A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 2, 2009

Wallace on Rose

Filed under: Uncategorized — dylanmatthews @ 12:37 pm

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.


  1. It’s his own substance abuse that’s not very interesting. I don’t think he’s saying in that interview that substance abuse, as a subject to examine, to think about, especially in terms of its similarities with other forms of addiction. I think he’s deliberately and successfully removing his own personal experience with substances out of the conversation about substance abuse as it relates to the book. I wish more authors were as careful about drawing the line between their fiction and their biographies.

    Comment by Trevor Jackson — July 2, 2009 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

  2. Edit: *. . . with other forms of addiction isn’t interesting.

    Comment by Trevor Jackson — July 2, 2009 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  3. This interview, or the last half (or so) of it, which I caught on PBS back when it came out, is what first put DFW on my radar. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally read anything by him: “Tense Present,” in Harper’s and, later, Consider the Lobster. But I wanted to know more about his work after I watched this interview.

    Comment by James Martin — July 2, 2009 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

  4. On the “odd, disorienting jumble” of the first hundred pages: my 17-year-old brother is reading it for the first time. He’s somewhere in those first 100, and getting increasingly frustrated by my constantly asking him “has X happened yet? How about Y? Ooooh did you notice when ______?”

    It makes a LOT more sense the second time around – which maybe isn’t a strong selling point for the book (“Hey, you actually have to read this gigabook TWICE to really “get” it …”). But if you think the *beginning* of the book is frustrating, wait until you see the “end” (quotes very deliberate)..

    Comment by Knemon — July 2, 2009 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

    • After you finish, read the first chapter again, and make sure you check the chronology thereof.

      Comment by Scott Supak — July 2, 2009 @ 9:24 pm | Reply

  5. I’m not surprised that Wallace wasn’t a major drug addict. It’s possible to have a addictive personality without being addicted to any of the common substances. You could argue that tennis functions as a kind of addiction with the book’s frame. Wallace is interested in the underlying psychology of addiction, not its mechanics.

    I often wonder if Wallace understood his own erudition as a kind of addiction.

    Comment by Jarrett — July 2, 2009 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

    • Um, yes. CF his Kenyon commencement speech:

      “Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

      Pretty much his entire oeuvre is dedicated to figuring out how overthinking can be just as toxic as anything else.

      Comment by jh — July 2, 2009 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

      • Er, not ‘figuring out’ but maybe ‘pointing out.’

        Comment by jh — July 2, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  6. Enjoyed the interview–it made me want to join you in your quest to read Infinite Jest. I’ve a bunch of reading on my plate now, though, so it will have to wait. I’m joining the Peace Corps and I think I will pack a copy, as it sounds like the type of book you have to read multiple times.

    Anyway, I just wanted to quibble with one thing DFW said in the interview. The ’60s postmodernists (Pynchon et al.) as the first writers to think about the text “as text” and to think about the reader’s reaction to the text? What about Swift, Sterne, Melville, Flaubert, Conrad, Joyce, Kafka…? And they were certainly not the first writers to “grow up on criticism.” Am I missing his point? Clearly, “our” postmodernists have a different relation to the text than these previous writers, but they certainly did not start from scratch.

    I did appreciate his comments re: Blue Velvet–also one of my favorites– and ought to seek out his essay on Lynch.

    Comment by Pat — July 2, 2009 @ 3:25 pm | Reply

  7. I didn’t take him to mean that there were no precursors to the sorts of effects that are commonly attributed to, and are very common in postmodern lit. In fact, he starts off his answer with a dodge by defining postmodernism as, simply, what comes after modernism. And by “grow up on criticism,” I think he meant, mostly, the post-structuralist/continental sort.

    Comment by James Martin — July 2, 2009 @ 3:42 pm | Reply

  8. “ought to seek out his essay on Lynch”

    It’s good. He calls Kyle McL a “potato-faced nerd,” which sounds about right.

    Comment by Knemon — July 2, 2009 @ 5:46 pm | Reply

  9. Thought I’d read that Wallace’s drug or alcohol was much worse.

    Comment by Mike — July 2, 2009 @ 7:14 pm | Reply

    • I think he’s heavily downplaying it in the interview. Various accounts from family members and friends since his death describe hospitalisations and time in rehab. I wouldn’t like to presume but it seems likely to me that a man suffering from such acute depression as his wouldn’t be capable of having “mild” drug and alcohol problems.

