Tag Archives: david foster wallace

Letting Go

Steve Mitchelmore finds this while making a broader point about Joyce vis a vis modernism:

Compared with Proust and Beckett, Kakfa and Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Joyce presents a strangely rigid attitude; he refuses ever to let go, to trust the work to take him where it will. Every ‘letting go’ has to be carefully fitted into its place in the overall design, even though there is no longer, by his own admission, any authority for the pattern the design itself assumes.

It is perhaps a weakness of Joyce and not just a fact about him that he is such a godsend to the academic community. For there is ultimately something cosy and safe about Ulysses: underlying it is the belief that the mere accumulation of detail and complexity is an unquestioned good. Far from being ‘the decisive English-language book of the [twentieth] century,’ as Kenner suggests, it is perhaps the last great book of the nineteenth.

These remarks strike me at an interesting time, wherein I’m re-reading Pynchon and not finding him wholly to my liking. I think there are certain similarities with Joyce. Pynchon’s way of “letting go” is always situated within a certain set of ideas he wants to get across. Some stretches of Pynchon’s work are quite brilliant, so brilliant in fact that one is encouraged to just break them out of the novel and enjoy them on their own, since, in the context of the larger work, they always end up reducing themselves back to that grand design.

This, I think, gets back to my main critique of David Foster Wallace, who also seemed unable to let his work simply be. (Perhaps there is something to these massive novels of information. I would say that, like Joyce, Wallace and Pynchon harken back to the 19th century more than people who are obsessed with reading them as postmodernists seem to think.) Infinite Jest succeeds, in my opinion, on the fact that it got away from him despite his best efforts to pin it down to certain certainties he wanted to express.

Probably Don’t Want to Plagiarize One of the Most Famous Writers of the Last 50 Years While He’s Having a (Posthumous) Moment

D’oh!

They say Joseph Anderson, who heads the Clinton School for Writers and Artists in Manhattan, recited – without attribution – portions of an address penned by the late writer David Foster Wallace at Friday’s eighth-grade commencement.

The original speech, an edgy and existential look at adult life, was given at Kenyon College in 2005. It hit Time magazine’s Top 10 Commencement Speeches list and was turned into a best-selling book, “This Is Water.”

The pomp and plagiarism earned scorn from some students leaving the school yesterday to start the summer break.

“We’re a school for writers and artists. It’s kind of ironic that he can’t write it,” said eighth-grader Marcus Cook, 14. “If you do that in college and high school, you can get kicked out.”

William Deresiewicz on The Pale King

Pretty honest review.

There is almost none of this alertness in The Pale King. With few exceptions, the prose is merely serviceable. Is this how Wallace wanted it, flat language to mimic flattened affect, or would he have improved it on a rewrite, or could he simply not do better anymore? We’ll never know. The truth is, nothing else in his corpus measures up to Infinite Jest. Nothing even comes close—not only in the aggregate but even line by line. Wallace wrote the novel, all 1,079 pages of it (and indeed a great deal more that Pietsch persuaded him to cut), in three years in his early 30s. A special grace must have governed him. His three volumes of short fiction—Girl With Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004)—contain some marvelous ideas, bravura turns, ingenious constructions, but nothing that possesses the emotional texture, the intimacy and immediacy, of his magnum opus. In a review of the second collection, a book that often reads like a set of exercises, Andrei Codrescu got it more right than he knew. Wallace, he said, “has a seemingly inexhaustible bag of literary tricks.” But tricks are often all it is, a long series of contrivances, as if Wallace aspired to be no more than the cleverest kid in the workshop.

