Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace

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The Unwritten Profile: On The End Of The Tour

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to The End of the Tour, the new film about a five-day interview between the writer David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, is that I finally started reading Wallace again. I hadn’t read him since his death in 2008, which hit harder than I expected, considering I had never read his greatest work, Infinite Jest. I feel the need to confess this up front, because The End of the Tour revolves around Infinite Jest; it’s the book that Wallace is promoting on his tour, it’s the book that Lipsky reveres with a mixtures of envy and gratitude, and it’s the book that Jason Segal, the actor who plays David Foster Wallace, read in solitude in a cabin in “the California boonies” in order to prepare for the role. My excuse for never having read Infinite Jest is that I was in college when it was first published, too busy making my way through classic mammoth novels to have time for contemporary ones. And then, by the time I graduated from college, Wallace’s books, especially Infinite Jest, had been so thoroughly colonized by ardent fans and critics that it no longer seemed like much fun to read Wallace. In other words, he got canonized. But before he was famous—or maybe, it’s better to say, before I knew he was famous—there was a two-year period when Wallace seemed to speak only to me via my parent’s magazine subscriptions and the public library. No one I knew read Wallace, my older sister didn’t read him, and my parents, astonishingly, didn’t even like him—they thought his prose was too self-conscious. So, he was mine. My secret portal to a new way of thinking and writing about the world, a way of thinking and writing that was infected by cable television, by email, and by the then-nascent internet, “the Web”. Wallace was the future. It made sense that my baby boomer parents couldn’t receive the message and that no one in my boondock town had heard of him. In retrospect, my proprietary feelings toward Wallace make me laugh because it doesn’t take a great critical mind to notice that, hey, this guy can really write! It’s also funny because Wallace is one of those writers that everyone feels connected to in a secret, special way. That’s one definition of literary genius, that ability to get into people’s head, to make them believe that they aren’t even reading, that they’re somehow thinking the sentences. Lipsky describes Wallace’s literary gift as “casual and gigantic; he’d captured everybody’s brain voice.” The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s 2010 Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book that is basically a transcript of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace at the end of his 1996 Infinite Jest book tour. I read it after watching The End of the Tour, curious to see how closely the film followed it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all the dialogue was taken from the book. That said, the book is subtler than the movie (as books generally are), shaggier, funnier, less plot-driven, and less manipulative. Still, I loved the movie. It brought me straight back to my late teens, and to the beginning of certain literary dreams. It also brought me back to the late nineties, which is another way of saying that there is no way I can be even remotely objective about a film that begins with strains of R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies”, a song so deeply stored in my memory banks that it inevitably dislodges the emotion-soaked memories surrounding it. If End of the Tour is actually a good movie, and not just a nostalgia trip for thirtysomethings like me, it’s good because it’s a road movie, and the cracked-open car windows let air and views of the open road into scenes that might otherwise be too cramped and talky. Because of bad weather, Lipsky and Wallace’s flights are cancelled, and they must drive the last leg of Wallace’s book tour. It’s an inconvenience that ends up being fortuitous for Lipsky, who observes that the interview only worked because of “the Henry Ford road trip equation: two men will become comfortable if they have to drive any distance in excess of 40 miles.” There’s something dreamy about a car trip, with the scenery whooshing by, with music playing, cigarettes burning (it’s the nineties, remember). Lipsky allows himself to get wistful in his introduction to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. The window is letting in a leak of cold air. R.E.M. is playing. The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly of a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had. It seems doubtful that this was one of Wallace’s all-time favorite conversations. Lipsky interviews him at the end of a hugely successful book tour, a moment that Lipsky imagines as joyful and triumphant. But Wallace is fretful and self-conscious. He’s between projects, rarely a comfortable place for a writer, and he’s made even more uncomfortable by his growing awareness of his fame. He knows he needs to protect himself against this new genius-writer persona, otherwise he’ll lose the almost childish sense of privacy it took to write Infinite Jest. At the same time, if there’s a public persona happening, he wants a hand in shaping it. Wallace’s simplest defense is to deny that he is famous, or that he even cares about fame, one that Lipsky tries to tear down throughout his interview. He wants Wallace to cop to his ambition, both because (presumably) he wants some good quotes for his profile, but also because Lipsky is a novelist, too. He can’t help being curious about, and more than a little jealous of Wallace’s success. But instead of getting satisfying descriptions of the pleasures of literary fame, Lipksy gets quotes like this (excerpted from Lipsky’s book, not the screenplay): I follow the crap. But I struggle much harder against the temptation to follow the crap. And I follow it from more of a distance—and yeah, I have some sort of idea of it. But have some compassion. I mean, I’ve already told you that, like, I gotta be very careful about how much of this stuff I take inside. Because I go home, and I spend a month getting this manuscript ready [his 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. And then I got to start working on something else. And the realer this shit is to me, and the more I think about it—and, of course, you’re holding the tape recorder so that I will end up reading what I’ve said in this article. That will feed the self-consciousness loop. The irony is that Lipsky never ended up writing the piece that Wallace was so worried about reading. According to Lipsky, his editor changed his mind. This was a relief: “I tried to write, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray.” It seems important to me that Lipsky never wrote the profile, although the film doesn’t bother to mention it. If Lipsky had written the profile, he would have been forced to look at that “questionable stuff on the X-ray” and make a diagnosis. He probably would have had to cut all the Lipsky out of the interview, all the projections, all the posturing, all the angst, and figure out what story he wanted to tell about Wallace. But Lipsky couldn’t bring himself to do that, and so the material remains raw and unfiltered. It’s not clear what Lipsky is looking for when he presses Wallace, again and again, for a detailed report of what is feels like to be—what? Famous? Critically beloved? Quasi-canonized? A genius? The writer of Infinite Jest? The film tends to simplify the dynamic between the two men, with points of jealous conflict that don’t appear in Lipsky’s book. Jealousy is certainly an ingredient in Lipsky’s interview questions (and one he acknowledges in his preface) but the even simpler truth is that Lipsky was a young reporter without a lot of experience. Wallace was the first writer he ever interviewed. Jason Segal is already getting a lot of praise for his convincing portrayal of Wallace, but for me, Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of David Lipsky was more revealing. His performance reminded me of the thrill of reading Wallace as a teenager, of the way, when you finished his essays and stories, you felt smarter, more analytical, more curious, more observant. At the very least, you’d learned a new word or two. And you wanted to use those words in a sentence, immediately! In The End of Tour, you see Lipsky imitating Wallace without even meaning to, picking up his pronunciation of certain words, his mannerisms, his jokes, and even trying his chewing tobacco (he spits it out immediately). There’s a great moment when Lipsky and Wallace are smoking cigarettes in the car with two of Wallace’s friends. The windows are cracked to let the smoke out but cold air is whooshing in, causing Lipsky to announce, gleefully, “we’re on a hypothermia smoking tour!” One of Wallace’s friends comments that it “sounds like something Dave would say”. She says it without any particular malice; it’s as if this has happened before, with Dave’s new friends. I recognized myself in that scene, and I recognized the generation of writers who continue to live and wrestle with his legacy.

