Tag Archives: david foster wallace

Dyer Slams Wallace in Prospect

I have great admiration for Geoff Dyer as a critic, so I’m going to repress the urge to call this David Foster Wallace mini-takedown a contrived piece of literary critical theater. The fact is that he’s better than that. But the fact also is that this is all too predictable.

  • Hot new literary commodity hits the scene
  • Critics collectively bathe it in a flurry of gushy accolade
  • Grouchy critic comes along and tells them all to calm down
  • Instant controversy!
  • (And not to mention, Dyer is also on a book tour selling his latest book at the moment.)

This, minus the book tour, was pretty much exactly what happened with Freedom, and now with Pale King it’s beginning to feel very scripted, in the way that the latest season of Survivor, or Glee, or any other show purporting to depict an obviously constructed reality becomes predictable in its unpredictableness.

Anyway, grouchy tirade over. Dyer’s critique seems to have something to do with Wallace’s style, which he seems to think is excessively showy and gimmicky. Although he doesn’t really write enough to get very precise in his critique, so maybe he’ll follow this up some day with something more valid.

One other thing: it’s weirdly interesting that he finds “Host” an “apotheosis of unreadability,” since I’ve always considered that essay one of Wallace’s tightest. However, I have noticed many older friends of mine–even those who otherwise like Wallace–seem to think as Dyer does about “Host.” Maybe it’s a generational thing.

I guess it’s a question of tone. I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those “sort ofs” and “kind ofs” in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (“Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding”). Or the grunge affectation of the double “though” in: “There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…” It’s not that I dislike the extravagance, the excess, the beanie-baroque, the phat loquacity. They just bug the crap out of me. As do the obsessive parenthesising, insistent italicising, footnote-generating footnotes and typographical gimmickry that reaches a kind of apotheosis of unreadability in “Host,” from Consider the Lobster.

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Tom McCarthy on The Pale King

I hope you haven’t hit your 20-article limit yet, because Tom McCarthy’s review of The Pale King is very good.

I say “perhaps” and “seems” because a good portion of this framework comes in the final “Notes and Asides” section tacked onto the main, patently partial manuscript. Which brings me to the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward — properly and rigorously forward — in an age of data saturation. The Jesuit presents “the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the real world’s constituent info generated . . . now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling and organizing that torrential flow of info.” He could just as well be describing the task of the novelist, who, of course, is also “called to account.” It’s hard not to see in the poor pencil-pushers huddled at their desks an image of the writer — nor, given Wallace’s untimely end, to shudder when they contemplate suicide.

Lost childhood pools, by this reading, would constitute a kind of pastoral mode cached (or trashed) within the postmodern “systems” novel — which, in turn, is what the systems-within-systems I.R.S. really stands for. The issues of emotion and agency remain central, but are incorporated into a larger argument about the possibility or otherwise of these things within contemporary fiction. The data-psychic character Sylvanshine can glean trivia about anyone simply by looking at him, but is “weak or defective in the area of will.” Nor, due to endless digressions, can he complete anything. No one can; in “The Pale King,” nothing ever fully happens. That this is to a large extent a metaphor (for the novel in general, or this novel in particular) becomes glaringly obvious when we hear one unnamed character describe the play he’s writing, in which a character sits at a desk, doing nothing; after the audience has left, he will do something — what that “something” is, though, the play’s author hasn’t worked out yet.

Editing The Pale King

A pretty good article by longtime David Foster Wallace editor Michael Pietsch discussing how he put The Pale King together.

Other chapters are self‑contained and not part of any chronology. Arranging these freestanding sections has been the most difficult part of editing The Pale King. It became apparent as I read that David planned for the novel to have a structure akin to that of Infinite Jest, with large portions of apparently unconnected information presented to the reader before a main story line begins to make sense. In several notes to himself, David referred to the novel as “tornadic” or having a “tornado feeling” – suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high‑speed swirl. Most of the non‑chronological chapters have to do with daily life at the examination centre, with IRS practice and lore, and with ideas about boredom, repetition and familiarity. Some are stories from various unusual and difficult childhoods, whose significance gradually becomes clear. My aim in sequencing these sections was to place them so that the information they contain arrives in time to support the chronological story line. In some cases placement is essential to the unfolding story; in others it is a matter of pace and mood, as in siting short comic chapters between long serious ones.

