Rethinking David Foster Wallace

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Original Air Date: 
September 08, 2018

Fifteen years ago, David Foster Wallace died by his own hand. He was a celebrated writer, but he now faces renewed criticism over his treatment of women, in his life and his books. After years of adulation, Wallace has become a symbol of lit-bro culture, and he's now facing a moment of reckoning. So how should we read him today?

This week, we talk with Wallace fans and critics. Many still consider him the greatest voice of his generation — even as they grapple with new details about his life. We also hear from Wallace himself — including a notable conversation he had with us on the eve of his greatest literary success.

If you're having thoughts of suicide or are in emotional distress, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. 

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Even this many years later, it’s hard to underestimate what a popular and controversial writer David Foster Wallace still is. There’s even an entire field of "David Foster Wallace Studies" — one of its leaders is Clare Hayes-Brady.

Tennis in the Sierpinski triangle

The most famous thing David Foster Wallace wrote is "Infinite Jest," his huge, sprawling novel set in a dystopian near future. It’s a little eerie how well he predicted our world today.


David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece — "Infinite Jest" — is famously difficult to read. Colleen Leahy and Makini Allwood climbed the literary mountain of a book, and they share their experience on a podcast called "And But So."

David Foster Wallace

Over the years, we did several interviews with Wallace himself. The last was in 2004, about his collection of short stories — "Oblivion." It’s an interview that’s been collected in two Wallace anthologies.


Amy Wallace-Havens didn’t care whether David was famous, or even whether he was a writer. He was just her big brother. Anne spoke with her about a year after his death.


David Foster Wallace gave the commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. It was popular enough to eventually be published in a thin little book called “This Is Water.”


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Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from PRX. I'm Anne Strainchamps. How do you deal with a literary icon? Someone like David Foster Wallace?

- [Colleen] My first encounter with Wallace's work was in college.

- [Anne] This is Colleen Leahy.

- [Colleen] I signed up for a class that had "Infinite Jest" on the syllabus. All I knew about "Infinite Jest" was that it's like, "Oh, it's like this huge book, and it's genius, and like, if you wanna be a well-read person, you read this book." And I was like, "Okay. I wanna be a well-read person." There are so many sentences and places where I'm like, "God. All right. I don't even know. Why, why?" It was just like, "Oh my God. Do I even know English?" I only lasted two weeks.

- [Anne] So that went well, but not totally unexpected. "Infinite Jest" is not a book you tackle lightly, but Colleen doesn't like to give up. So a few years later, she came back to it, and this time, she enlisted a friend, and they decided to make a podcast.

- [Makini] My introduction into "Infinite Jest" actually came through Colleen.

- [Anne] This is Makini Allwood.

- [Makini] When Colleen came to me, it was like, "Oh yeah." Like, "I think it's time to read the ultimate white male genius novel, 'Infinite Jest'."

- [Colleen] Yeah, she wasn't totally unwitting.

- [Makini] Strike this whole 600 pages.

- [Colleen] What is even going on? It took me two hours to read the first 15 pages.

- [Makini] Listen. I know what a book is. You know what a book is. Everyone knows what a book is. that.

- [Anne] Colleen and Makini's podcast is called "And But So," and we'll come back to it. We're talking about David Foster Wallace on the 15th anniversary of his suicide, returning to an episode that originally aired five years ago. It's hard to underestimate what a popular and controversial writer he was and remains. Today, there's even a field of David Foster Wallace studies. One of its leaders is Clare Hayes-Brady. She teaches at the University College of Dublin, where Steve Paulson reached her and a special guest.

- [Steve] Hi. I hear a baby there.

- [Clare] You do. Yes. He's gurgling away here. I'm hoping he'll go to sleep.

- [Steve] How old is he?

- [Clare] He's four weeks and two days.

- Wow.

- You know, he's very keen to get as much media exposure as early as possible. Hey now, I don't need to hear that.

- [Steve] Thank you so much for doing this. Considering,

- Not at all. I wouldn't miss it.

- [Steve] Good. Let's go ahead and start then. Just in the last couple of years, it seems like something new has happened in the way people are talking about David Foster Wallace. I mean, he's no longer simply called a literary genius. There's a lot of criticism now, especially about his treatment of women. What has changed?

- [Clare] I think there's a couple of different things going on there. Initially, because he was really a writer at the height of his powers when he died, the initial phase after his death was really celebratory. It was, "Wallace's a writer as important as Wolfe, as Joyce, as Austin, and we should have a field devoted to him."

- [Steve] There were Wallace studies. I mean, there's a whole body

- Yeah.

- [Steve] Of literature just devoted to this one writer, David Foster Wallace.

- [Clare] Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think the phrase Wallace studies, to the best of my knowledge, was first used in 2009. Over time, it has become a very vibrant field, but you can't simply spend a critical lifetime talking about how great someone is.

- [Steve] So there was this period of adulation, especially in the immediate years after his death.

- Yeah.

- And then something more recently has changed. And I guess I'm wondering how much of this is a product of the Me Too Movement.