To Make Us Feel Less Alone: On ‘The David Foster Wallace Reader’

1. Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit: STRAIGHTFORWARD, NO-BULLSHIT THESIS FOR WHOLE ARTICLE The David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe. The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace's complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer. BRIEF INTERPOLATION VIS A VIS WALLACE'S FICTION I love Wallace's novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. "Good Old Neon" and "Forever Overhead" are two of the best short stories I've ever read. And The Pale King, I'll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace's nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it's the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention. 2. Basically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he's about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn't come across that way. Because without fiction's distancing Narrator, Wallace's voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn't trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn't lying about his credentials; he isn't lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he's about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it. A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE OF THE WAYS IN WHICH WALLACE'S POSTMODERN TECHNIQUE WORKS DIFFERENTLY IF NOT CONVERSELY IN FICTION AND NONFICTION, WITH A FURTHER ELABORATION ON ETHICAL APPEALS The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it's related to Wallace's approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace's directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in "Authority and American Usage": The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press's recent release of Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today's US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that's too crass ever to mention upfront: "Should you buy this book?" And because Bryan A. Garner's usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative "...rather than that book?" to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind. The "question that's too crass ever to mention upfront" is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he's going to do but also how he's going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought." Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We're reminded of the writer when we're not "supposed" to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere. Let's get back to "Authority and American Usage." In dissecting "how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind," Wallace focuses his attention on Garner's rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically "preaching to the choir," they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace "amounts to...a complex and sophisticated 'Trust me,'" which "requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience's hopes and fears." What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It's the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky's book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, "In those essays...there's a certain persona created, that's a little stupider and schmuckier than I am...I treasure my regular-guyness. I've started to think it's my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I'm pretty much like everybody else." Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with "regular guyness:" his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of "Authority and American Usage," he does exactly what he's praising Garner for doing. He creates "a certain persona" that allows the reader to trust him: he asks "unmentionable" questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a "SNOOT"); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases. One must admit, though, that there's a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he's too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace's prose to be "regular" in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for: A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen. By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority. In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza's ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of "Good Old Neon," who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he's admitting that he's fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character's neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:" When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces. The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one. The main point of his little riff is that our desire to "be liked" often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was "preserve good relations," which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed. But the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it "are written on the margins of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse," a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith's essay on BIWHM), he says: Metafiction...helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there's always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language's self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion's dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it'd become a god-awful trap. 3. That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace's legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people's thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace's prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what's to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author's Foreword, which begins thusly: Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that's mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true. Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don't actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that's required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can't do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is "not some abstract narrative persona," distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he's assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks. The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator's prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace's nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that "the novel was the big form, the one that mattered." More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It's as if he didn't attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate. Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here's a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the "extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:" The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field's dewy turf, a twirler who'd attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin's body watery and distant and oddly refracted. Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn't it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin's life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character's idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice: In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family's home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let's just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever. (I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn't super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same "regular-guyness" with his usage of colloquialisms like "the point is," "more or less," "pretty much," etc, and his final blasé conclusion: "Although, you know, whatever." But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from "Authority and American Usage" or “A Supposedly Fun Thing...” And that's what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic. CONCLUSION –– AT LONG LAST –– IN WHICH WE RETURN TO WALLACE'S NONFICTION AND, PERHAPS, CONCLUDE A THING OR TWO All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free. To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt's assessment of Wallace's essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are "uneven." For Schmidt, Wallace "makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction," and his essays "entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres." And also: He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with "impartial" journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire. What is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here's how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace's "Authority and American Usage" essay excerpted above): "Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential." Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn't his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his "regular-guyness." Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn't have meant a damn thing if the voice didn't lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that's the magic. Schmidt characterizes Wallace as "a postmodernist with premodern values," and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the "tricks" and "gimmicks" of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to "impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring," as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we'll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.