And later:

Only in Infinite Jest did he let himself go, and his characters, too—he into his experience, they into theirs. The frames and fractures are still present—388 endnotes, for starters, plus the whole Quebecois separatist/wheelchair assassins/near-future subsidized-time comic dystopia thing—but the story proceeds, as it were, in spite of them. Hal and the tennis academy, Gately and the halfway house: they are given their freedom, their imaginative stretching room. To use a dated but indispensable phrase, they come alive. To use another one, Wallace makes us care about them. They are even allowed, at times, to commandeer the frame, Hal and Pemulis, his partner in crime, inserting some crucial endnotes at a certain point in the proceedings, as if they were the story’s secret authors all along. The novel is dense with feeling, meaning, tangibility, presence, conviction. It may be heresy to say this, but Wallace’s greatest strengths were as a realist: an observer, a describer, a metaphor maker, a constructor of scenes and dialogue, a creator of convincing situations and morally autonomous characters—someone, in short, who believed in fiction’s ability to represent the world.

Deresiewicz’s candor is refreshing, but why the “it may be heresy”? It’s not. He’s absolutely right. For all the postmodern nonsense people want to strap onto David Foster Wallace, his books were so popular because they were so real. Of course it wasn’t “realism” in the way that the word tends to evoke, as in some 19th-century work by someone along the lines of George Eliot, but it was more to do with real people and real situations than any kinds of dumb postmodern games. It was “realism” as it should be written today, and that’s why it became so popular.

DFW Interview

The NYR Blog has just run a truncated version of a 2006 interview between David Foster Wallace and Ostap Karmodi (full interview on Karmodi’s blog).

It’s kind of interesting to compare the two versions being offered. In the NYR edit, A lot of the answers on Wallace’s side sound like standard cut-and-paste items from the Wallace toolkit (but there are a few interesting remarks). But if you look at the full interview (admittedly, very long) there’s a whole lot of ambiguity and texture that’s really quite interesting.

Anyway, since this is a literature blog, a quote from Wallace on novels after Infinite Jest:

OK: You wrote Infinite Jest ten years ago, and after that you didn’t write any other novels, just essays and stories. Do you feel it’s over for you with big novels? Is it more interesting for you to write stories now?

DFW: There are writers in America who consider themselves only novelists. I do all kinds of different things. I will probably at some point finish a novel. Whether it will be good enough to publish, I don’t know. I tend to start three or four things for every one thing that gets finished. I was trained mainly as a short story writer and that’s how I started writing, but I’ve also become very interested in non-fiction, just because I got a couple of magazine jobs when I was really poor and needed the money and it turned out that non-fiction was much more interesting than I thought it was. So I am, as American writers go, very eclectic. I haven’t made any decisions about one kind of genre or another. I love to read poetry but I will probably never write it because I just have no talent for it. But other then that I probably want to try everything.

OK: But now you just don’t feel like writing another novel?

DFW: Well, you make it sound like writing a novel is a matter of sitting down for an afternoon. I have for the past five or six years at times made starts on things. I don’t really understand the term “novel,” but I guess anything over about 150 pages is a novel. I’ve done a couple of longer things, I just don’t like them very much right now and I don’t know whether I will rewrite them. I don’t really need the money. My wife and I live very simply. I’m sure I will write more novels; I don’t know whether I will publish them or not. A lot of stuff that I write just goes in a big box in my office and no one else ever sees them.

Also see the current issue of The Quarterly Conversation for our seven-article retrospective on Wallace’s career.

The Quarterly Converstion Issue 24

TQC 24 has just hit the streets. Table of contents below.

If you don’t mind, before getting there, a few words. In this issue we’ve got a special “symposium” on David Foster Wallace, and I’d like to give some idea of the thought behind it. Basically, with nearly 3 years between us and the suicide, plus the posthumous publication of two Wallace books, plus the reams of discourse surrounding The Pale King, now seemed like the right time to stop and take a look at who David Foster Wallace was and what his books meant to the literary ecosystem. So this is a reappraisal of sorts, the first of what will surely be many more in the years to come.

With that in mind, the pieces in this collection are meant to be more than reviews. They’re responses to the books that seek to situate them in the culture, as they now seem to fit, as well as to consider what about the books will last and what will not.

Certainly we’ll have a different view of Wallace 10 years on than we do right now, but much of what’s included in the below rings true to me. I think the people who have participated in this symposium have hit on several key things that we’ll continue to think about.