- [Clare] In some ways, I think it's a coincidence of timing, because there was an inevitable critical backlash that I think was really important and has led to a real vibrancy in Wallace studies in general. And that's very much coincided with, I think, the Me Too Movement. And in Wallace's case, again, the timing is interesting, because as you may be aware, a couple of months ago, the writer Mary Karr tweeted about Wallace's treatment of her in their relationship.

- [Steve] Yeah, and we should sort of give a little background about Mary Karr, who is a very distinguished writer

- Yes.

- In her own right, was once romantically involved with Wallace, and came out with this tweet a few months ago saying, "The violence David Foster Wallace inflicted on me as a single mom was ignored by his biographer and The New Yorker as 'alleged,' despite my having letters in his hand." And this was a reference to the biographer DT Max, who did mention that Wallace threw a coffee table and tried to push her from a moving car. And then Mary Karr went on to say, "He tried to buy a gun, kicked me, climbed up the side of my house at night, followed my son, age five, home from school, had to change my number twice. He still got it. Months and months it went on." And apparently he even offered to buy a gun to kill her husband.

- [Clare] Yes. Yeah. I mean, it's a litany of really, really seriously inappropriate and dangerous behavior. It's really, really terrible. Now, I would take some issue with Karr's use of the term ignored, because it is included in the biography. Not all of it, not in as much detail, but what I think is interesting is that what happened was, not that it was ignored, but that it was folded into this myth of kind of a genius, you know, the behavior of a troubled genius.

- Right.

- [Clare] That it became part of the story.

- And so, in other words,

- And in that way,

- It may be,

- Was neutralized itself, I think.

- Maybe he was given a pass, maybe, you know, maybe this is what tormented geniuses do. They're abusive but that's,

- Exactly. This is the myth of a male genius. Yeah, that's enormously troubling in its own way.

- [Steve] So was David Foster Wallace a misogynist?

- [Clare] I think that's a really, I mean, yes is the short answer, I think, but there a couple of different questions arise when we talk about the misogyny or the racism or whatever sort of ethical question of an artist. It's an age old question. But yes, Wallace was a misogynist, and much of his work deals with misogyny. I think that that's one of the things that we notice in his writing, how self-aware and sort of self-deprecating in some ways he is.

- [Steve] Well, and it's worth pointing out, he wrote a book called "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men," you know?

- With Hideous Men, yeah.

- [Steve] So I mean, he obviously recognized toxic masculinity

- Very much so.

- Undoubtedly in himself as well.

- Yeah. Absolutely. And I think investigated it as well. And he talks specifically about the misogyny in that book and using the term misogyny. So he absolutely was aware of it. He talks about feminist theory in a lot of his early work, and he was writing it at a time when gender politics and feminism were in huge transition.

- Right.

- You know, he was at Amherst in the '80s. You'd have to be deaf and blind and living under a rock to not sort of be aware of those debates.

- Right. Well, and this is maybe part of the fascination of this. I mean, Wallace writes about angry, confused, lonely men. He understood them. He was clearly one of them.

- [Clare] Yeah.

- [Steve] Which doesn't excuse his behavior because, you know, he also did some terrible things.

- [Clare] Sure. But I don't know that we need to excuse the behavior in order to read the work. Wallace, as an extremely talented writer and a very flawed human being, can teach us a lot about the culture that he was writing about. You know, he's a writer who wrote about contemporary culture with a really unique voice and a unique acuity, I think. There's an awful lot about the contemporary moment that it would be extremely valuable to hear his take on.

- [Steve] Right, 'cause I mean, he was very prescient about some of these issues.

- Some things, yeah.

- I mean, he kind of, he sort of.

- [Clare] I was just talking about the teleputer in "Infinite Jest," which more or less exactly predicted Skype, even more than that, predicted things like Snapchat and Instagram and the kinds of filters that we use to present a face to society that resembles but isn't quite the face that we live in. He really saw that coming in astonishing detail.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Clare] There's a certain corner of the internet that maintains that Wallace predicted Trump as well, also in "Infinite Jest."

- Wow.

- [Clare] In the character of Johnny Gentle, for those of you who might be interested in chasing that one down.

- [Steve] So David Foster Wallace has been called the greatest writer of his generation, whose books defined an era. Do you think that's true?

- [Clare] Yes. Yes, I do. For better or worse, I think "Infinite Jest" is one of those books that very much caught a zeitgeist. What makes a era defining, for me, is actually the number of people who know about it but haven't read it.

- Right.

- [Clare] And I think, you know what I mean?

- [Steve] It's kind of, it's a little daunting. It's really long and complicated.

- [Colleen] Yeah. It's huge. You can use it as a weapon. Like it's a doorstep. It's something that's referenced very, very frequently in pop culture now. I know there was an episode of the TV crime drama "Castle" that has a reference to it. It was in the "Gilmore Girls," in fact. It's a real cultural touchstone and has its own signification, I think, without necessarily people having read it. He is known beyond his readers.

- Right.