Robert Birnbaum and Darin Strauss

As is frequently the case, having met and yakked with young novelist and NYU writing mentor Darin Strauss back in 2002, on the occasion of the publication of his second novel The Real McCoy, he and I kept in touch and resumed our conversation for his 2010 memoir Half a Life. Though, for a number of reasons, Strauss' tome is not my kind of story — the memoir recounts a profound event in his life when, as a teenager, he runs into and kills a bicyclist — as Strauss is a bright, thoughtful, and engaging conversationalist, I was pleased to talk with him again. In the course of the chat that follows, we talk about this event that has been central in his life, its aftermath, why he wrote the book, readers' responses, his own post-publication conclusions, and a wide swath of topics, literary and non-literary. Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir? Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died. RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this? DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it's linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence. RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue. DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly. RB: What is the benefit? DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It's funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic. RB: Isn’t that the point? DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person's flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do. Hopefully — I didn’t set out to write a self-help book but if — RB: Those tend not to hit their target. Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? Or needn’t be? Years ago Stephen Dixon wrote a book called Interstate, in which two infants are shot and killed in a drive-by and the father who is driving the car descends into a pit of despair. My son had just been born and I just couldn’t read past the first chapter. DS: I remember the book — it’s the first chapter played out again and again, with different ways the father would handle it. Yeah I think there are some stories that are — but even that handled really well could be great. RB: Even handling it well — DS: I know what you are saying. That’s why memoirs for the most part turn me off. When memoir opens itself up to criticism it’s because it's prurient or self-aggrandizing or salacious in some way. So this was an attempt not to — I wanted to make it an anti-memoir. I was going to do the book with Penguin but I ended up doing the book with McSweeney’s — RB: Why? DS: I said, I don’t want to write a memoir, I just want to write about this accident and what I learned from it. And I want to do that because people responded really well to the This American Life thing. I wanted to examine it a little more deeply than I did on the radio. (I am actually embarrassed now — having written the book I think the early piece was kind of glib.) But I am not sure how long it’s going to be — it might just be 50 pages. It’s just going to be about the accident. My editor said, that’s great but it has to be 200 pages. We are happy to print it — we need for it to be a viable paperback. It’s got to be 200 pages. I said, what if the story is only 50 pages? He said, well you can pad it. I said, forget it, but then Dave Eggers contacted me or maybe it was Eli [Horowitz] — and McSweeney’s said they would publish it at 50 pages. I said, that’s great, and it ended up being 200 pages. It’s longer than I thought it would be but it's still a short book. RB: Why are there no chapter headings or numbers or titles? DS: I wanted it to have a disjointed feeling in the manner that you feel when you go through something like this that life comes at you in a disjointed way. RB: Can you start anywhere in the book and move backward or forward? DS: I don’t think so — I hope that there is an arc to it. The challenge was to — every book is a magic trick. Every realistic novel pretends to be realist but is actually a complete fabrication. The trick is to make it seem like it's not. [In] this book [it] was more difficult to do that because I wanted to remain truthful and to be respectful of the girl in the incident, but also I was very aware that I wanted it to be a good reading experience — not just to be a therapy exercise for myself. So I thought, I have to make an arc and a dramatic structure and all that but I wanted it to be less visible. And wanted it to be somewhat disjointed especially in the beginning because that’s the way we experience these things. So hopefully it was mirroring that. RB: How firm is that border between fiction and non-fiction? DS: Ah, I’m not a non-fiction writer for the most part, so my wife who is a journalist would laugh and say, “Are you sure you are not making things up? Are you being truthful?” So that was the real challenge — to remain absolutely faithful to the facts. I didn’t want to make anything up. RB: Two of your novels were based on historical figures or characters — DS: Chang and Eng, my first book, which was about two famous conjoined twins, I took a lot of liberties. RB: I noticed you refrained from using “Siamese twins.” [laughs] DS: Yeah, because I was corrected a lot. People from Thailand are sensitive about that. I sold the book to Thailand — it's not very often there’s an American book about Thailand. They were going to make a big deal of it and fly me out for a Thai book festival, and then they translated it [laughs] and I kept hearing from the translators that they were having a lot of problems: ”You’re making stuff up here. This is not what happened in Thailand back then.” And so I never got the invite. I took a lot of liberties with old Siam, too. I wrote that book when I was 26 and broke and couldn’t afford to fly there. So I bought a Let’s Go Thailand and used that as my research and invented stuff. Which is okay. A novelist doesn’t have to tell the truth. The beginning of Kafka’s Amerika is the Statue of Liberty holding up a big sword. There is a debate of whether he was trying to make a point or he didn’t know. RB: Alan Furst, who rigorously researches his novels, says he doesn’t take any liberties because as he says, “a lot of blood was shed” in these stories. And beyond that readers still have unwarranted expectations — DS: I think we talked about this four years ago [more like nine years]. There is a quote from [E.L.] Doctorow where he said, “that historical novelists should do the least amount of research they could get away with.” The key part of the sentence is what you can get away with. You don’t want to make ridiculous mistakes. