiction must be a dialogue with the culture, he warns against excessive self-reference and empty irony. Television shows like Beavis and Butthead do little more than create vacuous circles of watching, and even though viewers know the show is stupid and feel that they’re smarter than it is, the show still gets them to watch. And fiction can do the same thing.

“Now there’s two ways I can go,” Wallace says. “I can change the situation, because it’s clearly ridiculous, or I can ironically genuflect the situation—‘Isn’t this great? I’m a dickhead, sitting here watching these dickheads watch dickheads on TV.’ And it becomes, it seems to me, a very easy excuse to perpetuate the deal. It’s a way to keep doing what’s easy and convenient and yet look hip and cool while you’re doing it.”

Wallace says that television and even fiction writers have co-opted the sarcasm and irony of the postmodernists as a way of protecting themselves from having to actually stand for anything. Originally the postmodernists were critiquing the emptiness of modern culture, but now writers wallow in it.

“(Don) DeLillo and Pynchon and Gaddis and a lot of those guys I think called the situation a long time ago. What’s ironic,” Wallace says, laughing ironically, “is that the stuff they’re talking about is still going on, but their ironic, sarcastic voice we have adopted as a way to protect ourselves from responsibility to the situation. So it’s like we’ve taken the technique or the surface of what it is they’re talking about, but we haven’t listened to what the message is.”

As brilliant as Wallace is in these serious modes, he’s absolutely luminous when he writes comically. His essay from Harper’s, “Getting Away from Already Being Away from it All,” recounts his three days at the Illinois State Fair. From watching baton twirlers and Thighmaster salespeople to eating corndogs to posing as a Harper’s Bazaar reporter to get free desserts, Wallace dissects the fair scene with an outrageousness that borders on reverence.

Even funnier is the title essay, which came about as a reaction to the state fair essay’s popularity. Since his overall expenses for three days at the state fair came to $27 (excluding games of chance), Harper’s thought it would be fun to send him on a different kind of assignment. So they sent him on a $3,000 luxury cruise. The result is an essay so amazing that it’s nearly a genre unto itself. Part travelogue, part stand-up routine, part existentialist treatise, the essay takes the reader to the very depths of the human comedy. From the nearly magical maid Petra and the “extremely cool” waiter Tibor to the nearly satanic tablemate Mona and the positively “icky” cruise director, Scott Peterson, Wallace finds himself surrounded by a cast of characters way stranger than any he could have made up. And what’s most amazing is that while they’re all being pampered to death, Wallace finds his pleasure threshold rising. After a while, he’s no longer satisfied with mere luxury:

“Even just the premature removal of a towel by a sepulchral crewman seems like an assault on my basic rights,” Wallace writes, “and plus now the sluggishness of the Aft elevator is an outrage, and the absence of 22.5-lb dumbbells in the Olympic Health Club’s dumbbell rack is a personal affront. And now as I’m getting ready to go down to lunch I’m drafting a really mordant footnote on my single biggest pet peeve about the [ship]: soda pop is not free, not even at dinner: you have to order a Mr. Pibb from the [restaurant’s] maddeningly E.S.L.-hampered cocktail waitress just like it was a fucking Slippery Nipple, and then you have to sign for it right there at the table, and they charge you—and they don’t even have Mr. Pibb; they foist Dr Pepper on you with a maddeningly unapologetic shrug when any fool knows Dr Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb, and it’s an absolute goddamned travesty, or at any rate extremely dissatisfying indeed.”

Wallace is a writer who constantly outdoes himself, a striver after superlatives, and so no matter how good any of these essays are, his novel Infinite Jest simply takes the cake. Populated by drug addicts, spies, tennis players, extremely sanitary presidents, and the most whacked-out fictional family since J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, the book’s nearly 1,100 pages teem with humanity and profundity and humor and sadness. At the novel’s center are the Incandenzas, a vaguely Hamlet-esque family (precocious son, sexy mother, dead father replaced by weaselly uncle—hence the book’s Shakespearean title) that runs a prestigious tennis academy in New New England (It’s the future, and most of the old New England has been toxically saturated and given to Canada).

