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David Foster Wallace on Surreal Lit

I’ve been reading parts of David Lipsky’s book-length interview of the writer David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Tragically, Wallace (1962-2008) suffered from depression, and he hung himself at the age of 46.

The interviews in this book were done back in 1996, when Wallace was only 34, and at a high-point, having just published his thousand-page novel, Infinite Jest. Originally the interviews were going to serve as source material for a long profile in Rolling Stone, but the article got cancelled.

Lipsky’s lines of questioning don’t always seem perfectly perceptive, but, hey, the interviews were done on the fly, and Lipsky wins Wallace’s confidence and gets him to talking. See the New York Review of Books review for some critical thoughts. Some of interviews could just have well been edited out—Lipsky had to stretch his material to get a book out of it. But I found a lot of good stuff. In his afterword, Lipsky does the signal service of giving us a real sense of sympathy for Wallace’s final struggles to stave off his depression and stay alive.

Wallace has always interested me—in 1987, I was one of the reviewers who praised his early novel, The Broom of the System. His magnum opus Infinite Jest changed my life—even though I skimmed over the sections about tennis. And years later, in 2004, I wrote a harsh review of his nonfiction book Everything and More, which was about Georg Cantor and infinity. There were in fact some good things even in that book, but for me it was spoiled by factual errors and by a rushed ending that fails to pick up on what I consider to be the most interesting aspects of Cantor’s work. A better editor might have been able to save the book.

There’s a lot more of my thoughts about Wallace and his writing in my earlier post, “David Foster Wallace, Oblivion”.

One of Wallace’s stylistic innovations was his use of a casual slacker’s spoken-English tone in much of his prose. He wasn’t the first to do this—the use of a street-voice-narrator plays a part in the success of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and this kind of tone also pervades Philip K. Dick’s Scanner Darkly. I often like to use this style myself, and it’s not as easy as it looks.

The passage in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself that popped out hard at me is where Wallace is discussing his reaction to David Lynch’s movie, Blue Velvet, and his subsequent thoughts on realist and surrealist literature, which are a very close fit for my own thoughts along these lines when I talk about transreal science-fiction (as in my recent podcast). I’ll just quote some Wallace excerpts here (taken from pp. 170-172 of the Lipsky book).

And there was somethin’ about…it was my first hint that being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it upped them. And the magic of Blue Velvet was that it so clearly—I mean I’ve got this whole theory that you don’t want to hear about. That Lynch is really an expressionist in the way that like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is expressionist. Or that he’s very much about manifesting his inner states on the film, and it’s actually a very sick thing that drives him to make films.

… it’s just one of those little off things in every frame, that instead of seeming gratuitous or stupid or pretentious, actually makes those frames mean a whole lot. It was my first realization that there was a way to get at what those realist guys were saying, that was via the route of the surreal and expressionist.

And I think one of my—I mean, I’d always used sort of dreamy stuff. But I had never as a young writer realized that you still had an obligation to make a kind of narrative. That really the goals of realism and the goals of surrealism are exactly the same. And they’re indescribable. But they’re two completely different highways that have the same destination.

Adios, King.

3 Responses to “David Foster Wallace on Surreal Lit”

  1. emilio Says:

    I’ve looked at “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” three times in the bookstore trying to decide if I should buy it. I read “Infinite Jest” based on your recommendation — I believe in this blog — and loved it. Even the tennis parts. It is a book that stays with you, not easy to read but well worth the price. I have not read anything else by Wallace. I was saddened by the suicide, but what can you do? For some it takes more courage to face each day then most of ever test.

    Not clear if this is a thumbs up or down on Lipsky’s book.

  2. Rudy Says:

    Emilio, I got my copy of the Lipsky interview book from the library. If you want more Wallace, you might do better to look at one of his own books…his essay collections are good, I like his first one a lot, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.” And I’ve been meaning to check out his more recent essay collection, “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays”.

  3. Brendan Says:

    I think you’ve mentioned Wallace before, and I’ve always been impressed that you like him. Often, he’s shoved aside by people his own age, or younger, as being immature, showy, or ridiculously self-conscious, and older people tend to have this condescending view towards him like he’s, y’know, ‘pretty good.’ Wallace, for my money, is the best writer of the turn of the millennium, better even (and I know you’ll disagree with me here) Pynchon. Here’s a link to a long, great article of his about watching Lynch shoot the brilliant Lost Highway:

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