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or take the reader out of the situation. But you can take liberties because it says “novel” on the book. RB: More and more it says, “Such and Such, a novel.” And less and less do people pay attention. DS: It’s true. Although writers go into a publisher and say “novel,” and the publisher kind of slides out into another room. I have a number of students trying to sell novels and they have been told to say it’s a memoir, it's easier to sell memoirs. But Doctorow once told me that he received a letter from someone saying, “In Arizona there aren’t X kind of cactuses which you had in your book.” He said, “There are in my Arizona, madam.” Which is a dashing way of saying he screwed up but he didn’t care. RB: Tom Franklin [for Hell at the Breech] pointed out that readers would heckle him about armadillos and the shape of a cigarette tin. DS: Yeah, yeah. Bellow said he was tired of being crucified on the cross of American Realism. Hopefully a novel gets to deeper truths than the shape of a Lucky Strike container. But you do want to be truthful enough — if it’s not plausible the reader will lose confidence and then the book is lost. I was just talking to someone about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where she apparently makes tons of mistakes about Boston geography, saying something like Harvard was in Porter Square and things like that. Which took Boston readers out of the book. I didn’t notice it because I am not from Boston. So I thought it was a great book. RB: Who am I to say something is irresolvable. But I was reading an essay by Curtis White [The Middle Mind] and he refers to William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. I didn’t think it made the rest of his remarks without value, but I wondered about what editors or fact checkers were doing. DS: I know there are fewer and fewer fact checkers. My wife works at Newsweek and they hire younger and younger people and they have fewer and fewer people to catch mistakes at these magazines. There has been a loosening of standards across the board but that’s a different conversation. RB: There is always Edward Jones — he spent 12 years writing The Known World, intending to research from a long list he had, and he never used that list. And he most definitely made stuff up. But I dare you to identify it. DS: Exactly. RB: [chuckles] Though a history professor from Texas was upset that in my various online citations of my chat with Jones I had no problem with his approach. DS: I don’t know why people come to fiction with that expectation — that it’s going to be the same as a biography or something. And have the same standards of factualness when it’s a fairy tale — what Nabokov called his books. Peter Carey told me when he writes about his hometown he purposely puts in mistakes just to piss people off. That’s kind of funny. RB: The other side of the coin is that you can get a certain kind of pleasure out of a book that is about a place with which you are familiar. I loved [the late lamented] Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime story writer, or I suppose people in Boston like Robert Parker and they expect everything to be as they know it. DS: A lot of Jon Lethem’s popularity came from taking Brooklyn as his literary subject before anyone else had, and people turned to Motherless Brooklyn — I’m from Brooklyn now so it feels his territory because he wrote about it. So there is a pleasure for natives in reading about their home turf. RB: So we have variable valences of why we derive pleasure from reading — some are higher than others but when we talk about this stuff we are supposed to say smart things — DS: Yeah hopefully we turn to books for the writing or the moral truths or whatever you get out of it but there is something nice about saying, “Oh I know that street.” RB: I find I have learned more history from Gore Vidal, Edward Jones, Alan Furst, John le Carré, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr than as an undergraduate history student. DS: I was talking to a writer friend David Lipsky. He wrote a book called Absolutely American about West Point and the book about David Foster Wallace where he traveled with him [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] — kind of a new way of doing biography. It got good reviews, but I am not sure reviewers understood how revolutionary it could be. Even when people say the novel is in trouble and there aren’t as many readers, which people have been saying as long as there has been a novel around, I am sure more people read about the French-Russian war than read War and Peace, but nobody goes back to read the newspapers. These made-up stories are the way future generations find out about these things. I am sure more people read Libra by Delillo about [Lee Harvey] Oswald than anything else. RB: Than the Warren Commission Report [laughs]. DS: Exactly. Or anything. If you think about it like that then we have a certain responsibility to be honest. RB: There is a mistake about the way history is taught — the emphasis is on minutiae and not narrative — not the juicy stories about human frailty and foibles. And what do you know after you know all the details? DS: Look at the political discourse. It seems like people know nothing. RB: I see signs calling for the impeachment of the president. And I am sure that the sign carriers know nothing about impeachment. The House decides there is to be a trial — DS: — based on crimes and misdemeanors. It’s not like saying we don’t like the guy. It’s like if the president is unpopular he should be impeached. The memories are so short — the Clinton impeachment was 10 years ago or so. He was impeached but not forced to leave office. I don’t what it is — there is something narcotized about this country. RB: I look at James Howard Kunstler’s website ClusterFuck Nation and he decries the public conversation, and he recently asked, “Where did all the sensible people go who used to stand up against the kind of radical silliness that is so prevalent now?” DS: It’s very strange. Where are the country club Republicans who were fiscally conservative but didn’t want to get rid of public education or meddle in social issues? Didn’t want to overthrow the government? RB: Sold out? Went to ride their horsies? They supported McCain. DS: The thing about McCain that was so weird — there’s a great McCain piece by David Foster Wallace — he was honorable enough to do the right thing — RB: — once in his life. DS: But in the worst circumstances. To have his fingers broken and to refuse medication — after all this torture to say, “I’m not the first in line so [other] people should go home before me." Which is the most noble thing I can imagine. And then to totally sell out, which makes me think if you can stand up to Viet Cong torture but not attack ads, it says something interesting about power. RB: And that we are more complicated. I think in some twisted way McCain feels entitled because of his war experience. He is convinced of his own nobility and that the rest of it is just politics. And in a way it is just politics. DS: It is just politics although he did bring Palin onto the national stage. And so if she is the next president we have him to thank. RB: My son brought home a chart from school in which he was asked to evaluate himself in ten categories and his teacher would also. The point of the exercise was whether the world was better off with you in it. His self-score was 96 and his teacher scored him 89. They were obviously close, but the class participation was scored a 5 by the teacher. I bring this up because how we see ourselves is a fluctuating thing. And I wonder about this when I try to assign a value to a book like yours. If I understand you correctly the people who benefit from this book are people who have had a similar experience. DS: Most people have had a similar experience — it doesn’t have to be as spectacular. Everyone carries something that they are guilty about. RB: You’re extending the franchise of this book. DS: I’m telling the response I have gotten. People that carry something they are guilty about around or feel a grief they don’t know how to express. It’s been more universal than I thought. Which has been nice. It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel and people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think. I was doing Philadelphia NPR, and they took callers and each call was sadder than the one before. One woman called in saying her son was killed in a car accident and she had never seen grief written about in that way and she thanked me. That was weird since I wasn’t sure that people who lost kids in car accidents were a demographic for the book. And then a guy called in whose daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife was made quadriplegic and he is taking care of his wife now and his daughter is gone. I didn’t know what to say and he asked me if he should reach out to the driver. I said, “I am only a story teller, I don’t know. If it would make you feel better I think you should.” It sounds like Dr. Phil but I didn’t know how to respond. RB: Well, you wrote the book – need you say anymore? Or what more is there to say? DS: I don’t think so but these kinds of books open you up to that. Right before I published I heard from A.M. Homes, who wrote a really good memoir, and she said, ”Be prepared. It's exhausting.” And Dave Eggers who edited the book with me — RB: He has his own story. DS: He said you have to prepare yourself. People want to talk to you in a way that they don’t with novels. In a way, it's better if they don’t meet the novelist because the novel stands as its own thing and meeting the novelist can muddy the feeling you get from the book. But if you are writing about yourself, people want to meet you and talk to you to see if you compare to the you in the book or how you are now after you have written the book. So it’s much more intimate. RB: With the expectation that you have some expertise. DS: Surprisingly that’s happened a lot. Maybe I just choose subjects that are arcane. My first book about twins — anytime conjoined twins are separated around the world I would get a call from some reporter asking about conjoined twins. And I would say, I’m a novelist. RB: The world’s foremost authority — DS: — on Siamese twins. For my third book, a novel called More Than It Hurts You about Münchausen by proxy where a mother injures a child, I was on Good Morning America talking about Münchausen’s disease with an expert. I kept saying I’m happy to go on TV but I’m no expert on this. But maybe that’s not true — Roth said one of the jobs of the novelist is to be smarter on the page than he is in real life. So I had to become an expert — at least temporarily. RB: It does also speak to the efficacy of the so-called talking cure. DS: That’s been one of the moving things. I kept a file with hundreds of emails now and a number of them have said, I haven’t told anyone this. I’ve never met you but I haven’t told my husband or something like that. That’s a validation of the talking cure. I had terrible experiences with therapy. Another reason I wrote the book — to figure out what I think about this. That’s the way I do it. Since I’m a writer, to understand how I see something I write it down. It’s much more effective than therapy — sitting at the computer working my way through something. RB: People certainly organize their perceptions of the world differently — some effortlessly. To me everyday is a new day, almost like starting over again. DS: Maybe that’s why people look for help — they don’t know how to organize their lives into stories until they see someone else do it. With this book I stumbled into therapeutic cures that I didn’t know about. Not that the book should be therapy for me. If it’s just therapy for me then I should write it and not publish it. I hope it has value beyond being cathartic for me. In this disorder called complicated grief therapy, which is a fancy way of saying people are sad, the therapy for that is that you are to talk into a tape recorder and say what makes you sad and then play it every night for 16 weeks. It sounds like torture — it’s thought to be effective because you have a tape, a physical object that you can turn off and put away. I didn’t know about it until I was researching the book. But writing the story every day and turning the computer off at night was a version of that therapy. The book is like my tape. And then talking about it to you and on the radio and to crowds at readings is like A.A. — making a public confession. So to me it was a great therapy. You said something about organizing life; my friend David Lipsky was saying anyone who teaches writing by saying you should show and not tell is going to fail. As he put it, “life is showing all the time, what literature does is tell you what that show means.” Movies are a show, life is a show. What books can do is tell in a way the others can’t. RB: Where do these clichés come from, like “write what you know”? What do you know? DS: Exactly. It’s bad advice for other reasons too. If you only write what you know, you will never know anything new. That’s the weird thing about our education system — right now in the Army they force you to take classes all the time as an adult. Which makes sense — why only be taught for 16 years of your life and then never be taught anything again? That’s to last you for 70 years. Why is that the method? Why wouldn’t you want to keep learning? RB: There is some science that holds if you continue to learn that is in fact a benefit to your brain. DS: Yeah, I read about a study that said you should try to switch things up every week just to keep your mind active without taking a course. Open doors left-handed one week and right-handed the next — just to teach yourself even in the most minor way something new to keep your brain active. RB: When I drive to places I try to take different routes each time. I leave enough time so I may get lost or just wander around. So when will you be done with this? DS: I was taking to Dani Shapiro who was nice enough to review the book for the Times. I didn’t know her beforehand, but I thanked her for the review and we got to talking and she was saying memoirs kind of never end. A novel is over when your next novel comes out but people still talk to her about the memoir she wrote ten years ago. Because it’s personal, and you are opening up your closet. We’re a voyeuristic society. I find most memoirs distasteful — it’s strange I ended up writing this. I thought, I will never write about this, I am a novelist. Not only that but I don’t read non-fiction a lot so I would never want to write a memoir. Something about this story was very insistent, asking to be told. I realized in writing the book that I had been writing about this all along. The girl’s parents at her funeral told me, we will never blame you — don’t worry about that. But whatever you do in life you have to live it twice as well because you are living for two people. And then they sued me for millions of dollars after that. After they said they wouldn’t blame me. The important thing from that is I took that very seriously, living for two people. I think that’s why I wrote Chang and Eng. That book deals with how we are different people at once. The end of the book — “this is the end that I have feared since we were a child.” So the “I” and the “we” means they are both one and two people. My second book was about a guy who lives in NYC and becomes an imposter and doesn’t tell anyone about his past. I had this accident in high school, went to college, and then moved to NYC and never told anyone about this. My third book is about a family from the suburbs with a secret that no one knows — I was growing up in the suburbs and had this secret, so obviously this has been informing my writing, in a way I hadn’t realized, forever. I wonder how stark a line it will draw in my fiction. RB: Have you started the next novel? DS: I have — I wanted something light after this. We’ll see. Writers often have this one thing they obsess about. Roth seemed to be writing the same book for a time — now he is writing obsessive books about being older. I wonder if my obsessions will change — a lot of writers have their one subject and keep writing around it, circling it. Bellow, no matter where his books were set, wrote about what it means to be a thinking person in a society where thinking people are not valued. And Updike had his pet obsessions — they seemed to be about a good boy being naughty. What does that mean? Bellow also said he didn’t want to go there because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. Now I know and I wasn’t Bellow to begin with. RB: Have been teaching since we last spoke? DS: I went to Columbia as an adjunct for a while and came back when this new director of the creative writing program [of NYU] Deborah Landau, who amazingly re-energized, not even re-, she energized NYU faculty and brought in a bunch of people. I was lucky to be hired by her. She brought in Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer — she brought in this amazing constellation of people. On the poetry side she brought Anne Carson and Charles Simić. It’s an amazing place to work. I have my office there because I can’t work at home — I have three-year-old twin boys. And I go to work and it’s almost stiflingly overwhelming because you know these incredible people are doing incredible work — that’s both energizing and terrifying. RB: Yeah. DS: In some ways it’s beneficial to the writing — it forces you to return to first principles all the time. You have to tell students why you think something works and why it doesn’t. It gives voice to your aesthetic in a way that helps you form it. Also, it keeps you open-minded because you are reading people who have a different aesthetic. And you try to help them not by saying how you would write it yourself but try to get them to figure out how to be more successful in what they wanted to do. It can also be stultifying. It’s like when you try to walk up the stairs if you spend the day telling people, ”Well you put one foot in front of the other, and then you lift up your knee and move it forward and put the other foot down.” When you walk the stairs next you will be pretty self-conscious about it. It’s a balancing act. RB: You use novels in your courses. DS: In the Crafts classes — I often use books that I think are flawed. I teach Marry Me by Updike which is a good book but not his best. RB: Glorious failures? DS: Yeah. I wouldn’t say the book is a failure — but when you see a great writer make mistakes it can be instructive. I teach some all-out masterpieces. I shouldn’t say this but with modern academia you are also expected to have from many different — from both genders and a lot of different ethnic groups. You have to fill those slots. RB: You feel that is an obligation? Are you conscious of it? DS: Yes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing — you want students from all different backgrounds to feel you are not being exclusionary. But I wouldn’t teach an author I don’t like. RB: Right, it’s not like the choices are limited. DS: I teach Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. I like Zadie’s work better. RB: I wasn’t impressed by Lahiri’s stories. I liked the film of her novel, The Namesake. DS: Her stories are well-constructed. They are ingenious but they aren’t exciting language-wise. RB: How well-read are your students? DS: It varies. A lot of undergrad students are well-read, but I am often shocked at how they are not. A lot of people want to be writers who don’t care about why or how to get there. So when you come across someone who is paying a lot of money to go to grad school and one assumes they are trying to make that their life, it’s very strange to see that they haven’t read that much. RB: Assuming it is a prerequisite of being a decent writer? DS: Yes. It’s kind of like saying I want to be a professional baseball player but I don’t watch or practice much baseball. I just want to put on the glove and play. It’s fine if you are doing it as a social activity. When you make a commitment to be a writer then it’s strange you wouldn’t want to learn about it. RB: Despite the warnings and evidence, your students still aspire to become writers? DS: Yes, that’s something I feel guilty about in teaching in these programs. RB: How many students have you had over the last ten years or so? DS: 30 a year for nine years. Whatever that is. RB: 270. Of those, how many have published one book? DS: Two so far. But a lot of them were undergrads and they are not 30 yet. I think more will do that. It’s a good grad class if two or three publish. RB: And what are the rest doing? DS: I don’t know. That’s what’s scary about these programs. They are expensive, although NYU is good about giving money and they are working on making it free for everyone. Then I would feel less guilty about it. You can get a lot out of learning how to write and learning to be a reader. RB: That’s one self-justification of teachers — you get better readers. DS: Michael Thomas [Man Gone Down] tells all his students that if they are taking these courses to be writers, it’s a bad idea. This will help you become a smarter reader and if you chose to become a writer, good luck. RB: Being a smarter reader is a great benefit. DS: It sure is. But the issue is, is it worth the money? NYU is very competitive to get into — 30 fiction students out of about 800 are accepted. RB: Like the Writer’s Workshop. DS: Yeah, and once you are in that circle of fire you are expected to get somewhere. Maybe two out of 30 will publish one book and one of those two will have a career. It’s very tough. RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?” DS: [laughs] RB: Thomas hasn’t been heard from since he won the IMPAC award in 2007. DS: That was recently. He teaches at Hunter. RB: That’s an interesting place. They have — DS: — Peter Carey — RB: — Colum McCann. DS: A small department [Tom Sleigh and Gabriel Packard]. McCann won the National Book Award last year and Peter was nominated this year and they are both really, really good. RB: McCann is Mr. Exuberant. DS: He really lives up to the image of the Irish raconteur, try to go out drinking with him and you won’t make it home. A great writer. Peter, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. It ended up working out for me, but when students ask if should they get an MFA I never give an unqualified yes. RB: If someone asked me I’d ask, what are the choices? Go into plastic. DS: I did a reading with Jennifer Egan and she hasn’t gotten her [MFA] and she wondered if she missed out. It hasn’t hurt her. She is having a good career. I tell students if they need the time to write and have people read their stuff then it’s great. I was talking to someone taking a course from Oscar Hijuelos, and he was considered the worst one in the class and the teacher was hard on him saying he shouldn’t be a writer and then something switched and one day he came in with the beginning of his first book and he was great all of a sudden. There shouldn’t be anyone who is an arbiter, saying you can’t write because