Art by Michael Kupperman
David Foster Wallace is one badass fiction writer. His tractor-trailer-size novel Infinite Jest is one of the most important books of the last 10 years. And his book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again took the art of the personal essay to a new level. His new book of stories, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (Little Brown, late May), is another supersonic delight, a full-scale harassment of the short-story form. It is a dense, slippery type of fiction where complexities of a psychosexual nature run wild. In late April, at 9 a.m., I phoned this most significant writer:L.A. Weekly: Your essays are exceptionally daring, like there’s no place you mentally won’t go — your consciousness bubbles up these peculiar things, and then you set about . . . David Foster Wallace: It would help if you put inflection in your voice. [Laughs.] What are you reading this from? A notepad.
I don’t quite understand what’s so daring about it, but I will of course nod and smile.You pursue elaborate arguments in micro detail, whether it’s a cruise ship, on a David Lynch set, or at the porn awards. Please talk about frankness, honesty, the balls to venture into the embarrassing.
Wow. Questions like that are incredibly intimidating because there’s no way the answer is going to be as well constructed and loquacious as the question, so it would actually be in your interest to make the questions clumsier and less literary.But they are clumsy, and I don’t even know whatloquacious means.
My experience of doing nonfiction is that every once in a while I’ll get an assignment that interests me, but it’s extremely vague. They’re like, "Just go and kind of notice everything you can, and then try and come up with an essay about it." The micro detail that readers enjoy from me often feels like a function of simple, pure anxiety — I’m going to miss the crucial thing that will make this readable for somebody else.
The honesty thing — I don’t think this nonfiction is really as honest as people think it is. A certain amount of it is spent developing a kind of persona or narrative voice that will have qualities that the reader will like and find engaging, and one of them is this kind of blushing, kicking the ground, gosh-golly I really don’t want to say this but I really will. I don’t know that it’s dishonest. It’s kind of manipulative the same way constructing a narrator in first-person fiction is. The only really substantive differences in genres have to do with the expectations of the readers. Almost all the techniques are the same.Cool. This leads to the next question pretty well. There’s a stylistic difference in your fiction and nonfiction. In nonfiction, you seem very straight ahead, a rational machine devouring a subject. In your novels and stories it’s a leap into the void, a trippy embrace of abstraction.
My experience with nonfiction is that’s not really what I do. I consider myself mostly a fiction writer. Nonfiction isn’t super scary to me, except in the oh-God-I’m-not-going-to-have-enough-material-to-make-an-essay [moments]. There may be a sort of machinelike quality to it only because I don’t really have any ideology about how it ought to be done. I don’t even feel like I have a style in fiction. I feel like I do all kinds of different stuff.
I come out of the nonprofit-press, pseudo-intellectual side of fiction. The stuff I do may look kind of avant-garde or experimental from the point of view of major-press publishing, the same way [Mark] Leyner’s does or [William T.] Vollmann’s does. In a weird way, we’re kind of like indie bands that have been picked up by major studios. You know what I mean?Yes sir. I am with you and I agree.
For anybody who thinks that what I do is weird, abstract and intellectual, they should go read some John Barth or some Stephen Dixon, oh Christ, some Curtis White at Fiction Collective, or Ron Sukenick, or some of the Oulipo Group, the French guys. It’s funny, Illinois State University (where I teach) is the headquarters of Dalkey Archive Press and Fiction Collective, and I’m almost the house realist there. They almost think of me as a quaint New Yorkerish, sort of Cheeverish figure.That’s a nice misunderstanding.
It’s very strange. I feel kind of biracial. Mainstream publishers think I’m Mr. Weirdo, and the true weirdoes know for a fact I’m very white bread.The state of American fiction feels tricky. Readers seem less adventurous, less willing to pick up a book for its stylistic charms. They seem hungry for subject and content. Meta-fiction is having a hard time right now, unlike in the ’70s when it thrived. Plus in the last year we saw Burroughs, Kathy Acker, John Hawkes, William Gaddis die. Sort of like the end of an era.