In a Google-ready era, a book like David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview does not necessarily need to exist. It collects the actual last interview Wallace conducted, which was with the Wall Street Journal in May of 2008 before he committed suicide on September 12 of the same year, along with five other interviews. All of these are readily available online with just a modicum of digging, and it seems that anyone who might be interested enough in Wallace to buy a book of interviews with him would have already read most of these by now.
So why does this book exist, and should you buy it? (Let’s get this question out of the way early.) Absolutely. Even though you can get these interviews elsewhere, it’s nice to have them collected here as part of Melville House’s consistent and pleasurable Last Interview series. I realize that there are numerous good publishing houses, and that many of them make exceptionally good-looking books—Peter Mendelsund!—but Melville House seems to have mastered the art of creating aesthetically unified series of books. It’s not so much the individual designs, some of which are minimal to the edge of plainness (e.g., the novella series). It’s the consistent application through series like the Neversink Library, the Heinrich Böll reissues, and the international crime series that gives much of Melville House’s catalog an aura of deliberate care—dare I say, a feeling of curation, a word now almost completely debased by Internet key clacking. This Last Interview series in particular offers stark, cartoonishly friendly illustrations of the interviewee on the covers. They feel important because of their “last interview” status but also seem to undercut their own self-imposed weightiness with their illustrated covers. These books feel chosen on purpose, worth shelving within the jigsaw puzzle of your life. And in an age where the materiality of a book is under the blind assault of progress, this feels especially important.
What’s between the covers is as astute as what’s on them. There are of course reams and reams of Wallace interviews available, and this book—despite being “last”—is a good place to begin. It contains some of Wallace’s best interviews: one of the first big ones with Laura Miller at Salon, when Infinite Jest first came out; the one from The Believer with Dave Eggers, which I remember rushing to the store to buy on publication day and which I’ve always felt isn’t nearly as revealing as it could have been; and a seemingly random one with Tom Scocca about the differences between his fiction and his nonfiction that has turned out to be quite resilient, funny, and revealing; this is especially so in light of friend and rival Jonathan Franzen’s recent offhand comments during last year’s New Yorker festival where he called Wallace’s rigor with facts into question (seemingly part of Franzen’s ongoing, not-so-covert attempt to deflate Wallace’s reputation). The book also contains a nicely detailed interview with Steve Paulson for the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge. The only substantial interview I can think of that’s not included here is the long one conducted by Larry McCaffery that appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. That interview is so thorough and well-spoken that in my mind I always elevate it to another instance of Wallace’s writing. However, in the spirit of reviewer honesty, I must point out that four of these six interviews are also available in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, a much more comprehensive interview compilation that’s part of the University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversation Series. That book, admittedly, doesn’t look as nice as The Last Interview; however, it does feature as its cover the photo of Wallace in his Pomona sweatshirt with the cut-off sleeves.
The pleasurable friction of having these particular interviews curated together is cast in shadow somewhat by its placement within the matrix of opportunism that has appeared since Wallace’s death. That is, this book is slightly, morbidly, grimly opportunistic in taking up the scattered and basically offhand musings of a recently deceased American writer and repackaging them as if they are something new. It’s more opportunistic than the Magic 8 Ball editing and assemblage of Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, but not nearly as opportunistic as This Is Water, the one-sentence-per-page reprinting of Wallace’s Kenyon graduation speech, which had spread online virally after he delivered it. (Is anyone yet ashamed of having printed this “book”? Does the graphic designer at least feel guilty?)
In fact this might create a nice little window onto what the Big Five publishing houses and/or conventional book publishing now excels at in this Age of Disintermediated Everything. (I realize that Melville House is an independent publisher. Please permit me a paragraph of windy generalization.) You can see, on the one hand, a kind of opportunistic repackaging of something that’s already popular and immediately available, an attempt at skimming off the fat from an already roiling market. But also you can see, with this book of interviews, the publisher as distillation machine, organizing a portion of the chaotic maw of online writing. That is, this kind of selection is a useful service to us, the readers. Perhaps one clarified purpose of book publishing today is to relieve us from having to go find stuff, relieve us from the pressure to roll our own, even as so much of the rest of Information Age life asks us to do exactly that.
To be fair, the “last interview” of the title here is, literally, an interview of 4.5 pages, and while it’s partially interesting since they discuss politics, some of the questions are just dumb. Here is one regarding Wallace’s long piece on John McCain’s campaign for president in 2000:
WSJ: You’re known for writing big, complex books. Your novel Infinite Jest is more than 1,000 pages, but McCain’s Promise is a trim 124 pages. What made you decide to drop a few weight classes for this release?
Anyone who has done just even the barest, Amazon-level, interview-prep research will know that this “book” was originally a Rolling Stone article, was included as a much longer essay in Consider the Lobster, and was reissued as a stand-alone ebook (as McCain’s Promise) to cash in during the 2008 election season. How can radically exploding the conventions of slick national magazine writing be considered, in any way, “dropping a few weight classes”? Compared to normal magazine profiles, the McCain piece is Infinite Jest–length.
Slightly queasy feelings aside, once you begin reading the book, you’re again confronted with the addictively seductive Wallacian voice and persona. The man is charm on a stick. Plus he’s smart, and he’s prescient. Here he is after being asked about Dale Peck’s vicious attempt at taking down Infinite Jest in a book review:
And I don’t have any kind of response to that, but I would just say, remember when we talked about once the shame hobble is off? [A phrase that appears earlier in the interview in relation to reality TV] All you gotta do is say something really really inflammatory and then people are talking about you, y’know? And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind that a lot of what people say is kind of horrified or appalled or controversial, then you’re set. If what you want to do is be talked about, really it’s all you gotta do.