      Comment by Jamie — July 3, 2009 @ 12:40 am | Reply

  10. Since you’re 12% of the way in, I’m sure you’ve gotten the idea that addiction is a very important subject in this book. In fact, The Entertainment is really just a form of addiction, a very potent one, and works as a metaphor for it.

    The end notes also (and I reached this conclusion after seeing the Rose interview) serve to fracture the time line. So, while he says “fractured reality”, sure, the endnotes do that–forcing you to put the main story on hold and go into someone else’s POV about the thing just mentioned, but it also forces you, as is actually mentioned in some of the notes, to jump ahead in time to where this has all been played out, and you’re looking back into the past at what was just the present.

    In this respect, I’m quite certain Kurt Vonnegut would have been very happy (although I don’t know what Vonnegut thought of the book).

    Comment by Scott Supak — July 2, 2009 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  11. Lots to unpack here. First of all, I’ve never seen it (sort of unbelievable considering my fandom) and I’ve been through IJ twice.

    First, what struck me about the interview was a couple of spots early on where you can see he regrets how he put something, in his answer. He literally make the universal facial expression meaning, “Ah, I didn’t quite get that right.” Regret. “I could have said that more clearly.”

    It isn’t like you don’t see a lot of that in his writing. Thus, endnotes.

    Another thing that struck me was what I considered an astounding level of self-awareness and self-consciousness and honesty and sincerity about himself and his writing and his opinions on other stuff from someone I consider to be one of the most articulate voices, a serious, profound and you’ll see if you live long enough geniuses of my generation.

    So the obsession with the endnotes here strikes me as weirdly not the point. I just stuck two bookmarks in the damn thing and enjoyed the parts I could grasp.

    Also, I played tennis competitively and have an interest in formal logic and math. Thanks to DFW, I know I’ll never need to bother seriously with either. As with DFW’s appreciation for the level of tennis Michael Joyce achieved, I know it would be a waste of time to bother. Wallace lived in an entirely different plane of existence.

    I claim from all (or 99.9999% ) of us.

    Obviously, I’m a bit of a fan.

    Comment by John O — July 3, 2009 @ 1:11 am | Reply

  12. One other thing: If you don’t read most of his work more than once, at least the ones you enjoy or find provocative, you’re making a bit of a mistake, IMHO.

    I’m quite sure most of the people posting here have more intellectual wattage than I do, as statistically unlikely as it would be. I’m not very stupid. The point is, I guess, that Wallace’s work is meant to be savored, understood (almost impossible with him on first read), personalized intellectually and emotionally , not “read.”

    Comment by John O — July 3, 2009 @ 1:22 am | Reply

  13. I do think it worth not only saying but also emphasizing that the bits about Don Gately and other newly sober people trying to relate to and even figure out the AA culture and “how it works” are breathtakingly good. I want to say that they’re “true”, but that’s not quite the right word – maybe “accurate” works a little better. (Ditto the Erdedly waiting for his weed passage (which people seem to either love or hate) – Wallace absolutely nails the waiting-to-be-able-to-get-high mindset perfectly.)

    ps. Am I the only one who’s finding himself taking much greater care over the exact phrasing of comments here than is usual for blog comments?

    Comment by Matt Guthrie — July 3, 2009 @ 1:25 am | Reply

  14. LOL, Matt.

    It would almost seem obscenely inappropriate to try not to be accurate, no?

    And yes, the addiction stuff is perfect, and not a soul who’s never faced it will ever understand.

    Disclaimer: Thank FSM I’m not one of them!

    LOL. (Nicotine, for the record.)

    Comment by John O — July 3, 2009 @ 1:33 am | Reply

  15. Haven’t seen that interview for awhile, so thanks for posting it. Of particular interest to me was when he pointed out that the main things the critics commented on, that it’s funny, or the writing is clever or fragmented, or going on about the damn endnotes, wasn’t what was really important to him, rather that it was a sad story. And I must agree, ultimately, that despite the fun and the guffaws and the cleverness, IJ is at heart a sad story, which, hopefully, is why it resonates with the reader.

    Love this blog, BTW.

    Comment by Jean — July 5, 2009 @ 12:27 am | Reply

  16. […] gaze, which pins her down via James’ enormous scopophilic phallus of a lens. Wallace, in that Charlie Rose interview from 1997, gives the impression that he’s not terribly impressed with this kind of […]

    Pingback by The Good Word — Scopophiliac « Infinite Detox — July 15, 2009 @ 1:28 am | Reply

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