David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Interview in Elle

There is a quotation from an interview with David Foster Wallace reproduced on hundreds of webpages across the internet. There are several variants of the quotation, but it runs something like this:

…fiction’s one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties—all these chase loneliness away by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

None of the webpages that reproduce it, however, give a reference to the original. Searching the right phrases in Google Books turns up a snippet, which Google says is from p. 58 of Elle, Volume 11 (1996), Issues 5-8. It was surprisingly difficult to track down the correct issue. Academic libraries in Europe do not have the American editions of style magazines. The New York Public Library remote-scanning team (helpfully contacted for me by Incudi Reddere) responded that the material requested was not found in the Elle volumes specified. Even the usually omniscient Wallace-l e-mail list came up blank on this one. As did DFW Twitter.  At long length though, an ebay seller named luckybuckeye_collectibles was able to track down the correct issue. It was in issue 6 of the volume cited by Google.

Here’s a scan of the whole interview; a transcript follows.


infinite jester
David Foster Wallace
and his 1,079 mystical, brilliant pages.
By Gerald Howard

As a younger editor my dreams ran obsessively toward discovering the next Thomas Pynchon —some blazing new master of warped American space-time. Amazingly enough, in 1987, I did, in the person of the then twenty-five-year-old David Foster Wallace, whose mind-bendingly original The Broom of the System announced that the high-IQ novel of pinwheeling ideas was alive and well. Two books later, I am no longer his editor, though I remain his awestruck reader.

The thudding sounds you’ve been hearing lately are bound galleys ofWallace’s new novel, Infinite Jest, hitting book reviewers’ desks— all 1,079 pages. It’s a blockbuster comedy of substance abuse, family dysfunction, and tennis, set in a postmillennial future, and it tackles our new nightmare: collective and individual psychic implosion. That Wallace can be side-splittingly funny about this does not detract from the seriousness of his diagnosis. No other writer now working communicates so dazzlingly what life will feel like the day after tomorrow.

GERALD HOWARD: Infinite Jest is a dauntingly demanding novel, in terms of sheer time and quality of attention required. Do you have an ideal reader in mind?

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: My ideal reader would be twenty-seven, look eerily like Melanie Griffith, think every line of the book was the best thing since sliced bread, and hope for nothing so fondly as to support me in all physical and emotional ways so I could write more books just like it Nobody wants his fiction to “daunt.” We want it to seduce.

GH: Why write fiction at all, let alone 1,100-page novels, in our age of attenuated attention spans?

DFW: (a) Stories let us talk to one another about stuff that just can’t be talked about any other way; no semantic model could explain why Cynthia Ozick’s image of floating Jews in “Levitation” means as much as it does; (b) I’m pretty lonely most of the time, and fiction’s one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties—all these chase loneliness away by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated. In lots of ways it’s all there is.

GH; Among older American writers, who are your literary heroes?

DFW: My “heroes” are writers who seem like they’ve persevered, kept at it, gotten better, not simply fallen into repeating the formulas of past successes. In this group I’d put Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Tobias Wolff Cynthia Ozick, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck…

GH: Among younger American writers, who are your literary peers?

DFW: My favorite younger-type Americans include Denis Johnson, Rick Powers,
A.M. Homes, a guy named George Saunders whose stuff’s started showing up. I think Powers and Vollmann are pretty much the twin towers of this generation, whatever “generation” (and “peer” for that matter) means.

GH: Your novel is full of characters who are, in Neil Postmans phrase, amusing themselves to death. Is this a prophecy or a simple perception about our culture?

DFW: There is something about being an American at the turn of the millennium that is deeply sad. And it seems to me significant that the American experience has gotten even sadder—more lost, more afraid, more empty—as our Cold War enemies have surrendered and our economy is shifting successfully from a manufacturing to an informational base and medicine has gotten more sophisticated and they’ve even found a way to make chocolate fat-free. It’s a great mystery, and one that’s going to deepen for our children.

GH: The Incandenza family in Infinite Jest makes Salinger’s Glass family look like the Brady Bunch. Do you think families are the crucible of cultural disorder and misery?

DFW: The idea that families are “to blame” for anything is part of our culture’s fetish for diagnosis, blaming. Families and culture are the same thing, really—or rather what a family is is a tiny lab receptacle, a culture placed in a small space under terrific compression and heat. Families show what people who love one another can do to each other—they literally make and break you. Think about our terms for describing families—the nuclear family, blood, relations, etc. The language is always smarter than we are.

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4 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Interview in Elle

  1. Reblogged this on Pulp Catholic and commented:
    Check out this interview at Sancrucensis. I’ve not read DFW (and am iffy on whether I really want to), but everything I’ve read about the man makes me think he was a prophet. A pagan prophet, but a prophet nonetheless.

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  2. BRILLIANT. Thanks for the post. I’ve read a bit by him, but not Infinite Jest. I’ve read stories and articles by him. I too think it best to read the work and take it as it comes. Don’t make a monster of of it or you. It may not be for you. You may not even be able to concentrate on the whole thing. I find it extremely daunting and challenging from time to time. Once read the article/story A Depressed Person, and later read the asterisk tiny print parentheticals…and it seemed to me he could have done without them. With other things, in articles, stories, the ‘notes’, were beneficial. It’s hard to say. Minds tend to wander…and then come back. Some were never proper or even right in the first place? Maybe he should have stuck with Tennis? He did teach for a time. There is something there. It may not be for everyone.

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