By Elizabeth Weil
Nobody sets out to be a literary groupie. You just read something you like, tell all your friends, and hope to get some credit for the discovery. The problem comes when tastes converge. It’s highly embarrassing when a writer strikes a critical mass of people–especially people in your demographic group–and you find that you’ve not so much unveiled a new voice as participated in a fad.
This literary season David Foster Wallace has touched off something of a craze. His third book, Infinite Jest, a hilarious 1,079-page look at America’s obession with entertainment, is on its sixth printing. Wallace profiles have popped up in Details, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. Critics have been calling Infinite Jest the Naked Lunch of the 90s and Wallace the next Pynchon. The word “genius” has been used more times than can possibly be good for his head. And one love-struck reviewer went so far as to offer a cash refund to any reader not completely satisfied.
How this happened is not so hard to understand. In the late 80s Wallace wrote two books, The Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair. Though obscure, they received good enough reviews to land advance copies of Infinite Jest on all the right critics’ desks. Around the same time–January 1996–Harper’s published “Shipping Out,” Wallace’s bitingly funny shakedown of a luxury Caribbean cruise, which unleashed such a frenzy of faxing and photocopying that certain demographically idealized persons–well-educated writer types in their late 20s–report having been sent copies by friends three, four, and five times. Cut to mid-February: Infinite Jest comes out, glowing reviews roll in. More than a few Wallace junkies start showing up at readings. They’re not lone zealots. They’re part of a–gag, achh, ahem–trend.
What makes this guy so appealing? Of course the man’s talented. Also smart, insightful, funny, and humane. But when fads flare up, it’s often telling to take a closer look.
Back in New York, hub of things literary, some of Wallace’s editors–like Gerald Howard, editor of The Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair–claim that they maintained a decade-long faith in Wallace’s “absolute genius.” But Michael Pietsch, editor of Infinite Jest and a self-proclaimed “ferocious admirer” of Wallace’s work, says he’s suffered more Wallace-related panic attacks than he would care to admit. After reading an early section of the book, he had “no clue how the characters connected except they were either doing drugs or playing tennis.” When the 1,800-page manuscript came in–which he’d been told was running long–he was shocked to learn “how long long could be.” Even after trimming the beast of 800 pages, Pietsch still harbored “major concerns” as to whether readers would be willing to give Wallace a month, minimum, of book time. “By the end David was addressing his letters to Eyestrain Pietsch,” he says. “It was very lonely and frightening, because everybody’s initial response was always ‘A 1,000-page book–are you kidding?'”
Once Pietsch accepted that “the bigness is part of what it is,” he approached the book with more expectation and less fear. Pietsch knew that young wordies ached for a serious, imaginative work on which to turn their zeal. “Suddenly it became clear that we had to make it a challenge: ‘Are you reader enough for this book?'” he says. “We had to turn it into a dare: ‘Have you finished David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan masterpiece?'”
Over at Harper’s the editors knew “Shipping Out” was a winner from the start. “From the moment the manuscript arrived here it was very clear to us that we had pure cocaine on our hands,” says editor Colin Harrison. “To use a basketball term, David’s playing above the rim the whole time. The writing is superb. The observation, tremendously astute. And on top of it, the size of the piece [Harrison assigned it at 7,000 words; it came in at 41,000 plus 1,100 in footnotes]–it’s just not done.” He pauses to take a breath. “David is weirdly tuned in to the American zeitgeist and profoundly ill at ease with it. What could be more zeitgeisty than the cruise-ship industry and also representative of elements of late 20th-century capitalism?”
All the hoopla makes a cynic want to get to the source. On the ninth day of Wallace’s ten-day book tour, the fourth of five reporters that day, I met up with the author in his room at the Omni Chicago Hotel. Books were strewn on the floor. Ransacked duffel bags littered the bed. Wallace himself was turned out in black shoes, black jeans, a light blue turtleneck, and his signature head hankie. For a few minutes he made faux ingenue protestations (“You get to ask me all these questions that normally you would never get to ask unless we were good friends”) and attended to personal matters (“This is the time of day Little, Brown says I can pee”). Then he sat down in a wingback chair, lit a cigarette, and held forth.