sometimes it takes people a while. RB: Isn’t it the same with editors and buying books? Think of all the stories about writers who have gotten 20 to 30 rejections and then one editor says, “Yeah” and they are off. DS: Proust had to self-publish the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. One of the things that’s great about him is that everyone said his sentences are too long, that’s why we can’t publish him, [both laugh] so at the beginning of the second book, the sentence is one of the longest in the entire book. What a great fuck you. RB: It’s fascinating that these literary chats are an attempt to regularize an exploding array of characters and stories. It seems like an untameable beast. As we talk here, what are we explaining or clarifying? The best stuff is maybe what we can’t explain. DS: That’s true. Writing can be taught to a degree. The best thing it can do is save you years of self-discovery — which may not be a good thing. Maybe you should learn on your own. You can teach people tricks you have learned from reading but obviously you can’t teach talent. Maybe you can help students achieve the maximum from their talent. RB: Talent can be overrated. There’s something to be said for perseverance. DS: Lethem who taught at NYU said this to me once: talent was kind of meaningless. Whether you publish or write good books it’s the people who keep trying, keep trying. There’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory — which sounds kind of glib — 10,000 hours at something will make you great at it. I don’t know where that number comes from but it’s probably true. If you sit in the chair for 10,000 hours and that translates over four or five hours a day for eight years, six, seven days a week — RB: Well, that’s from the outside, from an external observer. Our sense of that time must be indescribably different. DS: The first 7- or 8,000 hours are fumbling around being terrible — people who are talented might not progress because they are too embarrassed to do the apprentice period. They can’t allow themselves to be bad. RB: Or someone tells them they are crap and they believe it. DS: Or someone tells them they are great and they believe it. You really have to get in there in those hours whatever the magic number is, and force yourself to work hard. When I was a grad student it wasn’t the most talented people who moved on — it was the people who could take their first draft and make it a second draft. For example everyone at that level can do a pretty good first draft. It’s people who listen to criticism and say, “Fuck that, I’m good enough” who don’t go on to make a good first draft into a great second draft. RB: Writing fiction must be about delayed satisfactions — writers take five, eight, twelve years to finish a novel. DS: The problem with Foer and Zadie Smith being as good as they are – and I think they are both really good writers and I’ve heard they are good teachers – they are dangerous examples because of their early success. RB: Don’t try this at home, kids. DS: Exactly. RB: There seems to be an attitude about Foer in the literary world. Have you noticed that? Jealousy? DS: Yeah. RB: In addition to the normal quotient of anti-Semitism? [laughs] DS: I ran into Jonathan Wilson, a professor of mine, and he was planning on giving talks on new takes on anti-Semitism. I asked, what was he going say? He said, “It exists.” [laughs] If there is bad feeling toward Jonathan [Foer] it's because he has outsized success. That’s hard for people to take. I’m sure a lot of the anti-Franzen griping is the same thing. You make the cover of Time and people will grumble — that’s the way it is. RB: I remember getting into it with a writer when they retracted a review of Foer’s second novel and came up with a negative one. DS: I hate when people retract reviews. My first book was badly reviewed in the Washington Post for what I thought were silly reasons. The reviewer didn’t like three things about the book — I named certain characters after my friends (I thanked friends in the afterword) and very minor characters had similar names. The reviewer asked, “Is he playing games or writing a serious book?” I thought, well why are those things in opposition? Second, how am I as a white male in the 20th century qualified to write about Asians in the 19th century? And third, she claimed five words I used were not in currency in the 1800s. She was wrong about that. Those words were found in Shakespeare. I was really pissed off. I was doing an interview somewhere and this reviewer who is also a novelist was there also, doing an interview. And they said such and such is here, she wants to meet you. I said that’s okay and I sneaked out the back. RB: [laughs] DS: And she came around and ran into me in the parking lot. She said, “Hey I am so-and-so and I gave your book a bad review.” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” She said, “I’m really sorry I kind of liked the book. I was in a bad mood and my husband is Asian, and I thought I should say something about that.” I thought it was crappy she liked the book —she was entitled to her opinion but to apologize for it was even worse. RB: Do you write reviews? DS: I wrote a few that I regret — not that the book was good. It’s not good karma to write negative reviews. I am going to stop doing it. I wrote a good review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which I thought was a good book — that was fun. RB: As I have said many times, I think book reviewing, especially in newspapers, is a degraded enterprise. DS: [Martin] Amis has a great quote about that. He said something like, “Reviews are the only forum where the practitioner is working in the exact same mode as the art itself but generally doing it less well.” You don’t have movie critics making a movie about the subject of their reviews. So yeah, I think it’s degraded. There was a recent review of Roth where the reviewer wrote, "I never read any Roth until this book was assigned. I dismissed him without thinking about it.” This is Philip Roth, maybe the greatest living American writer. Not having read Roth, having dismissed him, shouldn’t that disqualify the reviewer? RB: I recently reviewed the new Cynthia Ozick and according to the dust jacket it was an homage and reworking of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read that book. It bothered me that other than an epigram from The Ambassadors, I had no clue of anything Jamesian. I see that quite often, that certain stories are tied to an older work. Why tell the reader — if they are familiar with the referred-to book they should recognize it and if not they should not be distracted? DS: On Beauty is supposed to be an homage to an E.M. Forster book, which I never read. But I liked Smith’s book. It might be a way to spark your imagination. Doctorow’s Ragtime’s plot was lifted from a 19th century novella by Kleist. RB: And you know this, how? DS: I took a class from him and he said so. RB: But was it on the dust jacket? DS: No. RB: Does it improve your enjoyment of Ragtime? What does it do for the reader if he knows? DS: It’s a way of coming clean. Lifting plots is as old as Shakespeare but now people are so afraid of even the whiff of plagiarism they feel if they are upfront about it it's okay. It’s okay whether you own up to it or not because there are only 36 stories out there anyway, and certainly Zadie and Doctorow made something new. But I don’t know why people feel that compunction