In February 1996, David Foster Wallace came to Boston. He was the not-quite-recognized writer of the massive book "Infinite Jest," which was just beginning to capture the attention of reviewers, readers and a generation of writers. Christopher Lydon, now the host of WBUR's Open Source, interviewed Wallace on WBUR's The Connection, and told him he seemed to be living in between a moment of cultish obscurity and international artistic celebrity, perhaps even immortality.
We went to the WBUR archives last week to see if we could find the tape. We found it in the dusty basement, nestled between shows about the 1996 presidential primaries and escalating violence in the Middle East. The conversation is almost heartbreaking to hear now in light of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. Back then he was attempting to explain the sadness he saw among the 20- and 30-somethings around him; he admitted to feeling lost and lonely himself. But he also spoke of his hope to have children and the prospect of a long career.
“I was raised in an academic environment and in a pretty middle-class one. I’d never really seen how a lot of other people live. My chance to see that was here in Boston, and a lot of it was in the halfway houses for this book. I didn’t really understand emotionally that there are people around who didn’t have enough to eat, who weren’t warm enough, who didn’t have a place to live, whose parents beat the hell out of them regularly. The sadness isn’t in seeing it, the sadness is in realizing how phenomenally lucky I am, not only to have never been hungry or cold, but to be educated, to have access to books. Never before in history has a country been so blessed, materially and intellectually, and yet we’re miserable.”
- Wallace in conversation with Lydon, February 1996
All the same, Wallace was skirting the subject of his own alcoholism and marijuana addiction. Now we know that Wallace came to Alcoholics Anonymous and Granada House, a halfway house in Brighton, not as a researcher but as a patient. In our Open Source show “Infinite Boston,” we spoke to Deb Larson-Venable, Granada House’s den mother and executive director. Wallace based his character Pat Montesian, one of the novel’s rare angels, on Larson. She knew Wallace as a man who fought for his life in Boston, and won.
You can listen to the full interview at the top of the post, but here’s our favorite part, when Wallace talks about why his generation seems so “lost and lonely”:
“When I started the book the only idea I had is I wanted to do something about America that was sad but wasn’t just making fun of America. Most of my friends are extremely bright, privileged, well-educated Americans who are sad on some level, and it has something, I think, to do with loneliness. I’m talking out of my ear a little bit, this is just my opinion, but I think somehow the culture has taught us or we’ve allowed the culture to teach us that the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can, and that the implicit promise is that will make you happy. I know that’s almost offensively simplistic, but the effects of it aren’t simplistic at all. I don’t have children but I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of what my children will think of me, of what we’ve done with what we’ve been given, and why we are so sad.”
- Wallace in conversation with Lydon, February 1996
In this clip, Wallace reads one of our favorite sections of the book, about why the seemingly trivial lessons of Boston AA simply work:
“You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story. The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter. And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing–so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they’d come too much to love– might really be able to keep the lover’s toothy maw at bay. The process is the neat reverse of what brought you down and In here: Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons . . . and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In. And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand-burned-on-hot-stove terror you heed the improbable-sounding warnings not to stop pounding out the nightly meetings even after the Substance-cravings have left and you feel like you’ve got a grip on the thing at last and can now go it alone, you still don’t try to go it alone, you heed the improbable warnings because by now you have no faith in your own sense of what’s really improbable and what isn’t, since AA seems, improbably enough, to be working, and with no faith in your own senses you’re confused, flummoxed, and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it–how can you pray to a `God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?–but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told, you keep coming and coming, nightly"
And here’s Larson from our recent show on Wallace, describing him at the Granada House in 1989. She describes his interactions with Don Gately and other residents of Granada House, bringing them to poetry readings at Harvard:
To listen to more content about David Foster Wallace and "Infinite Jest," visit radioopensource.org.
[Pictured at top: David Foster Wallace speaks at a Booksmith bookstore reading at San Francisco's All Saints Church in 2006. (Steve Rhodes)]