Aside from the Wallace treatment, we’ve got a ton of stuff–two original translations, interviews, an essay on Grace Paley, and scads of reviews. Enjoy.

SYMPOSIUM: WHO WAS DAVID FOSTER WALLACE?

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Wallace’s Masterpiece

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Wallace’s Masterpiece

Infinite Jest is clearly and without any doubt David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. More than that: it is the book—fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise—that will be looked back to when future generations want to understand millennial America. Like all books that reach this stature, it has gotten here through a mixture of skill and luck. Quite certainly Wallace captured the contradictions that were most fundamental to the America that he came of age in.


Who Was David Foster Wallace? — (An Homage to) the Difficult Birth and Endless Death of Attention

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — (An Homage to) the Difficult Birth and Endless Death of Attention

 

A complex editor at a certain swanky standard-bearing New York magazine had this to exclaim when she heard I was writing some sort of long-view esteem piece on the enigma known familiarly as Dave, in the mid-tiers as DFW, and to those in the nosebleed sections as David Foster Wallace.

Herewith, in its entirety, I will reproduce for you her comment:

“Dave? I mean does anyone still read him who’s not under 40?”


Who Was David Foster Wallace? — All its horror and unbound power: David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — All its horror and unbound power: David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace’s writing has often and rightfully been lauded for its absolutely precise prose, its devices, and its footnotes and forms and aggressions. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the first collection of stories to follow the massive and career-defining Infinite Jest, he uses all just these skills to tackle selfishness the way Infinite Jest tackled addiction. Wallace is, in all of his work, at least tangentially commenting on contemporary Americans’ incessant egomania, but BIWHM, in true Wallace fashion, investigates this theme from seemingly every fathomable angle. Wallace was never a subtle writer, preferring motive to leitmotif, and action to metaphor, and Brief Interviews is no exception. It is exhaustive.


Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Beautiful Oblivion: Eighteen Notes

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Beautiful Oblivion: Eighteen Notes

In a YouTube interview, a lawyer and author of several books about English usage asks David Foster Wallace what he thinks of genteelisms—those multisyllablic, latinate, important-sounding words like “prior to” and “subsequent to” that substitute for shorter, often Anglo-Saxon, down-to-earth-sounding ones like “before.” Revealingly, the guy who majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College, whose father was a philosophy professor, doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he reflexively makes a sour face. Only then does he suggest “genteelism” is an “overly charitable way to characterize” such “puff words,” and concludes: “This is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing all the people who say ‘at this time’ instead of ‘now.’


Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Better Left Unfed: Consider the Lobster and the Late Nonfiction

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Better Left Unfed: Consider the Lobster and the Late Nonfiction

Part of me believes that it is his nonfiction that will be predominantly read in the years ahead. Oh, everyone will talk a big game about Infinite Jest, but the primary means though which readers will actually encounter Wallace’s actual language will be through his nonfiction. In part, this is just because IJ is still a gigantic undertaking to read, but also it’s because his nonfiction is just so much more welcoming than much of his fiction, especially his post-IJ work, which is constricted and self-conscious and often constipated, where the noticing seems to embalm and overwhelm the stories.


Who Was David Foster Wallace? — The Pale King and the Terrifying Demands Upon It

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — The Pale King and the Terrifying Demands Upon It

The Pale King follows a recent spate of Wallace-related publications, but if it has a purpose beyond the writer’s continued Tupacification, it must be to help us appreciate the impulses that drove him to write in the first place—and perhaps in doing so, we’ll let him off the cross.


Who Was David Foster Wallace? — The Management of Insignificance: Thoughts on “The Suffering Channel,” Reality, and Shit

Who Was David Foster Wallace? — The Management of Insignificance: Thoughts on “The Suffering Channel,” Reality, and Shit

I was informed of David Foster Wallace’s death by text message. If I’m tempted to say that this detail would have horrified or amused or depressed Wallace, it’s only because it’s gratifying to think that the things that horrify or amuse or depress me are the same things that would have horrified or amused or depressed him. The truth is I have no idea what he would have thought about the news of his death being disseminated on millions of tiny screens on devices people carry around in their pockets.