- And there's a kind of a myth around his writing.

- [Steve] And there are gender politics that play into this as well.

- Yes.

- [Steve] 'Cause there's another critique you often hear from women who are tired of having men, often their boyfriends,

- Yeah.

- Push Wallace's books on them, as "New York Magazine" said,

- Yes,

- Wallace has become lit bro shorthand and,

- Yeah, absolutely.

- [Steve] Deirdre Coyle wrote an article in "Electric Lit" that went viral saying, "Wallace is on a list of books that literally all white men own."

- Yeah, yeah.

- That's pretty harsh

- [Clare] I wouldn't, I would not dispute that. And embarrassing as it is to admit, I was introduced to Wallace by a guy in my college class, you know, who fulfills precisely those criteria. He is a writer that is very attractive to a particular group of young, earnest, smart, white men. What I would say, though, as well is that the community of Wallace scholarship, which has a big crossover with just Wallace fans, is very aware of that reputation, is very conscious that Wallace studies and sort of Wallace readership in general is very much seen as a boys club and is working very hard to mitigate that, to work against that. And there are a large number of really brilliant female scholars working on Wallace and a number of very, very gifted scholars of color working on him as well.

- [Steve] Well, and then coming back to the stories that Mary Karr has told about him,

- Yes.

- About how he hounded and chased her and abused her

- Yes.

- [Steve] And was physically violent and that, I mean, that becomes more than just a literary thing.

- [Clare] Yeah, absolutely. And Wallace isn't the only writer we ask this of. How do you justify reading a writer who you know to have behaved that way?

- [Steve] Right. I mean, that,

- I think that's,

- [Steve] That's the huge question. To put it bluntly, should we stop reading these writers who've done horrible things?

- [Clare] Yeah, I think it's a valid question. It's a question we've been asking since there have been enough people together to discuss issues like this. I don't think that there's a straightforward answer to that, but I would draw a distinction between choosing as a reader and choosing as a critic. Those are two different things, I think. So as a reader, choosing not to read a writer because his behavior has disappointed or offended you is an absolutely valid reason. But one of the things that I've noticed happening is that critics and scholars have said, "I'm not going to assign Wallace. I'm not going to teach Wallace." And other writers, Junot Diaz comes to mind as well, and Sherman Alexie in just kind of very recently. But the question goes back. You've got Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and, you know, Caravaggio for that matter.

- [Steve] Right. Or Picasso in the art world.

- [Clare] Picasso, absolutely. Yeah. So this is, you know, this is something that arises again and again. But I've noticed with Wallace in particular that this critical decision, I suppose, has been made recently and made publicly. Amy Hangerford would be the kind of the obvious example. And Hangerford talked about refusing to teach or assign Wallace anymore. I think that what happens when you do that as a critic, as a teacher, particularly, I think that you polarize debate. I know young scholars, young female scholars or early career anyway female scholars of Wallace who have been strongly criticized by other feminist scholars for studying Wallace at all. You know, "You shouldn't be reading Wallace." And that seems to me to be very counterproductive. I think the world would be quite a boring place if we only read works of art by virtuous writers. You know, I don't necessarily think that reading his work forces us to condone or validate his behavior. I think that it can give us maybe some insight into a society that promulgates that kind of behavior. As I say, I don't think that we should be seeking the perfect work of art. I think we'd never read anything.

- [Steve] Right. Yeah. Well, this is totally fascinating. Thank you.

- It is.

- This has been a pleasure.

- Thank you.

- And I have to say, I've loved hearing your four week old son in the background there .

- [Clare] He's got things to say about Wallace, you know, he's got important opinions, yeah. That's, yes. Eli is doing great work here. He's passed out on my shoulder.

- [Steve] Thank you.

- [Clare] Thanks, Steve.

- [Anne] Steve Paulson talking with Clare Hayes-Brady and baby Eli. Clare's the author of "The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace." She teaches at the University College of Dublin. The most famous thing David Foster Wallace wrote is "Infinite Jest," which is this huge, sprawling novel set in a dystopian near future. It's been more than 20 years since he wrote it, and it's a little eerie how well he predicted our world today, including the election of someone a lot like President Trump. Well, one thing about doing a radio show for a long time is that we've got a pretty deep archive. So here, from 1996, the year it was first published is David Foster Wallace explaining why he named "Infinite Jest" for a movie that kills the people who watch it.

