“I Will Slice Open My Head for You”: David Foster Wallace on Nonfiction, 1998, Part 4

Q:So what did you think of Good Will Hunting?

DFW:Aaah. I think it’s the ultimate nerd fantasy movie. I think it’s a bit of afairy tale, but I enjoyed it a lot, and Minnie Driver is really to fallsideways for.

Andthere’s all kinds of cool stuff. It’s actually a movie that’s got calculus in it,you know. Takes place in Boston. There’s all kinds of—one guy I talked to whosaw it described it as a cross between Ordinary People and The Computer WoreTennis Shoes, which I thought was kind of funny. And if you see it, you’ll see,that’s not un-germane. [Chuckles.]

Doyou remember that movie? Are you old enough to remember The Computer WoreTennis Shoes?

Q:The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes? No.

DFW:It’s got Kurt Russell. There’s an electrical accident. In the computer room,when he’s this student in some college. It’s like, you know, the old sci-fi,you know, toxic-accident-turns-him-into-Spider-Man thing. So he gets shocked,and these are great old computers with like reel-to-reel tapes running back andforth. And it apparently injects him with every bit of data known to man. Andhe goes on College Bowl. it’s got Joe Flynn. It’s got a lot of people. Youshould check it out. Disney. I think um ‘69, ‘70.

Q:Yep, that was before my time.

DFW:Yeah, well, the miracle of videotape.

Q:Yes. The Phoenix reviewer who handled A Supposedly Fun Thing wrote that yourstyle “distills the contemporary speech of under-40, middle-classAmericans. The way Wallace writes is the way I’ll remember having spoken.”And you’ve been hailed in a lot of places in a generational spokesman.


Q:Hailed? Sure. Or “described.” How do you feel about that role?

DFW:I, eh, I don’t know. I can remember being on some, doing some radio thing inBoston a couple years ago, and somebody calling in and asking me about beingthe spokesman for, like, Generation X. Which I think I’m a little too old tobe, anyway. But the whole thing just seems absurd, because sort of the— How oldare you?

Q:Uh, 26.

DFW:Oh, OK, so much more for you. I mean, I’m 35, and I think for the generationthat starts with me or a couple years younger, the whole defining thing is thatthere can be no spokesman. It’s completely atomized, and there’s nothing like akind of unified consciousness the way there was, I don’t know, in the ‘60s, oreven during that kind of conservative spasm in the ‘80s.

Andso the whole idea of a spokesman for a generation distinguished for the factthat it’s anomic and atomized and alienated is just, is silly. I like stuffthat sounds intimate to me, and that sounds like almost there’s somebodytalkin’ in my ear. And I think at least some of the stuff that I do tries tosound out-loud, aural, you know, with an A-U. R-A-L. I mean, Jesus, you know,people were doing that and trying to do that 200 years ago. Like it’s anythingvery new.

Q:How much art goes into creating the artless effect?

DFW:I don’t understand what you mean by that?

Q:Trying to make it sound natural and to achieve the effect of—

DFW:I don’t know. I think it’s—the accurate answer is the vague one. Sometimes it’sfairly easy. And other times it isn’t. I think a very interesting case of thisis Don DeLillo, who I think does the best dialogue like of anybody alive.

Andif you read DeLillo dialogue, it’s funny, because it sounds very real and verynatural, but if you go back and look at it, it’s really not. You know, it’skind of like, um, there will be a line where somebody says, “I’m onlysaying.” And then there’s the next line, so your eye’s got to track overthe right space and then go down to the next line, and there’s a much longerpause than in a real conversation, when, if you and I are having an argument,and I’d say, “I’m only sayin’—” and then you cut me off?


DFW:I don’t know it making any sense. So in a way, it really isn’t, it isn’tnatural at all. And I think it’s a very kind of affected, arty thing to do. Thetrick, though, is when the reader gets reading quickly, and there’s kind ofthat brain voice starts? Like somebody talking to you? It ends up sounding verynatural. And that’s something that seems to me to be very interesting.

