Sunday evening in Normal, Ill., David Foster Wallace and PW are lost somewhere near the Lingerie department of the local K mart, on the lookout for audiocassettes, and Wallace is taking this unforeseen pre-interview delay to air a couple of last-minute reservations about the PW interview process. 'Am I expected to have insight or opinions about the publishing industry?' Wallace freezes mid-aisle, for maybe the third time in two minutes, as if he might bolt for the check-out. 'Because what I know about the publishing industry could be inscribed with a dry Magic Marker on the lip of a Coke bottle.'
The author of Infinite Jest (Little, Brown, 1996) -- the 1079-page, heavily annotated tome that has already done as much as any single book this decade to change the sound and aims of American fiction -- is wearing calf-high duckboots (jeans tucked in), a nylon backpack and a tortoiseshell hairband too small for his head. The combination of duckboots and hairband, not to mention stubble and granny glasses, and Wallace's all-around largeness (he stoops at about 6'2'), gives him a demeanor that's both endearingly little girlish and hard to synthesize. He has the look of a man who needs a bobby pin.
In person, Wallace doesn't resemble his author photos -- and the skittish but basically cheerful -- looking guy next to the Martha Stewart Home Furnishings display simply does not look anything like anyone who could have just written his latest collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, just out from Little, Brown, a cycle of darkly comic stories, peopled by sexual predators and spiritual bankrupts, in which rape and masturbation make a mockery of romantic love; family attachments are measured by the damage they do; and even the story titles ('Adult World,' 'A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life') dare readers to exempt themselves from the nightmarishness of Wallace's vision.
In the brief q&a pieces, scattered through the collection, that give the book its title, a female interviewer interrogates a series of creepy men about their relationships with women. Although we never hear her questions, only their answers, Wallace thinks of her as the book's protagonist. 'Something bad happens to her over the course of the book,' Wallace says, sitting over a post-K mart burger in a nearby diner, 'like something really bad.'
Chewing to smithereens one toothpick after another (he quit smoking mid-February), Wallace is quick to agree that Brief Interviews is his most disturbing work. 'I had no idea quite how upsetting the book was going to be, or that friends would see it as reflecting things that were going on with me -- which, if that's true, then I'm the literary equivalent of the person who writes 'Help me' on the mirror without knowing it.'
Wallace says he never planned to write the fictional interviews that lend the book its title and tone. He just sat down one week and 'four or five came out.' The challenge of writing in the q&a form amused him at first. It was a trick he had attempted but never mastered in Infinite Jest. Soon he found himself revisiting other unfinished business from the novel.
That business wasn't formal, but thematic. Set in and around a Boston of the near future, Infinite Jest unfolds mostly in an elite tennis academy and, a few blocks away, in a halfway house for recovering drug addicts. Over the course of the novel, as the kids and grownups cross each other's paths, Wallace paints the diorama of a country in which every form of pleasure or desire, from sports and TV to human relationships, threatens to turn into a need, where the pursuit of happiness masks a near-universal despair.
Wallace claims that the novel's 'sadness-and-addiction stuff' came from his observations of the culture of AA when he lived in Boston during his late 20s. 'Boston has open AA meetings and these things are fascinating. You see for the most part privileged people who, through their own inability to preserve autonomy in the face of available pleasure, have ruined their lives and look like Dachau survivors. That is what Infinite Jest is about, in one sense, but at the same time I only came up with this afterwards, in interviews, when I was trying to construct some kind of halfway truthful narrative about why I wrote what I wrote.'
In retrospect, Wallace says, he was unsatisfied with the character of Orin Incandenza, the novel's closest thing to a sex addict. Incandenza, a football hero, drifts through Infinite Jest seducing women who remind him of his mother. 'Much was made of Orin's sexual behavior, but in the novel it never coalesced. I remember making this connection and beginning to write more of the 'interviews' with that in mind. But it wasn't till I saw the galleys [for the new book] that I noticed how horrific this stuff was. The scary thing is that these last few years have been for the most part very nice and very quiet, though discomfiting in certain ways.' Wallace characterizes the public reception of both Infinite Jest and a followup essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (Little, Brown, 1997) as a 'schizophrenia of attention.' And although 'schizophrenia' is a strong word, at 37 years old Wallace clearly keeps his career as one of his generation's most revered literary experimenters separate from his private life teaching English at Indiana State, just down the highway from his parents' home in Urbana. Details of that private life are largely off the record, although he does acknowledge a 'solid, monogamous, good relationship' with a 'really cool person' and ownership of a dog who's 'pretty close to clinically depressed.' (Ever since the New York Times Magazine published the contents of Wallace's medicine cabinet, he has declared his house off-limits to the press.)
