In Person: David Foster Wallace

"I'm really nervous, so you don't have to be nervous for me," David Foster Wallace explains. "I'm nervous enough for all of us." He's here, at Book People, to hype his new books. One, Infinite Jest, set in a future unified Canada/U.S. and a tennis academy, is a disjunctive, funny, chatty, impossibly long novel (over a thousand pages) that makes wheelchair-ridden assassins and violent death seem funny. It could also serve as a substitute for the verbal portion of the SAT (it has a lot of big words.) The sort-of-main character, Hal, is a young tennis genius with a serious marijuana problem. The other book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is about how much fun Wallace didn't have on a cruise he won, and includes a collection of articles. It's hilarious.

Wallace teaches college, but looks more like a grunge aficionado with shoulder-length hair and Ben Franklin glasses. When he reads from A Supposedly Fun Thing, everyone in the room roars with laughter the entire time -- everyone except the two guys I'm sitting between, who probably have a humor deficiency, or perhaps were once abused by someone who resembles Wallace. The article about cute little girls with batons accidentally debraining adults at a twirling competition is the funniest.

Wallace continues to complain about being nervous and embarrassed, as if he feels really alone at the podium, and probably in general. As he reads from Infinite Jest, the audience is silent. This book isn't as much of a belly-laugh, and the excerpt is an account of a robbery that ends in accidental death. When Wallace gets to the death part, a morbid account told humorously, a girl in back giggles, and Wallace gives her the Teacher Look over his Ben Franklins. Aha! He is a teacher!

Warning! Do not, under any circumstances, ask Wallace if he was influenced by Thomas Pynchon! Apparently, too many people ask him this. He threatened me with pepper spray (jokingly?) and growled at me (really) before answering this question, "No." Thank God I'm unlisted.

-- Pam Crouch

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