The dead father, James, had been, among other things, an experimental filmmaker, and his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, was apparently so entertaining that anyone who watches it wants to do nothing but watch it again. If you see the film, you don’t want to eat or drink, you shit your pants, and you have no desire for anything else. When the film resurfaces about five years after James’ death, in The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (each year is subsidized by a different product), all the world’s governments want to get hold of the elusive master copy.

The novel is an astonishing examination of what entertainment means in our culture and how it can come to supplant all other concerns:

“Part of the book is about a culture deciding that the meaning of life consists in experiencing as much pleasure as much of the time as possible,” Wallace says, “and what are the implications of that. … Say you’ve got really serious art, and it takes really hard work, whether it’s painting or music or literature. That stuff’s not fun in the way commercial art is fun. I mean fun—like eating a Twinkie. It’s like slipping into a warm bath after a hard day. It’s an escape. It’s a relaxation. And that’s fine, and that’s entirely appropriate. The danger comes when the escape becomes the overriding purpose.”

So the question is, what makes our life meaningful. Is pleasure just our reward, or is it our raison d’être? If the latter, then why not watch the movie?

“Would I watch it?” Wallace says. “I don’t know. I don’t think that I would do it, but I think what I would do is I would arrange to have a lot of friends around me who would keep me from doing it.”

In creating a novel that’s both so hugely enjoyable and such a serious and difficult work of art, Wallace has somehow managed to bridge many of his concerns about art and entertainment in one outlandish swoop, proving himself to be a fellow of infinite jest and thrusting himself onto a solitary stage populated only by his own excellent fancy.

—David Wiley

An Interview with David Foster Wallace
by David Wiley
for The Minnesota Dailys A&E Magazine
Conducted February 12, 1997
Published February 27, 1997 

In your essay “E Unibus Pluram” (from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), you talk about irony in television and sometimes in fiction as something toxic.

DFW: See, here’s the hard part about talking about something like that—it takes a sixty-page essay to develop the question, and so I’m going to be very uncomfortable about anything I’ll just say discursively off the cuff. Now—the point of the essay is that the ironic function like in postmodern fiction started out with a rehabilitative agenda. Largely it was supposed to explode hypocrisy—certain hypocritically smug ways the country saw itself that just weren’t holding true anymore. The problem is that when irony becomes in and of itself just a mode of social discourse, that is it’s not really about causing any sort of change anymore, it’s just sort of a hip, cool way to do it—to speak and to act, to sort of make fun of everything and yourself and being really afraid of being made fun of. A certain amount of this comes out of the work of this essayist named Lewis Hyde, who I believe for a while lived in Minneapolis. This was an essay about John Berryman—I think I cite it in [A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. Anyway, Hyde talks about irony after a while becoming the sound of prisoners who enjoy their confinement. The song of a bird who enjoys being in the cage. For instance, if I’m uncomfortable with how commercial the culture is and how everybody seems to be out for a buck, I decide so I’ll do it too, but I’ll kind of make fun of myself and say, “I’m a whore, just like you’re a whore,” and now we all get an uneasy laugh out of it. But we’ve somehow taken a situation that originally I was unhappy about, and it may perhaps put some pressure on me to opt out of, and instead I take the easy decision, but I adopt this patent of irony about it that shields me from criticism for it. That may be the clearest quick way of talking about it. I think the people like my age and younger relate to irony, which is largely unconscious and largely is used as a mechanism for avoiding some really thorny issues—I think that’s toxic. Irony itself is fantastic. It’s one of the primary rhetorical modes. It’s been around forever. It’s intensely powerful. There’s nothing wrong with it.

Do you think it’s the same with satire?

I think anybody who does satire, and I’ve probably done a certain amount—there’s this implicit, unspoken idea that by satirizing something you’re going to create motive force for change. Which in fact doesn’t really happen. But at least you’re using satire as a recommendation—you know—I ridicule this to show that it’s totally grotesque and unacceptable, therefore motivating people to change stuff. But when satire and irony get divorced from that project, they just become a kind of mode of discourse in and of themselves. Then I think that things get kind of dark.

You wrote this essay in the ’80s but revised it a bit for the book, right?

Right. That’s one thing I’m a little uncomfortable about—I don’t watch that much TV anymore. That essay seems to me a bit dated. I think the situation is roughly the same. But the fact that there’s this tone of urgency in the essay, and then it was seven years ago strikes me as a bit off. It was originally commissioned by Harper’s, and I believe it was printed in ’90. I think I wrote it in summer and fall of 1990. And then it didn’t work. They thought that it was too academic. But that’s when I did it.

