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.