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Everything and More

D. T. Max
"How to be a functional, moral person in a compromised world."
05/11/10 at 09:48

The Infinite Transcript...I’m going to hold off on Alanis for the moment and first take up your genre question. Is the transcribed interview the new literary form, right for the web the way the sonnet was for the court? Is it the SST to traditional biography’s horse-and-buggy? “Sono gli omini,” Castiglione once wrote, “sempre cupidi della novità.” My translation: "How we burn for new forms." Do we have one? Well, forse. The interview, in Lipsky’s hands, certainly has power. Lipsky is good and has the right equipment: He’s literary, deferential, smart. He mumble-sings with his subject; they eat junk food. He gives a bit to get, though Wallace is always happy—demurrals notwithstanding—to give. He captures well the Waller’s voice: What Laura Miller, in her profile for at around the same time, nicely called “the careful modesty of a recovering smart aleck.” There’s some meta at work in these pages, too: Lipsky quickly becomes one mirror in the hall of mirrors that was always absorbing and frightening Wallace. I think of that refrain in Wallace’s work: If I’m kind to you, is that real kindness or just an attempt to make you think I’m kind to get what I want? It’s in Broom of the System, too—look for Rick’s description of the “second-order vain person.”

Downside of Wallace’s "Last Tape" versus traditional(ish) biography? Well, of course this is a snapshot, not a movie, right? This is Wallace in just one moment, though an interesting one: The wave has just broken and, for the second time in his life, he’s sorting through the spume. And Wallace doesn’t always tell Lipsky the truth. There’s a lot of “I had this friend at a halfway house” when the friend is in fact Wallace. But a lot of interesting things come out here, to make an understatement. Probably the book’s greatest virtue, to me, is that it’s Wallace’s fullest elaboration of what he saw as the key question of modern existence: how to be a functional, moral person in a compromised world. And that, if you’re a Wallace fanatic, is what you’re likely digging into Infinite Jest and Oblivion for, too, no?

Now, on to Alanis Morissette. Yes, it surprises me, because his taste when he was younger was much more toward U2, Brian Eno, and Nick Drake. But hey, he was a Midwesterner at heart, someone who was an enthusiast before he was a critic. The only one he was tough on was himself. I think, reading between the lines, he sees himself in Morissette, this artist who is given a cool pass by the culture even though he’s trying too hard, suffering too obviously—actually, precisely because he’s trying too hard. Anyway, I’ve got a Morissette-Wallace anecdote. Wallace is teaching at Pomona in the mid-aughts and he’s working out in a gym with a colleague, a very bright professor of politics named John Seery. Seery was well known for his work on irony; David had by now become some sort of poster boy for anti-irony. Seery mentioned that one of his students was excited they knew each other. “You mean like matter and antimatter?” Wallace joked. At this moment the loudspeaker in the gym starts playing…Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic.” Like rain…You can read the anecdote in Seery’s own words here. Anyway, doesn’t Wallace tell Lipsky on page 198 that in the college towns he lives in, you hear a lot of shitty music and you just have to deal?

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