Raban on Wallace, Or, Wallace Didn’t Wear Doo-Rags

Fact: The normally astute Jonathan Raban shows himself to be on his game in this review/essay of The Pale King, enough so to get me looking at PK reviewage once again.

Unfortunately, an otherwise fine piece of work is marred by two pretty boneheaded errors in the second paragraph:

Most importantly, Infinite Jest (1996) showed Wallace as a walking encyclopedia on everything he touched—tennis, drugs, burglary, AA, halfway houses, hospital procedures, gang life in the streets of greater Boston, and much more. He seemed to know stuff beyond the ken of most novelists, and his knowledge spilled over into ninety-six close-printed pages of endnotes. It was said that the variously patterned doo-rags in which he habitually wrapped his temples when he appeared in public were there to stop his prodigious brains from breaking out of his skull.

First of all, while it is true that Wallace displays prodigious amounts of knowledge throughout Infinite Jest, the footnotes are not the best place to see that. Those footnotes are largely inventions on things like the filmography of made-up individuals and the details of eschatological games that don’t really exist.

Second, Wallace did not wear doo-rags. He wore bandannas. Here’s Wallace in a bandanna:

And here’s 50 Cent in a doo-rag:

See the difference?

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agree with the doo-rag goof (though come on, is it really worth calling out?), but to assert that “his knowledge spilled over into ninety-six close-printed pages of endnotes” doesn’t strike me as wrong by any measure. the filmography itself is one of the classic Wallace-as-walking-encyclopedia moments, while simultaneously exhibiting his enormous creative power: in that (a) a novelist is versed enough in an obscure branch of avant-garde cinema to reference Brakhage, Frampton, Mekas, and “Visionary Film,” while (b) were this fake filmography to have actually existed, it would place its creator in the ranks of filmmakers like Brakhage, Frampton, et. al. To me, the filmography is one of the flights of fancy that only a super-brain like Wallace could have produced, and, structurally speaking, it could only have come in an endnote..


Not going to debate you on the footnote thing, but as to doo-rag, yes, it’s completely embarrassing that neither Raban no whoever edited his essay knew the difference between a bandanna and a doo-rag. Someone should have caught that.

There were also some small errors in Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on Julie Taymor and that Spiderman musical that everyone seems unaccountably obsessed with. I actually enjoyed the essay (I think most of Mendelsohn’s stuff is great), but his understanding of comic book heroes is a bit off — e.g. Wolverine doesn’t undergo lupine “transformations.” He is who he is — practically a feral creature — which is what makes him a loose canon and a great character. There were a couple other mistakes I noticed. Anyway, the overall sense I get is that NYRB editors/fact-checkers don’t stray too much outside high culture, which is too bad.

Also wolverines aren’t lupine animals.

(Nit-pickers unite.)


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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