The sound of thought (from ZEIT Online )
A conversation with David Foster Wallace about the power of literature, the DNA of Americans and male sadness
Pomona is situated between Los Angeles and the mountains, featuring green trees and a good university, this side of paradise and somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It's a surreal small town, just about right for this man living here because he is able to teach a lot and play lots of tennis. David Foster Wallace, a name like a murmur. DFW, as his fans call him, is a great stylist, a humorist, a chronicler of American lunaticism. His books feed from a belief in the power of literature - he is interested in the eternal question about your average-Americans DNA, about what's going on in the convolutions of our time's brain, with its absurdity, emptiness, sadness. In his new collection of short stories, "Oblivion", he attempts to describe how hypocrisy, hatred and maybe evil enter the world: slowly, innocuously, in everyone's own head. In 2008 his great novel "Infinite Jest" is finally supposed to be published in German. A novel about tennis. And everything else.
Die Zeit (= "The Time"): Do you know MapQuest?
DFW: This Internet thing? More or less.
Die Zeit: I had a MapQuest map with me as I was driving over the Los Angeles freeways to Pomona and I had this distinct David Foster Wallace-feeling. It felt like I had outsourced my brain.
DFW: But MapQuest is just another machine, like a dishwasher, it's doing your job. If you don't use MapQuest, then you just go and use a normal map. But I know what you mean: MapQuest is a good example of how the Internet drowns us with information. MapQuest will help you find any place in the world you can think of. But of course what you won't find out is if it's actually worth going there.
Die Zeit: Welcome to No-Mans Land! This is just that "Oblivion" you're describing in your new short story collection - this state of contemporary confusion, that sense of being lost, which almost makes the characters in your book suffocate.
DFW: You can put it this way: Nothing today is left to chance, everything is controlled. And it is this which causes all that confusion. This is fascinating. For example, if you're watching a TV ad, there's that color of that girl's dress that's been tested over and over again by focus groups and psychologists who wanna know everything inside the consumers mind. I describe this world in the story "Mister Squishy".
Die Zeit: In which you wring out the brain of these market research lemurs until it's empty. Is this your commentary on contemporary America?
DFW: The truth is: I don't really understand America that well, I really don't. But an important aspect of american mythology is of course the frontiersman, who is steady moving forward, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean - and now that we've conquered the physical world we're trying to conquer the psychological one: how can I be absolutely sure that what I'm telling you triggers exactly the reaction that I intend? How can I be sure that you do what I want you to?
Die Zeit: MapQuest for the mind.
DFW: This is especially the logic of the big corporations - they want to raise their profits by addressing an effectively identified demographic audience. The weird thing is that this also brings a new kind of intimacy. They want to know all about you. But they're not interested in who you are. It may sound like a chliché, but: the big difference is between information and significance (meaning)
Die Zeit: You're looking at the world - at what point do you decide on a subject?
DFW: It just happens. You start at some point, but you don't know where you're going to be at the end. With Mister Squishy, for example, I had the idea of a jury, twelve men who have to come to an agreement. But the story is actually about how it feels like to be inside this huge market research mechanism, which is there to manipulate people - and how it feels like to realise that you as a reader are being manipulated. These people try to create something like significance out of information; and then they realise that they are themselves of no significance for their company.
Die Zeit: Is this the reason for today's fear - that we're losing control over what's significant?
DFW: It is more complicated than that. It is a little like in the story about the burned child. Someone once told me this story, which someone else had told him, who had once heard it from a friend - about the father who doesn't understand why his child is crying, because there's steaming water in its diapers. That's what concerns me: you hurt what you most love in the world.
Die Zeit: The story is short. Just five pages.
DFW: I don't know why that is so, it just happened that way. The story in the book are about a tenth of what I had started write in that time. But ninety percent of the stories don't come to life. You're halfway through and everything suddenly seems forced/labored. That's when I stop. And the stories I especially like never come to life. It has much to do with chance and less with how a story starts, more with how it ends.
Die Zeit: You don't know yourself why and how?
DFW: If I knew that I would write much faster and finally make decent money.
Die Zeit: But would you write differently?
DFW: I work pretty slowly, line by line - and in the end I want it to sound more like somebody thinking and less like somebody talking. This can make it hard to read sometimes. And even harder to translate.
Die Zeit: This is one of the differences between you and the American habitual realists - your realism is much more psychotic.
DFW: What I don't understand about all that talk about realism: how can you describe the world around somebody without describing how this person perceives this world? For me this is one of the big challenges for contemporary prose - it should sound like the soul.
Die Zeit: That's why you draw the reader into your stories.