The “Legacy” of Grace Paley

The “Legacy” of Grace Paley

Rilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Grace Paley, a much beloved short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist, died in August of 2007. Since then, as the year of memorials ended, tributes began proliferating throughout the country. But many falsehoods, sentimentalizations, idealizations, and distortions have also accrued in the four years since Paley’s death. Why—with the abundant availability and accessibility of biographical information, has there been a need to develop a political and social icon that has outweighed the literary value of her writing?


“You Were Born to Live on an Island” — A Conversation Between E.J. Van Lanen, Bragi Olafsson, and Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson

“You Were Born to Live on an Island” — A Conversation Between E.J. Van Lanen, Bragi Olafsson, and Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson

Iceland will be the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor this fall. E.J. Van Lanen talks with Icelandic authors Bragi Ólafsson and Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson about thirsty protagonists, longing to be elsewhere, and found-poems in gutted fish.


In Translation

From The Last Days of My Mother By Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson

From The Last Days of My Mother By Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson

 

“You’re not taking my leg.”

“Mother . . . “

“Out of the question. I’m sixty-three years old and I’ve had this leg all my life. Nothing changes that.”

“This is a matter of life and death.”

“Well, then I’ll just die!”


From Los Muertos by Jorge Carrion

From Los Muertos by Jorge Carrion

Los Muertos is what one might call post-Sebaldian catastrophe literature: how can we talk about horror, war, violence, camps today? If one thing is clear, it’s that Carrión doesn’t want to do it à la 19th-century realism, which sets him apart from many Spanish writers (Antonio Muñoz Molina comes to mind) and makes him close, in spirit at least, to Juan Goytisolo, W.G. Sebald, and Ricardo Piglia, authors to which he dedicated lengthy critical studies. That Los Muertos talks about such loaded themes in what seems to be an entirely fictitious framework is probably its strongest achievement. This debut novel is the first volume of a trilogy that might very well become one of the high points of Spanish fiction thus far this century.


Reviews

The Good-bye Angel by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao

The Good-bye Angel by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao

In Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s world, no one is happy, except in the passing moment when sadists (and there are many of them in his books) exploit others in an all too obvious way, completely devoid of irony. The mixed up way that people disconnect from one another is a running thread in his novel, The Goodbye Angel, and the author presents a highly dysfunctional society where men exploit (and murder) women, where crime bosses exploit workers, and where journalists themselves are part of the game of exploitation and deception. Plus, everyone lives in fear.


Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud

Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud wrote the poems that were eventually published under the title Illuminations between the ages of seventeen and twenty. John Ashbery, whose has just translated the forty-two poems (plus one fragment) traditionally grouped under that title, is eighty-three. Rimbaud, when he wrote the poems, was at a peak of creativity, moving from formal poetic composition to his long prose confession A Season in Hell (1873), and into the form—the prose poem—with which he is most often associated. His continue to be some of the most provocative performances in that genre. Ashbery, who has, of course, published many remarkable prose poems himself, including his landmark book Three Poems (1972), clearly feels it is time, late in his own career, to repay the debt. Rimbaud’s Illuminations has left an indelible mark on literature, and its translation by a poet of Ashbery’s stature should mean that the poems will exert their influence anew on readers of English.


Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries by Helen Vendler

Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries by Helen Vendler

Possibly the only thing as remotely inspiring and awe-inspiring as an Emily Dickinson poem is a commentary on a Dickinson poem by Helen Vendler. Vendler, one of a handful of elite poetry critics in the United States, has written more than thirty books, including commentaries on all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, three hundred pages about the seven odes of John Keats, and two books and parts of two others on Wallace Stevens. Now she has produced a book dedicated to Dickinson, perhaps this country’s most enigmatic writer, which presents 150 poems accompanied by commentaries.


Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Recently reissued by the press Dorothy, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyns’ third novel (more or less; she had previously started a fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, but would not finish it until a few years after) and her first instance of actively engaging narrative traditions. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is an unfathomably strange set of autobiographical scenes from her childhood, alternately pastoral and horrific, yet with little change in narrative tone between the two moods. The second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is an autobiographical chronicle of her pained first marriage. The material is far more normal, but the voice, half-detached from the world, a bit maladapted, and yet absolutely certain of itself, is clearly the same.


On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui

On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui

The sinister novel is structured as a fictional diary that culminates in a horrific final act of violence, but the tension builds slowly as the diarist occupies himself with elements of the everyday: watch repair, socks and gloves, apothecaries, brothels, the tales of a local coachman. The book belongs to a long line of narrated confessions that includes Poe’s short stories and Camus’s The Stranger. But Lascano Tegui’s memoir of murder is more grotesque and feverish than it is neurotic.


The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer

Does the parable of the mosquitoes say something about order or randomness, logic or fate? These dynamics—not truly opposites; perhaps different modes of storytelling—contrast throughout the novel, just as the intricate, self-contradictory logic of its sentences contrasts with the underlying order of the gridded streets, the city layout through which the characters move. The narrator continually questions the stories that Leto, and so the reader, are being breathlessly presented. Thus Saer offers the pleasures and necessities both of a good old-fashioned story and a postmodern puzzle.


How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

It would have been easy for Sheila Heti to go awry with this book. With a title like How Should a Person Be?, a less confident writer might have been tempted to drag in the big guns: Heidegger, Sartre, maybe Levinas. A writer who felt she had more to prove might have tried to organize each chapter under the heading of a philosophical question, or theme, as indeed Heti does toward the end of the book. But by the time Heti begins to title her chapters “What is Empathy,” “What is Freedom,” “What is Betrayal,” these questions have been thoroughly earned: there is no pontificating or showing off in sight, and they are surrounded by less loftily-titled chapters like “Sheila wanders in the copy shop” and “In front of the bikini store.” This heterogeneous approach to fiction and philosophy is one of Heti’s most endearing qualities, and it is at the heart of this novel’s success.


Coming From an Off-Key Time by Bogdan Suceava

Coming From an Off-Key Time by Bogdan Suceava

Romanian author Bogdan Suceavă’s novel Coming From an Off-Key Time takes up the narrative thread of Romania as it lurches out of its lengthy romance with Nicolae Ceauşescu. The story begins immediately after the “off-key” time when the newly dictator-less nation was without a constitution and unsure where to place its feet as the future beckoned. These were not the halcyon days of peace and prosperity perhaps expected by the Romanian people; instead, it was a time when the nation as a whole was forced to turn inward to rediscover itself, to reevaluate what it meant to be Romanian.


Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies by Ovid

Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies by Ovid

The Love Poems feel as contemporary as the Metamorphoses feel ancient. If the Metamorphoses seem like a time capsule that allows us to breathe the air of the ancient world, the Love Poems exude a more familiar fug: the brain-fogged morning-after reek of cigarettes and regret and things that should perhaps have been left unsaid. Like the Metamorphoses, they’re poems of desire, but unlike the gods of the former, the male speakers of the latter are all too human, without the gods’ power (and, fortunately, the casual brutality) to simply take whatever they want. Spitted by love, or at least lust, they roast in its fires, begging the shapely hand that turns the crank to give them relief.


Touch Wood by Albert Mobilio

Touch Wood by Albert Mobilio

On the cover of this sharply designed book, Mobilio’s name in a modern sans serif typeface stands in stark contrast to the cover art, a piece of wood seemingly ink-stamped in place, overlaying marks etched into the paint of the canvas. The book wholeheartedly engages such binaries and implicitly reinforces the old saw (pardon the pun) that good poetry is a poetry of tension—here, between signal and noise, mainstream and avant-garde, intimacy and distance.


The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin-American Poetry, edited by Ilan Stavans

The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin-American Poetry, edited by Ilan Stavans

To edit an anthology like this, one of only three major anthologies of twentieth-century Latin American poetry, the newest, and one published and promoted by a major publisher of literature, is without even a slight doubt to actively work toward establishing a canon. I imagine for a scholar like Stavans that this posed all sorts of ethical and academic problems that he had to resolve, or come to terms with as best he could. Especially because the twentieth-century Latin American poets have already drawn substantial attention from English-language translators, and the canon of Latin American poets of the twentieth century is in large part already formed.