Your revision mentions Beavis and Butthead, but you wrote this before that show. And it seems that the meta-watching on that show is just what you’re talking about—the idea that people watching Beavis and Butthead are making fun of the show that does exactly what they do—make fun of TV.

Where irony comes in is anyone with an average brain notes that I’m making fun of it but I’m also part of it. Now there’s two ways I can go—I can change the situation, because it’s clearly ridiculous, or I can ironically genuflect the situation—“Isn’t this great? I’m a dickhead, sitting here watching these dickheads watch dickheads on TV.” And it becomes, it seems to me, a very easy excuse to perpetuate the deal. It’s a way to keep doing what’s easy and convenient and yet look hip and cool while you’re doing it. Here’s the other thing that’s pernicious about it—I know that as I’m saying this stuff to you I’m afraid that I’m coming off as some ’60s refugee idealist, like “Oh, instead of making jokes, we ought to change things, man,” and so what I want to do is jazz it up so that you don’t make fun of me that way, right? And the way that I would do that of course is to be ironic. When irony and ridicule become cultural currency, then the great terror is not that you’re gonna hit me or that you’re gonna disagree with me, it’s that you’re gonna make fun of me. And being earnest or saying stuff that you really believe in that—and there are always problems with it—opens you up to ridicule in a way that if I were to say, “Well man, I don’t know what you want to talk about. I’m a fuck-off, and I fucked off writing this book, and I don’t know,” then there’s no way you can attack. There’s no way anybody disagrees. That’s the way in which it seems to me this stuff can become toxic. It’s not the thing in and of itself. It’s the cultural use to which it’s put and how pervasive it is. I’m not a sociologist, I’m not a politician, I’m not an advocate for cultural change. I’m talking like a private citizen. My stuff is not programmatic, and I don’t want to revolutionize American culture. What I’m mostly trying to talk about is what it feels like emotionally to be thirty-four in this country.

This reminds me of DeLillo’s White Noise—the section about “The Most Photographed Barn in America”—the levels of distancing as you watch something.

DeLillo and Pynchon and Gaddis and a lot of those guys I think called the situation a long time ago. What’s ironic [laughs ironically] is that the stuff they’re talking about is still going on, but their ironic, sarcastic voice we have adopted as a way to protect ourselves from responsibility to the situations. So it’s like we’ve taken the technique or the surface of what it is they’re talking about, but we haven’t listened to what the message is.

So you don’t watch much TV anymore?

I did at one time, but now—I’ve got a VCR, but I don’t get any TV on it, so I’m a little out of it. There are a couple of shows that I go over to friends’ houses and watch. And as far as I can tell, the average quality of TV is better than it was seven years ago. I mean the writing’s better. It’s smarter. It’s funnier.

Why do you think that is?

I really don’t know. I think probably it has something to do with the maturation of Baby Boomers and probably the demographics—there are more young, hip, educated people in the television audience then there were, say, ten years ago. I mean TV’s not a moral entity. It feels the pulse, and it delivers what it thinks the pulse wants. Smartly written shows like Seinfeld and Frasier, oh, Lord, a whole bunch—Party of Five is fairly smart. X-Files and Millennium are kind of depressing, but the TV has discovered there’s an audience for what’s perceived as quality—NYPD Blue—I really don’t know. I’m sort of out of the loop now.

Do you think the writing’s better because writers can’t get other work?

Writers have been writing for popular—you know, Faulkner wrote movies. A lot of writers break in on it. I think part of this has something to do with the fact that there have emerged these TV auteurs. Steven Bochco I think probably in the ’80s was one of the first—Hill Street Blues, and then L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere, and now NYPD Blue—he came up with the show. He directs most of it. He develops his own kind of stylistic signature. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who started out with Designing Women. These guys who came up with Seinfeld, and I’m afraid I can’t remember their names, but there are some of these signature production companies and writers and directors who are very, very smart. But what’s happened is their stuff has hit, where I think probably in the past there have been plenty of really smart, quick, clever, skillful screenwriters and directors—it’s just a lot of them never really got a chance to show us, because there apparently wasn’t much audience demand for it. I think it’s possibly also due to the fact that cable now, first the addition of Fox and now cable channels, puts a great deal more pressure on network television to be better. Because there are so many niches now available, and one can at the flick of a button turn to not just public broadcasting but the Learning Channel or Arts and Entertainment, that it’s jacked the stakes up a little bit.

