The 34-year-old Wallace, who teaches at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal and exhibits the careful modesty of a recovering smart aleck, discussed American life on the verge of the millennium, the pervasive influence of pop culture, the role of fiction writers in an entertainment-saturated society, teaching literature to freshmen and his own maddening, inspired creation during a recent reading tour for “Infinite Jest.”
I wanted to do something sad. I’d done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I’d never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it’s like to live in America around the millennium.
There’s something particularly sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it’s unique to our generation I really don’t know.
The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through, was a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it’s the same thing.
Some of my friends got into AA. I didn’t start out wanting to write a lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts and I knew I wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. That part of the book is supposed to be living enough to be realistic, but it’s also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don’t. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the starkest thing that I could find to talk about that.
I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn’t the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.
The characters have to struggle with the fact that the AA system is teaching them fairly deep things through these seemingly simplistic clichis.
It’s hard for the ones with some education, which, to be mercenary, is who this book is targeted at. I mean this is caviar for the general literary fiction reader. For me there was a real repulsion at the beginning. “One Day at a Time,” right? I’m thinking 1977, Norman Lear, starring Bonnie Franklin. Show me the needlepointed sampler this is written on. But apparently part of addiction is that you need the substance so bad that when they take it away from you, you want to die. And it’s so awful that the only way to deal with it is to build a wall at midnight and not look over it. Something as banal and reductive as “One Day at a Time” enabled these people to walk through hell, which from what I could see the first six months of detox is. That struck me.
It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that’s gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like “It’s really important not to lie.” OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don’t feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can’t trust you. I feel that I’m in pain, I’m nervous, I’m lonely and I can’t figure out why. Then I realize, “Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie.” The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting — which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff — can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.
Are you trying to find similar meanings in the pop culture material you use? That sort of thing can be seen as merely clever, or shallow.
I’ve always thought of myself as a realist. I can remember fighting with my professors about it in grad school. The world that I live in consists of 250 advertisements a day and any number of unbelievably entertaining options, most of which are subsidized by corporations that want to sell me things. The whole way that the world acts on my nerve endings is bound up with stuff that the guys with leather patches on their elbows would consider pop or trivial or ephemeral. I use a fair amount of pop stuff in my fiction, but what I mean by it is nothing different than what other people mean in writing about trees and parks and having to walk to the river to get water a 100 years ago. It’s just the texture of the world I live in.
What’s it like to be a young fiction writer today, in terms of getting started, building a career and so on?
Personally, I think it’s a really neat time. I’ve got friends who disagree. Literary fiction and poetry are real marginalized right now. There’s a fallacy that some of my friends sometimes fall into, the ol’ “The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to go this deep. Poor us, we’re marginalized because of TV, the great hypnotic blah, blah.” You can sit around and have these pity parties for yourself. Of course this is bullshit. If an art form is marginalized it’s because it’s not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people it’s speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.
If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.
What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.
Part of it has to do with living in an era when there’s so much entertainment available, genuine entertainment, and figuring out how fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way that other kinds of art and entertainment aren’t. And to figure out how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been formed by pop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop culture machine. It’s unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but it’s neat.
There’s so much mass commercial entertainment that’s so good and so slick, this is something that I don’t think any other generation has confronted. That’s what it’s like to be a writer now. I think it’s the best time to be alive ever and it’s probably the best time to be a writer. I’m not sure it’s the easiest time.
What do you think is uniquely magical about fiction?
Oh, Lordy, that could take a whole day! Well, the first line of attack for that question is that there is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. But that’s just the first level, because the idea of mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that’s set up through art by the writer. There’s another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There’s a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that’s very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about. A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I’m sitting in a chair. There’s real commercial stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn’t make me feel less lonely.
There’s a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.
Who are the writers who do this for you?
Here’s the hard thing about talking about that: I don’t mean to say my work is as good as theirs. I’m talking about stars you steer by.
OK. Historically the stuff that’s sort of rung my cherries: Socrates’ funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not all that often, Keats’ shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” and “Discourse on Method,” Kant’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic,” although the translations are all terrible, William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience,” Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus,” Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Hemingway — particularly the ital stuff in “In Our Time,” where you just go oomph!, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A.S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick — the stories, especially one called “Levitations,” about 25 percent of the time Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called “The Balloon,” which is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver’s best stuff — the really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he’s not beating his drum, 35 percent of Stephen Crane, “Moby-Dick,” “The Great Gatsby.”