The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin

The nations of the former Soviet Union have swung between extremes over the last two decades, from the destabilization of perestroika to the corrupt, unrestrained capitalism of the 90s to the recentralized, oppressive control that Putin and Medvedev exert today. The suffering and tyranny of this period and of so much of Russia’s past is Sorokin’s primary subject, and he has spoken out loudly against Putin’s regime.


The Use of Speech by Nathalie Sarraute

The Use of Speech by Nathalie Sarraute

As a work of fiction, The Use of Speech is remarkable for exploring the seemingly contradictory idea that if language is the primary form of communication between human beings, it is also their primary form of persecution. This analysis is especially evident within the novel’s drawn-out meditations on the similarities between the structure of language and the structure of societies, and it is primarily through this concept that Sarraute explores a strand of conscious thought always present in human culture, but nearly invisible to each person experiencing it: namely, the extent to which our perceptions both determine and, perhaps more importantly, are determined by linguistic acts.


Unseen Hand by Adam Zagajewski

Unseen Hand by Adam Zagajewski

Much of Zagajewski’s charm, his characteristic sense of pathos spared from self-pity by wit, curiosity and generosity of spirit, is distilled inside the parenthesis: “(there’s the real mystery: the life of others).” His man on the bench in the Luxembourg Gardens observes the tourists, and considers the residents of nearby apartment houses, and the eminent dead who once strolled here—Mickiewicz and Strindberg—and wryly revels in his “cold pleasure.”


Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin

Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin

It should have been a great book—three interlocking novella-length fictions, an overlapping of incident and character, an exotic (at least to me) setting, a post-9/11 glaze on international affairs, and the ironic re-deployment of that stunningly strange phrase, one of the key bits of vocab-shrapnel left with us nearly ten years after the World Trade Center attack. Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Irwin contains all of these things, but is not, alas, a wholly successful work of fiction. These potent ingredients mix together interestingly but the result is a book that feels conceptually overbaked.


Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

I sense in Veselka’s writing a concern about just this question, a concern that periodically surfaces in Della’s flashes of awareness about her neo-hippified situation. The novel sticks within the physical and/or psychological confines where bohemianism meets D.I.Y. craftiness meets complaining about The Man; the rest of society—the hated mainstream, presumably—comes through only in the vaguest of impressions. Even when Della enters the belly o the beast itself—a stampede-like sale at a Wal-Mart—she mostly just stares at another hippie.


If Not Metamorphic by Brenda Iijima

If Not Metamorphic by Brenda Iijima

That she takes on not one or two registers but ten is a tribute to Iijima’s fearlessness to engage injustice in her work. She asks the fathomless questions with mysterious and uncivilized bents. She acknowledges that the answers are not easy and often incomprehensible, but still must be insisted upon. Her poetry inhabits a kind of animal mentality that is both intelligent and subtle, and is cyclical rather than linear.


The Morning News Is Exciting by Don Mee Choi

The Morning News Is Exciting by Don Mee Choi

Don Mee Choi’s first book of poetry, The Morning News Is Exciting, is a seriously inventive manipulation of language, line, and sentence, grappling with divisions created by war and imperial conquest. Choi delves deeply into questions of translation, violence, and the potential for beauty in a gruesome world. Her book is divided into thirteen sections: some are single poems, some serial poems, and some appear to be small, chapbook-like collections. Throughout, Choi plays with a constantly unstable “I,” a self whose responses are never singular or pre-set, whose reactions are always multiplying, fragmented, and varying.


Interviews

The Eliot Weinberger Interview

The Eliot Weinberger Interview

As I’ve written elsewhere, translation flourishes when there is a national inferiority complex or national embarrassment, and in the sense of the latter the Bush years saw a boom in translation. (Though shockingly not a boom in political poetry—another topic.) Intellectuals finally became sick of their American selves, and started wondering what other people were thinking. And some younger poets are once again starting to get out in the world—though most remain in the sensory deprivation tanks of the writing schools. This, of course, should be extremely healthy for poetry—what its effects will be remain to be seen.


