June 25, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

1. David Foster Wallace, a 37-year-old commonly identified as the best writer of his generation and most famous for 1996’s Infinite Jest,[1] is in Manhattan to read from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. It is a collection of short stories written, in the manner of experimentalists like John Barth and Donald Barthelme, with brainiac sophistication and deep feeling. ”It’s about loneliness,” he says. ”It’s also my attempt to do stuff about sex, which I started getting s— from people for avoiding.”

2. The pudgily handsome, cordially cagey Wallace is nursing a club soda at Mars 2112, a sensorially assaultive science-fiction theme restaurant near Times Square. He seems nervous.[2] ”I’m not sure about the locale,” he says. ”Is this from Total Recall?”

3. In addition to being a writer, an occasional journalist, and a professor at Illinois State University,[3] Wallace claims to be the biggest fan of The Matrix. ”It’s derivative of that Blade Runner, techno-noir stuff, but it’s also derivative of Descartes’ First Meditation, which is: What if, in fact, you and I are simply brains in a vat of chemicals that are being selectively stimulated? It’s an old, old problem of analytic philosophy.”

4. Wallace thinks there will soon be very little market for his kind of fiction,[4] which is perhaps why he is taken aback at that night’s reading by the hundreds-strong throng packed into a downtown Barnes & Noble. ”I’m surprised there are this many people here,” he says. Then, voice cracking,[5] he starts another story.

[1]The 1,079-page comic novel contains 97 pages of footnotes, a stylistic habit hard for the author to break: ”It’s taken me a while to wean myself from them, but I don’t have any ideological commitment to the footnote.”

[2]Indeed, DFW will make no fewer than six direct references to nerves, e.g., ”I’m in a fugal state of nervousness at readings.”

[3]”I’ve got a complete scam there. I only teach part-time…. I only really work four hours a day anyway, so it’s not like I don’t have three hours to spend on teaching.”

[4]I.e., ”hard stuff.”

[5]Cf. footnote 2.

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