Tag Archives: david foster wallace

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.”





Manuel Puig and the Performance of Personality

This is my second post of a promised series explaining why the postmodern Argentine author Manuel Puig demands to be read today. As a reminder, this is in part occasioned by the publication of The Buenos Aires Affair (with my introduction) the Dalkey Archive Press in August, a publication that caps off Dalkey’s placing three of Puig’s books back into print.

It’s a theory of mine that as Western society has progressively moved toward a more self-centered, free-expression based understanding of the individual, the creation of personality has become more and more your own responsibility. That’s kind of a long sentence, so, in other words: the greater absence of moral constraints and fixed social guidelines, the more freedom you have to define yourself. Responsibility for creating your personality becomes less an act of the community and more a personal choice dependent on trying on various selves to see which one fits best.

None of this is entirely new. There have always been seekers in Western society, and people have always been able to exercise some level of control as to their identity. What I would argue is new now is the degree to which identity-creation is thrust at you as a personal responsibility/obligation, and we have been given an unprecedented amount of leisure time and tools with which to try out these new personalities.

So where does Puig come into this? Continue Reading

New Wallace Book (Sort Of)

Despite the fact that it’s widely available online, the commencement speech David Foster Wallace presented at Kenyon College in 2005 will be published as a 150-page book by Little, Brown this spring:

While some rumors persist that there’s an unfinished novel David
Foster Wallace was working on before he died in September, at least one
work from the author is definitely on the horizon. Wallace’s publisher,
Little, Brown, is going to release This Is Water in April 2009, which is the address the author delivered at Kenyon College’s commencement in 2005.

The speech, which LB assistant director of publicity Marlena Bittner
called Wallace’s "only philosophical public address," was paraphrased
and quoted in various Web sites and blogs after the author died. The
edition of the speech from LB will be slightly under 150 pages
and feature illustrations throughout; the imprint is going to press
for an announced 40,000 copies.

I imagine those will be some hefty margins, as well as a generous number of illustrations. Either that, or LB will go the route Penguin did the JM Coetzee’s Nobel address, which was presented as a minature hardcover (although they could only stretch that to 32 pages).

Lost in the Funhouse

Lostinthefunhouse It was while reading DFW’s long story (novella, really) "Westward Goes the Course of Empire" (from Girl with Curious Hair) that I first heard of John Barth’s classic story, Lost in the Funhouse." DFW’s story itself was an attempt to destroy the world created by "Lost in the Funhouse;" in "Westward Goes," DFW referrs to "Lost in the Funhouse" as "the greatest metafictional story ever." Then I saw on Girl With Curious Hair’s copyright page that DFW tells us that portions of his collection were first scribbled in the margins of "Lost in the Funhouse."

I quickly realized there was a serious gap in my reading.

When my copy of Barth’s collection Lost in the Funhouse arrived, I first turned to the book’s seventh story, "Lost in the Funhouse." (Unlike some collections, Lost in the Funhouse is meant to be a cohesive whole, and you may even see some benefits to reading it all in order.) Some of Barth’s technique seemed somewhat dated (largely because so many writers were inspired to imitate the very story I was reading), but it was clear that I was in the presence of a master. Regardless of my familiarity with the metafictional aspects, the story was brilliantly conceived, a layered work that both captured the tried-and-true essentials of voice and plot while making implicit, profound points about writing and authorship.

Perhaps the most efficient way to describe "Lost in the Funhoues" is as follows: In the story Barth includes a diagram, with four points labeled A, B, C, and D. A corresponds to a story’s beginning, B it’s instigating incident, C it’s climax, and D its conclusion. Included at the beginning of Lost in the Funhouse is a strip of paper (the longest and shortest story ever). On one side are the words "ONCE UPON A TIME THERE" on the other side ""WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN". We are encouraged to cut the slip of paper out and connect points A, B, C, and D (labeled on the corners of the paper) to make a mobius strip. If you were to do that, the points A, B, C, and D on the strip would bear the same relationship to one another as do the points A, B, C, and D in "Lost in the Funhouse."

I’m finding the rest of this collection to fit this template in one way or another. Some of the stories here have the trappings of the conventional short story–plot, 3-D characters, symbols–but sure enough, Barth finds ways to subvert them (both subtlety and not-so-subtlety). Others of these stories are clearly written to challenge preconceived notions of what a short story is. One of them can have any one of 4 narrators (the 3 characters and Barth himself). Another one consists of the story telling itself.

All the pieces in this collection are united by the common goal of pushing the form forward, of a conscious attempt to not repeat what has come before. It’s an admirable goal, and history has clearly spoken as to whether Barth achieved it or not.

Hopefully, I’ll have time to write more about this collection in upcoming weeks. There’s lots here to talk about.

Previous readings.

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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