Yet another copy of Infinite Jest (Book Acquired, 11.10.2014)

IMG_3928

I took my daughter to the bookstore today—she has the day off school—and let her pick out almost as many books as she wanted. (She had trouble carrying more than six, so that’s where we stopped).

Meandering out, I spied this 1997 paperback printing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (I love how UK trade paperback editions often seem blockierdenser, more squarish than US editions). Anyway, the book isn’t particular rare, even for a first edition, but I hadn’t seen it before (even a pic). I took a quick pic and walked away.

And then walked back of the copy of IJ after purchasing my daughter’s books—only to say to myself in a reasonable voice, No, you already own a copy, no, no, you don’t need another book, especially one you’ve already read, already own. So I walked out of the store with my daughter.

And then went back inside to buy it (or rather use my trade credit—swollen from unasked-for review copies of books I have no interest in—to acquire it).

I have no sentimental attachments to the ubiquitous beclouded-covered copy I bought a few years ago (purchased to replace a copy I did like (one with annotations, one I actually wished I still had) that I had lent to a friend who never read it or returned it (and then moved))—so maybe I’ll give it away or take it to my office or something.

About these ads

Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business.

2976326_orig

Nature’s Nightmare, A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (Book Acquired, 10.12.2013)

20131013-093333.jpg

I was psyched when Greg Carlisle’s Nature’s Nightmare: Analyzing David Foster Walalce’s Oblivion showed up in the mail. (You might recall Carlisle as the author of Elegant Complexity, a study of Infinite Jest). Blurb from publisher Slideshow Media Group:

Carlisle gives an in-depth narrative analysis of each story: “Mr. Squishy,” “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” “Incarnations of Burned Children,” “Another Pioneer,” “Good Old Neon,” “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” “Oblivion,” and “The Suffering Channel.” Carlisle’s methodical approach walks readers through Wallace’s thematic interests and situates Oblivion in the broader arc of Wallace’s career. Every passage of each story is analyzed in terms of 1) interrelation of narrative form and content, 2) relation of story to the theme of oblivion, 3) recurring thematic motifs in Wallace’s work, and 4) assessment of content in relation to Infinite Jest and The Pale King. The book includes nine charts that illustrate narrative devices Wallace employs throughout the stories. Jason Kottke called Elegant Complexity the reference book for Infinite Jest and now Nature’s Nightmare is the primary reference work for Oblivion.

I read the introduction and first chapter, covering “Mr. Squishy,” this weekend, and Carlisle’s perceptive analysis made me want to reread the story. Of course, I had to scan over the chapter for “Good Old Neon,” maybe my favorite Wallace story and arguably his best piece of writing. Here’s the diagram from that chapter (did I neglect to mention that there are diagrams?):

20131013-093341

Full review forthcoming.

 

“I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me.”

If I had first encountered Anaïs Nin by reading a quote of hers about love or dreams or fulfilling your potential or massaging your inner child superimposed on an insufferably twee image, I would never have picked up her wonderful remarkably-transgressive books. Perhaps this shows the shortsightedness of my own prejudices but it’s still not a fair or substantial representation of her work. What I want when I encounter Anaïs Nin is Anaïs Nin, not a therapist or a motivational speaker. The same goes for Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or David Foster Wallace or any of the other incandescently brilliant writers whose writing has recently been cherry-picked and repackaged as glorified self-help tracts. The quotes are certainly theirs, being culled from diaries, journals, speeches and interviews (with the double meaning of culled being entirely apt). The sentiments may well be true. Yet it seems to me duplicitous because the quotes have been carefully selected to fit a pre-existing agenda – us. I am a ludicrously solipsistic and selfish person but even I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me. At the risk of impertinence, if I chance upon someone using the currently virulent “there is actually no such thing as atheism” quote by Foster Wallace out of context to bash atheists (ignoring its implicit ‘worship God precisely because He is so ineffectual He can’t harm you’ angle) with no further interest in his writing or life, I’m going to nail a copy of Infinite Jest to their collective forehead.

—From an essay that had me enthusiastically mumbling yes the whole way, “Albert Camus and the ventriloquists” by Darran Anderson. Read it.

Six (More) Stoner Novels (And a Bonus Short Story)

A few years ago, to celebrate 4/20, Sam Munson at the Daily Beast wrote an article praising “The Best Stoner Novels.” Not a bad list—Wonder Boys, sure, Invisible Man, a bit of a stretch, The Savage Detectives, a very big stretch, but sure, why not. Anyway, six more stoner novels (not that we advocate the smoking of the weed)—

Junkie, William Burroughs

Burroughs’s (surprisingly lucid) early novel Junkie may take its name from heroin, but it’s full of weed smoking. Lesson: weed smoking leads to heroin. And the inevitable search for yage.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Doc Sportello, the wonky PI at the off-center of Pynchon’s California noir, is always in the process of lighting another joint, if not burning his fingers on the edges of a roach. A fuzzy mystery with smoky corners.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Hal Incandenza, protagonist of Wallace’s opus, spends much of his time hiding in the tunnels of Enfield Tennis Academy, feeding his bizarre marijuana addiction, which is, in many ways, more of an addiction to a secret ritual than to a substance. Hal’s hardly the only character in IJ who likes his Mary Jane; there’s a difficult section near the novel’s beginning that features a minor character preparing to go on a major weed binge. His pre-smoking anxiety works as a challenge to any reader seeking to enter the world of Infinite Jest.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m pretty sure “pipe-weed” isn’t tobacco.

Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem

I kind of hated Chronic City, a novel where characters seem to light up joints on every other page. It seems to have been written in an ambling, rambling fog, absent of any sense of immediacy, urgency, or, uh, plot. Bloodless stuff, but, again, very smoky.

Stoner, John Williams

Okay. Stoner has nothing to do with marijuana. But, hey, it’s called Stoner, right?

Bonus short story: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Carver’s classic story features a myopic narrator who comes up against his own shortcomings when he meets an old friend of his wife, a blind man who ironically sees deeper than he does. After drinking too much booze, they spark up, share a doob, and take in a documentary about European cathedrals. Great stuff.


