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Everything and More

Garth Risk Hallberg
"The urge to turn our dead artists into motivational speakers."
05/11/10 at 19:24

Until I saw Laura's post, I was terrified I was going to be the curmudgeon of this group. In fact, I'm still pretty sure I'm going to be the curmudgeon, but I'm grateful to her for voicing—albeit gently—a few of the qualms I had about this book, because this way I won't look like a total crank. (Crippling ... self-consciousness ... setting in ... help me, St. Dave!) In fact, they may be sort of aspects of a single qualm—what Sam has called "the book industry's processing of DFW as a departed figure." I'm going to try to articulate both the qualms and the connections thereof, but it's going to take a little while (in addition to being the curmudgeon, I'm apparently also the long-winded one), so bear with me.

To begin with, it's bracing to be reminded of how DFW the living figure appeared within that industry, circa Lipsky's interview. I mean, I didn't realize it as a hick 17-year-old inching my way through a library copy of Infinite Jest, but Wallace was a huge deal to literary folk. More specifically, to expensively educated thirtysomething New York–based literary folk. A narrow demographic, sure, but, once upon a time, a powerful one. (Nostalgic sigh.)

The problem is that huge-dealness, as Jason Kottke suggested in his post, has little to do with art. Or may in some way be its enemy. And young David Lipsky, in 1996, just doesn't seem to be able to move past it. By my count, on ten separate occasions he falls back into a line of questioning that amounts to "But isn't it awesome to be you, a huge deal?"—sometimes for ten or twenty pages at a stretch. In bulk, it comprises about 20 percent of the interview.

Clearly, the (justified) hype around Infinite Jest is the angle of the profile Lipsky wants to write, or Rolling Stone wants him to write. He's not coy about that. His persistence isn't even an entirely bad thing, tactically. For example, it gets Wallace talking about the struggle between the selfish self and the selfless self, which is at the heart of Infinite Jest. It also—this seems important, and maybe DTM wants to talk about this—reveals that that struggle is part of what drove Wallace to addiction and near-suicide in the late eighties/early nineties ... a set of events Wallace is obviously being somewhat reticent about, at least in part because Alcoholics Anonymous is, well, anonymous. (This is the other point Lipsky keeps badgering him about. Which drugs did you do? How many? How often?)

But, as Laura points out, Wallace doesn't want to play ball, and in the course of a 300-page interview in which the subject keeps saying, in various ways, "You're asking about the symptom, let's talk about the disease," Lipsky starts to look sort of obtuse. Wallace is doing philosophy, and Lipsky is doing journalism, or Wallace is a verb and Lipsky is a noun, or Wallace is Roger Federer and Lipsky is ... er, Wallace, and we're the tennis ball being batted back and forth in the middle.

I don't want to suggest that it's not a pleasurable sort of battering, particularly for the avid DFW reader. But as Wallace himself keeps pointing out, the framework he's speaking from within is not something that can be spelled out in an interview, or a speech, or a tract. "Like if I could articulate it," he says, "There wouldn't be any need to make up stories about it, you know?" Or "I don't have a diagnosis. I don't have a system of prescriptions. I don't have four different ... opinions about it. It seems to me that it's more of a feeling." To borrow a distinction from Wittgenstein, by way of Infinite Jest, most of what Wallace really cares about isn't available for expression ... only for evocation. Which is probably why he quit his promising philosophy career and became a fiction writer.

This is an (extremely) roundabout way of getting to what nettled me most about this book, which is that, as a work of rhetoric (as opposed to the invaluable document it once was, sitting on David Lipsky's hard drive, and in some sense still is), it's blind to the express/evoke distinction. It offers us, to quote the jacket copy, Wallace's "inspiring" attempts "to knit together ... ideas of who you should be and who other people expect you to be." It offers us that kind of ersatz McSweeney's title, aw-shucksing away its anthemic aspirations with a flourish of demotic syntax. It offers us, on the back cover, an image of a plaintively blurred car sliding by below the moody sky, and a particularly delicate nugget of interview wrenched from its context and waved like a flag above the huge attribution DAVID FOSTER WALLACE:

If you can think of times in your life that you've treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend.

St. Dave, in other words. We've met him before, in that Little, Brown edition of the Kenyon Commencement Speech, where each sentence was printed on its own page.

The urge to turn our dead artists into motivational speakers is perhaps a symptom of the peculiarly American disease Wallace is concerned to treat in his fiction. It works well enough for pop music, which after all is an art already made out of sound bites; I'm as heartened as the next guy when I pass that ride on Coney Island with an airbrushed Tupac and Biggie presiding over the kiddie cars, friends in death, as they couldn't be in life. But as someone who was imaginary friends with David Foster Wallace, there's something unsettling about the compelling simulacrum this book offers.

It's maybe unfair to pit an interview against a novel this way, or to judge a book by its cover. But if you're really interested in Wallace's "astonishing, humane, alert way of looking at the world," and are new to it, Vulture readers, don't start with this book, and don't listen to the revisionists who tell you DFW's journalism is his great achievement. Get thee to a bookstore, and go read Infinite Jest.


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