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The 'Infinite Story' cult hero behind 1,079-page novel rides the hype he skewered

April 7, 1997 --There is The Thing, plunked down in the coliseum of our consciousness. There is The Viewer of this Thing, sitting in the stands, hand on chin. And there is the Viewer of the Viewer of The Thing -- the postmodernist metaphysician hovering in the helicopter above, discussing the way people watch.

And then, somewhere out in the cosmos, watching the watcher watch himself watching, talking about talking about talking, there is David Foster Wallace, novelist, essayist, recovering ironist, and wizard of giddy self-consciousness.

Wallace is the writer best known for a multitiered novel called ``Infinite Jest'' that weighs in at 1,079 pages, 96 of which are footnotes in a section at the end. When ``Infinite Jest'' was released last year, the critics dubbed it a Pynchonesque work of genius and ``The Grunge American Novel,'' and trend writers called Wallace the post-Brat-Pack-pre-millennial Jay McInerney and the voice of Generation X, despite his age, which is 35. He became the hero of grad students and alternative readers everywhere, including the Internet, where there are websites devoted to him.

Now, the more affordable paperback of ``Infinite Jest'' has arrived in bookstores, along with an exhilarating new collection of essays, ``A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again,'' and the press-phobic Wallace is doing the promotional circuit once again, exposing himself to more media generalization and imprecision and hype out of loyalty to his publisher, Little, Brown.

Wallace is a strapping Illinoisan whose brown hair leaks out from a loose ponytail. Like his prose, his interviewee style is maximalist and filled with sub-commentary, with Wallace repeatedly qualifying his statements and simultaneously conducting a review of his interviewer's interviewing style, which he calls ``psychiatric.'' Nothing is simple to Wallace, and a question on his feelings about his year in the American hype machine yields first a preresponse and then a gaggle of responses. ``Do you want a univocal answer?'' he asks. ``Because I can pretend as if I feel one way about it. But, of course, the reality is that at last count I feel about 53 different ways.'' For the sake of the concision of daily journalism, he is granted four feelings about becoming famous.

- Feeling No. 1, edited down: ``I think the book is the best thing I've ever done, and I'm proud of it, and it was an extremely pleasant surprise to have it get a lot of attention, and some of that is absolutely great.''

- Feeling No. 2: ``I'm also someone who has problems with self-consciousness. There's part of me that craves attention, but it's an increasingly small part. I've seen attention [mess up] writers I admire. I'm leery of it, and a great deal of the hype occurred at the time when rudimentary arithmetic yields the result that most people haven't read the book. So it's hard to take it seriously at the same time that it's gratifying.''

- Feeling No. 3: ``I had never been interviewed before. In the first interview I did, I was talking about old girlfriends and who I didn't like. And this guy shut off the tape recorder halfway through and said, `I need to explain a few things to you.' He put a couple of embarrassing things in his story, but 90 percent of the horrible stuff he didn't put in out of his own decency. So big feeling number three: This'' -- his finger points back and forth between us -- ``is hard.''

- Feeling No. 4: ``Exquisite irony, because a lot of the book is about hype and spin and position. So it's really an enormous cosmic joke. It's like, OK kid, you want to learn a little bit about hype? Have a taste from the big boys' drinking fountain. And not a big gulp, because I'm well aware of where books exist in the consciousness of the culture. I thought I was very sophisticated and had learned a lot about hype from TV. But it's entirely different. The cliche that getting a lot of attention is not the same as getting a lot of affection takes on new dimensions when you learn it through experience.''

One of the miracles of ``Infinite Jest'' is the marketing campaign, which has turned the book's enormity into a plus -- the ``are-you-reader-enough?'' approach. ``They've been able to take length and difficulty, which are not particularly sexy features, and spin it such that they look sexy,'' he says. ``Questions about the length are very boring to me -- `How did you write such a long book?' `I used a really long pen, next question' -- but it has become a hook, like `Oh, it's the big book.' ''

But the novel, with its dazzling comic despair, would undoubtedly have found a passionate readership on its own merits. It's set in the next decade, when the United States has taken over most of Canada, forming the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), and when the years are sponsored by companies and named after them -- Year of the Whopper, for instance, or Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad. Located in what used to be Boston, the plot takes many roads, most of them connected to the characters at the Enfield Tennis Academy and an addiction treatment center next door, Ennet House. The pages are filled with obsessive specificity -- a dozen-page memory of the disassembly of a bed, anyone? -- and broad satire, including a movie, called ``Infinite Jest,'' that's so entertaining it fatally immobilizes its viewers.