DFW: Well, in the times of Thomas Mann, for example, there was no TV and none of the other media, which exactly define your position as viewer and mostly show the outside of people. For literature to stay alive aesthetically it has to achieve more that movies and TV. This may sound like an apologia of Modernism with its interior monologue, but that's not what I mean. I don't even really understand it myself. I work much simpler. I tell myself: "Yeah, that sounds right, that doesn't sound right." I don't know how I should explain my work.
Die Zeit: At the same time you're an almost dreaded intellectual writer. DFW: You could also say that I deal with characters struggling with intellectual questions. Die Zeit: It just seems like when you're writing you always seem to exactly know what you're doing.
DFW: This is of course the popular myth of the writer. But what's actually the case here: the first part of this book, the roughly eighty pages of Mister Squishy, took me about four months. I write a lot by hand, draft by draft, and only later do I start to type it all. And after the like tenth draft I'm only thinking about the single lines and how they sound.
Die Zeit: But you don't lose yourself?
DFW: Maybe both is the right way. I don't really know what the story is about, but for hours I'm thinking about if there should be a comma in that place or not, if this person would use such a word or not. I spent a very very much time with such details.
Die Zeit: To create significance out of information?
DFW: The thing is: we're drowning in information, opinions, perspectives. I know that my opinion is mine only. But there are three schools of thought which see that differently, and I know reasonable objections against all three of those, but I also know that my perception/cognition is necessarily subjective and that I have the tendency to deceive myself. I may be wrong. Or not. But if all of this is happening in a person's head, how do you show a person who is thinking about something? If you want to describe the fabric of our present, if you want to describe how it feels like living in these days then you can't do it the straight way.
Die Zeit: That's why youre books appear so musical, so composed.
DFW: It's the music of thought, this cacophony. This book, for instance, is a very sad book. The characters think on and on and on, they cannot stop. I get letters from readers who hate my work because of this.
Die Zeit: You're playing with boredom.
DFW: It works differently. I want my stories to be intimate. Thomas Mann, for example, is not intimate. But all the literature I loved as a kid and as a student was intimate. I could relate to a character in a book, and I could also relate to a mind that was telling me a story. And that's what I'm after: I want the reader to recognize that this is how his own mind sounds like. And if that gets boring, so it is, the thinking and the talking with people.
Die Zeit: Sometimes it can be horrible - in your collection "Brief Interviews with hideous men" there's this story about how the mind of a depressed person sounds like. This sound makes one almost suicidal.
DFW: This story was the most painful thing I ever wrote. It's about narcissism, which is a part of depression. The character has traits of myself. I really lost friends while writing on that story, I became ugly and unhappy and just yelled at people. The cruel thing with depression is that it's such a self-centered illness - Dostoevsky shows that pretty good in his "Notes from Underground". The depression is painful, you're sapped/consumed by yourself; the worse the depression, the more you just think about yourself and the stranger and repellent you appear to others.
Die Zeit: But in contrast to the characters in your books Dostoevsky's characters didn't live in a world full of guidebooks and find-yourself-workshops.
DFW: We're living in the age of therapy. This story you're refering to wants to show how repellent this person is and how repellent a specific kind of very modern spiritual pain with all its psychological insights that make a person even more repellent.
Die Zeit: You don't believe in therapy?
DFW: let me put it this way: You cannot live in the world without being in pain, spiritual and physical pain. We have developed mechanisms to deal with these pains, to overcome them somehow. Therapy, religion and spirituality, relationships, material success. All this can work, but also become a problem itself.
Die Zeit: Is the pursuit of happiness one cause for the unhappiness in the world?
DFW: The pursuit of happiness has even been put into the American constitution a couple centuries ago. Today we're so rich, we own much more than we need, we have liberties unknown before, even though they are endangered in the current political climate in the US - and we forget how wonderful it nevertheless is, compared to most other political and economic systems. We have a saying that goes: Give a man enough rope and he hangs himself.
Die Zeit: Is capitalism the problem?
DFW: I don't think it's capitalism. People like to say: the big corporations cheat us. They actually don't. They are just machines to make money. What is true is that we have given these corporations very much influence in our lives, that they control people's behavior and that consumption is an ideology.
Die Zeit: Would you say that your story's tell about the white man's crisis?
DFW: It's not easy to arouse compassion for the white man because he's in charge. Maybe my books are about men trying to deal with their being small and insignificant. The American myth of the frontiersman is about an independent, self-sufficient man - but today's men live in the city, for big companies, in small fields where it doesn't really make a differenceif they do the job or somebody else does. Maybe that is one of the reasons these men are so sad.
Tranlated from the original interview at ZEIT Online by Stefan.
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