Do you think this improvement is a good thing, or is it just popular entertainment usurping more of the novelist’s job?

I can remember a cover feature in the New York Times Magazine that had some characters from Bochco and some characters I think from Seinfeld, and it was like, “Want good literature? Watch TV.” And this whole article was about TV supplanting the functions of literature. I think TV and movies as narrative systems or as deliverers of narrative and pleasure supplanted novelists and short-story writers and poets a long time ago. I think we exist on the margins of culture in a way that novelists didn’t a hundred years ago. I have friends who think this is a terrible thing. For me myself it’s sort of like it’s just the way things are. I know that I’m uncomfortable enough about a lot of attention that I rather like it. I think if novelists were treated the way TV stars or musicians were, it would so warp us and so distort our capacity for standing on the sides and watching. You’ve got like Dickens and James and Dostoyevsky, who were just absolutely revered by their cultures and just besieged like rock stars—how they were able to have the amount of balance and continue to have the amount of insight—I mean it would be very hard not to imagine that you’re different and better than other people if everybody’s treating you like you’re different and better than them. So, just in my own case, I’m rather comfortable with it. It means you don’t make all that much money, and that might be bad. I don’t know. I don’t particularly care. For the state of the culture, I think there’s stuff reading can do. Reading demands a level of activity on the part of the respondent that TV and movies don’t in most cases, and I think it’s probably, on a nutritional level, I think probably reading is better than TV and movies. But, you know—wheat germ is better for us than Snickers bars, and I eat Snickers bars all the time, because they’re yummy.

Do you think novelists have to watch television now?

No. I think writers, say, under forty-five or forty or something who aren’t in some way having to deal with the impact of popular culture on America—unless you’re writing a historical novel, I just don’t get it. I don’t watch television as research or anything like that, but it just seems as if television, advertising, popular culture, media intrusion, now the Internet and circuits of information, are part of our environment the way clouds and trees were part of the environment a hundred years ago. I don’t know that there’s any way to escape it.

What about someone like Kafka? Would Kafka be writing about television? Or Bruno Schulz—would they be doing this, or would they still just be writing about their families?

Well, possibly. But Kafka and Schulz would be writing about the family in an atmosphere in which from Oprah and Montel we now have this thing called the dysfunctional family. We have a series of cliches we can banter around ironically, and they would have to take account of that, because they don’t want to simply thoughtlessly recycle it and look like pap. You know what I mean? Kafka would not have to sit down and channel-surf in order to write about what it’s like to live in a televisual culture, because it’s oxygen. It’s the atmosphere. My guess is that, given Kafka’s struggles with the idea of the human being as loathsome and the human being as repulsive and worthless, that a culture very much defined by these superstars who are way prettier than any of the rest of us are—and smoother and suaver and whatever—would have an enormous effect on him. If you’re a writer, unless you’re like doing sci-fi or horror, you’re engaged with the culture. And this stuff is the culture. You can be glad about it. You can be sad about it. But it’s what there is, and there’s fascinating stuff about it.

You kind of refer to Don DeLillo as a prophet of contemporary fiction for the way he foresaw a lot of this stuff. What other writers do you see as leading the way now?

Vollmann’s one. I think Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own, which is almost entirely about how litigious our society is, and most of the novel takes place in a living room where a man’s watching television. It seems to me that the writers who aren’t really engaged with the stuff are the writers who came to maturity in the kind of realistic era of the ’50s and ’60s. Updike doesn’t seem to me to write all that effectively about this stuff. When his characters go out to eat fast food they go to Burger Bliss instead of Burger King, as if in fiction you can’t use the regular product name. It just seems to be a mentality that is more old fashioned, and a lot of—it’s ironic—the hard-core realists, the ones who specialize in, you know, domestic psychodrama and the terrain of the interior heart, seem to lean really far away from references to pop culture—I think because they’re afraid that stuff is freighted with social agenda and theory and they want to stay away from that. The idea of writing realistic fiction where people aren’t spending six hours a day watching TV seems absurd to me, because that’s what people do.