Wallace is especially reticent about his late 20s and early 30s when, following the publication of his first two books, he struggled with depression and substance abuse, years when nothing he wrote came to fruition, but during which time Infinite Jest ('a six-year novel that got written in three years') was taking shape. He claims not to understand the attention that reporters have paid to his post-adolescent personal problems: 'It's a miracle that Little, Brown found people who gave a shit about any of that stuff.' At its funniest, Wallace's fiction satirizes misery and isolation as conditions that are, essentially, boring, unworthy of the self. In the same way, Wallace seems honestly to find his career as a writer not just easier to talk about, but more interesting than his demons.
The son of a grammarian mother and a father who studied with Wittgenstein's student and biographer Irving Malcolm, Wallace planned to follow in his father's footsteps as a philosopher. But in his junior year at Amherst College, he took time off 'mostly to drive a schoolbus in Urbana'; when he returned to Amherst the next year, his best friends were already preparing to graduate. One of them had persuaded the administration to let him write a piece of fiction as part of his senior thesis. Friendless in his own senior year, Wallace followed suit.
The result was the first draft of The Broom of the System -- a ribald, sophisticated novel about unrequited love, a corrupt psychiatrist and disappearing senior citizens, that incorporated Thomas Pynchon's sense of slapstick and big chunks of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, and won Wallace a generous fellowship in the University of Arizona's graduate writing program.Wallace took the fellowship, but not without backward glances at logic and semantics. (In 1989 he enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard's philosophy program, but dropped out after a semester. )
At Arizona Wallace almost got thrown out by hard-line realists who 'aggressively disliked' his writing and combative classroom manner ('I was a prick'), but was taken up by San Francisco agent Bonnie Nadell. Today Nadell is one of four readers with whom Wallace shares new work. 'Bonnie and I have very different tastes, but when something really sucks, she'll tell me so that it d sn't make me want to jump off a bridge.'
Wallace credits Nadell with a 'Phil Specter' instinct for pairing him with the right editors. The first of these was Gerry Howard, who acquired Broom for Viking in 1986 and 'under whose stern tutelage (thank God) the novel was written again.' According to Wallace, he hasn't always been easy to edit. 'I learned some stuff from Gerry, but I didn't listen to him, and Girl' -- Wallace's first story collection, Girl with Curious Hair -- 'was my comeuppance.'
This comeuppance wasn't purely artistic (although Wallace says certain stories in that collection now strike him as 'wildly narcissistic'); it was legal. Wallace based one of the collection's stories, about The Letterman Show, on an actual Letterman appearance by the actress Susan Saint James-and neglected to mention the fact to Howard or to the New American Library legal team. ('I don't know why. I was 26, for God's sake, I should have known better. I just didn't think it mattered.') When NBC happened to rerun the Saint James spot, two weeks before Playboy closed the issue in which the story was due to run, Playboy panicked. Viking's lawyers then started looking at the collection and found even more cause for alarm in another story, involving real-life game show hosts Merv Griffin, Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek. Already in galleys, Girl was dropped from Viking's list. Meanwhile, says Wallace, he was sending the lawyers 'these involved philosophical letters. I was clueless, and I was scared because I thought this was the best work I was ever going to do. I'll owe Gerry for life for bringing it to Norton.'
Which is what Howard (joining an exodus of Viking editors under NAL management) did. Wallace says he could have stayed with Howard at Norton, but 'unfortunately, Norton did not authorize him to pay out advances sufficient to allow people to live,' so when Wallace had written half of Infinite Jest, Nadell sold the book to Michael Pietsch, at Little, Brown.
Pietsch's work on Infinite Jest is already widely celebrated. Wallace praises not just the laser-surgical feat of cutting 'two or three hundred pages' from a novel full of microscopic subplots and cross-references, but Pietsch's diplomacy as he shuttled between marketers, who worried over the novel's size, and Wallace, whose 'big hope was that two or three thousand people would read the book.
'This wasn't a matter of liking my editor. We don't mix socially: I'm nervous around Michael; he's an authority figure for me. But I feel like I know him, and I trust him, and that's priceless.'
Brief Interviews owes its own debt to Pietsch, who helped arrange the rest of the book's material to emphasize the arc of the 'interviews' themselves, and to echo Q's descent into what Wallace -- a child of atheists who has twice 'flunked out' of Catholic instruction -- only half-joking, calls 'the spiritual emptiness of heterosexual interaction in post-modern America.' But even though Wallace insists that Brief Interviews is more than just a collection, and admits that certain stories in it were difficult to write, he claims it was an easier book to walk away from than Infinite Jest.
'Novels are like marriages,' Wallace says, taking another toothpick from the box he carries in his backpack. 'You have to get into the mood to write them-not because of what writing them is going to be like, but because it's so sad to end them. When I finished my first book, I really felt like I'd fallen in love with my main character and that she'd died. You have to understand, writing a novel gets very weird and invisible-friend-from-childhood-ish, then you kill that thing, which was never really alive except in your imagination, and you're supposed to go buy groceries and talk to people at parties and stuff. Characters in stories are different. They come alive in the corners of your eyes.
'You don't have to live with them.'
Stein, a former contributing editor at PW, works at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.