Although of course you end up becoming yourself

It’s mostly a book-length transcript of an interview David Lipsky conducted with David Foster Wallace in March 1996.  I’m about a quarter of the way through.  It’s hard going — hard meaning sad, not hard meaning difficult.  Notable things:

  • “In those essays that you like in Harper’s, there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am.”
  • Something that I think has been retroactively forgotten about DFW is that he meant his writing to be in the experimental, avant-garde American tradition; he was thinking about John Barth, and I guess about Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme too, though he hasn’t mentioned them yet in this book.  I think this has been retroactively forgotten because no one cares about that tradition anymore.  When I was an aspiring fiction writer everybody read Barthelme, but I haven’t heard him mentioned in years.

Some googling reveals that DFW did like Barthelme.  In fact, here’s a whole interesting chunk of an interview he did with Larry McCaffrey:

For most of my college career I was a hard-core syntax wienie, a philosophy major with a specialization in math and logic. I was, to put it modestly, quite good at the stuff, mostly because I spent all my free time doing it. Wienieish or not, I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments “mathematical experiences.” What I didn’t know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called “the click of a well-made box.” Something like that. The word I always think of it as is “click.”

Anyway, I was just awfully good at technical philosophy, and it was the first thing I’d ever really been good at, and so everybody, including me, anticipated I’d make it a career. But it sort of emptied out for me somewhere around age twenty. I just got tired of it, and panicked because I was suddenly not getting any joy from the one thing I was clearly supposed to do because I was good at it and people liked me for being good at it. Not a fun time. I think I had kind of a mid-life crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur real well for my longevity.

So what I did, I went back home for a term, planning to play solitaire and stare out the window, whatever you do in a crisis. And all of a sudden I found myself writing fiction. My only real experience with fun writing had been on a campus magazine with Mark Costello, the guy I later wrote “Signifying Rappers” with. But I had had experience with chasing the click, from all the time spent with proofs. At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click in literature, too. It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction. The first fictional clicks I encountered were in Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and in parts of the first story I ever wrote, which has been in my trunk since I finished it. I don’t know whether I have that much natural talent going for me fiction wise, but I know I can hear the click, when there is a click.

I quote the whole thing in order to concede Wallace is in some sense disagreeing with my disagreement with James Wood.

Anyway, here’s “The Balloon.”  And here’s my favorite Barthelme story, the one whose presence in a high-school anthology made me want to be an avant-garde fiction writer, “A Shower of Gold.”



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4 thoughts on “Although of course you end up becoming yourself

  1. His description of “mathematical experiences” reminds me of another literary take on mathematics, in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1, Book 28:
    “…the solution of an intellectual problem comes about in a way not very different from what happens when a dog carrying a stick in its mouth tries to get through a narrow door: it will go on turning its head left and right until the stick slips through…And of course though a head with brains in it has far more skill and experience in these turnings and twistings than an empty one, yet even for it the slipping through comes as a surprise, is something that just suddenly happens.”

  2. Richard Séguin says:

    This is an excellent analogy!

  3. Richard Kent says:

    Reading “The Balloon” for the first time was a singular event in my life. Mercifully for everyone else, I gave up my hopes of being a writer of avant-garde banana.

  4. […] Oct 2012:  Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David […]

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