Cage III — Free Show (Infinite Jest)

Cage III — Free Show. B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions/Infernatron Animation Concepts, Canada. Cosgrove Watt, P. A. Heaven, Everard Maynell, Pam Heath; partial animation; 35 mm.; 65 minutes; black and white; sound.

The figure of Death (Heath) presides over the front entrance of a carnival sideshow whose spectators watch performers undergo unspeakable degradations so grotesquely compelling that the spectators’ eyes become larger and larger until the spectators themselves are transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs, while on the other side of the sideshow tent the figure of Life (Heaven) uses a megaphone to invite fairgoers to an exhibition in which, if the fairgoers consent to undergo unspeakable degradations, they can witness ordinary persons gradually turn into gigantic eyeballs.

INTERLACE TELENT FEATURE CARTRIDGE #357-65-65

From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

“Your first nightmare away from home” (Infinite Jest)

Your first nightmare away from home and folks, your first night at the Academy, it was there all along: The dream is that you awaken from a deep sleep, wake up suddenly damp and panicked and are overwhelmed with the sudden feeling that there is a distillation of total evil in this dark strange subdorm room with you, that evil’s essence and center is right here, in this room, right now. And is for you alone. None of the other little boys in the room are awake; the bunk above yours sags dead, motionless; no one moves; no one else in the room feels the presence of something radically evil; none thrash or sit damply up; no one else cries out: whatever it is is not evil for them. The flashlight your mother name-tagged with masking tape and packed for you special pans around the institutional room: the drop-ceiling, the gray striped mattress and bulged grid of bunksprings above you, the two other bunkbeds another matte gray that won’t return light, the piles of books and compact disks and tapes and tennis gear; your disk of white light trembling like the moon on water as it plays over the identical bureaus, the recessions of closet and room’s front door, door’s frame’s bolections; the cone of light pans over fixtures, the lumpy jumbles of sleeping boys’ shadows on the snuff-white walls, the two rag throw-rugs’ ovals on the hardwood floor, black lines of baseboards’ reglets, the cracks in the Venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, Inter-Lace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil.

And then its mouth opens at your light.

And then you wake like that, quivering like a struck drum, lying there awake and quivering, summoning courage and spit, roll to the right just as in the dream for the nametagged flashlight on the floor by the bed just in case, lie there on your shank and side, shining the light all over, just as in the dream. Lie there panning, looking, all ribs and elbows and dilated eyes. The awake floor is littered with gear and dirty clothes, blond hardwood with sealed seams, two throw-rugs, the bare waxed wood shiny in the windows’ snowlight, the floor neutral, faceless, you cannot see any face in the floor, awake, lying there, faceless, blank, dilated, playing beam over floor again and again, not sure all night forever unsure you’re not missing something that’s right there: you lie there, awake and almost twelve, believing with all your might.

From David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I Anti-Review Evan Lavender-Smith’s Anti-Novel, From Old Notebooks

20130202-121935.jpg

The style of this review is probably a bad idea.

In fact, it’s such a bad idea that it’s probable someone has already done it. Or considered doing it but had the good sense to refrain.

From Old Notebooks as the presentation of a subject through his daily jotting downs.

To clarify: All block quotes—like the one above—belong to Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.

Which I read twice last month.

And am writing about here.

From Old Notebooks: A Novel: An Essay.

From Old Notebooks: An Essay: A Novel.

From Old Notebooks blazons its anxiety of influence: Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Shakespeare.

Joycespeare.

References, critiques, ideas about Joyce, DFW, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche repeatedly evince in From Old Notebooks—and yet David Markson, whose format E L-S so clearly borrows, is evoked only thrice—and not until page 74 (this in a book of 201 pages):

I count David Markson’s literary-anecdote books among the few things I want to read over and over again, yet I have no idea whether they are actually any good. They’re like porn for English majors.

And then again on page 104:

If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would I have ever thought to consider F.O.N. a novel? Would I have ever thought to write such a book?

(I should point out that the page numbers I cite are from Dzanc Book’s first edition of From Old Notebooks; Dzanc’s 2012 printing puts the book back in print).

Like Markson’s anti-novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel), E L-S’s F.O.N. is constantly describing itself.

There may be some question as to F.O.N.’s status as fiction, poetry, philosophy, nonfiction, etc., but hopefully there will be no question about its status as a book.

Is E L-S’s book postmodern? Post-postmodern?

Perhaps there is nothing quintessentially postmodern about the self-reflexivity, fragmentation and pastiche of F.O.N., if only because all of it follows from form.

From Old Notebooks as a document constantly performing its self-critique:

If there were a Viking Portable Lavender-Smith containing an abridgment of F.O.N., I would be very interested to read it, because there’s no reason that the total value of the book wouldn’t be gained, through editorial happenstance, with much greater efficiency.

From Old Notebooks as a document of authorial anxiety.

A reader could make a case that there are a number of elided texts within or suggested by From Old Notebooks, including the one that gives the author the authority to write such a book.

F.O.N. is also a generative text, bustling with ideas for short stories, novels, plays, films, pamphlets, somethings—it is E L-S’s notebook after all (maybe). Just one very short example—

Novel about a haunted cryonics storage facility.

F.O.N.’s story ideas reminded me of my favorite Fitzgerald text, his Notebooks.

Reading From Old Notebooks is a pleasurable experience.

Personal anecdote on the reading experience:

Reading the book in my living room, my daughter and wife enter and begin doing some kind of mother-daughter yoga. My wife asks if they are distracting me from reading. I suggest that the book doesn’t work that way. The book performs its own discursions.

I shared the tiniest morsel here of my family; E L-S shares everything about his family in F.O.N.:

I know that the reconciliation of my writing life and my family life is one of the things that F.O.N. is finally about, but I can’t actually see it in the book; I don’t imagine I could point to an entry and say, Here is an example of that.

It would be impossible for me not to relate to the character of the author or novelist or narrator of F.O.N. (let me call him E L-S as a simple placeholder): We’re about the same age, we both have a son and a daughter (again of similar ages); we both teach composition. Similar literary obsessions. Etc. After reading through F.O.N. the first time I realized how weird it was that I didn’t feel contempt and jealousy for what E L-S pulls off in F.O.N.—that I didn’t hate him for it. That I felt proud of him (why?) and liked him.