I read Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, and a lot of that novel took place in front of the TV.

But here’s the problem. The new novels—they’re sort of like Linklater films, where really articulate people dissect The Jetsons. And the problem is that it can very quickly become more of the ironic pose of, “Yeah, well I’m uncomfortable with this, but, well, let’s just kick back and fire up another doob and it’s all right.” And it can become then a series of hip gestures and shticks, in which case you’re not engaged with the culture—you’re just recycling it. We’re just all singing the same tune over and over again. The thing that the essay’s supposed to be about is, we’ve got kind of a problem here, because if we want to engage with this and talk to it and in a certain way make fun of it, how do you do that without using techniques that TV has already taken from earlier insurgent fiction and is now using in order to sell minivans and hamburgers. It’s a real interesting problem.

So now we see Pynchon scrambling to keep up with the techniques that television stole from him.

Pynchon’s another one whom I regard as really kind of old fashioned. I like early Pynchon. I like The Crying of Lot 49. I like Gravity’s Rainbow. But the Pynchon of Slow Learner [sic] and Vineland, which I didn’t like very much, seems to be making the same tired jokes—“look how shallow and superficial the culture is.” All right—I’ve been told—TV itself now tells that to me. It just seems like more of the same. I’m not as big a Pynchon fan as some other people are.

The word Pynchon is on every one of your book covers as a comparison. Does this drive you crazy?

Pynchon was important to me when I was in college. The first book that I wrote, The Broom of the System, some reviewer for the New York Times said it was a rip-off of The Crying of Lot 49, like that I hadn’t read yet. So I got all pissed, and then I went and read The Crying of Lot 49, and it was absolutely, incredibly good. I think a certain amount of this is marketing, and, you know, the fastest way to tell what something is like is to compare it to something else. And having read Gaddis and having read Pynchon and DeLillo and Coover and McElroy and Sorrentino, I can see that the kind of stuff that I do or like that Bill Vollmann does or that Richard Powers does is certainly more like that than it’s like, you know, Irwin Shaw or John Updike. Writers are bad to ask about this, though, because we’re all egomaniacs, and we all want to be utterly unique and, you know, not like anybody else, and so there’s a certain amount of bristling about it, but after a while there’s just no way to help it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a great book, but for the most part Pynchon kind of annoys me, and I think his approach to a certain amount of stuff is kind of shallow, to be honest with you. So I get uncomfortable about that, and when people ask it over and over again I get the sense that they’re saying they think I’m ripping him off or just rehashing stuff he’s done, in which case I get pissed, but if that’s how they’re seeing it, it means I’ve failed. I mean if my stuff’s coming off derivative of somebody else, it means there’s something that I’m doing that isn’t right. But I find myself doing it all the time. I’ll see a movie, and I’ll really like it, and I’ll recommend it to friends, and I’ll say, well, it’s sort of like this combined with this. I mean it’s such a convenient shorthand. And nobody likes to have it done to them. You don’t want to have a friend say to you, “You’re just exactly like this other guy we know.” You say, “No, I’m not. I’m me.” But we do it to each other all the time.

Are the names Mondragon and Bodine (from Infinite Jest) allusions to Pynchon’s Kurt Mondaugen and Pig Bodine?

Well, Jethro Bodine is from The Beverly Hillbillies. That’s not a Pig Bodine thing. But there were a few—that thing in Infinite Jest where two representatives [Steeply and Marathe] of two countries are on a cliffside and are making enormous shadows and playing with it—and there’s even the use of the word Brockengespenst, which comes out of Slothrop and Geli Tripping [from Gravity’s Rainbow] fucking on the Brockengespenst—that’s an outright allusion. And I think there are a couple—that’s not supposed to be any kind of inter-textual allusion. I just thought it was really cool. And I’ve been to Tucson, and you actually can do that with the shadows, and I thought it was neat. But I’m not trying to lace the book with allusions to other texts. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m not just particularly interested in it.

Could you talk about this idea you have about the Fiction of Image?

