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Conversations with David Foster Wallace (Literary Conversations Series)
Conversations with David Foster Wallace (Literary Conversations Series)

University Press of Mississippi, 2012
208 pp., $65.00

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David J. Michael


Capacities of Spirit

The life and work of David Foster Wallace.

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These themes would find their way into Wallace's masterwork, Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest revolves around a tennis academy, a drug-recovery house, and a video so entertaining that viewers can't stop watching until they die of exhaustion. Wallace told David Lipsky that "the things that ended up for me being most distinctively American right now, around the millennium, had to do with both entertainment and about some kind of weird, addictive, um … wanting to give yourself away to something. That I ended up thinking was kind of a distorted religious impulse." One character in Infinite Jest remarks, "Choose with care. You are what you love. No?"

Pieces of Infinite Jest date back as far as 1986, but the full idea didn't blossom until after his time at Granada House. As the book's complex structure—that of a Sierpinski gasket (Google it … or maybe don't)—started to gel, he began writing with remarkable speed. By April 1992 he had submitted 250 pages of Infinite Jest for an advance. In May he moved to Syracuse, living in an apartment so small that if he wanted to write, he'd have to move his books from his desk to his bed. When Illinois State called about a job teaching fiction, he readily accepted and moved to Bloomington in the summer of 1993, where he continued to work on Infinite Jest.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace had found his mature style, which Max characterizes as "a passionate need for encounter telegraphed by sentences that seemed ostentatiously to prohibit it, as if only by passing through all the stages of bureaucratic deformation can we touch each other as human beings." Wallace used a mix of high and low style—the kind that is now a mainstay of websites like Grantland and The Awl—and employed footnotes to include various anecdotes and facts. The footnotes, he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch, allowed for a "discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story" and mimicked "the information flood and data-triage I expect'd be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence."

Despite hundreds of pages of cuts, the book weighed in at 1,079 pages, 96 of which were dedicated to endnotes. It was published in February 1996 to much hoopla. The following year, Wallace received a grant from the Lannan Foundation and a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant. His nonfiction was also in demand with editors and was at least as popular as his fiction.

Wallace, however, wanted to concentrate on fiction. In the course of his career, he went through periods of creative mania where the pages seemed to pour out of him like sweat. Now, the words weren't flowing. He wrote to friends that he was mostly feeding his wastebasket, managing to complete only a few rather complicated short pieces that he struggled to publish. (They would eventually find their way into Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.) He sometimes attributed his perceived lack of creativity to teaching, other times lack of discipline. On a note, he scrawled a list of "What Balance Would Look Like":

2-3 hours a day in writing
Up at 8-9
Only a couple late nights a week
Daily exercise
Minimum time spent teaching
2 nights/week spent with other friends
5 [recovery meetings a] week
Church

He wrote to Don DeLillo around this time, "I have to tell you I don't enjoy this war one bit. I think my fiction is better than it was, but writing it is also less Fun than it was."

In his 1998 essay, "The Nature of Fun" (recently republished in the new essay collection Both Flesh and Not: Essays), Wallace refers to the kind of writing he'd first experienced as "writing almost wholly to get yourself off." It is fun, he says, but hollow and empty and eventually "gives way to attempted seduction …. At some point you find that 90 percent of the stuff you're writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked." The solution, Wallace tells readers, is to move back to a concept of writing as fun, only now the fun has been transfigured. It is "a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun." The essay reads as though as if he'd found his way past vanity as a motive, but he had not, and he was painfully aware of it as he struggled to move ahead with his fiction.

Of course, this egoism was not peculiar to Wallace. In "Why I Write," George Orwell gave as his first answer: "Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death." Writers share this with what today we might call "professionals," and what Orwell calls "the whole top crust of humanity." But most of Wallace's friends were part of the substratum, friends from his recovery group, and he could not ignore their virtues. He wrote a friend in 1999: "You're special—it's O.K.—but so's the guy across the table who's raising two kids sober and rebuilding a '73 Mustang. It's a magical thing with 4,000,000,000 forms." Further, he knew that his ego, and his love of praise, had not helped him. To a friend, he wrote that it was a daily battle to figure out "how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his (her) loving me." In one the many self-help books he read, next to a claim that low self-esteem can lead to "believing your worth and happiness lie outside of you," Wallace wrote "Writing Success Fame Sex."

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