Wallace's writing style, particularly with its astounding number of footnotes, has inspired many comparisons to computer hypertext. It's as if you have the option to click on a sentence, and it links you to another relevant spot, from which you later return to the original text. ``Straight narrative feels contrived to me, both as a reader and as a writer,'' Wallace says. ``With something set a little bit in the future, that has surreal elements, I'm especially looking for a way to fracture the narrative. . . . You decide: Do you want to read the footnotes? All at the end? Do you want to flip back and forth? Do you use two bookmarks? There are ways to [play] with the reader that are benign, and a certain amount of [playing] with the reader seems to be extremely useful.'' He likens footnotes to vaudevillian call-and-response, and says they are a good vehicle for humor.

But footnotes have become an addiction of sorts for David Foster Wallace, a fact brought home to him when a magazine approached him about writing a regular column called ``Footnotes,'' in which he would be required to do That David Foster Wallace Thing and use notes. ``I got to the point where I couldn't quit using them,'' he says. ``It got worse and worse.'' After writing a much-footnoted piece for Premiere magazine on filmmaker David Lynch, which is reprinted in ``A Supposedly Fun Thing,'' he went through footnote detox. ``I'm just not allowed to use them anymore,'' he says with conviction.

Addiction is a topic that wends its way into most Wallace profiles. The selling of ``Infinite Jest'' has involved much talk of its author's personal struggles with drugs and alcohol, presenting Wallace as a grungy but fragile wunderkind in recovery from some hard-living years. (One journalist even took a sneaky tour through the medicine cabinet in Wallace's Normal, Ill., home.) The media-ized story goes like this:

At Amherst College in the early 1980s, young David turned away from a future as a philosopher to write fiction. His senior thesis became a draft of his first novel, ``The Broom of the System,'' which was published in 1987. Living in Brighton, success gone to his head, Wallace fell into bad habits, including alcohol, drugs, and a suicide-watch visit to a local hospital. He changed his lifestyle, wrote ``Infinite Jest,'' and moved back to Illinois, where he grew up, to teach at Illinois State University. He dabbled in religion. He lived happily ever after.

Presented with this condensation, Wallace laughs. ``The new American myth, yes? . . . I'll tell you what the truth is.''

- ``I have done some drugs, I did a lot of them in my teenage years and there was a kind of resurgence of it after my first book got taken. And the biggest reason was that suddenly I got to go to parties with big writers, and some of these big writers ride their lives hard. I was 23 and I had the idea that this was like wearing a coat and tie if you're a banker, that if you're a writer you're supposed to live this way. I just wasn't cut out for it neurologically.''

- ``A whole lot of it was not sleeping very much, a tendency to think in these loops as if stoned while not being stoned. I don't know if it could be called a breakdown. I was in a lucky position of having something like a midlife crisis in my late 20s. When you're starting out writing fiction, the ego is a tremendous force, and a big part of you dreams of a certain level of success, and I got some of that, and it didn't make me happy.''

- ``I went into Newton-Wellesley [Hospital]. I was feeling so miserable and so angry at myself that I was afraid I was going to hurt myself, so I put myself in there so that I would stop worrying about it. I would not be talking with you about it if I hadn't slipped to the press last year. It's not really anyone's business. . . . It was embarrassing for me, but it was also a time when I gave up a lot of ideas about why I became a writer and what I wanted.''

- ``I'm interested in religion, only because certain churches seem to be a place where things can be talked about. What does your life mean? Do you believe in something bigger than you? Is there something about gratifying every single desire you have that is harmful? . . . I haven't been successful in completing initiation in any church, though, and I don't know that I'd call myself a religious person.''

- ``One place where I discovered stuff was being talked about was AA meetings. I'm not in AA, but I went to open meetings. . . . There's a certain amount of goo, and there's a certain amount of serious [stuff]. Like the fact that it takes enormous courage to appear weak. Hadn't heard that anywhere else. I was just starting to entertain the fact that that might be true.''