- [David] I think the standard agenda of any piece of entertainment is to be as entertaining as possible. The problem with the movie "Infinite Jest" is that it's lethally entertaining, meaning it's, watching it is so much more fun than doing anything else. Once somebody's watched it once, they pretty much have the spiritual energies of a moth and want to do nothing more than watch it again and again and again until they die of, probably, dehydration. The book is meant to seem kind of surreal and outlandish at first, and then in sort of a creepy way, to seem not all that implausible. I mean, at some point in the next 10 or 15 years, we're gonna have virtual reality pornography, which I would just invite you to think about. Given the level of, you know, people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to sort of video peep show stores now, this stuff's gonna get better and better and better and better. And it's not clear to me that we, as a culture, are teaching ourselves or our children, you know, what we're gonna say yes and no to. A lot of really ecstatic pleasures are linked, interestingly, sort of with death. I guess my point is, right now, and I think the next 15 or 20 years are gonna be a very scary and sort of very exciting time when we have to sort of reevaluate our relationship to fun and pleasure and entertainment, because it's gonna get so good and so high pressure that we're gonna have to forge some kind of attitude toward it that lets us live. The first leading cause of death among teenagers is suicide. Drug addiction, sexual addiction, gambling addiction in this country is epidemic. The divorce rate is sky high. I mean, people in this country are lost and wandering around and looking to give themselves away to something that will maybe love them back as much as they love it. I know that, in certain moods, when I'm tired or when I'm in some sort of pain, I want kind of infantile pleasures. I wanna sit and receive pleasure without having to give anything or do anything. The question, I think, is sort of an individual one is that, what level of pain do we need to reach before we begin to be willing to undertake the work of that reevaluation? This is a very long and fairly difficult book that I also wanted not to be a standard kind of avant-garde book, most of which right now I admire as a writer, but just aren't very much fun to read. So I wanted it to be both long and difficult, but also to be fun enough, you know, so the reader wouldn't throw it at the wall on page 100. And I realized that sets up certain ironies since the book itself is about entertainment.

- [Anne] That's David Foster Wallace from a conversation he had with us in 1996 when he was on his first book tour for "Infinite Jest." So coming up, what is it like to actually read this famous novel?

- [Makini] If you have read this book without reading the footnotes, you have just, by the way, not read this book. There are over 300. Some of them are literally 16 to 20 pages long. Like, no offense, but it's true.

- [Colleen] But Makini, you didn't read all of them 'cause your pages fell out and I'm like a little bit mad about it.

- [Makini] Yeah, so she's salty about this, but literally, this book was so big and my cat had such a vendetta against it, you know, he saw my unhappiness and he was like, "Mom, guess what? I ripped out some of these pages." And I was like, bad kitty, wink, wink. I was like, sorry, Colleen.

- [Colleen] I read all of them. I read all the words.

- [Anne] It's not pretty. Two podcasters tackle literary icon after this. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX, David Foster Wallace's masterpiece, "Infinite Jest" is a famously difficult read. It's more than a thousand pages long to begin with. It has extensive footnotes. The structure is based on a mathematical object called a Siepinski gasket. I don't what that is. The chronology is confusing because the years aren't numbered. They're named for corporate sponsors. So there's the Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, and my favorite, the Year of the Purdue Wonderchicken. People have strong feelings about this book. Some people adore it. Some people hate the very idea of it. So remember the two podcasters we met at the beginning of this hour who challenged themselves to read "Infinite Jest"? Colleen Leahy and Makini Allwood.

- [Colleen] I just developed this very strong stance. I don't read him. I won't read him. I'm never gonna read that book. And,

- But then you did.

- But then I did.

- Both of you did.

- [Colleen] Yeah. It was actually because I came upon this article called, "David Foster Wallace and the Perils of Lit Chat," and the author's basically like talking about this concept of forming an opinion about an artist based solely on things you've read about them, not ever having read their work.

- [Anne] And were you like, guilty?

- [Colleen] Oh, 100%. Oh, she's talking about me. But there was also this part of me that was like, oh, Laura Miller, you don't think my hatred of "Infinite Jest" is justified? I'll prove you wrong.

- [Anne] Do you remember the first time you, like, opened it up and started reading seriously?

- [Makini] Yes. Okay. I opened the book the first day and I was like, oh my God, the paper is so thin. It's so thin. This should be illegal. Like, what are you talking about? I tried to read it at a pool, like it was like some kind of like summer beach read. I couldn't even hold it. I couldn't sit properly in the beach chair, and like all these kids were swimming, and I was like, excuse me, shh, I'm trying to focus on these first two pages. What are you talking about? So after a while, I kept saying like, the weight of the book was my commitment.

- [Anne] We have Colleen's copy right here.

- [Colleen] I brought her my copy so that she could understand.

- [Anne] Right, just so you understand how heavy this book is.

- [Makini] Seems kind of light. Are you missing some pages or what's going on?

- [Anne] Okay, Colleen, pick something. Pick something where you read and thought, wait, what?

- Oh my God. Makini, do you remember the section with the Boston junkies? So many of the words I'm gonna be reading are not spelled correctly because this is written from the perspective of somebody who's like probably illiterate. So I'm just gonna start reading this. So this is from the perspective of a group of people who are addicted to heroin and they live in the streets. Just tell me when to stop, just scream because, okay, so,

- Got it. Go.