There are moments where our obsessions diverge; the E L-S of F.O.N. is preoccupied with death to an extent that I simply don’t connect to. He:

1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about death.

I:

1) Think always about sex. 2) Have a family. 3) Think always about sex.

But generally I get and feel and empathize with his descriptions of his son and daughter and wife.

And his work. Big time:

Getting up the motivation to grade student essays is like trying to pass a piece of shit through the eye of a needle.

Or

I have perfected my lecture after giving it for the third time, but my fourth class never gets to realize it because my voice is hoarse and I’m so tired from giving the same lecture four times in one day, so their experience of my perfect lecture at 8-9:40 PM is of approximately equal value to that of my students receiving my imperfect lecture at 8-9:40 AM, as well as my students at 2:30-3:55 and 5:30-7:10—and it all evens out to uniform mediocrity in the end.

The novel is not jaded or cynical or death-obsessed though (except when it is).

What E L-S is trying to do is to remove as much of the barrier between author and reader as possible:

Contemporary authors who construct a thick barrier between themselves and their readers such that authorial vulnerability is revealed negatively, i.e., via the construction of the barrier.

Perhaps my suggestion that E L-S tries to remove the barrier is wrong. Maybe instead: E L-S’s F.O.N. maps the barrier, points to the barrier’s structure, does not try to deny the barrier, but also tries to usher readers over it, under it, through its gaps—-and in this way channels a visceral reality that so much of contemporary fiction fails to achieve.

I really, really liked this book and will read it again.

 

D.T. Max and James Wood Talk About David Foster Wallace

“Every lengthy, literary novel that has been published since Infinite Jest lives in its shadow” — Matt Bucher on David Foster Wallace

When Infinite Jest was published in 1996 and David Foster Wallace set the literary world on fire, he was the epitome of cool. He looked like Ethan Hawke and Kurt Cobain’s brother—and he was authentic, not just some poseur. And his talent could blow your mind; he was bona fide, high-brow literary, and important people called him a genius because they couldn’t think of a better word. Every lengthy, “literary” novel that has been published since Infinite Jest lives in its shadow. Is Adam Levin the next David Foster Wallace? Marisha Pessl? Zadie Smith? Eugenides? Is House of Leaves as good as Infinite Jest? How does Freedom or Witz compare? Safran Foer? Who is the female DFW? The thing is, at that moment, Wallace could have taken another direction. He could’ve gone on The Today Show or Good Morning America or been on a billboard in Times Square. He could’ve done some self-promotion and become the most famous young writer in America. But it’s not like he turned Pynchon and disappeared—he struggled with his gift and the image of himself. He winced on Charlie Rose and then went back to teaching in Illinois.

Do yourself a favor and read Matt Bucher’s essay “Consider the Year of David Foster Wallace.

 

Why I’m Not Particularly Interested in Reading a DFW Biography

(Think about it — the personal lives of most people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.)

–David Foster Wallace on literary biography in general and Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life in particular; from “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.

William Beutler Talks with Biblioklept About Mapping David Foster Wallace’s Novel Infinite Jest

For the past few years, D.C.-based artist William Beutler has been mapping the real and fictional locations of David Foster Wallace’s giant novel Infinite Jest in a project called Infinite Atlas, a Google Maps-based guide to over 600 locations described in Infinite Jest. Beutler’s project has sprawled (appropriately) to include several dimensions, including Infinite Map (shown above), which identifies and describes 250 locations from the novel and Infinite Boston, a travel blog of sorts that documents and reflects on Beutler’s Wallace-based trip to Boston. Beutler was kind enough to talk to me about his projects over a series of emails.

Biblioklept: How did the Infinite Atlas project start?

William Beutler: I think, like a lot of long-term projects, I’d point to a few different points of inspiration. The first is just going back and reading Infinite Jest for a second time in 2009, after I’d say it went from being a favorite novel to my actual favorite novel.  I’d also become interested in infographics, I suppose as a kind of art form based on the expression of data—and what better stockpile of data than a thousand-page, encyclopedic novel? I cycled through a lot of ideas, finding that some of them had already been done before, and then finally deciding to focus on geography.

Biblioklept: How did the geography focus come about?

WB: The geography focus owes to a few different things. One is simply that I wasn’t the first to arrive at the idea of creating an infographic based on Infinite Jest, so I had to take that into consideration. Sam Potts, who is the designer of John Hodgman’s books, had released an elaborate graphic drawing connections between the various characters in the novel. I’d been considering that when his came out, but he did that pretty definitively, so I went with one oft he other. And hey, I just like maps. I started my career in political journalism, where districts are always being redrawn, and maps are always being shaded this much red or this much blue, so it was a natural focus in that regard. And there’s always been something I’ve liked about adding a layer of information to geographic features. I don’t know that I could have credibly called myself a geography enthusiast before this—but I have friends who definitely are, and even some who work with GIS professionally. They helped me figure out what I was doing.

Biblioklept: Did you consciously start using Google Maps? Was Google Maps a starting point in and of itself or just a tool?

A shot of Infinite Map in development

WB: Google Maps was probably one of the very last decisions we made. And all the web development was relatively late in the process, starting about early summer of this year. Most of the work before that was simply building the database, which lived in Google Docs for most of this research period. The decision to use Google Maps wasn’t necessarily random, although I had actually made an early conscious decision to not use it. I’d suggested Open Street Maps, partly because I like open source projects, and Foursquare had switched to it, which seemed like a noteworthy endorsement. But my developers said Google Maps was going to be less time-consuming, and less expensive, and I was willing to take this advice.

Biblioklept: Can you talk a bit about how you put the atlas together? What was your approach? How did you start?

