Reviewed in this essay: David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
(Melville House Publishing, December 2012).
In a recent essay about his late friend, Jonathan Franzen laments the way in which Wallace’s (September 2008) suicide “took him away from us and made the person into a very public legend.” Released this winter, David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations seems to be part of the posthumously crafted Wallace mythology to which Franzen refers. Following the publication of other “literary conversation” collections like it, TLI&OC is ostensibly aimed at a scholarly audience (or at least hardcore Wallace fandom), and reflects an attempt to provide context for the startlingly short titular interview through a decade’s worth of selected conversations with the American writer.
The collection is a rather sundry one; the six dialogues spanning twelve years (1996-2008) are comprised of both greatest hits and more forgettable exchanges. The book opens with the now canonical interview with Laura Miller (Salon.com), in which Wallace discusses his sense that “a piece of fiction is a conversation,” a useful antidote to “existential loneliness,” since “[s]omebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do… I feel human and unalone.” In a lengthy discussion of his non-fiction with Tom Scocca (Boston Phoenix), Wallace similarly touches on the importance of literature as a conversation, explaining his struggle to write things that sound “intimate … like almost there’s somebody talkin’ in my ear.” In his interview with his alma mater (Amherst Magazine) he elaborates on his revision practices, lamenting the comparatively “terribly first-draftish” nature of interviews, in which “no truly interesting question can be satisfactorily answered.”
This is interesting since the collection manages to reveal more about the writer than he perhaps imagined. And this is where the book’s major appeal lies: in the way it answers the question of why his readers continue to hanker after All Things Wallace. The collection doesn’t offer new material or exclusive access to Wallace ephemera, but TLI&OC conveys to new Wallace readers his profound interest in the “magic” of fiction. The interviews collected here introduce a common and persistent thread in Wallace’s lifelong contemplation of, and commentary on, his art: his belief that “good” literary art enables the imaginative identification inherent in “real” human connection. He reveals to Dave Eggers (The Believer) that his reason for covering John McCain’s campaign trail (McCain’s Promise) was so that he could “imagine what it’s like to be the other guy,” and his short-term goals reveal this same attempt at radical empathy: “to exercise patience, politeness, and imagination on those with whom I disagree.” These dialogues provide a glimpse of the humanity that motivated Wallace’s fiction and that seems to me the most resounding, most important last thing he might share with us.
Franzen admits that when Wallace was alive, his readers “gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island which was David.” In Wallace’s absence, collections like this are the only kind of dispatch left—and even in their occasional redundancy, they make him seem a little less far away.