There’s a certain amount of stuff that’s treating pop culture not just as a system of reference, but as a subject. And for me, the first thing I ever read of this was Max Apple’s “The Oranging of America,” which is a story about Howard Johnson. There are very shallow archetypes in the images on the screen, and the idea that you can remind the reader that these are artifice and that there are real worlds behind them by using them as characters in stories—that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. References—these sort of hallucinatory references to pop culture. I think Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist is a big example that I talk about in the book. This is somewhat embarrassing. I don’t read an enormous amount of contemporary fiction. There are writers I really like, but for the most part, most of the stuff that I do requires so much research and outside reading—plus my teaching duties—that I read very little stuff now that isn’t connected with work. About the only stuff that I read just purely for my own pleasure is poetry. And whatever trends are going on in poetry don’t seem to me to have anything to do with the trends that are going on in fiction.

Do you think fiction needs to be or should be as self-referencing as TV?

You would have to define self-referencing.

Well, like metafiction.

Another thing that the essay tries to do, and I don’t know how good a job it does of it, is sort of to trace out some of that impulse in a kind of increase in self-consciousness that I think TV has a big part in informing. Let me put it to you this way. Since the ’60s, and you probably know this better than I, the real battle in fiction has been between writers and theorists who see fiction as essentially a recursive mechanism—William Gass and John Barth and the ’60s guys—and most of them now publish with academic presses and small presses like Dalkey, and the book-buying public probably doesn’t see much of them. The other side of it says that fiction is not recursive, it’s referential—the old realistic “language is a system of pictures, of words, and I’m gonna write a story that makes you imagine that this stuff is really going on.” My personal take is that since the ’60s, and really since the rise of television—there’s a degree of self-consciousness culturally now that makes classic realistic stuff seem to me to be either very naive or very manipulative. And at least what I’m trying to do in my own stuff—and I’m not saying it succeeds, I am not saying it succeeds—but what the writers who interest me, what I see them doing, what I’m trying to do involves trying to write fiction that works both ways. Because one of the things that we’ve learned is that what we imagined to be reality is more and more a linguistic enterprise. The same way we found out that the observer in an experiment affects the experiment, such that that classic distinction where “I’m only going to write stories about stories being written by writers who are writing about stories”—that whole game seems to me very tired. I read Barth’s last book of short stories, and I was just sad for him, because he does it so well, but he’s been doing the same thing over and over again for thirty years. But then on the other hand, you know, “Imagine, dear reader, that you’re not reading words—you’re magically transported to the summer of where this dysfunctional family is going through its throes”—and I don’t believe that shit either. I think the stakes are higher now, and it’s much more exciting, and the balance is much finer. But writers I admire, you know, like Gaddis, Cormac McCarthy, DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, are writers who seem to me to be able to create compelling narratives that make you feel something for these characters and know them in a way that like you and I could never know each other—and at the same time not being in any way manipulative or old-fashioned or falsely naive about the way language can stretch that world in which they live. Put it this way—me and Vollmann and Powers and Franzen and Leyner, we got a pretty good idea who our readers are. Our readers are mostly college-educated people under fifty, which means you’ve had some theory. You know about the linguistic turn in philosophy and theory in the ’50s and ’60s in Europe. This is the terrain in which we’re having to work. I think the average reader, you know, the guy who picks up the paperback book in an airport, doesn’t give a flying fuck about this. Because what he wants is what a certain other type of fiction can provide—it’s just a momentary escape from a stressful flight in an airplane.

You’ve mentioned Ozick before in other interviews. She’s amazing isn’t she?

Here’s what’s cool is that this is this hyper-educated, very seriously Jewish person writing about a culture and ethnicity that I know very slightly, and mostly only from books, and whom I—number one, the prose is just completely luminous, but number two, I find myself feeling stuff for these folks that I sure don’t feel for most of the people who look just like me in regular life. There’s this magic that stories can do, and the thing that is transcendent about Ozick is that she’s extremely canny and familiar with language and fiction as artifice and all that stuff, and manages not to offend your sensibilities about that stuff, while at the same time creating these really kind of luminous, luminous, luminous stories. There are maybe two or three living American writers who I think are just absolutely capital-G great, and she’s one of them. Let’s just have the whole thing be about her. You’d be better off telling your readers about her than about me.

Her story “Levitation” has a really cool tension between the characters’ lives and the characters’ writing.

