Podcast • August 25, 2015

Renata Adler on Sadness, Selfies, and Losing

Consider Renata Adler one of the defiantly smart women of the age. She was a star of the culture pages of the New York Times in the mid-60s then for decades at The New Yorker. These ...

Consider Renata Adler one of the defiantly smart women of the age.

renata-2She was a star of the culture pages of the New York Times in the mid-60s then for decades at The New Yorker. These days, her tart, tweet-ready epigrams are a hit with millennials and 30-somethings hooked on language and the wide world. We link her to dauntless, independent spirits like Joan Didion, Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Julia Child. She’s a match also for Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal—all of them readers, stylists, and watchers open to surprise.

David Foster Wallace was a Renata Adler fan (who spoke of her as an influence, too). So, on the occasion of our hour about DFW and the air of personal and social sadness that lingers around him, we poured Renata a scotch and sat together for a wide-ranging conversation about American life. What’s been going on, we asked, with our nation’s mood and history since the Vietnam War? In the age of the selfie, how should we be telling our country’s story?

June 26, 2014

Revisiting David Foster Wallace’s Boston

The novelist David Foster Wallace has resurfaced on film and in our radio archive, so we’re revisiting one of our favorite shows of the year this week: “Infinite Boston,” a tribute to Wallace's magnum opus "Infinite Jest" and its roots in Cambridge and Brighton. We dug up the famous Connection interview with Wallace from the spring of 1996, in which Wallace spoke about the book, Boston AA meetings, the lonely and lost Generation X, and his place in U.S. literature.

The novelist David Foster Wallace has resurfaced on film and in our radio archive, so we’re revisiting one of our favorite shows of the year this week: “Infinite Boston,” a tribute to Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest and its real-life roots in Cambridge and Brighton.

The actor Jason Segel will don the famous bandana on the big screen later this year for The End of the Tour. A few weeks ago Sotheby’s sold off a small lot of personal and private letters Wallace wrote to his friend J.T. Jackson during the worst years of his life. And, burying the lead, we dug up the famous Connection interview with Wallace from the spring of 1996, when he was back in town on a book tour for Infinite Jest. Wallace talked with Chris about the book, Boston AA meetings, the lonely and lost Generation X, and his place in U.S. literature.

Our show this winter featured an audio tour of Wallace’s Boston with the local raconteur and Wallace expert Bill Lattanzi, interviews with his biographer D. T. Max, the editor and writer Sven Birkerts, and a conversation with Lattanzi and Deb Larson, Wallace’s friend and mentor at the halfway house where Wallace lived during those heartbreaking Boston years.

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A sad, sweet postcard from Wallace to J.T. Jackson from 1990. The front showed “A Foggy Day In Boston, Massachusetts”.

Thanks again to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.

Image credit: Richard Burrbridge/Rolling Stone.

Podcast • June 25, 2014

A Lost 1996 Interview with David Foster Wallace

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.

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, clichaed 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:

Podcast • January 30, 2014

The Infinite Boston Tour

David Foster Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max , says Infinite Jest is the contemporary novel that has the best chance of being read fifty years from now. Sven Birkerts, a critic who knew Wallace, says the popularity ...

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David Foster Wallace’s biographer, D. T. Max , says Infinite Jest is the contemporary novel that has the best chance of being read fifty years from now. Sven Birkerts, a critic who knew Wallace, says the popularity of the book amounts to ”a whole generation saying, ‘We’re kind of crazy, but we’re also really smart. And D.F.W. is our man.'”

It may be a book of global significance, but today we explore the idea that Infinite Jest is fundamentally a Boston novel, that Infinite Jest is to Boston what Ulysses is to Dublin.

Last week the writer Bill Lattanzi led us on a tour of Infinite Boston, inspired partly by Bill Beutler’s website. The tour begins in the “seat of empire,” so to speak, Harvard Square — epicenter of the ivy-clad buildings, cobblestone streets, churches, libraries, museums, the ancient glory of Boston and New England — which is to say, everything that David Foster Wallace did not write about. We are looking at the Boston traversed by addicts, the homeless, the-down-on-their-luck. We stop at the Harvard Square Homeless Center and Cambridge City Hospital, and Wallace’s apartment on the Somerville edge of Inman Square. We walk his main drag, the stretch of Prospect Street connecting Inman and Central Square. We hop on the T moving across the Charles to Brighton, where Wallace spent time after leaving McLean Hospital and where he found some essential characters and atmosphere of Infinite Jest. As Bill says, we walk through “the Boston of Wallace’s imagination.”

Podcast • January 22, 2014

D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace’s Boston

It was David Foster Wallace’s fine biographer D. T. Max who remarked to me months ago that the Boston dimensions of Wallace and his masterpiece Infinite Jest had not been taken in. Spot on, I ...

It was David Foster Wallace’s fine biographer D. T. Max who remarked to me months ago that the Boston dimensions of Wallace and his masterpiece Infinite Jest had not been taken in. Spot on, I realized. The Wallace I met and interviewed (fumblingly, I’m afraid) in 1996 when Infinite Jest appeared seemed lost somewhere between his midwestern beginnings and the oceanic anxieties, addictions, hunger and general weirdness of our times. But Max prompted me to read Infinite Jest all over again, and of course he’s right: the book is a map of the hospital hilltop in Brighton; of Prospect Street in Cambridge between Inman and Central Squares; of Harvard Square and McLean Hospital; of the fashionably seedy precincts, then and now, of Somerville on the edge of East Cambridge. So I asked D. T. Max — the New Yorker staff writer who contributed that memorable obituary profile — who Wallace was after all, and what persuaded Max himself to undertake a serious biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.

David is the author of his time who has the fairest chance to be read 50 years from now… I really feel the way David touched the themes of the 1990s – themes of addiction and excessive entertainment in American culture have become even more outstanding and  more relevant to most of us, and when you reread Infinite Jest today – it’s really a novel that’s fundamentally about television and video, but you read it today and you think you’re reading a novel about the Internet.

D. T. Max with Chris Lydon at M.I.T., Spring 2013

 

This Week's Show • June 26, 2014

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Boston

Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into.
Sven Birkerts: Present at the Creation of "Infinite Jest"
The Infinite Boston Tour
D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace's Boston

Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into: the “clot and snarl of Prospect St in Cambridge,” that “Fresh Killed” poultry sign in Inman Square, the clang and squeak of the B-Line trolleys along Comm. Ave., Brighton past the halfway houses on the hill for catatonics and drunks where Wallace’s life turned around. Maybe it helps to read Infinite Jest as a tour of one man’s battlefield, with re-enactments every day.

We got 200-and-some contributions for this conversation posted on Reddit so far.  IJ, as they say, is about addiction, entertainment, compulsive consumption, emotional isolation, TV, the Internet, anxiety, panic attacks,  — and loneliness throughout.  One of the Reddit writers said: “Infinite Jest, it’s still where I go to understand the queer sadnesses of 21st-century life.”

Thanks also to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.
Image credit: Janette Beckman/Redferns