WB: In the very early going, it was as simple and painstaking as going page-by-page through the book, scanning each one for proper nouns, and taking notes down in Google Docs. This was myself and another friend who had read the book, Olly Ruff, who is one of the credited editorial advisers. We debated what really counted as a “location”—Orin’s “Norwegian deep-tissue therapist” lives “1100 meters up in the Superstition Mountains,” overlooking Mesa-Scottsdale. So is that one location, or two?And once we realized we had so many locations, this was about the time I realized the original idea, which was just the map, was not going to be the comprehensive accounting for the novel’s locations I had imagined. Once I decided we had to explore an interactive version as well, then we had to decide which locations were just going on the map, and how many. Then we had to figure out where certain locations were actually located, and that was a considerable amount of research as well. Sometimes it was very obvious-—Harvard Square is very easy to find, but some places I didn’t even know were real until I visited Boston. We also had to figure out how to show both the scope of North America alongside the detail of central Boston, and this just took an agonizingly long time. This is where some of my friends who worked with maps for a living proved helpful. The further into this I got, the bigger of a project it kept revealing itself to be. And since the point of no return was never clear, I just kept at it, never entirely sure how long it would all take, until we actually started working with designers.

Biblioklept: How did actually visiting Boston help to inform the project?

WB: About a year into the research, I realized that I was hitting a wall with some of the local details in Boston, which has the greatest concentration of locations of anywhere in the novel. More specifically, the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton already kind of run together, and then Wallace invented a whole new unincorporated community called Enfield, where most of the primary characters live, and its relationship to Allston-Brighton was very confusing. The trip helped me get a better sense for what was Enfield and what was Brighton, although there’s only textual support for boundary lines to the east and south.Also regarding certain locations, I knew the Brighton Marine hospital complex was the basis for Enfield Marine, and I knew that the hill behind it was where the Enfield Tennis Academy would be, if it existed, but Google Maps and Google Street View have some pretty obvious limitations. So putting boots on the ground was really the only way to be sure about some of these places. I was surprised by some things I found: there’s a “Professional Building” mentioned as being at one intersection when it’s really another, which I had no idea until I walked right up to it. And the Infinite Boston Tumblr simply couldn’t have existed without the trip, but the trip was also absolutely necessary for getting a lot of details right for Infinite Atlas and Infinite Map.

Biblioklept: How long have you been working on the Infinite Boston blog?

WB: The Boston trip was in July 2011, and the notion of doing a Tumblr travelogue to the project was probably in the back of my head at the time, but I didn’t really start thinking about seriously doing it until earlier this year. I’d been sifting through the photos—I came back with about 4,000—since then, and in the spring I started making decisions about what I had acceptable photos of, and what I had enough to write about, then I started planning the sequence in June, and putting together notes in early July. And though I had quite a few entries planned out weeks in advance to begin with, these days I’m finishing them the night before, or up to the last few minutes before publishing.

Biblioklept: The Infinite projects clearly will resonate with fans of Wallace’s novel. What do you hope they take away from your work?

Portrait of the artist

WB: I can’t begin to tell you the number of people who’ve told me they started Infinite Jest, and gave up after making it a surprisingly long way through it. One friend of mine spent the better part of a decade having read to at least page 600 before finally finishing it earlier this year. (He ended up helping out as a backup researcher.) I’ve heard it said that the book doesn’t really start coming together until about 400 pages, and it’s been much too long since I first read it for me to remember, but I know the feeling  of hopelessness that goes along with struggling early in a long novel (I’m still working myself back up to revisiting Gravity’s Rainbow and Europe Central…). I think a project like this can serve as a kind of promise to the uninitiated that there really is something here that people feel very strongly about, that it rewards the effort one must put into it. There’s much more to it than just being a hipster status symbol. And then I think it can help those who are reading it, both to confirm details they may have misread the first time or—better still—to make connections they might never have made without this kind of tool. And of course to visualize it as David Foster Wallace surely did, if they’re so inclined. That said, I’m not sure the Atlas is a resource I would have consulted when I first read the book. I tend to be very spoiler-sensitive, oftentimes purposefully going into a novel or a film or television series trying to know as little as possible. Of course, I know now that Infinite Jest can’t be “ruined” by knowing about a particular story arc, and I’m sure that others so wracked with fear over knowing that two storylines connect, so I hope they’ll find this a useful resource.

Biblioklept: I’m curious if you’ve read Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory?

WB: I have not actually read any Houellebecq; I’m primarily familiar with him for various controversies, and I do remember the allegations that he had plagiarized Wikipedia for The Map and the Territory, and the possibility then that his book would be judged a Creative Commons-licensed work. Anyhow, I am familiar with the map-territory relationship as described by Alfred Korzybski, and Infinite Jest was my introduction to it. I think it’s very relevant here, not that anyone would necessarily mistake the atlas as anything but a supplement to the novel. Actually, one of my early working titles for the project was “Map / Territory,” and the website includes a kind of epigraph, taken from the Eschaton section: “The real world’s what the map here stands for!”

Biblioklept: I figured the Eschaton episode clearly resonated with your project. What sections or characters of IJ stand out as favorites to you?

WB: Believe it or not, Eschaton was one of the last location segments that I added to the Atlas. Early on we’d focused on real places where scenes actually took place, or references to North American locations that fell inside the confines of the map. And Chris Ayers of Poor Yorick Entertainment had already made a pretty nifty Eschaton infographic, so I was hesitant to do too much with that. But it became clear that we were going to take a maximalist approach, and really locate absolutely everything that could be located, so then I went through and included everything from Eschaton as best I could.If I had to name a favorite section, it might be the very last, with Gately and Fackelman holed up with Mt. Dilaudid, avoiding the wrath of Whitey Sorkin. It’s just beautifully written, and for whatever criticisms anyone might still make about the novel lacking a proper ending plot-wise, it makes perfect sense emotionally. In close contention, though, is Gately’s first chapter, about the disastrous burglary in a “wildly upscale part of Brookline” that turns his life around. It’s the first section in the story really that took my breath away—that or I was holding my breath waiting in vain for a paragraph break to exhale. Anyway, the unsurprising answer regarding my favorite character is Don Gately. He’s maybe DFW’s single greatest creation.

Biblioklept: I agree with you on Gately being Wallace’s greatest achievement—I love the sections you mention as well. I think many people who can’t get into IJ probably don’t get to that burglary/toothbrush episode quick enough.

WB: I don’t know, the number of people who have made it to halfway or further and then still give up, just speaking anecdotally, is staggering. I’ve personally given up on much shorter books, which is probably every book I’ve given up on, considering I haven’t bothered to try Imperial or some of Vollmann’s other longer stuff. Plus, it’s not like there isn’t grabby material early on: the “where was the woman who said she’d come” scene with Erdedy is very dense, but I think immediately rewarding in a way some of the Hal and Orin material up front is not. And there’s no way around the fact it’s just a months-long project in a way few novels are.

