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Everything and More

Sam Anderson
"It's all tremendously complicated."
05/19/10 at 14:36

Technically I’m supposed to write some kind of final post here─a conclusion that sums up everything we covered in a week of conversation. That’s usually a fairly easy job, but this one is giving me all kinds of trouble. It feels like our discussion keeps opening up, further and further, and could probably go on forever. Which I guess is an appropriate problem, given our subject.

So let me just end by tallying some of what I’m left thinking about.

Garth and Laura, I want to sign on to your points about the irreducibility of literary experience: Fiction, of course, is not simply a carrier of messages. Especially fiction as formally ambitious as DFW’s. (Garth, I particularly like your point about how the aesthetic challenge of Infinite Jest replicates/reinforces what we might think of as the book’s message─how “it is what it says.”)

And I think it’s worth extending this point to Lipsky’s book. Although of Course is not a novel, obviously, but it’s also (sneakily) not just a piece of journalism. Lipsky is a strong writer, and─although his book sends out all kinds of signals about how it’s a transparent, ultrapure Über-document─it’s actually a pretty artful thing.

I was thinking about this over the weekend when I stumbled across, on YouTube, a televisual analogue to Lipsky’s book: a long, unedited interview DFW did with a German TV station, in what appears to be a hotel room, in 2003. Although this interview took place seven years after Lipsky's, the overlap is pretty striking: Wallace talks about the dangers of a culture built around comfort and pleasure, tries to get his interviewer to share her own experiences, etc. On a gut level, though, it feels very different, mostly because there he is: DFW, the guy, twitching and wincing and grimacing, doubling over after long answers, apologizing Midwesternly for trivial things, and even showing occasional flashes of irritation. (The opening of part two, especially, is a 42-car pileup of awkwardness: It climaxes, horribly, when the cameraman inadvertently insults Wallace by telling him he’s “pontificating”─you can almost see DFW’s brain processing the various levels of the indignity: the insult, the fact that he’s been insulted by someone who doesn’t quite understand the meaning of “pontificate,” etc.)

Watching that interview reminded me of the extremely basic fact that Lipsky’s book is, above all, a book. It’s a literary experience, with a bit of the distance and deep complexity that comes with literary experience. And that, for me, at least partially allays some of our fears about People magazine (as Jason put it) or spectation without participation (as Garth put it). The Wallace in this book isn’t Wallace: He’s a literary character, created collaboratively by Lipsky and DFW over five days in 1996─and then publicly activated, fourteen years later, by a different version of Lipsky, in a genre DFW probably never even considered as a possibility. This creates some pretty complex dynamics. For instance, there’s the irony that springs up in the gap between 1996 Lipsky─who does occasionally seem “obtuse,” as Garth put it─and 2010 Lipsky, who seems to recognize, at least partially, that his younger self was obtuse. I keep thinking about that really gross moment early in the book when Wallace goes to take a shower and Lipsky uses the time to have a strategic phone conversation with someone at Rolling Stone about how best to get the dirt about DFW’s drug use. (“Bury it in other questions,” the person tells him.) It gives you a sense of the predatory nature of journalism that DFW was so wary of─the implicit grossness of Lipsky’s otherwise well-meaning project. It makes Rolling Stone (and, to a lesser degree, 1996 Lipsky) look pretty bad. And yet, to his credit, 2010 Lipsky left it in the book. (Or did he leave it in only because he knew it would make him look good?)

The point being that the book’s dynamics are, as DFW would say, tremendously complicated, and I think Lipsky plays with those dynamics more knowingly than we've given him credit for. It's fun to think of the book as an unorthodox nonfictional novel: The (flawed) hero is DFW’s charming, addictive voice, and the (somewhat admirable) villain is 1996 Lipsky, who spends a lot of time aggressively challenging the authenticity of that voice.

Speaking of that voice. The commenter GCarr asked me, long ago, to say more about a distinction I made in my opening post: DFW the talker versus DFW the writer. On one level there’s not much of a difference: Wallace the talker is sharp, coherent, careful, and funny; he swings between high and low registers just like he does on the page. As Lipsky puts it, "he could talk in prose." But I did notice something interesting, which is that DFW the talker actually omits many of the "talkiest" signatures of DFW the writer. For instance, I don’t recall him ever beginning a sentence—in the Lipsky book or in that YouTube interview—with one of those ultracasual formulations he always uses in his books: “And but so,” “So but when,” "But so anyway nevertheless like even so." Also, he doesn’t do that thing he loves to do on the page (the DFW tic that comes closest to driving me occasionally crazy) where he gets overly explicit about the antecedents of pronouns: "[S]o they spread the odious duty out as thin as they possibly could, the staffers." Which raises the paradox that, in some ways, DFW was more colloquial in print than he was in person. Which, again, speaks to the complexity of literary personae─our gestures of “authenticity” are sometimes our most artificial moves.

I could go on forever, but I'll stop there. In conclusion: It’s all tremendously complicated. Thanks to everyone─both the official discussants and the commenters─for helping to parse that complexity. You've made me think about DFW in new ways, and put healthy pressure on a lot of the old ways. Which is an extremely valuable thing, given how much space this guy continues to take up in the cultural consciousness. I hope our discussion can continue in other forums. Until then, I hope to run into you all at the shrine of St. Dave.

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