David Foster WallaceAuthor David Foster Wallace has died. He apparently hanged himself in his Los Angeles area home. He was 46.
I spent the day with Wallace in 1997, shortly after he'd received the MacArthur Foundation grant and while he was on the road touring for the publication of Infinite Jest, and interviewed him for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
David Foster Wallace sits at a conference table in the International Writers Center at Washington University's West Campus in Clayton, sipping coffee and chewing toothpicks, an oral substitute for the cigarettes he forswore a few months earlier.
"I'm 35 years old," the author of Infinite Jest says as he begins to describe himself. "I've been doing this for 13 years. I think I'm pretty good, but I don't think I'm real good yet."
This is a rare moment of conciseness for Wallace, whose prose is filled with convoluted but perfectly logical sentences that sometimes seem to go on for pages. Hailed by critics as the most gifted chronicler of his generation, he clearly doesn't believe — or read — his own press coverage.
Although his first two books, a novel and a collection of short stories, showed the promise of a rising new writer, Wallace really caught the attention of critics last year with Infinite Jest, his second novel. It's a 1,079-page work set mostly at a tony tennis academy and a drug rehabilitation halfway house in the near future.
Infinite Jest is actually an assortment of loosely related stories. At its center is the tale of three brothers, the Incandenzas, and the shadow cast over them by their father's suicide. A side plot concerns a band of wheelchair-bound terrorists seeking to control the eponymous "Infinite Jest," a film believed to be so entertaining that it puts anyone who views it into a blissed-out haze. Another side plot follows Don Gately, a drug addict who will found a new religion.
It is a complex book that Wallace insists is just as long and involved as it needs to be.
"The version that I turned in was about 500 pages longer than what came out," he says, "which in and of itself isn't terminal for me, but there's a lot of that 500 pages that didn't really need to be in there. It was very hard for me to listen to the editor, but I did it."
When Little, Brown published Infinite Jest, the book hit store shelves accompanied by an intense six-month publicity campaign. That, coupled with the critical notice Wallace's previous work had garnered, established the media-shy writer as the new literary celebrity.
Wallace, however, is pragmatic about the "publicity tsunami."
"Because of the economics of selling books right now, it has a lot to do with the big stores and with (the publishers) not getting a lot of returns," he says.
"The publishers don't really care if anyone actually reads it, they just want (consumers) to buy it from Barnes & Noble so they don't get a lot of copies back.
"I would rather that fewer people bought it and the people who bought it actually read it, but that's coming from my own ego."
His ego, Wallace acknowledges, is fragile and a large part of why he doesn't care to read reviews of his work.
The high that comes from celebrity, he says, is too seductive and too dangerous to the work of writing to succumb to it. Although first noting his respect for their work, he points to the examples of friends and contemporaries who enjoyed early success and weren't as sheltered from the hype.
"I thought, for instance, Bret Easton Ellis' book Less Than Zero — it's not Dante, but for the guy's age and for the moment — there was magic in it," Wallace says. "And I thought the same thing about Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City."
Wallace tries to put the attention paid to him in perspective, and he gets a lot of help from his friends.
"I'm protected in a lot of ways that I think certain other people aren't," he says. "I'll have this chat with a newspaper, which will mess me up for a few days because it makes me feel more important than I really am, but then it'll go away and I'll go home and my closest friends aren't writers and life is very real."
Home for Wallace is near the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., where he teaches writing and literature. He grew up in Urbana, where his father was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois and his mother an English professor at a community college.
"I mostly teach the freshman classes that the other professors don't want to teach and think I'm very gracious to do so when in fact I much prefer it," Wallace says.
Part of the joy of teaching entry-level courses, Wallace says, is introducing his students to works that engage them on their own turf.
"There's an Amy Homes story called 'A Real Doll' about a pubescent boy's affair with his sister's Barbie doll and that story's actually created a few literature majors at ISU," Wallace says. "They had no idea that a story could be that sick and smart and spiritually sophisticated and speak a language that's the same language as their own."
Wallace is taking the year off from teaching, thanks in part to a fellowship he received earlier this year from the MacArthur Foundation, the organization behind the so-called "genius grants." The five-year award, worth up to $75,000 annually, has given the author the freedom to concentrate on his own work.
While giving him the luxury of a sabbatical, the grant has also brought an odd kind of pressure into Wallace's life.
"There are a whole lot of things about it that are real nice that aren't what people would imagine," Wallace says. "They very nicely did a thing in my hometown newspaper that made it sound like you get all the money at once and it's tax-free, so every friend of mine who is some wacko investor came to me with ideas about silver futures and like that. In fact, what it is is like five years of a teaching salary.
"But I quit smoking a few months ago, so I haven't been working very well. It's very easy to run this guilt thing on myself, like when your parents are paying for college and you're screwing off. You feel like 'Oh, God, I just cost the MacArthur Foundation 50 dollars and all I did was watch a movie.'"
Wallace is working on several projects now, mostly short fiction. He says he feels no real pressure to produce another work on the scale of Infinite Jest anytime in the near future.
"I don't have any real desire to have a best seller," he says, "mostly because I think the sorts of books that become best sellers are not really books. They're sort of like television you can carry around with you."
He's content just to write and enjoy his time away from academia. He's not concerned with the critics who have branded him the literary spokesman for his generation.
"I feel that there's such an irony about anybody talking about a spokesman for my generation," Wallace says. "By definition, there can't be a spokesperson because there isn't a collective.
"I do love the term 'Generation X,' though. I don't know why people roll their eyes at that.
"A generation identified by a variable. That's deep."
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