A Supposedly True Thing or Two:
An Interview with David Foster Wallace
By John Glassie
(Time Out New York, January 1997)
David Foster Wallace says that, last year, when his 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest came out, his publisher was “able to take the size of the book, which would not on the surface of it look like a selling point, and turn it in to some kind of weird PR hook.” That’s true, and a lot reviewers remarked on its seat-cushion-like dimensions. But they also said it was one of the most brilliant and funny works of fiction to come out in recent years.
Wallace’s new collection of articles and essays happens to be one of the most brilliant and funny works of non-fiction to come out in recent years. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again includes pieces about tennis, the Illinois State Fair, the interrelationship between contemporary fiction and television, filmmaker David Lynch, deconstructionist literary theory, and a luxury cruise in the Caribbean -- “the supposedly fun thing” of the collection’s title. A former philosophy student, Wallace left out some “weird theoretical essays” and academic pieces on topics such as Dostoevsky and Wittgenstein.
Printed at their original length, most of the magazine articles in this book seem like they are three times longer than any magazine article ever published. “I felt bad. They would give me a word limit and I would just sort of ignore it,” confesses Wallace. He wanted to do the book, in part, because “there were a few of these essays where I wanted to do sort of a director’s cut.”
On one hand, it feels like he should have done some cutting. He can get precise to the point of obscurity. At his worst he’s like a pothead teenager with 1600 SAT scores. But at his best he’s like a pothead teenager with 1600 SAT scores and an incredible sensitivity to the world around him. In the end you’re glad for access to all the material.
Here, in the state fair piece, “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Getting Away From it All,” he checks out the Fair’s livestock: “A sudden clattering spray-sound like somebody hosing down siding turns out to be a glossy chocolate stallion, peeing.... The stream’s an inch in diameter and throws up dust and hay and little chips of wood from the floor. We hunker down and have a look upward, and I suddenly for the first time understand a certain expression describing certain human males, an expression I’d heard but never truly understood until now, prone and gazing upward in some blend of horror and awe.”
Offers to do nonfiction keep rolling in, including the “chance” to interview Pamela Anderson of “Baywatch” fame, but Wallace says he prefers fiction writing. He isn’t completely comfortable, however, with the all notoriety he’s been getting for it.
“I like attention from other people as much as the next person, but it makes me self-conscious, which I think makes it harder to work, and makes me more frightened, and it also sets up this whole eagerness-to-please thing which is a real complicated thing about writing. On the other hand, it’s nice to get praise, it’s nice to have your stuff read. I’m not moving to Guam and refusing to do interviews.”
Instead, Wallace lives in Illinois, his home state. He moved back from points east three years ago to teach at Illinois State University in Bloomington. “It’s really easy, with writing, just to have your whole self worth bound up with it. You say, ‘Oh, I have a right to breath oxygen today because I wrote five good pages,’ and the next day 'I’m a shithead' because I didn’t. So if you’re doing something other than that, like teaching, it takes the weight off of it.”
In addition to Infinite Jest, Wallace has published two other books of fiction, a novel, The Broom of the System, and a short-story collection, Girl with Curious Hair. In all his stuff, it's clear that while his mind is in the avant garde tradition, his heart is in reading and writing for the enjoyment of it. “A lot of avant garde or ‘experimental’ fiction that I’ve seen in the last ten years or so isn’t very much fun. One of the things I’m interested in is doing stuff that’s somewhat experimental and somewhat hard-core but also fun and seductive.”
Wallace seems like such an unassuming guy that inquiring minds want to know: What is the deal with the Three Names? “When I first got an agent, he said I needed to use all three names because there was already a David Raines Wallace," he says.
"I think it sounds pretentious. I’m Dave Wallace. But now it's too late. I mean, I don’t want to be The Writer Formerly Known As David Foster Wallace. What are you going do? I was twenty three. I had no idea. If my agent had told me I had to wear swim fins and a clown nose I simply would have believed him.”