As Wallace speaks, he holds before him a glass that slowly fills with a brown, foamy, beerlike liquid. He is chewing tobacco, first distorting his top lip with a mound of the stuff, then moving the hidden activity to a rear cavity, all the while spitting into the glass. This process goes on without much drama throughout the interview, in contrast to Wallace's conversation, which is impassioned and gentlemanly, as befits a former philosophy student. ``Allow me to be defensive for a moment,'' he says at one point, talking about his use of irony.

Irony. It's the style of the 1990s, and many readers of ``Infinite Jest'' have used the word in describing Wallace's sensibility. Wallace has done an enormous amount of thinking on the subject, much of which he includes in ``E Unibus Pluram,'' an essay about TV and fiction in ``A Supposedly Fun Thing.'' Irony and ridicule, he writes, ``are agents of a great despair and stasis in US culture,'' and irony, once a rebel's weapon, has been co-opted and disempowered by pop culture. ``Irony tyrannizes us,'' he writes. ``All US irony is based on an implicit `I don't really mean what I'm saying.' ''

The centerpiece of our interview is Wallace's 45-minute light show on the dangers of irony in America. His fascinating theories extend from Socrates to David Letterman, whom Wallace calls ``the archangel'' of contemporary irony. ``The particular kind of irony I'm talking about,'' he says, ``when Letterman comes out and says, `What a fine crowd,' and everybody roars with laughter, came about in the '60s.'' At that time, with writers like Ken Kesey, he says, irony was an appropriate response to a ``Leave It to Beaver'' world in need of being punctured.

But today's irony simply masks ``terror of appearing sentimental or melodramatic or manipulative in all those old-fashioned ways,'' Wallace says, ``while pretending that in itself the irony is not manipulative.'' It is rigorously used to sell products, and Wallace says he even finds himself ``selling'' himself with irony to his students at Illinois State. ``All I have to do on the first day to get them to like me is I will call attendance and, in the middle, I will go, `Bueller? Bueller?' '' The reference to the 1986 movie ``Ferris Bueller's Day Off,'' he says, ``shows that I'm conscious of the fact that as the teacher I am the dull-voiced authority figure and I am poking fun of it.

``It's OK, it's hip and it's cool and it's the language we speak. And yet it's also terrifying to me, that my students have no idea the extent to which they are tyrannized by corporate culture. They're so tyrannized they're not aware that they're tyrannized. It's like being subjects of fascism and believing that you're in a democracy.''

Wallace says he hates the thought of ``Infinite Jest'' being yoked in with the culture of cool irony and hip detachment. ``I wanted to do something sad. . . . There are, I hope, ways in which the irony in the book is at least conscious enough of itself and its close relation to despair that it's not just another Isuzu commercial. You know, `It's all just a joke, don't take me seriously,' which is so unbelievably easy and sells like sex.''

With its wide acclaim, ``Infinite Jest'' appeared to be a shoo-in for the 1996 National Book Awards. That it was not even nominated became the focus of a controversy last year, and writers and critics used the snub of ``Infinite Jest'' to publicly air their concern about the awards and fiction in America.

``I'm going to tell you the truth, and it's going to sound like a Nixonian evasion,'' Wallace says. ``I would have loved to have gotten nominated for the National Book Award. I would also love to win the Illinois State Lottery.'' He says that all the hype might have caused a backlash, and that the nominating committee may have been composed of people who don't like ``avant-garde'' fiction. The controversy, he says, had more to do with that schism in American fiction than with ``Infinite Jest.''

Surprisingly, movie rights for ``Infinite Jest'' have been sold, he says. ``I'm in the odd position of having taken the money and hoping that it doesn't get made. And I'm feeling confident it won't, since the chances for 18-hour movies are small, unless they wanted to dispense catheters upon entering the theater.''

What is Wallace working on at the moment? ``Right at this moment? Attempting to somehow be candid without exposing myself to ridicule.'' No, really, how does a writer follow up a novel like ``Infinite Jest''? Wallace gives his most concise answer of the day: ``That's one thing that I absolutely cannot talk about,'' he says.

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