Biblioklept: Have you had any response from Wallace’s estate about your project?

WB: I haven’t, nor have I solicited any. In development on the project, I had considered reaching out to Bonnie Nadell, but I didn’t really know what I’d be asking. This wasn’t going to be the first infographic project or fan art based on the book, so I didn’t think permission was an issue. A friend had offered to put me in contact with D.T. Max, if I needed, but I didn’t want to bother him, either. The most response I’ve had is two retweets and one reblog from whomever’s running social media for Little, Brown, and it’s more than I would have asked for.

Biblioklept: Do you have another project on the horizon after this one?

WB: To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m totally done with Infinite Jest yet. I’m still writing Infinite Boston on a daily basis through the end of this month, and we’re actually putting in some further refinements on the Infinite Atlas website. Besides that, I’d been editing a very short film when I turned to focus on this, so I’d like to complete that now. And I’m sure this isn’t my last map, either.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

WB: Haha, that’s a great question. And the answer is yes. One that comes to mind in particular I found in a teacher’s lounge in the j-school at the University of Oregon, where I worked and never quite completed my journalism double major. And I don’t have it handy—I’m afraid I’ve left stolen property on a shelf at my parents’ house—but it was called something like The Declining American Newspaper and its publication date could have been no later than 1965. Even when I found it, this was still early days of the Internet. I wasn’t sure whether it was prophetic or preposterous, which is basically why I pocketed it. Less a book, more a conversation piece. Next visit, I’ll try to make partial amends by actually reading it.

Infinite Map Depicts the Geography of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

 

A description of Infinite Map from artist/creator William Beutler’s site, Infinite Boston:

A geographic infographic poster depicting the “territorially reconfigured North America” of the novel and identifying 250 of the most interesting locations with a color-coded dot and corresponding footnote. As you can see from the acromegalic thumbnail above, the 24”x36” print includes four telescoping map insets: O.N.A.N.’s North America, Northeast U.S. & Canada, Greater Boston and Metro Boston. The red shading represents my own painstaking, overdetermined conclusions about the most probable outline of the Great Concavity. In the upper right corner is the Great Seal of O.N.A.N., based on the description from page 153, and the map labels throughout include sometimes-obscure references to the novel’s the text. This image is the principal result of a long-term collaboration between myself and the Los Angeles-based creative design agency JESS3, whose technical ability and patience with yrstruly knows no bounds.

Biblioklept will run an interview with Beutler about his graphic work with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest next week.

I Review Neal Stephenson’s Zany, Prescient Novel Snow Crash (And Comment on the Impending Film Adaptation)

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash opens with an extended scene in which the book’s protagonist races to deliver a pizza on time for the mafia. The scene is thrilling and ridiculous, establishing the book’s frenetic, ironic tone and painting a rough outline of Snow Crash’s milieu. Like  many sprawling works of speculative fiction, Snow Crash is more interested in rendering its milieu in vibrant, hyperkinetic color than it is concerned with delivering plot and character development. Snow Crash’s plot is the sort of joyfully convoluted careening mess that makes a reviewer (okay, this reviewer) shudder at the thought of having to successfully paraphrase, so I’m not even going to make an earnest effort. Let’s get to that milieu and the cartoon characters who inhabit it.

Snow Crash is set in the early 21st century, primarily in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of the United States. Actually, there isn’t much of a United States to speak of, really—and not even a municipal Los Angeles, per se. Instead, the terrain is totally privatized. Privatized roads, privatized spaces. People (who can afford to) live in franchised burbclaves protected by hired mercenaries or private militias or robots that keep out the undesirables. (The white folks who live in New South Africa want “racial purity,” while some franchise nations, like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong are open to anyone who can trade information). Authority is for sale. Conditions are so laissez-faire that the Mafia is truly a Legitimate Business now (complete with their own CosaNostra Pizza University). In fact, all business is legitimate; several times in Snow Crash, a character will refer to “the old days when they had laws.” Without regulation, hyperinflation is the norm; the homeless use trillion-dollar bills to light their campfires.

There’s a hard-edged griminess to the world Stephenson conjures in Snow Crash, but the book is never grim or dour, and instead embraces the anarchic-capitalism it proposes. Perhaps this is because Stephenson’s heroes are such radically exceptional people. The book’s hero is named Hiro Protagonist, the kind of Pynchonian goof that characterizes Snow Crash’s zany tone. Hiro meets the book’s other protagonist, a fifteen year old blonde who goes by Y.T. (“Yours Truly,” although most of the folks tend to hear “whitey”). Y.T. is a Kourier, a skateboarding delivery person who harpoons vehicles to catch a free ride. She helps Hiro deliver that pizza in the opening scene and the two team up after Hiro gives her his business card. It reads: “Last of the Freelance Hackers  / Greatest swordfighter in the world  / Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation. Specializing in Software related Intel. (Music, Movies & Microcode.)” Did I neglect to mention that Hiro carries two samurai swords with him wherever he goes?

Hiro’s pretty handy with those swords, but his real skill is hacking, and he spends a good deal of time in the Metaverse, a virtual reality-based internet space where avatars go to bars and chat and sell &c. It’s sort of like a mix between Facebook and World of War Craft. In 1992 (earlier, I suppose), Stephenson’s way ahead of the curve. Here, he describes avatars:

Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment.  If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful.  If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup.  You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse.  Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

There are plenty of passages like this, where Stephenson pegs some aspect of internet culture ten years before it actually happens. (I couldn’t help but think about Wikipedia during Hiro’s conversations with a program called Librarian). It’s probably fair to say that the Wachowskis lifted as much from Snow Crash as they did from William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogies.