The Pale King’s central story does not have a clear ending, and the question inevitably arises: how unfinished is this novel? How much more might there have been? This is unknowable in the absence of a detailed outline projecting scenes and stories yet to be written. Some notes among David’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plot substantially beyond the chapters here. One note says the novel is “a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens”. Another points out that there are three “high‑ end players . . . but we never see them, only their aides and advance men”. Still another suggests that throughout the novel “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen”. These lines could support a contention that the novel’s apparent incompleteness is in fact intentional. David ended his first novel in the middle of a line of dialogue and his second with large plot questions addressed only glancingly. One character in The Pale King describes a play he’s written in which a man sits at a desk, working silently, until the audience leaves, at which point the play’s action begins. But, he continues, “I could never decide on the action, if there was any”. In the section titled “Notes and Asides” at the end of the book I have extracted some of David’s notes about characters and story. These notes and lines from the text suggest ideas about the novel’s direc‑ tion and shape, but none strikes me as definitive. I believe that David was still exploring the world he had made and had not yet given it a final form.

Can Always Count on Lev

I see that the esteemed “critic” Lev Grossman makes that GQ article on Pale King look like a genius work.

“Despite its shattered state and its unpromising subject matter, or possibly because of them, The Pale King represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist,” says Lev Grossman in TIME. While much praise was heaped on Infinite Jest, that novel was at once “great” and “borderline unreadable.” With The Pale King, Wallace “achieves power levels… never reached in his first two novels.” It’s not perfect, given its tragic, unfinished circumstances, but it has “an emotionally raw quality” that’s missing in his other work.

So apparently morbid depression and suicide were the keys Wallace was lacking in the first two novels. For God’s sake, make it stop . . .

Essay on Wallace in GQ

This essay has been making the rounds. I’ve seen a lot of people say it is the best piece of Pale King coverage out there (admittedly, a pretty uninspiring lot so far). I think it’s a pretty bad essay. For instance:

What’s strange is that this was written in 1996—by then, Wallace had completed his genre-impacting second novel, Infinite Jest, as well as the stories, a couple already considered classic, in the collection Girl with Curious Hair.

I don’t really know what “genre-impacting” is supposed to mean (which genre? how?), nor am I sure which two stories are being referred to. Seems that someone who actually knows Wallace’s work, plus someone who hems and haws so much about how hard it is to explain Wallace in “this oversaturated mediascape” could have said something more distinct. Problem is, imprecise thoughts like this are all throughout this smarmy piece of writing.


His voice was regional in more than one sense—the fastidiousness about usage, for instance. Only midwesterners will waste time over the grammar of small talk with you; nowhere else, when you ask, “Can I get an iced tea?,” does anyone ever say, “I don’t know…can you?” And Wallace did think of himself as in some ways a regional writer—else he’d never have let the über-author photographer Marion Ettlinger take the well-known trench-coat-lion shot of him smiling wryly beside a waving cornfield.

I can think of a lot better ways to define Wallace as a “Midwestern” writer than as above. For the record, I heard the “can you” thing about a million times growing up in Southern California, perhaps as far as one can be from the Midwest.

And then there are profundities like this:

Fiction can only substitute the chaos of text for the chaos of talk. It replaces the mirrors in the hall with other mirrors.

Woe be the English lit major who puts this nonsense on her term paper.

Anyway, not really sure that I have a larger point other than this piece isn’t that great, and the people who claimed to me on Twitter that it is have led me astray.

The Logical David Foster Wallace

The Boston Review considers David Foster Wallace’s recently published thesis as well as his 2005 commencement address:

What Wallace did in his thesis—with the same understanding incisiveness of his later analyses of cruise ships, the porn industry, lobster biology, tennis, David Lynch, and a host of other matters—was show how to resist the seemingly compelling premises that led Taylor to that unhappy, fatalist conclusion. Wallace argues that Taylor has made a category mistake, presenting what is ultimately “a semantic argument for a metaphysical conclusion.” (Wallace is particularly good at unmasking the metaphysical arguments contained in or concealed by logical ones; years later, in his Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, he discussed how “implicit in all mathematical theories . . . is some sort of metaphysical position.”) Wallace can thus end on a lucid, heartening, and elegant note: “If Taylor and the fatalists want to force upon us a metaphysical conclusion, they must do metaphysics, not semantics. And this seems entirely appropriate.”

It’s a valiant effort, but it doesn’t really get beyond the fact that these two texts wouldn’t be very interesting except that they were written by David Foster Wallace. While I do support giving these posthumous Wallace texts a fair public hearing, most of what I’ve read indicates they’re not terribly great.

In my opinion The Pale King, the only one of these three that was ever even vaguely meant to be published in some way, will be by far the most interesting and worthy of attention.

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 lazenby.tumblr.com 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.


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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