- [Colleen] "It was yrs truly," spelled Y-R-S truly, "And see in poor Tony that crewed that day and everything like that, the AM were wicked bright and us a bit sick, however, we scored our wake ups, boosting some items at a sidewalk sale in Harvard Squar," spelled without an E, "Where it were warm upping and the snow coming off onnings," spelled O-N-N-I-N-G-S "And then later, poor Tony ran across an old Patty citizen type of his old acquaintance from like the Cape, and poor Tony got over and pretended like he would give a on the house, and we got the citizen to get in his ride with us." The thing is, I told you to interrupt me, but this sentence goes on for like another three inches.

- [Anne] Well, I think it's amazing. I mean, it's amazing that that's all one sentence. Okay. What don't you like about this?

- [Colleen] So this section probably took me like three hours to read and it's what? It's probably like 10 pages.

- [Makini] The language is difficult to the point where it feels like a challenge.

- To get meaning.

- I don't know. Yeah, exactly. If it was like trying to sieve for gold, you have to sieve through a lot of this language to get to the gold. Like, gold is there for sure.

- Yeah, for sure.

- You don't feel like the language is style and part of what you're reading for?

- [Makini] Well, so that's a great question, and here's why. So, imagine this. I'm at the beach or I'm at the pool, I'm reading this book, I can't even hold it. Page 37 comes. It's exactly like this section, where it's like, you're dropped into the mind of a character and, you know, you're not given a lot of context, but what you can glean is that she's like a young Black woman who is down on her luck, and it's written in what is I think supposed to be Ebonics or African American vernacular English or whatever. And it is wrong. It's just incorrect. And actually, because it is so tone deaf, it is offensive. As a young Black woman myself, I was immediately alienated from the text. I'm sitting there being like, "Oh. Oh no, this book wasn't written for me. It was written about me as like some kind of caricature, at best. At worst, it's almost like buffoonish." I've been calling it linguistic blackface, because it's like you put on these identities, but you don't do them justice.

- [Anne] Did you wind up talking with people who just love this book and saying any of this to them?

- [Colleen] We met people who were like, "I've read this six times and I read it every summer" and we met people who were like, my favorite is there is somebody who is like, "It's not even a book."

- What does that mean?

- I was like, yo. What is it then?

- [Makini] It has pages, bro.

- [Colleen] And yeah. Yeah. And we met somebody who was like compared it to the Bible and like those rabid fans are definitely out there.

- [Anne] But do you feel like you gained anything? Are you glad you read it?

- [Makini] There's definitely like a club of sorts in having actually finished it and having formed my opinion about it. You know, it must feel like running like a 5K.

- I think a full marathon,

- Or a marathon.

- What you're describing.

- I think an Iron Man, personally.

- [Makini] It's definitely something where I'm glad to have done it because it tested a lot of my resilience and my stick-to-it-iveness, my grit. But I would never recommend this book, especially now that I feel like the times are too charged. I feel like this book, overall, has probably outlived its worth in the cultural conversation because we need to start talking about other work that is more diverse and features more voices that are marginalized and that can also do what it does, you know? Like, I believe it is meritous, because it talks about human suffering and like pain and that kind of stuff. But we can do that from a diverse background.

- [Anne] Well, I have to say, for all that you guys have ripped this book to shreds, you nevertheless seem to me like every writer's dream readers. You took this book completely seriously. You read it and read it and reread it.

- It's a serious book.

- And I mean, yeah.

- Yeah.

- [Anne] I'm trying to say, what you're modeling is really great reading. It doesn't mean you have to like the book.

- Awesome.

- So thank you both so much.

- [Colleen] Thank you.

- Yeah.

- Makini, it nice to hear your smooth voice.

- Yeah, good to hear you too, girl. Bye.

- [Anne] Colleen Leahy and Makini Allwood. They're working on a podcast called "And But So" about their experience reading "Infinite Jest." So we've heard a lot of people reacting to David Foster Wallace, but over the years, we did several interviews with Wallace himself. The last one was in 2004, when his collection of short stories called "Oblivion" just came out. It's an interview that has been collected in at least two Wallace anthologies. Steve Paulson asked him to begin by reading from the story about a kid who's thinking about how much his parents' lives suck.

- [David] "I had begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven. I knew even then that the dreams involved my father's life and job and the way he looked when he returned home from work at the end of the day. His arrival was always between 5:42 and 5:45. What occurred was almost choreographic in its routine. He removed his hat and top coat and hung the coat in the foyer closet, clawed his neck tie loose with two fingers, entered the living room, greeted my brother, and sat down with the newspaper to wait for my mother to bring him a high ball. It is in hindsight that I believe the dreams to have been about adult life, but I do not believe I knew or could even imagine as a child that, for almost 30 years of 51 weeks a year, my father sat all day at a metal desk in a silent, fluorescent-lit room, breaking only occasionally to answer his telephone or meet with other actuaries in other bright, quiet rooms."

- [Steve] That's wonderful. So evocative. Did you have that kind of dread when you were a kid?

- [David] I think, in a country where we have it as easy as we do, one of our big dread vectors is boredom. I think little edges of despair and soul-level boredom appear in things like homework or particularly dry classroom stuff. I can remember the incredible soaring relief of when certain teachers would say we were gonna watch a movie in grade school, and it wasn't just a hedonistic, oh, we're gonna have fun. It was a relief from some kind of terrible, terrible burden, I thought.