Q:In your own stuff, the footnotes have a way of making the reader kind of breakstride, or have to leap around and backtrack, instead of just proceeding onthrough the works linearly. One thing about reading the footnote-intensivestuff of yours is that usually, I’m pretty good at, when I go back to a piece,finding something spatially on the page.


Q:Like I know it’s on a left-hand page toward the bottom. But that doesn’thappen. Like I get lost in your stuff. How hard do you want the reader to haveto work?

DFW:You know what? To be honest with you, it’s not something that I—I don’t reallythink that way, and I don’t think that way because I just don’t, I don’t wantto go down that path of trying to anticipate, like a chess player, everyreader’s reaction.

Thefootnotes, the honest thing is, is the footnotes were an intentional,programmatic part of Infinite Jest, and they get to be kind of—you get sort ofaddicted to ‘em. And for me, a lot of those pieces were written around the timethat I was typing and working on Infinite Jest, and so it’s just, it’s a kindof loopy way of thinking, that it seems to me is in some ways mimetic.

Idon’t know you, but certainly the way I think about things and experiencethings is not particularly linear, and it’s not orderly, and it’s notpyramidical, and there are a lot of loops. Most of the nonfiction pieces arebasically, just, look, I’m not a great journalist, and I can’t interview anybody,but what I can do is kind of, I will slice open my head for you. And let yousee a cross-section of just a kind of average, averagely bright person’s headat this thing.

Andin a way, the footnotes, I think, are better representations of, not really stream-of-consciousness,but thought patterns and fact patterns. How exactly different readers readthem—I mean, I’ve talked to people who wait and read the footnotes at the end,or who do them absolutely the way they’re numbered.

Ithink the only thing for me, the tricky thing with the footnotes, is that theyare an irritant, and they require a little extra work, and so they either haveto be really germane or they have to be kind of fun to read.

Itdoes get to be a problem, though, when I’m like, every single gag that occursto me I think I can toss into the thing, and toss it in as a footnote. And themost heavily cut thing in the book was the David Lynch essay. I mean, the bookeditor had me cut like a third of it, and a lot of it was just footnotes thatare just gags. And I think he has a good point.

Q:How much gag writing do you do? To what extent when you’re doing these thingsdo you try to be deliberately humorous, and how much do comic effects just sortof arise from the thought processes?

DFW:I’ll tell you. I think another reason why I’m not doing any more of these for awhile is, by the end, I think the last one I did was the Lynch thing, therereally was kind of a shtick emerging. And the shtick was somewhat neurotic,hyper-conscious guy, like, showing you how weird this thing is that noteverybody thinks is weird.

Ithink it’s more that kind of trying to—trying to notice stuff that everybodyelse notices but they don’t really notice that they notice? Which I think afair amount of good comedians do that, too. I don’t think, I would never go,oh, it’s time for a gag, and just stick in a gag or something.

Orif I did, it would end up getting cut. Because, you know, if it’s justgratuitous, then the reader’s going to throw the book at the wall.

I’mnot giving that a very clear answer. That’s as close to the truth as I cancome.

Q:I mean, when you have something like the oil rigs “bobbingfellatially”—

DFW:Yeah, except that’s exactly how they look. [Laughs]

Q:It is exactly how they look, but it also—that’s funny enough to—

DFW:But that was another, that was a big fight, ‘cause I originally had”fellatically,” which I thought sounded better, it had more of aharsh, glottal, fellatiatory sound, and then the copy editor goes, there’s nosuch word, we’ve got to say “fellatially,” and I think that soundslike ” palatially ,” and I don’t like it. I mean, 48 hours are spentthumb-wrestling over this bullshit.

Q:Yeah, no, that happens. You think that you’ve just sort of Shakespearianallycome up with a different word form—


Q:—and then somewhere there’s a copy editor who—


Q:—informs you that you’ve got it wrong.

DFW:Yes. I don’t know where they—well, some of them are really good. But some ofthem are just anal. To the max.

NowI’m trying to figure out whether any of them are going to read this.

Continue to Part 5 of the interview here