And, my God, there’s poetry. Probably Phillip Larkin more than anyone else, Louise Glück, Auden.
What about colleagues?
There’s the whole “great white male” deal. I think there are about five of us under 40 who are white and over 6 feet and wear glasses. There’s Richard Powers who lives only about 45 minutes away from me and who I’ve met all of once. William Vollman, Jonathan Franzen, Donald Antrim, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody. The person I’m highest on right now is George Saunders, whose book “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” just came out, and is well worth a great deal of attention. A.M. Homes: her longer stuff I don’t think is perfect, but every few pages there’s something that just doubles you over. Kathryn Harrison, Mary Karr, who’s best known for “The Liar’s Club” but is also a poet and I think the best female poet under 50. A woman named Cris Mazza. Rikki Ducornet, Carole Maso. Carole Maso’s “Ava” is just — a friend of mine read it and said it gave him an erection of the heart.
Tell me about your teaching.
I was hired to teach creative writing, which I don’t like to teach.
There’s two weeks of stuff you can teach someone who hasn’t written 50 things yet and is still kind of learning. Then it becomes more a matter of managing various people’s subjective impressions about how to tell the truth vs. obliterating someone’s ego.
I like to teach freshman lit because ISB gets a lot of rural students who aren’t very well educated and don’t like to read. They’ve grown up thinking that literature means dry, irrelevant, unfun stuff, like cod liver oil. Getting to show them some more contemporary stuff — the one we always do the second week is a story called “A Real Doll,” by A.M. Homes, from “The Safety of Objects,” about a boy’s affair with a Barbie doll. It’s very smart, but on the surface, it’s very twisted and sick and riveting and real relevant to people who are 18 and five or six years ago were either playing with dolls or being sadistic to their sisters. To watch these kids realize that reading literary stuff is sometimes hard work, but it’s sometimes worth it and that reading literary stuff can give you things that you can’t get otherwise, to see them wake up to that is extremely cool.
How do you feel about the reaction to the length of your book? Did it just sort of wind up being that long, or do you feel that you’re aiming for a particular effect or statement?
I know it’s risky because it’s part of this equation of making demands on the reader — which start out financial. The other side of it is publishing houses hate it because they make less money. Paper is so expensive. If the length seems gratuitous, as it did to a very charming Japanese lady from the New York Times, then one arouses ire. And I’m aware of that. The manuscript that I delivered was 1700 manuscript pages, of which close to 500 were cut. So this editor didn’t just buy the book and shepherd it. He line-edited it twice. I flew to New York, and all that. If it looks chaotic, good, but everything that’s in there is in there on purpose. I’m in a good emotional position to take shit for the length because the length strikes people as gratuitous, then the book just fails. It’s not gratuitous because I didn’t feel like working on it or making the cuts.
It’s a weird book. It doesn’t move the way normal books do. It’s got a whole bunch of characters. I think it makes at least an in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a page-by-page level so I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader with a mallet, you know, “Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.” I know books like that and they piss me off.
What made you choose a tennis academy, which mirrors the halfway house in the book?
I wanted to do something with sport and the idea of dedication to a pursuit being kind of like an addiction.
Some of the characters wonder if it’s worth it, the competitive obsession.
It’s probably like this in anything. I see my students do this with me. You’re a young writer. You admire an older writer, and you want to get to where that older writer is. You imagine that all the energy that your envy is putting into it has somehow been transferred to him, that there’s a flipside to it, a feeling of being envied that’s a good feeling the way that envy is a hard feeling. You can see it as the idea of being in things for some kind of imaginary goal involving prestige rather than for the pursuit itself. It’s a very American illness, the idea of giving yourself away entirely to the idea of working in order to achieve some sort of brass ring that usually involves people feeling some way about you — I mean, people wonder why we walk around feeling alienated and lonely and stressed out?
Tennis is the one sport I know enough about for it to be beautiful to me, for me to think that it means something. The nice thing about it is that I’ve got Tennis magazine wanting to do something about me. For me personally it’s been great. I may get to hit with the pros some day. It has that advantage.