Friday, December 30, 2011

David Foster Wallace, All-Around Good Guy

Factoid from Although Of Course: The bandanna was not an affectation; Wallace was as prodigious a perspirer as he was a writer. Image found here.

Um, I am probably not the smartest writer going. But I also--and I know, OK, this is gonna fit right into the persona [of the falsely-modest wunderkind writer]--I work really really hard. I'm really--you give me twenty-four hours? If we'd done this interview through the mail? I could be really really really smart. I'm not all that fast. And I'm really self-conscious. [. . . But] I'm not an idiot. I mean I know, you know, I mean I can talk intelligently with you and stuff.--David Foster Wallace.

This bit is from pp. 218-219 of David Lipsky's 2010 book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which Santa Claus found via my Amazon Wishlist and was kind enough to send my way this Christmas. As you may gather from the passage above, this book is a transcription of the raw material for a Rolling Stone article/interview on Wallace that never got published--five days' worth of (very lightly edited) recorded conversation between Lipsky and Wallace as they travelled together on the last leg of Wallace's March 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. As long-time readers of this blog know, I'm kind of a big fan of Wallace's work and powerfully drawn to the big ideas behind it; so this book worked like cat-nip on me, especially once it became clear that, notwithstanding an abundance of passages like that quoted above, there's plenty of meaty, articulate commentary on writing and, in particular, a thoughtful claim about the Web's effects on our social fabric that picks up on, from another angle, Hannah Arendt's examination of the effects of technology on culture. Also, while it's true that these interviews were conducted 12 years before his death, Although Of Course has surprisingly few moments which I felt were especially portentous. He was in, as the kids and therapists say, a Good Place: At the time of these interviews, his dark time was almost exactly ten years before; in the now of the interviews, he feels fortunate just to be alive, much less garnering the sort of recognition for his work that he was, and acutely aware that getting too emotionally caught up in the perks of (relative) fame would be destructive to him. So, Wallace comes across as being, just as he says in the italicized passage above, very self-conscious, but not in the sense of his affect's being studied or mannered. Rather, it's in the sense of his being fully aware of his great good fortune yet not forgetting where he's from and what he's come out on the other side of.

So, whether he's interacting with Lipsky, with his dogs, or with a waitress at a Denny's, he's never condescending, never "on." He behaves, and (as he says several times) wants to be regarded as, ordinary in the best sense of that term: no matter how special the adulation he's receiving, he isn't going to be the one who insists on the perks of that adulation. Though this is nine years before his Kenyon College commencement address, we see him here acting on his own advice to those graduates to be "conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience" so as to avoid being "totally hosed" by Life. His advocacy in Although Of Course on behalf of treating people "with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they [are] valuable as human beings" and that "I think part of the job we're here for is to learn how to do [that]" is also a presaging of Kenyon College.

And speaking of presaging: Another thing that makes this fun to read is that, yes, there's a lot of space given over to Infinite Jest, but in his description of editing that novel it feels, to me at least, that we get glimpses of the ambiance, at least, of The Pale King.

Sometimes, it's extremely unpleasant to read about the personal life of a writer whom you admire. Joel Williamson's William Faulkner and Southern History, for example, has made me happy that I never got the opportunity to consider turning down an invitation to be in the man's presence for more than the time required to receive an autograph; despite its title, Williamson's book is in large part a few-holds-barred recounting of Faulkner's slow killing of himself through his drinking, and the destructiveness of his serial, not-even-secret infidelities on his wife, daughter and friends. After reading Although Of Course, though, I have to say that my earlier admiration for Wallace as a writer is now augmented by my admiration of him as a person. His work is autobiographical in the sense that he seems to have embodied in his manner of living the ideals he espouses in his writing.

Still, I can't give a full-throated recommendation for this book, not even to all of Wallace's fans ("students" of Wallace and his work will want to read it, though). For one thing, there's a lot of repetition in it. Some of it may be due to Lipsky's forgetting that he's already asked those questions, but much of it is due to Lipsky's own obsessions. One is his constant probing of the nature of Wallace's excesses with drug and alcohol back in the mid-'80s. Lipsky keeps saying he's trying to confirm/refute rumors he's heard; and, because addiction is one of Infinite Jest's big themes, and because some of that novel's characters have backgrounds that mirror Wallace's own biography in fairly significant ways, Lipsky seems to be making the assumption that the novel approaches autobiography. After some polite jousting, Wallace finally tells him, politely but a bit testily, that, sure, he has some knowledge of substance use/abuse, but a) addiction ultimately works in the novel as a metaphor and b) one of his gifts as a writer is his ability to imagine and re-create in words the psyches of people other than himself. Wallace does some assuming of his own--he says at one point that Rolling Stone's audience will be interested in tales of substance abuse, hence Lipsky's harping on the subject--but by insisting on the metaphorical dimensions of addiction as it appears in Infinite Jest, he wants to make sure that people are reading the novel correctly, and for the right reasons.

Lipsky's other obsession arises from, as he confesses in the introductory material, his quiet envy of the acclaim Wallace has been receiving for Infinite Jest. I don't know Lipsky's work, but he's apparently well-regarded. However, his own "book tour" for his book The Art Fair consisted of a single reading at a bookstore in New York; Wallace's, by comparison, is a several-stop, bi-coastal and upper-Midwestern affair. So, Lipsky keeps trying to get Wallace to engage in a little literary chest-thumping, and Wallace refuses to do it. Wallace instead says, in a couple of places and in different ways, that he's a writer to be a writer and, sure, he wants to be read, but he's not a writer so he can get invited to certain kinds of parties.

The upshot is that, in at least a couple of places, I wonder if Lipsky is really listening to Wallace. I understand that interviews have to establish facts and that in order to be truthful records of the interviewee the interviewer has to push, return to certain matters, etc. Moreover, I understand that what we're given here isn't a polished, edited interview--in that sort of text, the subject's responses become more foregrounded. But still, I found myself thinking, as I was reading, Really now--what is your deal? a little more often than I would have liked. Lipsky, or the nature of his questioning, becomes the subject, at least in places.

I'd intended to share and comment on some snippets from the book as they pertain to Wallace's observations about pleasure and addiction and how television participates in those, and how the Internet will require some pretty substantive re-thinking of what holds culture together. This has gone on long enough, though; that other stuff will come in a later post.

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