Category Archives: david foster wallace

First (?) Pale King Review

Bookforum tells me that PW’s review of The Pale King is the first. The lede is decidedly dour:

A pile of sketches, minor developments, preludes to events that never happen (or only happen in passing, off the page), and get-to-know-your-characters background info that would have been condensed or chopped had Wallace lived to finish it, this isn’t the era-defining monumental work we’ve all been waiting for since Infinite Jest altered the landscape of American fiction. (To be fair, how many of those sorts of books can one person be expected to write?) It is, however, one hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace, being, as it is, a transfixing and hyper-literate descent into relentless, inescapable despair and soul-negating boredom.

The review does get much more upbeat from there, though:

Stretches of this are nothing short of sublime-the first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections (you’ll not be surprised to hear that these are footnoted) are tiny masterpieces of that whole self-aware po-mo thing of his that’s so heavily imitated. Then there are the one-offs—a deadening 50-page excursion to a wiggler happy hour, a former stoner’s lengthy and tedious recollection of his stony past—but this is a novel of boredom we’re talking about, and, so, yes, some of it is quite boring. And while it’s hard not to wince at each of the many mentions of suicide, Wallace is often achingly funny; a passage that begins “I have only one real story about shit. But it’s a doozy” and ends with a “prison-type gang-type sexual assault gone wrong” is pants-pissingly hilarious.

I don’t know, though, if I’d agree that editor Michael Pietsch “deserves a medal and a bottomless martini.” Obviously he’s done impressive work in stringing Wallace’s notes into something coherent, but it’s very much an open question as to whether that was the right thing to do.

Pietsch’s editing of Infinite Jest as described by Wallace himself in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was an extremely bi-directional affair. So I can only believe that Pietsch must have taken some leaps with King that Wallace would not have liked, or at the very least would have done very differently if given the chance.

Take it for what it is, a completion. Myself, I’ve never listened past the first movement of Mahler’s Tenth.

Good Day for Me in NYC

I registered two nice appearances yesterday in those big-time NYC periodicals. First off, The New Yorker’s Book Bench ran a very nice post on the simply beautiful covers for Melville House’s new Heinrich Boll titles. And, as you can see, right at the top of the item is the cover for The Clown, with my name, wee but quite legible:

And then, thanks to Jacob Silverman for pointing me to this New York Observer piece on the David Foster Wallace industry, which quotes from my critique of The Pale King, published here last week:

Last week a blogger at posted a document comparing word by word the excerpt of The Pale King that appeared in The New Yorker and a transcription of the same passage that Wallace read at the Lannan Foundation in New Mexico in 2000.

Scott Esposito, writing on his blog Conversational Reading, posted a quick reaction: “What we see,” he wrote, “is a vision of what The Pale King might have looked like, if its editors had chosen to leave it in the disarrayed state it was discovered in. Surely this would have been a book with less mass appeal than the ‘completed’ Pale King that will be published on April 15, but would it have been truer to Wallace the writer?”

Asked about the editing process that has brought The Pale King to the public, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, told The Observer, “I am going to save that for another time. I am not sure how much I want to talk about that at this time.”

James O. Incandeza’s Films To be Screened

So a bunch of artists put together an exhibition of some films they made inspired by James O. Incandeza’s oeuvre, as described in a footnote to Infinite Jest. They’re calling it “A Failed Entertainment.”

Here for instance is a still from The Medusa vs. the Odalisque by Jessica Segall:

Very cool stuff. And The National has a great article on this project:

Throwing caution to the wind, with the knowledge that the results could in no way live up to imagined preconceptions, Columbia University’s LeRoy Neiman Gallery commissioned 22 student artists to re-create works from the Incandenza oeuvre for A Failed Entertainment, an exhibit that opened in Upper Manhattan last weekend. If the past year has seen its share of imaginative tributes to the past generation’s most compelling literary figure – including John Krasinski’s film adaptation of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men – this one seems by far the most audacious. I entered Columbia’s campus at my own risk, prepared for the possibility of an entertainment that might render me paralysed. What I found was a small room with two chairs, a large television, a projection screen and a number of VCRs stacked on top of each other. On a block of wood bolted to the floor, a doorknob was perpetually spinning on its axis, as if in tribute to Wallace’s favourite mathematical concept: infinity.

More Thoughts on The Pale King

I readily admit, I’m a Pale King skeptic. In fact, I’m pretty skeptical about all posthumous, incomplete texts. In most cases, if an author didn’t finish it, I’m not really interested in reading it (with obvious exceptions; e.g., Kafka).

At The Howling Fantods, a great DFW site in general, Nick Maniatis has an alternative view that’s worth a look. Here’s the start:

Over at Conversational Reading in Is This What The Pale King Should Have Looked Like? Scott Esposito puts together a few bits and pieces (including this neat post over at 454 W 23rd St New York, NY 10011—2157 comparing the excerpt ‘Backbone’ in the New Yorker to DFW’s 2000 Lannan reading of the same story) to consider what the published version of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King might end up looking like. I think there’s a little too much scepticism in Scott’s post compared to what I’ve read and heard around the web.

I’m both excited and feeling trepidation about the release of The Pale King.

But I think I’m a bit more hopeful than some others and I’ll try to explore why I think this is below.

WARNING: There are possible spoilers about The Pale King if you’ve been trying to avoid reading anything about it.

Is This What The Pale King Should Have Looked Like?

Earlier this week, I mentioned that The New Yorker has published a work by David Foster Wallace entitled Backbone, an excerpt from The Pale King.

Now there is an extremely interesting Google Doc that purports to offer “Changes between the transcription of David Foster Wallace reading ‘A fragment of a longer thing’ (Dec. 2000) and The New Yorker’s publication of that story as ‘Backbone’ (Feb. 28, 2011).”

