June 25, 2014

"Never before in history has a country been so blessed... and yet we're miserable."

A Lost 1996 Interview with David Foster Wallace

By Kunal Jasty and Max Larkin

In February 1996, David Foster Wallace came to Boston. He was the not-quite recognized writer of the massive book, Infinite Jest, which was just beginning to capture the attention of reviewers, readers and a generation of writers. Chris interviewed David Foster Wallace on The Connection on WBUR in Boston, and told him he seemed to be living in between a moment of cultish obscurity and international artistic celebrity, perhaps even immortality. We went to the WBUR archives yesterday to see if we could find the tape.

We found it in the dusty basement, nestled between shows about the 1996 presidential primaries and escalating violence in the Middle East. The conversation is almost heartbreaking to hear now in light of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. Back then he was attempting to explain the sadness he saw among the twenty- and thirty-somethings around him; he admitted to feeling lost and lonely himself. But he also spoke of his hope to have children and the prospect of a long career.

I was raised in an academic environment and in a pretty middle-class one. I’d never really seen how a lot of other people live. My chance to see that was here in Boston, and a lot of it was in the halfway houses for this book. I didn’t really understand emotionally that there are people around who didn’t have enough to eat, who weren’t warm enough, who didn’t have a place to live, whose parents beat the hell out of them regularly. The sadness isn’t in seeing it, the sadness is in realizing how phenomenally lucky I am, not only to have never been hungry or cold, but to be educated, to have access to books. Never before in history has a country been so blessed, materially and intellectually, and yet we’re miserable.
David Foster Wallace in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 1996.

All the same, Wallace was skirting the subject of his own alcoholism and marijuana addiction. Now we know that Wallace came to Alcoholics Anonymous and Granada House, a halfway house in Brighton, not as a researcher but as a patient. In our show, “Infinite Boston,” we spoke to Deb Larson-Venable, Granada House’s den mother and executive director. Wallace based his character Pat Montesian, one of the novel’s rare angels, on Larson. She knew Wallace as a man who fought for his life in Boston, and won. You can listen to the full interview at the top of the page, but here’s our favorite part, when Wallace talks about why his generation seems so “lost and lonely”:

When I started the book the only idea I had is I wanted to do something about America that was sad but wasn’t just making fun of America. Most of my friends are extremely bright, privileged, well-educated Americans who are sad on some level, and it has something, I think, to do with loneliness. I’m talking out of my ear a little bit, this is just my opinion, but I think somehow the culture has taught us or we’ve allowed the culture to teach us that the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can, and that the implicit promise is that will make you happy. I know that’s almost offensively simplistic, but the effects of it aren’t simplistic at all. I don’t have children but I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of what my children will think of me, of what we’ve done with what we’ve been given, and why we are so sad.
David Foster Wallace in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 1996.

In this clip, Wallace reads one of our favorite sections of the book, about why the seemingly trivial lessons of Boston AA simply work:

“You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story. The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter. And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clich\aed AA thing–so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they’d come too much to love– might really be able to keep the lover’s toothy maw at bay. The process is the neat reverse of what brought you down and In here: Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do.

And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons . . . and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In. And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand-burned-on-hot-stove terror you heed the improbable-sounding warnings not to stop pounding out the nightly meetings even after the Substance-cravings have left and you feel like you’ve got a grip on the thing at last and can now go it alone, you still don’t try to go it alone, you heed the improbable warnings because by now you have no faith in your own sense of what’s really improbable and what isn’t, since AA seems, improbably enough, to be working, and with no faith in your own senses you’re confused, flummoxed, and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it–how can you pray to a `God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?–but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told, you keep coming and coming, nightly”

And here’s Deb Larson from our recent show on David Foster Wallace, describing Wallace at the Granada House in 1989. She describes his interactions with Don Gately and other residents of Granada House, bringing them to poetry readings at Harvard:

Related Content

  • Kunal

    We’re going to publishing lots more content about David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest this week. Please subscribe to our podcast on iTunes here: radioopensource.org/subscribe/

  • Maxmordon

    Just started reading Infinite Jest last week. Don’t know if this is perfect or if it will spoil my experience somewhat.

  • Kunal

    There are many more interviews waiting to be digitized! If you remember a show on The Connection that you loved, please leave a comment about it and I’ll try to post it.

  • Kit Binns

    I heard the last 2/3 of the show on Infinite Jest yesterday. De gustibus non est disputandum, in literature as in all else, but I think Chris is really missing the boat here. First, the easy stuff: the emphasis on this as a generational piece of literature is misguided. All literature is rooted in the time and culture of its author; all great literature transcends that frame. I think Chris needs to get over the angle of cubby-holing Infinite Jest thus. I read it when I was 63. I used to think the days of occasionally reading a book that “changed my life” were never going to come again; no longer. And, yes, such long and dense and complicated writing is not most people’s cup of tea anymore, but that is no excuse for warning away those who are willing to approach it with an open heart and mind. And, as complicated as it is, these page long paragraphs are all crystal clear.

    But what makes this a great novel? Protean, stunning in its ambition and scope, in its use of words, in the array of subjects about which Wallace displays subject mastery. And, ultimately, in the heart it shows, the sadness, the longing, the humanity of these troubled but lovable people adrift in a cruel and capricious world. Yes, it depicts a messy, depressing world, and ties up nothing neatly. Why is that troubling or unsatisfying? Is it not simple reality?

    And I reject that it is all about this darkness. Addiction and entertainment, the twin monsters of this book, provide the dark side. Communication somehow provides the hope. Strangely, it is mostly lack of communication or miscommunication that characterizes the theme of communication, but I somehow find this theme to be a faint ray of hope, maybe because these peope are all trying so hard to communicate, to be honest, even though they typically fail. And by trying to communicate, trying to be human, they refuse to submit without a fight to the addiction or the entertainment that seems utterly overwhelming. You can’t help but be on their side. There is a lot of love in this book. Chris seems to largely miss this, although he started moving there at the in his discussion about the halfway house with Pat.

    I predict this will be part of the canon, just as is Moby Dick, a book which, BTW, does absolutely nothing for me, but then, in matters of taste…..

    Kit Binns

    • Kunal

      I wonder whether Infinite Jest will be part of the cannon. On the one hand, I think it’s an amazing book with some amazing writer. On the other, isn’t it already dated by 2014?

  • durbang o. tillo

    Too sad for for work

  • heh…. I never thought the greatness of MOBY DICK a matter of taste, but of course it is.

    It is written funny – a product of its time; its strangeness a product of a particular ‘now’.

    For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honours that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks in these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them, that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted potency. But when, as in the case of Nicholas the Czar, the ringed crown of geographical empire encircles
    an imperial brain; then, the plebeian herds crouch abased before the tremendous centralization. Nor, will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direct swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his art, as the one now alluded to.
    CHAPTER 33. The Specksnyder

  • Kunal

    “I guess what makes me sad is that I would like my generation to realize that it would be way better for us inside in our stomachs to pay higher taxes to be able to shelter and feed poor people, not for their sake but for ours. So that we would be the sort of culture that doesn’t let people die. And that instead we’re all so worried about an extra four percent off our monthly paycheck that we get all exercised about it. And, you know what – I see you looking at me – I know this sounds really pious and weird and its got nothing to do with the book, but it’s got to do with…doing this book was hard for me because it’s about why exactly are we so sad and how have we become so unbelievably selfish. Like lethally selfish and self-indulgent”