The Bogdan Suceava Interview

The Bogdan Suceava Interview

I dreamt for years of writing a novel that captured in a relatively short tale (perhaps about 200 pages) the whole local flavor of Bucharest, the colorful world that operates with inconsistent logic and vacuous rules, an eclectic atmosphere where the bohemian youth mixed with old apparatchiks, where fake scholars confuse concepts and ideas, where politicians and religious figures are despicable, and all of them together generate a bizarre political diorama. I can write other stories, but Coming from an Off-Key Time is the novel where I aimed to capture the logic of the world I grew up in.


Just How Big Is Peter Nadas’ Parallel Stories?

Hungarian author Peter Nadas wrote one of my favorite novels in recent memory: it was A Book of Memories, published in English translation in 2008 by Picador and clocking in at a chunky 720 pages. Memorably, in the New York Review Deborah Eisenberg wrote in a piece entitled “The Genius of Peter Nadas“:

And although it’s certain, insofar as anything can be, that Péter Nádas would have become an extraordinary writer no matter what his circumstances, life in Hungary under a Soviet-backed regime has left a burning imprint on his writing. His work’s frank claims to be on a high level, its ambition, assurance, rigor, and tone of urgency, as well as the extent to which it sometimes makes free with the reader’s stamina, not only suggest irrepressible artistic and moral force but also seem unburdened by personal arrogance. What is at issue for him, clearly, is to discover truth and tell it in whatever way possible.

This fall FSG is publishing Nadas’ titanic (there is no other word) Parallel Stories, 15 years in the writing and 5 years in the translating. How big is it? I took some photos for comparison’s sake:

First of all, let’s put it up against WIlliam T. Vollmann’s gargantuan Fathers and Crows, a big book from a guy who knows about writing big books.

Parallel Stories: 1152 pages
Fathers and Crows by William T. Vollmann: 1008 pages

Nadas v. Vollmann? Advantage Nadas.

What about The Recognitions, a notably huge book?

Parallel Stories: 1152 pages
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: 976 pages

Nadas v. Gaddis? Advantage Nadas.

Then there’s everybody’s go-to book when thinking of huge books, War and Peace (which, in fact, is name-checked on the back copy of Parallel.)

Parallel Stories: 1152 pages
War and Peace by Tolstoy: 1200 pages

Too close to call. Let’s go to the photo:

In fact, the photo is deceptive on this one, as the Norton critical edition uses transparently thin paper. But given all the critical apparatus that comes with the Norton, I have to give this one to Parallel Stories.

Nadas v. Tolstoy? Advantage Nadas.

You can even stack this book up against a trilogy–like Cormac McCarthy’s masterful Border Trilogy.

Parallel Stories: 1152 pages
The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy: 1056 pages

Nadas v. McCarthy? Advantage Nadas.

And then there’s the size of Nadas’ own prior Book of Memories.

Parallel Stories: 1152 pages
A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas: 720 pages

Nadas v. Nadas? Advantage Nadas.

About the only thing I could find to rival Parallel Stories was the legendarily long Infinite Jest, which, though a dab shorter by pagecount has much bigger pages and packs in more words per page.

Parallel Stories: 1152 pages
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: 1104 pages

Nadas v. Wallace? Let’s go to the photo.

You call it.

Fake Memoir Of Job At IRS

The Harry Ransom Center, which has an archive of David Foster Wallace’s paper that is open to the public, has put online the six separate drafts for Chapter 9 of The Pale King, which takes the form of an “Author’s Forward.”

There is also an explanatory note from Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch.

It’s an interesting document simply to pore over and see what Wallace’s style of work looked like.

Ummmm . . .

I know, I know, it’s pointless to expect a review of The Pale King on Fresh Air to have any redeeming value, but still, there is bad and then there is bad.

