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Exhibitionism in private

David Foster Wallace winces at the suggestion that his book is sloppy in any sense

"It may be a mess, but it's a very careful mess," he says. "A lot of work went into making it look like that. That might sound like a pathetic lie, but it's not. Now, as you can see, my dander's getting up."

Wallace's dander, however, isn't perceptibly on the rise. Seated in his hotel room at the Copley Plaza, shortly after doing Christopher Lydon's radio show and before heading out for a reading, Wallace looks tired but entirely calm. And he remains that way except when he thinks he might be coming off as pretentious or self-promoting, when he's forced to face a photographer, and when he's asked to talk about himself. "The less I'm being watched, the more I can watch, and the better it is for me and for my work," he explains. "If people really want to know what I ate for lunch, I guess that's okay. But it's kind of toxic."

Whatever the cost of celebrity, Wallace, at 34, is about as famous as serious writers get in this country before they've been dead for quite a while. Although he's glad that Infinite Jest has attracted attention, he seems genuinely baffled by all the fuss about him. "I'm somebody who spends much of his life in libraries," he says. "I'm just not that interesting."

Asked why he chose to be a writer, Wallace dodges, saying, "There isn't much else I want to do," and talks instead about writers in general: "Most of the writers I know are weird hybrids. There's a strong streak of egomania coupled with extreme shyness. Writing's kind of like exhibitionism in private. And there's also a strange loneliness, and a desire to have some kind of conversation with people, but not a real great ability to do it in person.

"When I was younger," he goes on, "I saw my relationship with the reader as sort of a sexual one. But now it seems more like a late-night conversation with really good friends, when the bullshit stops and the masks come off."

Why the conversation took the form and direction it did in Infinite Jest isn't something Wallace is anxious to explain. "You do what you do, and then afterwards you think up why you did it, so there's an element of bullshit about any explanation," he says. "I'm not going to run some lit crit thing on you," says Wallace, who teaches English at Illinois State University. "But the book doesn't work the way novels normally work." He inhales deeply and then pushes the air back out through his teeth in spurts, making a noise like a kid's imitation of a chugging locomotive. "It's really designed more like a piece of music than like a book, so a lot of it consists of leitmotifs and things that curve back. And there's all this stuff about movement within limits and whether you can puncture the limits or not."

When Wallace's erudition starts to show, he seems to feel obliged to explain it, as if it were a broken leg. "I come from a weird background. My parents are academics, and they read a lot. And I read a lot," he says, neglecting to mention that he also studied philosophy at Harvard. "So I come to writing from a pretty hard-core, abstract place. It comes out of technical philosophy and continental European theory, and extreme avant-garde shit. I'm not just talking Pynchon and Gaddis. That's commercial avant-garde. I'm talking like Beckett, and Fiction Collective 2, and Dalkey Archive." Suddenly, he slaps his forehead, swears, and makes the train noise again.

"On the other hand," he continues, "I'm somebody who can't even own a TV anymore, because I'll just sit there slack-jawed and consume enormous amounts of what is, in terms of art, absolute shit. But it's very pleasurable shit.

"If you're torn in these two different directions," he says, "it's very odd. The project, at least with this book, was to do something long and difficult that was also fun. I'm not saying it succeeds. I wanted to write something that would make somebody say, `Holy, shit, I've got to read this,' and then seduce them into doing a certain amount of work. And that -- if I can be pretentious for a second -- is what art ought to do."

One task he requires of his readers "keeping track of enormous amounts of information." Others include "being required to pay attention to some of the strategies that regular entertainment uses" and "having certain formulaic expectations that go along with reading commercial stuff fucked with. Not just disdained. Fucked with."

Case in point: the ending. "I think that some of that commercial stuff evidences a real contempt for the reader, by having such a reductive idea of what the reader wants. Like they're children and have to have their fantasies enabled and have a happy ending," says Wallace. "Plot-wise, the book doesn't come to a resolution. But if the readers perceive it as me giving them the finger, then I haven't done my job. On the surface, it might seem like it just stops. But it's supposed to stop and then kind of hum and project. Musically and emotionally, it's a pitch that seemed right."

-- Anne Marie Donahue

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