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. 

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Comments (2)

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

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

Posted by: Loki | Wednesday September 17, 2008 at 2:52 PM

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.

Posted by: Martin | Sunday September 14, 2008 at 5:10 AM

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