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David Foster Wallace: Two Stories, and the Fall of Videophony

Thanks, Brad. I realize that over the past dozen years since Infinite Jest came out, I've walked around with a tiny good feeling somewhere deep in my filing system (and more than a few times--including once I can remember distinctly just a few weeks ago--it's popped up into my consciousness and made me smile) that "David Foster Wallace is working on something big right now, and some day I'll get to read it." As unimaginably terrible (or worse: terribly imaginable) as the personal side of this story is, I'm also already mourning the words (many, many words, always tumbling on that edge between fussily exact and colloquially sloppy) that he won't write now and that we won't read.

(Less consciously, I think I also carried around the idea that at some point, if I stuck around in the book world long enough, I might get to play some tennis with DFW, I guess my generational equivalent of going marlin fishing with Hemingway. I figured he would be hilarious, maybe sort of a jerk but more likely gracious and sweet, and I'm sure he would have creamed me.)

I have a couple "David Foster Wallace stories" that I tell, both from before I got into the book business (or rather, got farther in than the usual business of being a reader). The first one I tell more often because it's a lot simpler and has two punch lines: I went to see him read at our local Elliott Bay Books on the Infinite Jest tour--it was medium-packed there, but I was front and center, although I hadn't read anything of his fiction yet and remember being vaguely annoyed that he had written something so long that no one would ever read. He read the video telephony section of the book (see below) and I can still say that I have never been in another room where complete strangers were laughing so hard together. The moment that I remember best (and that I'm glad to think of this evening) was when DFW himself, deservedly joyful at his own brilliance or just infected by the response of the rest of us, had to stop mid-sentence for a few seconds because he was laughing so hard. The rest of that story, though, is that after the reading, he said thanks and headed directly off the podium, where he was met halfway to the exit by the young man from the bookstore who had introduced him. As I remember it, the host mentioned that, per tradition, they had planned to open the floor to a Q&A, and there was an awkward moment--which felt much longer than a moment--when DFW didn't really say anything but made clear that he preferred not to. They remained standing, awkwardly, at that halfway point at the side of the audience and somehow, either invited or not, someone from the audience did speak up with a standard post-reading question like "Who are your influences?", to which Wallace muttered, "If that's what the questions are going to be like, then no," and continued his exit. To my mind, the second moment, quickly translated in my mind to "Wow, David Foster Wallace is a dick," was overwhelmed by the pleasure and camaraderie of the first, although I'm not sure everyone else there felt that way. 

The lessons of the other story I'm not sure I can articulate as well, but they buried themselves deeper in me, and they are something I return to often when I'm thinking about why writing books and reading them are worthwhile. A year or so after that reading, Wallace came to talk at the university where I was in grad school. I idly expected some sort of bad-boy behavior (and I'm sure I told the story above many times in anticipation), but he sat in on a large seminar with anyone who cared to come and didn't really give a talk at all, as I remember, but just modestly opened the floor to questions. (Maybe, child of a philosophy prof that he was, he felt more comfortable in that setting than among the polloi in the bookstore. The only bad-boy note: he was dipping tobacco and spitting into a paper cup throughout.)  What I remember from the exchange, aside from his pleasure in engaging with us, was his response to a general line of questioning, in a kind of '90s cultural-studies all-culture-is-of-equal-value kind of way, about the value of writing fiction in an age of TV, etc., to which his response was, "Your television doesn't love you." It wasn't a flip comment; he was using language, I think, from Lewis Hyde's The Gift, and went on to talk about how the kind of writing he's after, unlike TV, or what we usually see there, doesn't want anything from you. It's there as a kind of open-ended offering, given to an anonymous recipient with a hopeful generosity that is a form of love. I'm sure he (and Hyde) put it better than me, but what he said, and the way he said it, have stayed with me as a reminder that behind his ironic game-playing (the horrible headline on the NYT obit right now is "Postmodern Writer Is Found Dead at Home"), his sometimes-difficult persona, and his less-welcoming work (like many, but not all, readers, I found his pared-down, more abstract recent stories hard to love) lay a serious and humble desire to give his idea of the truth to whoever would want to read it.

Like Brad, I especially love his nonfiction--whether he was writing on David Lynch, or a journeyman tennis pro, or a cruise ship, or John McCain, or grammar, or eating lobster, he was always turning our usual approach to his subject inside-out, both in form and in content. But here, in honor of that evening in 1996, is a somewhat (and characteristically) lengthy bit from the video telephony section of Infinite Jest (if you Search Inside the book under "videophony", you can continue the passage beginning on page 147). He's explaining one of the three reasons that video phones didn't work as well as expected in the near future he imagines

    (1) It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn't been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they'd been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They'd never noticed it before, the delusion--it's like it was so emotionally complex that it could be contenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not ot have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation--utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes--let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet--and this was the retrospectively marvelous part--even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that they person on the other end's attention might be similarly divided. During a traditional call, e.g., as you let's say performed a close tactile blemish-scan of your chin, you were in no way oppressed by the thought that your phonemate was perhaps also devoting a good percentage of her attention to a close tactile blemish-scan. It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line's other end's voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear, enabling you to imagine that the voice's owner's attention was similarly compressed and focused ... even though your own attention was not, was the thing. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody's complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time.
    Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener's expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those callers who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril-explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.
    Even worse, of course, was the traumatic expulsion-from-Eden feeling of looking up from tracing your thumb's outline on the Reminder Pad or adjusting the old Unit's angle of repose in your shorts and actually seeing your videophonic interfacee idly strip a shoelace of its gumlet as she talked to you, and suddenly realizing your whole infantile fantasy of commanding your partner's attention while you yourself got to fugue-doodle and make little genital-adjustments was deluded and insupportable and that you were actually commanding not one bit more attention than you were paying, here. The whole attention business was monstrously stressful, video callers found.

It's as funny as ever, but right now I'm really sad. --Tom


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You wrote, ". . . idly strip a shoelace of its gumlet"

Tom, I think you meant "aglet." This, courtesy of my wife, the crossword puzzle maven.

This is excellent, thank you so much. I'm intrigued by your mention of Lewis Hyde, because of the passage in the cruise essay where he talks about the Frank Conroy advertorial business, and at one point he writes that an advertisement can never be a work of art because (quoting from memory) it has "no status as gift." I've written a brief note on my website if you are interested.

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