By Dylan Matthews
Chris already linked to it, but Wallace’s interview on Charlie Rose from 1997 is strangely riveting, and actually quite helpful in trying to interpret the odd, disorienting jumble that is the first hundred-odd pages of IJ:
The whole interview (which begins at 23:15) is worth listening to, but I found three excerpts particularly relevant to reading IJ. The first starts at 40:39 and goes until 41:02:
I have this problem of thinking that I haven’t made myself clear, or that the argument hasn’t been sufficiently hammered home, so I will make the same point five, six, seven times. The “E Unibus Pluram” thing in [A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again] is an argumentative essay that I did six or seven years ago, and I just gave up after that, because it seems as if to make the argument truly persuasive requires five, six hundred pages, and nobody wants to read it.
Obviously, this “problem” (if it really is one) isn’t really limited to his essays. But I actually think of it as one of Wallace’s great virtues. Even in the twelve percent of the book I’ve finished, his tendency to repeat points through different characters and scenarios does result in the themes being more powerful.
The second picks up right after, at 41:10, after Rose asks about Wallace’s usage of, yes, endnotes:
In Infinite Jest the endnotes are very intentional, and they’re in there for certain structural reasons and you know, you hear about it. It’s sort of embarrassing to read [A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. You can almost chart when it was written, because the first couple of essays don’t any, but the footnotes get very, very addictive. It’s almost like having a second voice in your head…It is a way, I’m just going to look pretentious talking about this…There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. The difficulty about writing about that reality is that text is very linear, and it’s very unified. And you, or I anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disoriented. You can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but no one’s going to read it.
So, you know, it could have been worse. I do find Wallace’s consistent characterization of his writing style as some kind of defect or pathology, shown here by his reference to footnotes as an “addiction” which it’s “pretentious” to discuss, unsettling.
Finally, there’s this, from 53:33, about his drug use:
Here’s why I’m embarrassed talking about it. Not because I’m personally ashamed of it, but because everybody talks about it…It sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do. “Oh he’s out of the rehab, and back in action!”…I did some recreational drugs, I didn’t have the stomach to drink very much and I didn’t have the nervous system to do anything hard. Yeah, I did some drugs. I didn’t do as many drugs as most of the people I know my age. What it turned out was, I just don’t have the nervous system to handle it…That’s why I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It’s just not particularly interesting. It’s very average.
This is just bizarre to me. Substance abuse is such a crucial part of IJ, something that’s shared by most of the major characters and treated with a nuance and sophistication that is startling on first reading, that to hear Wallace dismiss it as an insignificant phenomenon, or “not particularly interesting”, caught me off guard.