While I’m there, I might as well lazily point out that Snow Crash would fit neatly at home on a shelf with Neuromancer or Mona Lisa Overdrive. There’s also a heavy dose of Philip K. Dick weirdness in Snow Crash, particularly when the book settles into its major metaphysical plot about ancient Sumerian gods and goddesses and linguistic viruses and the Tower of Babel. Stephenson’s Snow Crash is zanier than William Gibson’s dark depictions or Dick’s mindmelted milieux, and it would hardly do to call what he does here light—but there is something joyful, playful about his satire. I invoked Pynchon earlier and I’ll do it again; parts of Snow Crash also reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest. Both IJ and SC obsess over the minutest details of speculative technologies and how people might react to such technologies. This is often what sets Snow Crash heads and shoulders above run of the mill cyberpunk. In just one instance, Stephenson parodies the language of bureaucratic speech at length; Y.T.’s mom, who works for what’s left of the Federal Government, is subjected to a memo about toilet paper usage that goes on for pages. The passage is hilarious, and adds absolutely nothing to the plot development—it simply helps to flesh out the contours of the world that Stephenson has imagined.

All of this detailed imagining unfortunately comes at the expense of a plot that only coheres through massive exposition dumps. About a third of the way into the novel, the major conflict is finally established, but only through a dialog between Hiro and the Librarian that reads almost like a catechism. As the book reaches its climax, Hiro actually explains what’s going on to a few of the other major characters—and the reader, of course. It’s a cringe-worthy moment, the sort of rhetorical weakness that smacks of genre fiction; even worse, the plot’s action ultimately hangs on some fairly basic hoary old tropes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever played a video game. The book lags under a juvenile obsession with weapons and badassery in general. And the book’s resolution . . . well, let’s just say that Stephenson sticks the ending, but it all feels too pat and too slight after the dazzling weight of the world that he’s established. Still, at its finest, Stephenson’s prose is zippy, shining, hilarious stuff, and his employment of multiple character perspectives moves the book with an addictive energy. Snow Crash is beach reading for folks who like some humor with their dystopia.

A film adaptation of Snow Crash is supposedly going into production soon, with British director Joe Cornish taking charge. I liked Cornish’s last film Attack the Block, and Snow Crash clearly has a highly-imagistic, cinematic feel to it—but I think a film is not the way to go. Simply put, Snow Crash is too big, too larded with characters and details (so many that I failed to touch on in this review) to translate well onscreen. I think an eight part miniseries on HBO (or a similar network) would be perfect, even if it came at the expense of special effects—-a miniseries would give the filmmakers time to build Stephenson’s nuanced world. I’m afraid otherwise we’ll get a travesty like the adaptation of The Golden Compass, or something like The Hunger Games film, where all but the most basic plot points are elided. But I suppose a miniseries is not as lucrative as a blockbuster film. I hope the filmmakers at least split the book in two. In any case, I’ll be interested to check out the results.

Six (More) Stoner Novels (And a Bonus Short Story)

A few years ago, to celebrate 4/20, Sam Munson at the Daily Beast wrote an article praising “The Best Stoner Novels.” Not a bad list—Wonder Boys, sure, Invisible Man, a bit of a stretch, The Savage Detectives, a very big stretch, but sure, why not. Anyway, six more stoner novels (not that we advocate the smoking of the weed)—

Junkie, William Burroughs

Burroughs’s (surprisingly lucid) early novel Junkie may take its name from heroin, but it’s full of weed smoking. Lesson: weed smoking leads to heroin. And the inevitable search for yage.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Doc Sportello, the wonky PI at the off-center of Pynchon’s California noir, is always in the process of lighting another joint, if not burning his fingers on the edges of a roach. A fuzzy mystery with smoky corners.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Hal Incandenza, protagonist of Wallace’s opus, spends much of his time hiding in the tunnels of Enfield Tennis Academy, feeding his bizarre marijuana addiction, which is, in many ways, more of an addiction to a secret ritual than to a substance. Hal’s hardly the only character in IJ who likes his Mary Jane; there’s a difficult section near the novel’s beginning that features a minor character preparing to go on a major weed binge. His pre-smoking anxiety works as a challenge to any reader seeking to enter the world of Infinite Jest.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m pretty sure “pipe-weed” isn’t tobacco.

Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem

I kind of hated Chronic City, a novel where characters seem to light up joints on every other page. It seems to have been written in an ambling, rambling fog, absent of any sense of immediacy, urgency, or, uh, plot. Bloodless stuff, but, again, very smoky.

Stoner, John Williams

Okay. Stoner has nothing to do with marijuana. But, hey, it’s called Stoner, right?

Bonus short story: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Carver’s classic story features a myopic narrator who comes up against his own shortcomings when he meets an old friend of his wife, a blind man who ironically sees deeper than he does. After drinking too much booze, they spark up, share a doob, and take in a documentary about European cathedrals. Great stuff.


The Pale King Paperback (Book Acquired, 4.07.2012)

20120411-174813.jpg

I was happy to get a trade paperback of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King this weekend (thanks Hachette!) for a few reasons. First, I detest hardback books — that didn’t stop me from picking up (and reviewingTPK when it debuted last year — but I know I’ll prefer this paperback for rereadings. More to the point, the paperback boasts four vignettes not published with the hardback last year, which I’m sure is in no way a cynical marketing ploy cooked up by the publishers. On those scenes:

20120411-172813.jpg

Okay, so yes, I read them. They’re short, and they don’t really add to the novel; actually, they probably take away from the Michael Pietsch’s fine editing work. Still, DFW fans will eat them up. I’ll try to reflect more later.

There’s also one of those reading group guide sections, which cracks me up. Are book clubs gonna read this book? I mean, I hope they do, but they’ll likely hate it. Here’s a question that caught my eye, mostly because I wrote a bit about §19 this summer.

20120411-174805.jpg

“It’s No Accident that Civics Isn’t Taught Anymore” — More from §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

(Help yourself to some context (or not)).

Let’s look at some more of  §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Our interlocutors, all IRS agents, stuck in an elevator (methinks), direct their attention toward the decline of civics education (“‘Civics is the branch of political science that quote concerns itself with citizenship and the rights and duties of US citizens,’” we learn) in America and link this decline to the 1960s—

‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.’

‘We’ve gotten soft, you’re saying.’

‘I’m saying that the sixties—which God love them did a lot for raising people’s consciousness in a whole lot of areas, such as racism and feminism—‘

‘Not to mention Vietnam.’

‘No, mention it, because here was a whole generation where most of them now for the first time questioned authority and said that their individual moral beliefs about the war outweighed their duty to go fight if their duly elected representatives told them to.’