to own up to stuff. This is something that I have noticed that’s new — even novels are listing all the books used for research. But why bother, it’s a novel. RB: Over the weekend I read a book that very much resembles [Cormac] McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — an unstoppable psychopathic killer searching for the protagonist — even when that came to mind I wasn’t put off because the writing was crisp and propulsive. But I could already imagine reviewers taking the author to task for lack of originality. DS: When I said there were 36 plots, that’s based on this crazy French book called The 36 Dramatic Situations — the author, Georges Polti, spent his life doing a scientific study of writing and came up with the fact that there are only 36 possible stories and there is a wide berth within those. Number 1 is revenge and number 1A is revenge, father against son. You know there is a limited scope within which to work, so what? Why not do what Shakespeare did and use famous stories? There is something energizing about having every plot and format to work with. RB: Do you ever think about what you would have done if your writing hadn’t panned out? DS: Oh wow! Well, when I was a kid I thought I might be a lawyer — RB: — and then you were sued — DS: — and then I was so turned off by the lawsuit — I wasn’t angry with the parents, they had just lost their daughter and were very vulnerable. But I was certainly angry with the lawyer — he knew they had no case and he actually screwed them over because he told them they could make millions. But they ended up getting the most nominal sum from the insurance company just to make them go away. Which they could have gotten at the outset. And so they had to take five years of legal fees out of that. So they received almost nothing. It was just awful. The police said I wasn’t at fault, five witnesses said I wasn’t at fault. He tried to say I was drunk — 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Then he tried to say that the policeman who said I wasn’t drunk, was drunk. RB: [laughs] DS: It was just an awful experience, dragging me through the mud. And so I thought I am not going to be a lawyer, that’s an awful thing. But I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I could do anything else, so it’s hard to say. RB: Sold insurance? DS: I could have done something like that. RB: A trader or speculator? DS: That might have been more satisfying. Writing is great in so many ways — being your own boss — RB: As Shaw said, you don’t have to dress up. DS: Yeah, so in all the obvious ways it’s great. It is also a job where you are never not working. So I kind of envy those people who are 9 to 5. RB: How much has your writer life changed now that you are a writer dad? DS: A lot. The book is short — RB: [laughs] DS: The book is short. I started it when my kids were one — to have one-year-old twins in the house means all hands on deck. RB: One of the challenges of journalism is to write within a word limit. DS: Thank you so much for having me back. RB: My pleasure.   Image credit: Robert Birnbaum

The Millions Top Ten: October 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 3 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 5 months 3. 4. Tinkers 6 months 4. 3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 5 months 5. 6. (tie) A Visit from the Goon Squad 3 months 6. 10. Room 2 months 7. 5. The Passage 4 months 8. 6. (tie) Faithful Place 4 months 9. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 3 months 10. 8. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 5 months October was relatively quiet for our list, with no new arrivals or departures, but Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted Room were our top movers, with both books continuing to enjoy significant interest. Meanwhile, the same four books remained ensconced in our top four spots, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot, while Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers continues to find new fans. Near Misses: The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Things We Didn't See Coming, and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: June 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Reality Hunger 5 months 2. 5. Stoner 6 months 3. 8. Tinkers 2 months 4. 6. The Big Short 4 months 5. (tie) - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 1 month 5. (tie) - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 1 month 7. 10. Wolf Hall 6 months 8. 9. War and Peace 3 months 9. - The Girl Who Played With Fire 1 month 10. - Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 1 month With four books -- The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The Mystery Guest, Let the Great World Spin, and The Interrogative Mood? -- graduating to our Hall of Fame, we have plenty of room for newcomers on our latest list. The late Stieg Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already in our Hall of Fame, has the rest of his trilogy make the list, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was released only a few days ago, debuts tied at number five, and Geoff Dyer's 1998 bio of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which was recently championed by David Shields in these pages, debuts in the last spot on the list. And it's Shields' controversial Reality Hunger that's still holding on to our top spot. Near Misses: Twilight of the Superheroes, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Then We Came to the End, The Imperfectionists See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: May 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Reality Hunger 4 months 2. 2. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 6 months 3. 4. Let the Great World Spin 6 months 4. 5. The Mystery Guest 6 months 5. 6. Stoner 5 months 6. 8. The Big Short 3 months 7. 9. The Interrogative Mood 6 months 8. - Tinkers 1 month 9. 10. War and Peace 2 months 10. 7. Wolf Hall 5 months This month, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger slips into the top spot. Shields recently offered an energetic defense of the book and an accompanying reading list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which appeared at the top of our panel's list and number eight on our readers' list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. We've been learning more about Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is the surprise Pulitzer winner and small press hero, Tinkers by Paul Harding. Near Misses: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Twilight of the Superheroes, Then We Came to the End See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: April 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Corrections 6 months 3. 3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 5 months 3. 2. Reality Hunger 3 months 4. 4. Let the Great World Spin 5 months 5. 10. The Mystery Guest 5 months 6. 9. Stoner 4 months 7. 6. Wolf Hall 4 months 8. 5. The Big Short 2 months 9. 7. The Interrogative Mood 5 months 10. - War and Peace 1 month Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel's list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We've been looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin's thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art. Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes See Also: Last month's list
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