Friday, September 18, 2020

David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

 I’ve read all of David Foster Wallace’s three novels, his three story collections and his first three essay collections. I’ve read his biography and the long interview book, Although Of Course You Always End Up Being Yourself.  I think he’s a great writer, even if I’m not as fierce on the subject as his most outspoken proponents. The cult of genius that has built up around him, while at least somewhat justified, is a bit off putting. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a fan; of the essays more so than the fiction. This collection of interviews, beginning with a 1996 one from Salon and ending with the titular final one for the Wall Street Journal shortly before his death in 2013, would probably work best for someone who had read at least a little of the books and knew a little about him.

For instance, one of the main plot strands of Infinite Jest takes place in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In the opening interview of the book, he says he went to some AA meetings with some friends, eliding, entirely justifiably, his own problems with alcohol and experiences in AA, which his biography talks about in some detail. I can’t remember if it was in another interview or in one of the essays, but in the aftermath of 9/11 he talked about being with his “church” which some people were surprised about having (rightly) assumed he was somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum. Here he was talking about his AA group. Knowing that he had first hand experience of AA changes the perception of the interview.

A less savory elision came in a list of writers he recommended. He mentioned Mary Karr as the “best female poet under 50” in one of the early interviews. She is on record about his stalker-ish and abusive behavior towards her after they dated briefly in the early 90s. Not that the interviewer should have known to press him on that point, but it did immediately bring that to mind. I’m not going to pretend I don’t like Wallace, but neither am I going to pretend I don’t know some of the less savory aspects of his life.

In a strange coincidence of reading, I read two books in a row in which someone spoke highly of Annie Dillard. One of Wallace’s interviewers and he went back and forth about one of her essays. Frederick Buechner mentioned that he recommended Holy The Firm (my favorite Dillard) to his friend the poet James Merrill. I always enjoy seeing that a writer shares my appreciation for another. And when writers as different as Buechner and Wallace like a writer, that speaks well for the writer.

My favorite parts of the collection were his discussion with Dave Eggers for The Believer of the mathematician at the heart of his Everything and More (which I haven’t read yet) and his recognition in 2005 of the emerging untenable state of political discourse, which foreshadows the current situation. 

Recommended (if you’re already pretty familiar with Wallace)

Owned But Previously Unread 72/75

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