- [Steve] Did you sort of look at what your parents were doing or your father in particular and think, oh my God, I don't wanna become like that?

- [David] I mean, both my parents were teachers, so they always got pale and haunted looking when there were big stacks of papers to grade. But I think a lot of this has more to do with friends' parents and friends who've become kind of office workers. I just got interested in the reality of boredom, which is something that I think is a kind of hugely important problem, and yet, none of us talk about it, because we all act like it's just sort of something that we have to get through.

- [Steve] Well, it's funny, 'cause as I was reading that, I was sort of thinking back to my own childhood and my father was a professor and he would, after dinner, he would typically go on up into his study, close the door. And I don't know what he did, but I just, I remember thinking when I was pretty little that this doesn't seem like fun to have to sort of do this night after night. And I didn't wanna become like that. Of course, I sort of have become like that because, you know, I go home and, you know, I have my own homework as well. But I'm wondering if that resonated at all for you.

- [David] One of my little family stories that mom always tells is that, on the day in second grade when we all had to talk about what our fathers did for a living, I said, my father didn't do anything for a living. He just stayed home and wrote on yellow paper. 'Cause he was a professor too. I know that part of what interested me in the story was trying to remember what I thought about what my parents did when I was a child. Because when you're a child, I don't think you're aware of how incredibly easy you have it, right? You have your own problems and you have your own burdens and chores and things you have to do. But yeah, I think my intuitions were very much like yours. I think, when they went into these quiet rooms and had to do things that it wasn't obvious they wanted to do, I think there was a part of me that felt that something terrible was coming.

- [Steve] Yeah. You know what I find interesting about what we've been talking about and also the passage you just read is your public image as a writer is you're typically described as one of the leading figures of the postmodern hip ironic generation of writers now in their thirties and early forties. But I read somewhere that you really think of yourself as a realist.

- [David] You know, these various classifications are important for critics. I don't know very many writers who don't think of themselves as realists, in terms of trying to convey the way stuff tastes and feels sort of to you. I mean, a lot of stuff that's like capital R realism just seems to me somewhat hokey. The idea that small, banal details are somehow more real or authentic than large or strange details always seemed to me just a little bit crude. The truth of the matter is, is when you're in an interview, you have to say all kinds of stuff. I don't really know what I am, and I don't think very many writers have any idea what they are.

- [Steve] Well, I'm wondering about, for particularly people of our generation, I think we're roughly around the same age, both in our early forties, whether there's a certain cultural landscape that you feel most compelled to write about.

- [David] I know that, when I was in graduate school, those of us who wrote very much about what used to be called pop culture or advertising or television were really scorned by our older professors who saw that stuff as kind of vapid and banal. And I remember it was a really big source of conflict, because in lots of ways, we just didn't get what they were saying. I mean, this was our world and our reality, the same way, you know, the romantic's world was trees and babbling brooks and mountains and blue skies. So I think, probably if there's, yeah, I'm 42. If there's something that's distinctive about our generation is that we've been steeped in media and marketing since the time we were very, very small. And it's kind of a grand experiment, because no other generation in the history of the world has been that mediated. What implications that has, I don't know, but I know it affects what seems urgent and worth writing about and what kind of feels real in my head when I'm working on it.

- [Steve] Isn't that also complicated, though? Because the danger of writing about, I don't know what you call mass culture or pop culture, is that it's gonna seem shallow. In fact, you wrote an essay about this some years back, that the risk of just being clever, how do you say something original about this world that, in so many ways, is really pretty shallow?

- [David] Well, except, for me, art that's alive and urgent is art that's about what it is to be a human being. There are certain paradoxes and there are certain hazards involved, I think, in writing about this world, because there's the danger of being sucked into it and simply trying, for instance, to do something that seems very hip and clever and thinking the job has been done then. I've certainly done stuff like that and realized only later with horror that what I did was, in fact, just kind of regurgitated the same stuff that I've been hearing since I was four or five. There's another side to it, though, is that I think, at least for people like me, I'm 42 and I grew up, I don't know how many afterschool specials and Hallmark network things I've seen, a lot of what's, quote unquote, "Realistic," conventionally realistic ends up seeming hokey to me. Everything seems a little too convenient, and the ultimate goal of it is to sell me something. And there's a part of me I think that recoils from that, and that's a problem, because some realistic stuff really is alive and urgent. But I think for a lot of us about our age, we're looking for different, less commercial forums in which to talk about kind of the urgent moving stuff. I don't know whether that makes any sense, but I'm, that's pretty much the truth the way I see it.

- [Steve] Well, and I think the other piece of that is a lot of this commercial world, I mean, whether it's movies or I don't know, advertising even, it's pretty compelling, you know, it's entertaining.

- Yeah.

- [Steve] And I suppose, from a writer's perspective, you might wanna feel like, if you're gonna write about this stuff, you have to be entertaining too.