Is there a better encapsulation not just of so much of contemporary book culture but online culture in general? How much of what passes for cultural criticism now is just a kind of trolling—a kind of relentlessly counterintuitive vogueing, a form of intellectual streaking. (I’m looking at you, Farhad Manjoo, Katie Roiphe, William Giraldi.) It’s not just snark but a kind of witless say-anythingism created by the ongoing deluge of online word-space. It’s as if we are all now watching the exit credits for a film, a never-ending scroll of text, and the only way to stand out on the moveable walkway is to set yourself on fire. I realize I’m mixing metaphors but I’m doing it only in a vain attempt to capture your attention. In this way, the very democratic and indefatigable availability of all thought online actually decreases the space for thought to occur.
Here’s another wonderful moment, commenting on the absurdity of interviews:
It kind of puzzles me that people seem so keen on asking fiction writers straightforward interview-type questions, since if the fiction writers really thought interesting stuff could be talked about straightforwardly they probably wouldn’t have become fiction writers.
It’s not just a more graceful and more interesting dismissal of the interview form than Updike’s bitter phrase (“a half-form like maggots”); it’s also a wonderful explication of what fiction is, what it can do, how fiction always and must necessarily be a bank shot into something else.
Another reason these interviews are worth reading is the reminder of how Wallace’s speaking voice so often resembles his writing voice. Though so many interviews with any writer are essentially camouflaged advertisements—a kind of staged tennis—Wallace, for the most part, seemed constitutionally incapable of giving a boring answer. Wallace gave good interview.
And this presents a problem for many of the post-Wallace books: any collection of interviews, the long David Lipsky roadtrip-transcription Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself, and even D.T. Max’s biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. All of these books are valuable, if flawed, and one of their flaws is that Wallace’s voice keeps popping up and you want him to keep going and everyone else to pipe down. In the Lipsky book, this literally takes the form of the reader wishing Lipsky would just stop talking, or let Wallace finish what he’s trying to say, or wish Lipsky would listen more closely to what’s being said. You can often intuit Wallace’s frustration underneath the cloak of him earnestly trying to address whatever they’re discussing, most often how he’s dealing with the enormous amount of success Infinite Jest is currently experiencing. Part of this is created by Lipsky’s obvious envy of Wallace’s grand-slam-like book publication. And who can blame him? He had just written a panoramic, multi-plot 1,000-page novel of Faulknerian difficulty in 1996 and was being rewarded for it. So this response on the part of Lipsky is perfectly reasonable. But still. Here’s a bit from pages 240-1 where Wallace is telling Lipsky about writing the book in Syracuse and being poor and Lipsky grilling Wallace about his advance:
Was it exciting to—what sort of advance?
Well, I mean I already told—no, I didn’t tell Adam Begley. Michael didn’t want me to tell anyone the advance. It was under six figures.
But not so far under?
Pretty far under. But the nice thing that they did, they didn’t give it to me all at once. They split it up, like gave me part the first year and part the second, which made it way easier. And, uh, tch tch tch tch.
(Spitting slurpy tobacco) It was more than that. So once again we’ve closed in on figures. Which was fine. But which wasn’t all that much when you’re splitting it year after ear.
But what I wondered emotionally was this: wasn’t it nice to learn that after you thought you’d cracked up as a writer, to know that you could get what is a healthy advance for literary fiction?
[He turns off the tape again]
As a matter of fact it wasn’t an exhilarating feeling. It was this real, um, like, I have this thing about takin’ money before it was done. I felt like it was sort of, it was jumping off the bridge. Because once I’d taken money for this thing, I knew I had to finish it.
In the biography, this prose competition appears whenever Max quotes from Wallace’s letters. Even though Max has done yeoman’s work in collecting a mountain of data and he’s done a dutiful sorting of a chaotic, too-short life, when Wallace’s letters appear, it’s like the black-and-white-to-color transition in The Wizard of Oz. Please, Dorothy, don’t go back home. Even here in this review I am wary of actually quoting from Wallace because of the singeing my own prose will take.
A corollary to all of this is what I call Wallace’s “incandescent period.” There is a portion of time within the 1990s, beginning with Wallace’s work on Infinite Jest and his first pieces of magazine journalism and ending essentially with the story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, where Wallace’s prose seemed to be at its height—its clearest, funniest, most wide-ranging, most digressive without becoming too wearying, etc. In short, when critics like David Lipsky talk about Wallace writing in their—our, a generation’s—“brain voice,” this is the voice I think of. It’s present in his first essay collection, in Infinite Jest, in some of the (earlier) pieces in his second essay collection, and most important for us here, it’s present in the majority of these interviews. The time period happily overlaps. This is not to say that the Wallace voice of earlier or later is without its benefits, but this is my favorite Wallace period. Despite this being a cliché, we sometimes do see artists peak over a particular phase.
Now, of course, we are in a much different phase—the era of the shadow shelf. If you go to any college library and find a great writer from the past—Woolf, Melville, Hemingway, etc.—you will see not just their original books on the shelf but the long shadow of commentary that has grown alongside their work and sometimes even surpassed it. Wallace, who will “last,” as they say, is beginning to undergo this same process. His shadow shelf isn’t that deep yet, but these have been a busy few years: collections of scholarly interpretation, compilations of interviews like this one, a biography, and that even stranger breed, novels by his contemporaries that in some way take on the Wallace Myth (Franzen, Eugenides, Lethem, and to a lesser extent, Messud). Wallace has now become the microbial culture from which so many writers start their bread. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just how things are. Truly great writers withstand this accumulating shadow of secondary sources even as they cast it.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His first novel, a series of linked stories called The Portable Son, was published by Aqueous Books in 2011.
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