The document, of course, offers an intriguing glimpse into Wallace’s changes as a writer over the course of eight years. Yet it also offer more: an alternative scenario for what a Pale King publication might have looked like.

Its common knowledge now that Wallace did not get close to finishing The Pale King, and that the book that will be published on April 15 represents a heavily edited and stitched together version of what Wallace left behind. Clearly, this book has been made to serve the many readers out there who would like to see a completed, standardized version of The Pale King.

Yet, it has been suggested that such a book would have been contrary to Wallace’s objectives as a writer, possibly representing a serious change over what Wallace would have written himself. Recall, for instance, that Infinite Jest is famously an “incomplete” book in that the narrative strands purposely never come close to actually cohering into a typical ending; surely if Jest had been discovered among Wallace’s papers after his death an editor might have given it a “correct” ending, thus ruining Wallace’s vision.

What we see in this Google Document is a vision of what The Pale King might have looked like, if its editors had chosen to leave it in the disarrayed state it was discovered in. Surely this would have been a book with less mass appeal than the “completed” Pale King that will be published on April 15, but would it have been truer to Wallace the writer?

Pale King Excerpt in The New Yorker

In case that rock you’ve been living under is a little heavy . . . & if you want, you can pre-order the book here.

VIDEO: New BBC David Foster Wallace Documentary

45 minute documentary DFW from the BBC. Need I say more?

Surely you have 45 minutes . . .

Endnotes: David Foster Wallace from georgelazenby on Vimeo.

On Wallace’s Philosophy Thesis

Levi Asher isn’t too hot on DFW’s “new” “book,” Fate Time and Language:

This is why I’m disappointed in David Foster Wallace’s essay — not because it’s wrong (rather, it’s entirely correct) but because its ambition is misplaced. In this essay, David Foster Wallace swats a logical fly to death. It’s pleasant enough to watch him doing so, and readers who haven’t been exposed to philosophical dialectic will learn something from the process. Wallace is quoted admiring the “click” of symbolic logic in the book’s introduction, and he’s right that this “click” carries with it an aesthetic feeling of joy.

But the idea, suggested by the book’s introduction and supplementary material, that Wallace’s essay accomplishes something other philosophers have not been able to do, cannot be taken seriously. Other academic philosophers have also refuted Richard Taylor’s argument. More meaningfully, two major modern thinkers who predate Richard Taylor had already kicked the Free Will Problem into oblivion decades before Wallace wrote this piece.

The Financial Times also reviews it, to more or less the same conclusion:

After arguing that this distinction is the crux of the matter in Taylor’s Lazy Argument, Foster Wallace constructs some ingenious formal machinery to clarify the sorts of necessity involved. He uses techniques developed by Richard Montague, an American philosopher whose murder in 1971 was the subject of at least two novels. But he applies them in an original way.

It is a virtuoso performance. What is not clear is whether it is of any lasting significance. When TS Eliot published his own student philosophy thesis, 46 years after it was written, he confessed that he no longer understood it, and said it would be of interest only to students of the evolution of his prose style. It soon fell out of print. Foster Wallace’s is a superior work but will probably suffer the same fate.

For those who are still interested in reading this book, Levi quotes the thesis itself a few times, and it doesn’t seem quite that impossible to get through, provided you have a little free will and determination.

Understanding DFW’s Thesis

Everybody who has a grasp of formal logic, raise your hand.

Okay, unless I’ve vastly underestimated my popularity among the philosophy grad students, that should not be to many of you. But if you are to make an honest attempt to read DFW’s thesis, Fate, Time, and Language, then you’ll probably want to have some understanding of this stuff.

Columbia University Press has put together a resource page for you, with original essays, video interviews, and other items, all dealing with DFW’s thesis.

The Introduction to David Foster Wallace’s Thesis

In case you’ve forgotten (and let’s face it, unless you’re an enormous fanboy, you probably have), David Foster Wallace’s college thesis goes on sale in December from Columbia University Press under the title Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.

CUP is now offering an excerpt from James Ryerson’s introduction to the book:

During this time, Wallace started writing fiction. Though it represented a clean break from philosophy, fiction, as an art form, offered something comparable to the feeling of aesthetic recognition that he had sought in mathematical logic—the so-called click. “At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click existed in literature, too,” he told McCaffery. “It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction.” When he returned to Amherst, he nonetheless resumed his philosophical studies (eventually including his work on Taylor’s “Fatalism”), but with misgivings: he hoped he would ultimately be bold enough to give up philosophy for literature. His close friend Mark Costello, who roomed with him at Amherst (and also became a novelist), told me that the shift was daunting for Wallace. “The world, the reference, of philosophy was an incredibly comfortable place for young Dave,” he said. “It was a paradox. The formal intellectual terms were cold, exact, even doomed. But as a place to be, a room to be in, it was familiar, familial, recognized.” Fiction, Costello said, was the “alien, risky place.”

Wallace’s solution was to pursue both aims at once. His senior year, while writing the honors thesis in philosophy, he also completed an honors thesis in creative writing for the English Department, a work of fiction nearly 500 pages long that would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, which was published two years later, in 1987. Even just the manual labor required to produce two separate theses could be overwhelming, as suggested by an endearingly desperate request Wallace made at the end of his letter to Kennick. “Since you’re on leave,” he wrote, “are you using your little office in Frost library? If not, does it have facilities for typing, namely an electrical outlet and a reasonably humane chair? If so, could I maybe use the office from time to time this spring? I have a truly horrifying amount of typing to do this spring—mostly for my English thesis, which has grown Blob-like and out of control—and my poor neighbors here in Moore are already being kept up and bothered a lot.”


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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