John Powers’ piece would be the latter:

Writers love to grumble about the popularity of self-help books, yet they, like everyone else, are always looking for someone who will teach them how to live. Just think of all those guys who learned their masculinity from Hemingway or those classy-sounding books with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life or How To Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Pro tip: Don’t make it completely obvious that you don’t have even the most basic familiarity with the books you cite in your lede!

I just find it disappointing that a venue like NPR, which obviously has the resources to do much better, regularly pumps out book coverage of such low quality. And this is important stuff. Publishers completely love NPR because its coverage by far leads to the most sales of any venue. Lots of impressionable readers take NPR very seriously! If it actually had even mediocre book reviews a lot of good could be done.

But instead NPR listeners get nonsense like this:

Now, Wallace’s fiction isn’t always enjoyable. It reminds me of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, which can bore you comatose one minute and then, moments later, wow you with an epiphany that forever changes your way of thinking. Although his novels aren’t as emotionally satisfying as those of his friend Jonathan Franzen — the conventional Truffaut to his radical Godard — he was his generation’s genius, the voice other writers heard in their heads.

I’m getting a little tired of people peddling this idea of Wallace as a writer who was pretty painful to deal with but “worth it” for those rare flashes of insight. Whether or not you have this experience of his books, it’s just a dumb way to look at them. First of all, no one should read literary fiction for “an epiphany that forever changes your way of thinking.”

Why on earth would you read a book that mostly sucked except for some flashes of insight? But this is the idea of literature that is routinely being trotted out with The Pale King: Wallace as some kind of literary strip mine by which hardy readers managed to extract some useful life lessons. Is this really the view of literature that our nation has?

This view also completely contradicts the idea of Wallace as a writer of immense skill, which, of course, every hack dutifully calls him. If Wallace’s books were 50% dull crap and 50% epiphany, he’d be a mediocre writer in need of an editor. He wouldn’t be the greatest voice of his generation.

And then there’s this nonsense about his novels not being emotionally satisfying, another crime that lazy book reviewers like to tag Wallace with. I’m not going to bother to argue the merits of that one, but, again, why this bogus dichotomy between the “brainy” books and the “emotional” ones?

Why impoverish the idea of emotionality in literature by pigeonholing it into something like “a round character whose pain you can identify with”? To take just one example, I find Sebald to be an amazingly emotional read for the fact that he so expertly evokes the sensation of nostalgia (among others), despite having nothing resembling conventional “emotionality” in any of his books. Even if you were to admit that Wallace was cerebral to the point of ignoring character–and anyone who has read him at all knows that’s not the case–there are other ways his books could have been emotional.

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?

Popular Amazon Purchases, January – April 2011

As I do every so often on this site, time to run down popular purchases made on Amazon by readers of Conversational Reading. (For previous reader faves, see here.)

Here we go, in order to sales rank:

Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

No surprises that, by far, the most popular item purchased in the past few months has been the subject of the current Big Read. Thanks to everyone who is participating!

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Self-published phenom A Naked Singularity continues to be a popular book with readers of this site. And with The Quarterly Conversation previewing an excerpt from his new book, Personae, perhaps we’ll have another favorite.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Wallace fans are die-hards. Despite my reservations about this book, readers of this site are still snapping up Wallace’s final offering.

Zone by Mathias Enard

My endorsement of this massive, challenging French novel (and my interview with its translator) seems to have spurred some readers of this site. Good for them!

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin

This is one of the books I’ve featured on my Interesting New Books in 2011 page. Plus Sorokin is a pretty big deal, and this is probably his biggest and best book.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Chalk up another one to a combination of a big author and a listing on the Interesting Books page. But how ugly is this cover?

“A” by Louis Zukofsky

This one pretty clearly goes back to this post I did about “the Ulysses of poetry.”

The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes

I would attribute this to my interview with the book’s translator, and this blog’s great following among Barthesians everywhere.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer

Some recent discussion of this book plus a listing on the Interesting New Books page probably did the trick.

For previous reader faves, see here.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

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 . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

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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