‘In other words that their highest actual duty was to themselves.’

And down a bit—

‘The sixties were America’s starting to decline into decadence and selfish individualism—the Me generation.’

‘There was more decadence in the twenties than there was in the sixties though.’

‘You know what I think? I think the Constitution and Federalist Papers of this country were an incredible moral and imaginative achievement. For really the first time in a modern nation, those in power set up a system where the citizens’ power over their own government was to be a matter of substance and not mere symbolism. It was utterly priceless, and will go down in history with Athens and the Magna Carta. The fact that it was a utopia which for over two hundred years actually worked makes it beyond priceless—it’s literally a miracle. And—and I’m speaking of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, the real church Fathers—what raised the American experiment beyond great imagination and made it very nearly work was not just these men’s intelligence but their profound moral enlightenment—their sense of civics. The fact is that they cared more about the nation and the citizens than about themselves. They could have just set America up as an oligarchy where powerful eastern industrialists and southern landowners controlled all the power and ruled with an iron hand in a glove of liberal rhetoric. Need I say Robespierre, or the Bolsheviks, or the Ayatollah? These Founding Fathers were geniuses of civic virtue. They were heroes. Most of their effort went into restraining the power of the government.’

‘Checks and balances.’

‘Power to the people.’

‘They knew the tendency of power to corrupt—’

As I said in some earlier posts about  §19, I don’t really have any great thesis to share about it: I really just want folks to read it. I think it’s a thoughtful and sometimes funny discussion that seems especially relevant against the backdrop of current American politics, which seem to be infected by a terrible case of the reactionaries, a very vocal contingent that does not seem to believe in civic duty.

Most reviewers have remarked (rightly) upon Wallace’s grand theme of boredom in The Pale King, but I don’t know how much attention has been paid to the way the book tries to measure the costs of existence (namely, death and taxes). Wallace squares boredom as both symptom and affect of a postindustrial existence, a post-democratic existence, an existence that has the leisure, or at least the means and the common vocabulary, to hash out the finnicky sinews between rights and duties—or, in turn, the leisure and means (and entertainments) to psychologically deflect or otherwise ignore those costs. His characters in The Pale King—and not just these guys stuck in the elevator, but, hey, their colloquy is especially instructive—his characters are in many ways are trying to find meaning, a sense of duty, against terrible, soul-crushing boredom, a boredom that capitalist culture fosters and with one hand and then assuages with the other, like a heroin dealer stringing along a junkie for all he’s worth. (There’s an intersection here with Infinite Jest, of course).

It seems that “civics” is a dirty word now, or even worse, a word unattached to any real concept in the American hivemind. It’s pretty much a given (and “given” in the sense of, like, “submission”) that our politicians are wholly corrupted by power, part and parcel of a corporatocracy that thrives on manufactured desire, on the promotion of “lack,” constantly feeding into the basest instincts of a populace easily motivated by xenophobia, paranoia, and the sense that a creeping dark “other” is destabilizing America’s “natural” progress to some great grand glowing telos in the sky. The great lie of the past few decades has been to perpetuate the ideal of a cost-free existence, a metaphysical out, an endless deflection of our rapid consumption. We live in a world where the leading Republican candidates for the 2012 election race are basically cartoons. We live in a world where headlines from The Onion seem more the work of prescient prescription than outright satire. We live in a world where an honest assessment of who-pays-what-taxes can only come from a comedy show.

Perhaps I’m ranting; perhaps this post is too hyperbolic. Sorry. I’ll return to Wallace’s language and that opening line: “‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.'” Americans are being told that they have no duty to other Americans, that they should not have to have any relationship with other Americans, that, essentially, there is no civic duty to one’s country, to one’s fellow Americans—there is only a duty to one’s ruggedly individual self, only a duty to one’s bootstraps, which you must always pull up by yourself. The corporate-advertising-entertainment-industrial complex perpetuates the illusion of rugged individualism and politicians reinforce it with their empty rhetoric, blasting at any element of a public, civic corpus that isn’t part of the American war machine (which remains of course untouchable; perhaps the greatest signal of cognitive dissonance I regularly see on my commute to and from work are the cars in front of me that somehow bear anti-tax bumper stickers right next to calls to “Support Our Troops”).

Wallace perhaps rightly links the genesis of this cognitive dissonance when it comes to civic rights and civic duties to the 1960s, when the baby boomers, finding power in sheer numbers, were able to assert a generational agency unseen in this country’s history. His elevator talkers here are at the precipice of the Reagan ’80s, post-Watergate disenchantment, but also post-Carter malaise, a time when the boomers are oiled and primed for the complete ideological failure that should forever mark their generation.

There’s more rant in me, of course, but I’ll save it for more excerpts from  §19.

I Watch The Decemberists’ David Foster Wallace Video

I’ll be upfront: I don’t care for the music of The Decemberists. I’ve tried, after being told repeatedly how “deep” or “clever” or “literate” the lyrics are, and how good the music is—but it all strikes me as awfully bland stuff, like someone’s shitty take on R.E.M.

Anyway, I do very much like David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, the “inspiration” (yes, I’ll put the word in suspicious quotation marks) behind The Decemberists’ new music video for “Calamity Song.” Here’s their singer/songwriter Colin Meloy (via NPR)—

I wrote “Calamity Song” shortly after I’d finished reading David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest. The book didn’t so much inspire the song itself, but Wallace’s irreverent and brilliant humor definitely wound its way into the thing. And I had this funny idea that a good video for the song would be a re-creation of the Enfield Tennis Academy’s round of Eschaton — basically, a global thermonuclear crisis re-created on a tennis court — that’s played about a third of the way into the book. Thankfully, after having a good many people balk at the idea, I found a kindred spirit in Michael Schur, a man with an even greater enthusiasm for Wallace’s work than my own. With much adoration and respect to this seminal, genius book, this is what we’ve come up with. I can only hope DFW would be proud.