Writing about writing is fascinating and pregnant, and writing about writing versus writing about life—the more you look at it, the more the distinctions collapse. On the other hand, writing about writing can very easily collapse into a pose and a game. You’re just turning a crank on a certain kind of mechanism. And if I’m talking about some of the ways that it seems to me irony kind of afflicts us, I’m talking about strategic uses that we’ve put to it to make hard things easier for us.

Let’s talk about Infinite Jest—the title first of all. It’s Shakespeare, but there’s this feeling that “Infinite Jest” also just means “Big Joke.”

Well, it’s supposed to be a long encomium to the dead father. But part of the book is about a culture deciding that the meaning of life consists in experiencing as much pleasure as much of the time as possible and what are the implications of that. So it’s multivalent, but it’s not particularly profound. I’m not very good at titles.

The question about art and entertainment—are these things that make us human, or are these things that degrade us, like they do to the people who watch the movie Infinite Jest?

Let’s put it this way. Say you’ve got really serious art, and it takes really hard work, whether it’s painting or music or literature. That stuff’s not fun in the way commercial entertainment is fun. I mean fun—like eating a Twinkie. It’s like slipping into a warm bath after a hard day. It’s an escape. It’s a relaxation. And that’s fine, and that’s entirely appropriate. The danger comes when the escape becomes the overriding purpose. And one of the ways it seems that television has affected me is that my expectation for the amount of fun and pleasure to work—that ratio is very different than they are for my parents. I think my pain threshold is lower. My expectations are higher. My level of resentment at having to do anything I don’t particularly want to do that isn’t pleasurable is higher. I think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that for six hours a day I receive certain messages—you know, “relax, we’re going to give to you, you don’t have to give anything back, all you need to do is every so often go and buy this product.” But animals have fun. My dogs play. And watching them play—there’s a purity of intent and a lack of self-consciousness that I wish I could achieve when I was experiencing pleasure. But Plato and John Stuart Mill both take books to talk about different types of pleasure. In my own personal life, I like really arty stuff a lot of the time. But there’s also times I watch an enormous amount of TV, and I’ve read probably seventy percent of Stephen King’s books. And I’ve read them basically because for a little while I want to forget that my name is David Wallace, you know, and that I have limitations, and that I’m sad that my girlfriend yelled at me. I think serious art is supposed to make us confront things that are difficult in ourselves and in the world. And one of the dangers is if we get conditioned to confront less and less and experience more and more pleasure, the commercial stuff’s gonna win out.

So the movie Infinite Jest has no redeeming value?

Whether or not it has any value ends up being irrelevant. This is a movie that is so pleasurable that once you’ve watched it once, all you want to do is watch it again. I mean you want to watch it again rather than eat.

So why not watch the movie?

That’s a very interesting question. Would you? Have you ever read any Larry Niven? Very cool, hard sci-fi guy. He talks about wire-heads. The technology, maybe not in my lifetime but in yours, will exist that they can jack into the p-terminals of your brain. There’s a lot of this stuff in [Infinite Jest], but a lot of it got cut out. They jack into your brain, and you will be able to have a system whereby you can plug it into a wall and have your pleasure-center stimulated. And in Niven—and I hadn’t read Niven until the book was done, and I worry that everybody’s going to think I ripped him off—wire-heads die. Because they don’t eat or drink or anything. I mean it’s like sustained orgasm. So if that technology were available and you had the money to do it, and you would basically be kissing the rest of your life goodbye—would you do it? I don’t know. And what’s interesting is that sixty, seventy years ago, the average person on the street would say, “Absolutely not. Only deviants and weak-willed people would do it.” I think these days the average moral person would say, “I really don’t know.” I’d like to say no, but the first time I was like really depressed or life seemed really fucked—there’s the plug.

So you don’t know is the point.

What would your guess be?

About you?

No, about yourself.

I’d probably say no.

It sounds to me like you like to read too much, and if you did this—there’s things like joys of learning and joys of getting to know other people, and then there’s religious stuff and all that. But all that stuff is now pulling against what I think in my generation and yours is very different from, say, our grandparents’—an immense, gnawing, craving hunger for pleasure, and a real feeling of deprivation when we’re not experiencing it. I don’t think that I would do it, but I think what I would do is I would arrange to have a lot of friends around me who would keep me from doing it.

—David Wiley


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