Tag Archives: pale king

A First Draft of Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max

We might develop a kind of spectrum of biographies. On one pole would be a book like In Cold Blood, where Truman Capote takes a largely unremarkable individual and tells his story so well as to make his subject into such a compelling person that he feels like a character in a novel. That is the gift of an author like Capote: deep psychological insight, an ability to draw profound conclusions about life and our world by investigating the story of an individual.

On the other end of this spectrum we would have a book like D.T. Max’s new biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. Max’s book is decent and worth reading (particularly if you are a fan of Wallace’s writing), but it is a book without much human or philosophical insight. Unlike In Cold Blood, we read this book more or less solely because its subject is a figure of much celebrity interest.

On the positive side, Max is clearly a diligent and able researcher. He’s dug up all sorts of interesting facts about Wallace and seems to even be familiar with his correspondence (at least with luminaries like Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo). There are lots of little gems in here, and I think this would constitute the main appeal for this book to Wallace fans and academics. The depth to which Wallace himself was an addict surprised me, as well as the extent to which fame really did seduce and then mangle him as a young writer who had an enormous amount of early success. These findings do put books like Infinite Jest into a new light.

The other thing to be said for this book is that it gives a reasonably good arc to Wallace’s life. Max has done a good job of corralling what must have been enormous amounts of information into a coherent account of who Wallace was. My main issue with this is that, while Max gets the shape of the narrative right, there is very little depth to it. There’s very little sense of Wallace as an actual human being, as opposed to a literary figure, and there’s little sense of how the forking paths of his life informed one another.

Max is clearly familiar with Wallace’s body of work and hits all the high points along the way. However, at times it feels that his interpretations of said works conform more to what his narrative for Wallace’s life needs to be than any idiosyncratic feelings on his own part. For instance, “Forever Overhead,” about a boy about to take a leap off a high-dive into a swimming pool, has long been one of my favorite of Wallace’s early stories. Here, it’s maligned as an conventionally realist work that Wallace only wrote to please his instructors in the University of Arizona’s MFA program. That may very well be true (it’s unlike most of the other work Wallace was doing at the time), but: 1) I have my doubts, and 2) it’s still a great story. At any rate, my point is that Max’s interpretations of Wallace’s works never really diverge from what the orthodoxy is and what his narrative needs. I never in this book found him claiming any sort of personal reaction to any of Wallace’s writing. his responses to Wallace’s writings are at their best when they give insight into how the writings were informed by Wallace’s personal life; but so far as interpretation goes, these are very much the “standard” interpretations of Wallace’s books, without a whole lot of depth. (For more idiosyncratic takes I recommend Who Was David Foster Wallace?, where seven writers give their own personal and critical takes on some of Wallace’s major work.)

A lot of my issues with this book can be understood by looking at its first lines: “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s. He was born in Ithica, New York, on February 21, 1962.” First of all, what a flat beginning to a bio of one of the greatest writers of our era. But more importantly, why is this the beginning of Wallace’s story? Why not start with the life of his mother, who Wallace battled with his whole life in ways that defined his addictions and his fiction? Why not start with the Midwest community that shaped him? Tennis? But then, after telling us that this is the start to Wallace’s story, Max fails to even describe the birth, giving the clear impression that he simply chose this as the “start” of Wallace’s story because it was the day on which he was born. This approach will characterize the pages that follow: a lot of well-researched facts hewn together into a reasonably cohesive narrative, but very little texture of Wallace’s life, and little thought as to the deeper implications of what is being claimed.

My other big issue with this book is that everything that happens after Infinite Jest is given short shrift. The part on Infinite Jest ends more or less on page 226, leaving Max 75 pages to fit in (not counting changes in his personal life, which were of course enormous): A Supposedly Fun Thing; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which barely even rates a mention); Everything and More (likewise); Consider the Lobster; The Pale King. Quite arguably, Wallace’s work after Infinite Jest makes up a much stronger, more consistent batch of writing than his work before, and it’s a serious flaw that Max’s bio gives the creation of this writing such perfunctory treatment. As Max rightly points out, these books were written at a time of considerable struggle for Wallace in which, after finishing his career-defining novel, he was unsure of where to travel next as a writer and was facing no shortage of personal struggles.

There are some specific issues that I have with Max’s takes on certain things, and overall I feel the book has too much of an anti-experimentalist bent to it, but I’ll save those for another day.

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.

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?

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.

As a reminder, if you’ve enjoyed this site, I’m asking for donations this week.

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 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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