Thursday, 1 January 2015

Last, but not least

Full title: David Foster Wallace, The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Author: The Last Interview Series
Genre: Interviews
Attributes: 128 pages, paperback
Publisher: Melville House (2012)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

David Foster Wallace was, like many citizens of his generation as well as like many of ours, the child of a society run by media and decorated by pop culture. You cannot overlook that. If you do, he's right up to tell you without the slightest sign of shyness, that his postmodernity was everything you would expect from a twentieth-century American with academic credentials under his belt and a storytelling distinction to boot.

"If there's something that's distinctive about our generation," he said in what appears as the last-but-one interview in the volume,
"it's that we've been steeped in media and marketing since the time we were very, very small. And it's kind of a grand experiment because no other generation in the history of the world has been that mediated. What implications that has, I don't know, but I know it affects what seems urgent and worth writing about and what kind of feels real in my head when I'm working on it."

With this, a point is made about, perhaps, the long-standing battle of genres, where the task is to promote your favorite, while utterly deprecating all the others, especially the ones found guilty of being in vogue. What's worth writing about and what deserves to end in the trash can? This is the most acute question of this battle of genres, one easy to spot among the many questions we have to ask of everything surrounding our cultural awareness. But Wallace didn't seem to have that reductionist approach. He took writing to be a ceaseless occupation, a perpetuum móbile of sorts, in which the mechanisms at work depend on inspiration as well as routine, and where the writer's jobs (i.e. the job of this quasi-professional worker whose world must answer the prerogatives of productivity) is that of someone who juggles between extremes (what Jung would have called, I believe, Syzygia):
"What often happens is that when work goes well all my routines and disciplines go out the window simply because I don't need them, and then when it starts not going well I flounder around trying to reconstruct disciplines I can enforce and habits I can stick to."

One might be ill at ease to see, in the above, a clear distinction between being a writer and being a postmodern citizen. The two seem so intermingled, so not unlike each other, it would be a real relief to find a way of reading them as one and the same thing.

David Foster Wallace. Source: YouTube
To Wallace, as is apparent in these interviews, the problem enunciated above came in the shape of a challenge: how to renounce something you're so deeply part of, and how to, at the same time, be honest enough to admit of its merits?

"I don't have a TV anymore, but when I'm [...] on the road I watch TV in hotels and I'm appalled by how good the commercials have gotten. They're fascinating, they're funny, they're hip, they've got trunk lines into my high-school level anxieties and desires in a way the commercials I grew up with never did."

That's, indeed, the challenge: to read the culture of marketing persuasion using the language of literature. What could be more postmodern than this?
And with these apparent foibles scattered generously throughout the interviews, the image one gains of David Foster Wallace is that of a human being who was capable of reaching out where few others could cope, while at other times sinking into the most mundane of the mundane orders. To offer an example, here's him talking about being an addict, and the peculiar addiction to chewing tobacco:
"I have tried probably ten serious times to quit chewing tobacco in the last decade [this is an interview conducted in 2003, my note]. I've never even made it a year. Besides all the well-documented psychic fallout, the hardest thing about quitting for me is that it makes me stupid. Really stupid. As in walking into rooms and forgetting why I'm there, drifting off in the middle of sentences, feeling coolness on my chin and discovering I've been drooling. Without chew, I have the attention span of a toddler. I giggle and sob inappropriately. And everything seems very, very far away."
When one reads something bearing such honesty badge one finds, perhaps, an easier way toward understanding David Foster Wallace's death: the suicide of someone whose mental complexity could only be managed in terms of quits and relapses. Not that he didn't try. But the resistance was too astute. The jest was too infinite. Too tempting, perhaps.