- [David] It's a real problem. I don't have a TV anymore, but you know, when I'm doing something like this and I'm on the road, I watch TV in hotels, and I'm appalled by how good the commercials have gotten. They're fascinating, they're funny, they're hip, they've got trunk lines into my, you know, high school level anxieties and desires in a way that the commercials I grew up with never did. What it is, is a lot of 'em are the hip, cynical, cool people I went to college feeling intimidated by who are now making $2 million a year.

- [Steve] I mentioned this essay that you wrote, I think it was back in 1993, about writing and sort of what various fiction writers are up to. And one point you made is that irony tyrannizes us. The implicit message of irony is, I don't really mean what I'm saying. And you went on to suggest that the next generation of rebel writers might ditch irony in favor of sincerity. And I think I'm quoting here, "Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions with reverence and conviction, who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue." And I guess,

- Yeah.

- [Steve] Is that a critique of your own kind of writing?

- [David] I don't know that it's that. I mean, the thing even sounds dated to me now. I think it's less that than an articulation of the thing you were asking me about before is, you know, what is it like to be working really hard on this stuff at age 42 having been marketed to all your life? I mean, because you want your art to be hip and seem cool to people. You want people to like the stuff. But a great deal of what passes for hip or cool is now highly, highly commercially driven. And some of it I think is important art. I think "The Simpsons" is important art. On the other hand, it's also, in my opinion, relentlessly corrosive to the soul. And everything is parodied, and everything is ridiculous. Maybe I'm old, but for my part, I can be steeped in about an hour of it and then I sort of have to walk away and look at a flower or something. If there's something to be talked about, that thing is this weird conflict between what my girlfriend calls the inner sap, you know? The part of us that can really wholeheartedly weep at stuff and the part of us that has to live in a world of smart, jaded, sophisticated people and wants very much to be taken seriously by those people. I don't know that it's that irony tyrannizes us, but the fashions that are so easy to criticize but are so incredibly powerful and authentic seeming when we're inside them tyrannize us. I don't know that it's ever been any different. That probably makes absolutely no sense.

- No actually, it makes total,

- That was an, my experiment at telling the truth.

- [Steve] It makes total sense, but can you hold those two impulses simultaneously?

- [David] No, but I think, my personal opinion and what I tell my students is that, if there's suffering involved in art or however you wanna say it, right now, this is the form of the suffering is to be the battleground for the war between those two kind of impulses, neither of which are stupid, neither of which are wrong. But it's not at all clear to me how to marry them. And I don't think it's been at all clear since about the 1950s, and I just think it's where we're at.

- [Steve] Is that what you're trying to do in your fiction, to sort of get at those two impulses within the same story?

- [David] For the purposes of this conversation, I'll say yes but, but sitting in the bright, quiet room in front of the paper, it's much more, oh, does this make me want to throw up? Does this seem real? Is this the sort of thing the person would say? It's much more kind of boneheaded and practical than that. You realize this, right? There's something very artificial about once the book's all through galleys and, you know, now I'm engaging in critical discourse about it. I might be right, but it's very different than what it's like actually to do the things.

- [Anne] The late David Foster Wallace, that's from an interview he did with Steve back in 2004. We'll hear more from him and we'll meet his sister after this. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

- [Amy] He would never use an ATM machine 'cause he didn't get it. But he was probably the best listener I have ever met in my life. He loved to sit down and talk to people about anything.

- [Anne] That's Amy Wallace-Havens, describing her late brother, David Foster Wallace. And unlike everyone else we've heard in this hour, Amy didn't care whether David was famous or not famous or even whether he was a writer. He was just her big brother. We talked about a year after David's death.

- [Amy] He was sort of benevolently sadistic, if that makes any sense at all. He very much enjoyed figuratively pulling my wings off and then watching what happened. He knew every button to push to make me hysterical. He was, you know, two years older and that much smarter, and he was always a lot bigger than I was. Probably the funniest thing that he did when he was a kid, during the long, gray, boring winters when there just isn't that much to do, once in a while he would decide that, that day, he wasn't gonna be David, he was gonna be Captain Phlegm and his sidekick Goat Bile, and he would be both of them at once. And I don't really remember what their purpose was or what, if they had superpowers, or what they actually did, but I can still, you know, shudder, thinking I used to beg my brother to be allowed to be Goat Bile on a Sunday afternoon, and I wasn't worthy. He would do them both himself.

- [Anne] So your brother had his first brush with depression when he was still living at home. Do you remember that time?

- [Amy] Yes, yes I do. He had left for college, and he came back his sophomore year in the middle of the year unexpectedly. And this just stunned all of us. We had absolutely no idea what he was going through and what he was struggling with. And that was a very memorable and difficult time.

- [Anne] That must have been really hard for you, as little sister, to see your big brother come home like that.