“Infinite Jest was really just supposed to be sad,” he said, pulling on his smoke and holding it in. “I don’t know what it’s like for you and your friends, but I know that most of my friends are real unhappy. We’re all these white, upper-middle-class people with jobs that are just in the upper one-millionth percent in terms of interestingness and income. And we’re all–or most of us at least–in these real weird, addictive, desperate, unhappy relationships with things that are ostensibly pleasurable.”
Talking with Wallace is a little unsettling. He sounds simultaneously flip and sincere. By his own admission he’s a recovering smart aleck (as well as a recovering alcoholic, drug abuser, suicide case, and TV-head). Currently his vices include nicotine and willful ignorance with reporters. Barely into our interview, after I’d tossed him a couple softballs, he said, “This is really bad for me, you know.” He complained that I wasn’t disclosing enough about myself, that I wasn’t behaving like a good friend. I tried to explain what he already knew–that given the 90 minutes he’d set aside, we didn’t exactly have time to converse like proto-pals. Finally he traded his smokes for some Skoal, commenced to spit in a glass ashtray, and tossed off an interview-ready list of quirky details about himself.
Wallace subscribes to Cosmo: “There’s something about reading ‘You’ve cheated–should you tell?’ six or seven times a year that’s just fundamentally soothing to the nervous system.” He writes at Denny’s: they’re open late and they let him spit. He reads to his dog Jeeves: “It’s not that he can tell me to add a semicolon or anything, but he can hear something in my voice when I lose interest.” He’s been thinking about calling fellow avant-pop writer Mark Leyner to track down some saliva substitute: Wallace’s mouth gets dry at readings and Leyner used to write ad copy for medical supplies. He’s twice failed the rite of Christian initiation for adults, the first step toward entering the Catholic church: he referred to “the cult of personality surrounding Jesus Christ,” which didn’t sit well with the priest. He pretends when listening to country songs that the artists are singing to themselves: “You can make me sound like a total idiot if you want, but there’s something about learning to love yourself–goddamn, I sound like Stuart in the mirror–that we just aren’t taught in schools.”
Wallace began cuing me to turn my head so that he could dispense with some extremely distasteful hawkers. He also started staring out the window and letting some less pithy sentiments through. At 34 he has done much soul-searching on matters of addiction, obsession, and the disturbing American tendency to pleasure ourselves to death. It’s this emotional grist, as Jay McInerney noted, that makes Infinite Jest “something more than an interminable joke.”
“It seems like the human animal has this need to give itself away to something,” Wallace said, slowing his speech down and fiddling with his watch. “It’s like a religious impulse. You think, ‘Something is more important than me. I give myself away to it. It will take care of me in some very broad, general kind of way.'” With that, reporter number five called up from the lobby, and Wallace excused himself to void his spent tobacco somewhere out of sight.
The Wallace frenzy has a spooky fin de siecle feel. As the Atlantic Monthly’s Sven Birkerts wrote, Infinite Jest “has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst.” But–and this is more ominous–Birkerts isn’t alone in his preapocalyptic, center-cannot-hold sentiments. From a slacker fan in New Orleans (who, not coincidentally, is a big fan of the Unabomber’s manifesto) I heard: “Our generation’s job may be to dismantle things–they will come apart on their own volition, but in discordant ways–and Wallace shows us how to do it with care, scholarliness, and the correct metaphors.” From a Yale grad and urban planner: “Wallace writes and our generation quivers like strings of an ancient lyre. . . . If the empire is falling, he is the kind of writer you want to have around.” And from a New York woman who has such a searing crush on Wallace that she had to leave several of his readings in order to get drunk: “The plot lines don’t come together. Things don’t converge–and when do they, really? It’s sort of high time to admit that things don’t make sense in the end.” Wallace shows us the sad state we’re in; we love him for it. It’s a little twisted, but it’s the stuff of good fiction.
At his Chicago reading, Wallace’s theme of obsession got played out in a disarmingly real-world way. The venue was Barbara’s Bookstore. A Peavey amp lent an expectant, celebrified feel. As Wallace read, his listeners nodded. As he took questions, his answers were accepted with humble, reverent faith. When the show was over, fans formed a long line, waiting to get their fat tomes signed. And while Wallace might be deserving of praise, the scene called to mind religion and the dire American willingness to give ourselves away.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Mahoney.