(1962 - 2008)
It is this quotation which flashes up on the screen, black on white, still and sepulchral and merciless, after the last frame of John Krasinski's film adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. And let me tell you, as a die-hard DFW fan, it's just not a fair thing to do. As Krasinski has to know full well, every single DFW fan and mourner in the house in my case, just me, in my house is going to catch his breath in his throat and burst into tears at the sight of that. And he goes ahead and does it anyway. And I forgive him because I know he's a die-hard DFW fan, too.
So, obviously, I finally got my hands on a copy of this movie and watched it. And, aside from the punch to the gut of that closing quotation, the most surprising thing about this film to me was . . . that it is good. Really very good. Of course I was always going to watch it; and I figured there'd be some very gratifying moments, maybe even some great moments. But how much, really, could one expect from the movie of a book of linked short stories by a cult literary author, which mostly consists of transcripts of the answer-side only of imaginary interviews with, well, hideous men? Not all that much, could one expect, if I'm honest.
And yet Krasinsky delivers so much. This really worked, as a film, for me. It was incredibly affecting. And really skilfully done. There are some inevitable misfires e.g. the dramatization of the man who narrates for six pages about how his father worked his whole life as an attendant in a men's room (which was stunning on the page, but kind of klunked on the screen). And it's probably got less of a solid plot spine than the latest comic book movie but more, almost certainly, than the latest Darren Aronofsky movie. In at least two scenes, it's powerful to the point of being disturbing (or even shocking you've been warned). It creaks at the joints here and there, but in the end the ship holds together wonderfully well, and it's a lovely, sad, jarring, funny, eye-opening journey upon a strange and familiar sea.
Buy it, rent it, or add it to your Netflix list (sorry UK Lovefilm subscribers!) today.
In 1996, novelist (and Rolling stone reporter) David Lipsky spent five days following David Foster Wallace around on the tail end of the latter's book tour for Infinite Jest. Being a novelist, and a fan, and patient, and the venues being intimate, Lipsky slowly bores through Wallace's elaborate defences against the corrosive effects that fame and attention and caring about same had definitely had on him in the past. ("Whatever famousness is about, the hype is famous. You're not here because of me, you're here because of all this buzz about the book.") Lipsky recorded the whole thing. The Rolling Stone article never saw daylight. But now the whole shebang has appeared, in the form of this transcript-as-book that is (justly) causing a lot of giddiness and running around in circles in David Foster Wallace circles.
At that particular moment in time, Wallace was the hottest young writer in America. Famously, he turned up slightly late to a reading in Manhattan, and the great and good of New York literati were backed up out of the room and all the way down the stairs, and Wallace had to sort of fight his way in through the mob, while people in the stairwell slowly figured out it was him pushing by and sheepishly begging their pardon. He had also just published his magnum opus, and so the material here is dominated by that awesome presence, which is very gratifying to this reader. (Not only do I think Infinite Jest towers over his other work, I don't even totally like all of his other work. But then neither does he.)
When I sat down to write up this little write-up, I honestly wasn't sure if I was going to (or going to be able to) recommend this book to anyone other than those with a pre-existing DFW condition. Without question, it's priceless as an autobiographical record of his life until 1996 including his academic parents and reading-obsessive upbringing; and how his second book "fell stillborn from the presses" and how he thought life was pretty much over at that point and went to work as a towel boy in a health club when in walked another writer with whom he had shared a very prestigious award just a year or so earlier and how he literally dived under a pile of towels in shame; and particularly as a diary of the thoughts and actions and experiences that went into making Infinite Jest, including the hundreds of hours he spent hanging around Boston halfway houses talking to recovering addicts, and the three years of unrelenting hard graft, caring only about the work and not what anyone else thought about it; and, finally, as a fantasy peep directly into the mind of the remarkable human being behind the belles-lettres.
But as I'm flipping through my highlighting of the book here, one thing that's coming through is that it is also just enormously rich and replete with great and rewarding stuff for the general reader on the meaninglessness of acclaim, and how success doesn't nearly make everything okay, and film (Lynch and Spielberg and Tarantino and Scorsese) and literature (Pynchon and Nabokov and Barthelme and Updike), and how art requires you to work, and coming late to humility, and "the atomization and loneliness of modern life," and how we perhaps should be doing more of the types of activities that "aren't all that much fun minute by minute, but that build certain muscles in [us] as a grown-up and a human being," and the sadness and hunger of our incredibly well-educated and prosperous but basically empty generation who are "terrific ironists and pokers of holes" but who have nothing solid to believe in and who are having to make up our own post-60s moral values as we go along, and how our very survival is going to depend on some ability to "look past ourselves" and our own pleasure and comfort and instead heroically "evince a real type of passion that's going to look very banal and retrograde" but which might just literally save us from the toxicity of our own (technology-elevated) self-regard and this idea "that pleasure and comfort are really the ultimate goal and meaning of life." (*)
I was afraid if I started excerpting, I'd never stop. But here's one bit (or rather, three bits separated in the text, but knitted together) that have a lot of personal meaning for me.
I think I had lived an incredibly American life. That, 'Boy, if I could just achieve X and Y and Z, everything would be okay.' When you yourself realize, 'Holy shit, this doesn't make every thing all right'…
And I think that the ultimate way you and I get lucky is if you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn't mean anything. Which means you get to start early the work of figuring out what does mean something…
I mean, I don't know you, but I'll bet there'll come a time when you realize you're always gonna have about as much success as you need, and that's fine.
Here's an eight-minute interview with Lipsky on NPR. It's very good, plus has about an eight-second clip of Wallace himself taken from Lipsky's tapes.
Here's a five-minute video of the man himself reading from the justly famous essay "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All" about his sortie to the Illinois State Fair one of the funniest things written by him, or probably anyone.
Oh, and finally finally, here's a very good piece on,
I don't think Wallace's posthumous rise is about pop hysteria. Something more genuine is at work. The main element of his soaring afterlife is the quality of his thoughts. Wallace was a master talker about his work, about literature in general, about life in general it was his true populist genius. Gone were the complex forms of his fiction when he spoke. What emerged in interviews and speeches was a human being who embodied the very thing that his irony-rich literary times disdained sincerity.