- [Amy] It was really scary, because he'd always been big and strong and he could do anything. But I do remember, when he came back from Amherst in the middle of the year, we would sit in his bedroom when I got home from school, and sometimes, he would get in my mom or dad's car and just drive around and try to find me and give me a ride home. And then he would just talk about loneliness and wondering how people get up every day and function. At the time, I think I was working at Baskin Robbins, and he said, "How do you do that? When somebody comes into the store and asks for an ice cream, how do you do that and not just wanna run out the back door?" It was very frightening to think that the depression could be so incredibly powerful. And then it took a while, but he had therapy and medication and got markedly better.

- [Anne] I know he had really, really rocky times throughout all those years. There were years that were good. I mean, he got married, and by all accounts, had a really number of very stable, very happy years, which I think made all of his family and friends also very happy 'cause it had taken him so long. What was David Foster Wallace as a happy and fulfilled family guy like?

- [Amy] It was neat to see. He definitely found the person for him in Karen, and she got him on every level. She thought it was absolutely great that he dressed the way that he did, and it was nice, nice to see him so happy. And I think he finally felt like, he spent most of his life really not feeling like a grownup, and marrying Karen, I think, soothed that element of him.

- [Anne] So that, the last year before his suicide sounds like things hit bottom again. The portrait that's kind of emerged of your brother is of a very, very brave, courageous person, who tried to endure what felt unendurable and who finally really just couldn't take it anymore, at least, that's kind of how it's been reported. How would you tell it?

- [Amy] That is exactly, that's, he was very brave. And he really did try so hard. When he did die, there was not a minute that I thought that I was angry at him or that, if he'd only tried harder, I knew how hard he tried. I need a minute.

- [Anne] I'm sorry.

- It's okay.

- Yeah.

- [Amy] I just got a whole box of Kleenex brought to me.

- [Anne] So we don't leave you with you having to walk out there in tears, when you remember him and you wanna remember the good parts and not feel sad, you know, and just remember him with some lightness in your heart, what sort of things do you think of?

- [Amy] Sometime in the '80s we drove cross country together. I was in school at Virginia at the time, and he was moving back to Tucson, and his radio was awful, and it was an AM radio. And so we had this boom box with tapes in it, and we ran outta batteries at one point, and we were in Texas, and David didn't wanna stop, because we had to go at least 200 more miles before we could have dinner or whatever, you know, the fabulous prize was at the end there and buy batteries. So he decided he was gonna teach me to sing harmony, and I didn't wanna learn how to sing harmony. And we were stuck in this tiny Volkswagen Rabbit in Texas as the sun was setting. And David had a lovely singing voice, and he was actually in the glee club at Amherst with Prince Albert of Monaco, actually, little tidbit there, but so we're driving along and David say, "No, really Amy, it's, you can learn how to do this and then we can just sing wonderful harmonies for the rest of the trip." And I said, "I don't wanna sing wonderful harmonies for the rest of the trip. I wanna get batteries, you know, let's just stop at the, I see a store right there." "No, no, no. When I go, ah, you go, ah." You know? And this went on for 200 miles, and I grudgingly tried to make the, reach the unlikely pitch he was expecting me to reach and sustain. And he did finally, thank God, give up on me. And I think he bought me a Hostess cupcake when we finally got the batteries and apologized. But I just think about that, and that's just kind of David in a nutshell. I am tone deaf. I was never going to learn how to sing harmony in that car, and I was pissed off. I didn't want to, but I will never forget that. And whenever I start thinking, you know, oh God, this is just so sad and this is so awful, I think of being in that Volkswagen Rabbit, and I think, you know, I will never ever regret having David for a brother, and I've got wonderful memories, and I can still hear his voice in my head, not in a scary, mentally ill kind of way, but he had a very distinctive, soft, lovely voice. And whenever he'd call me on the phone, he'd say, "Hey, Aim." And once in a while, I just hear that, and you know, he's there.

- [Anne] That's Amy Wallace-Havens talking with us about her brother, David Foster Wallace. We had that conversation about a year after his death. So we're getting near the end of this hour, and it's about time to say goodbye to David Foster Wallace. We thought we'd let him give us a sendoff, and this is from the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in Ohio in 2005. An audience member transcribed the speech from a videotape, and for a while, it lived a second life on the internet and then was eventually published under the title, "This is Water."

- [David] In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship, and a compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship, be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths or some inviolable set of ethical principles, is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. 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. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful. It is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom, the freedom all to be lords of our own tiny, skull-sized kingdoms. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it, but of course, there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad, petty, little unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom.

- [Anne] That's David Foster Wallace giving the commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. You can read the whole thing in a thin, little book called "This is Water." Thanks for listening today, and thanks for helping us remember a great American writer. "To the Best of Our Knowledge" covers new ideas through conversations with the people creating our culture. And you can listen to more of it on our website at This program comes to you every week from the middle of America, Madison, Wisconsin, city of Five Lakes, 40,000 college students, and the original home of public broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio. Our producers are Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane and Mark Riechers. Joe Hartke is our sound designer and technical director. Steve Paulson is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Anne Strainchamps. Until next time.

- [Narrator] PRX.

Last modified: 
November 01, 2023