I’m not going to conjecture whether Wallace would be proud or not. That seems like total asshole move. But, I am interested in seeing a filmed version of Eschaton, and I do like Michael Schur’s show Parks and Recreation. So I’m going to watch the video now—unmuted and everything—and then post a reaction. Here’s the vid—

Okay. Nice production values, I guess. I think that’s the band, right? I like it when bands are in their own videos and “act.” I guess they’re playing the older ETA kids who are watching the game this Interdependence Day. The singer is Pemulis, that seems clear. It snows in the Escahton episode, but it looks like only some rain here. I like the Otis P. Lord kid, but I don’t know if the other kids look right. This is weak criticism, I know. Hmmm. The song . . . well, I’m not into this song, but I guess it’s pleasant enough. It’s terribly competent. Bits of it sound like a sped up version of R.E.M.’s “Talk About the Passion.” Some of the lyrics seem to reference or play off of Infinite Jest maybe—like “Year of the Something Something”  or something.

I don’t know. What can I say here? I hope no one tries to make a movie out of Infinite Jest. It was all I could do to fast forward through most of Jim from The Office’s movie of Hideous Men.

The Pale King — David Foster Wallace

In one of the notes at the end of David Foster Wallace’s incomplete novel The Pale King, the author writes, “Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” This is a fairly precise summary of The Pale King—if you take “nothing actually happens” to mean an absence of recognizable character arcs defined through readily identifiable conflicts progressing along a linear narrative. The Pale King is not a traditional novel. Hell, it’s not even really a novel, unless you decide to really stretch your definition of what a novel is. Which is all fine and good and dandy. Infinite Jest is not a traditional novel either, but it is, I believe, clearly identifiable as a novel: it coheres; it completes; it concludes—which The Pale King does not.

You know the context of The Pale King, and if you don’t you can look it up—there’s a glut of hand-wringing and buzz and backlash out there (out there=internet) that I’ve spent the past three or four months doing my best to ignore. And while I haven’t read a review of The Pale King yet (I’ll read Tom McCarthy’ s write up in The New York Times as soon as I finish my piece), I would have to be deaf dumb blind not to have missed all the headlines, the links, the tweets, the weight people have sought to attach to this book. Anyway, I’m approaching hand-wringing here myself, which is not my aim. I want to try to review the book. But, like I said, there’s all that context. It’s unfinished. Incomplete. Posthumous.

We know the context. You know it’s incomplete, I know it’s incomplete, we know that going in. Which is why it’s a far more satisfying read, I believe, to treat The Pale King as a fragmentary piece, a novel-in-stories, a collection of themes, riffs, dialogues and monologues, vignettes, bits and pieces. It’s closer in many ways to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or Oblivion than it is to Infinite Jest, although there are plenty of novelly-novel elements. There’s a setting: mostly a sweaty Peoria, Illinois in the mid 1980s, and although much of the novel centers around an IRS regional center there, there are also bits in Chicago, various college classrooms, suburban homes, sad motels, crowded highways, fringe communities, surveillance vans, bars, psych wards, etc. There are recurring characters, all of them IRS employees.

Perhaps a bit on those characters: Some of the best moments of the book center on the bizarre mind of Claude Sylvanshine, a fact psychic who can’t control the flow of data that surges into his mind. Sylvanshine works with his partner and sometime rival Reynolds to help lay the groundwork for the arrival of Merrill Errol Lehrl in Peoria, where Lehrl will continue to machinize the IRS or something like that. There’s Toni Ware, easily the coolest character in the book. There’s not enough Toni Ware in The Pale King. There’s Leonard Stecyk, a person so impossibly good that he drives everyone to despair. There’s Lane Dean, a Christian who may or may not be slowly losing faith. There’s Chris Fogle, who tells us basically his life story in a 100 page novella that may or may not be the center of the book (there is no center though). There’s David Wallace, who claims to be writing a memoir, who claims to be, like, the David Foster Wallace, the author, who claims that he worked for the IRS for a few years between other gigs. As if to prove he’s the real David Wallace, his sections are crammed with diverting, annoying footnotes that repeatedly interrupt any rhythm the reader (or this reader anyway) could get going. It’s difficult to summarize or even describe the relations between the characters, who are defined repeatedly not just through their own telling, but through each others’ eyes, which makes it even more difficult to unpack the plot of The Pale King.

The conflict of the book, or at least the surface conflict, the plot-level conflict, seems to be (or seems to have intended to have been) about a movement within the IRS to essentially change its mission from one of service, of doing a job that no one wants to do that nevertheless has to be done for the greater good of democracy, to a more nefarious and machine-like agency bent on generating revenue—like a corporation. Thus humanity vs. bureaucracy, religious-type calling vs. mercenary machinery, selfless duty vs. selfish will, etc. etc. etc. Chapter 19 (§19, in the book’s terms) lays out these themes beautifully in a civics lesson (the chapter is set in a stuck elevator, I think). The civics lesson has even more resonance in these times of rampant Teabaggery. Here’s a taste—-

Corporations aren’t citizens or neighbors or parents. They can’t vote or serve in combat. They don’t learn the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t have souls. They’re revenue machines. I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s absurd to lay moral or civic obligations on them. Their only obligations are strategic, and while they can get very complex, at root they’re not civic entities. With corporations, I have no problem with the government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function. What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is okay.

The IRS gives Wallace a perfect backdrop to explore the tension between civic virtue and the American right to be a selfish asshole, but it’s the book’s themes of boredom and attention that have been remarked upon the most. Simply put, the theme is pervasive, perhaps overdetermined within the narrative, and at once both obvious and complex. Infinite Jest explored the consequences and existential fallout of a society conditioned to believe that it had to be entertained at all times; The Pale King seems to respond to the same existential problem in kind, only from a different angle. There’s so much of this theme of boredom and attention throughout the book that I’ll lazily go to Wallace’s end notes again, where he concisely lays it bare for us (or not for us really but probably for himself)—

It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

Wallace finds a kind of transcendental out in the ability to concentrate attention on tasks of despair-invoking boredom. This type of attention obviously recalls the intensity of fervent, even monastic prayer (indeed, the IRS agents are often implicitly compared to monks), yet the Midwest America of The Pale King is deeply desacralized. Although Lane Dean provides a figure of religion in crisis (underexplored for the perhaps obvious reason that the book is unfinished), for the most part The Pale King  presents a post-Nietzschean world without an authorizing center. Wallace’s work then is to find some kind of metaphysical solace in a world where God seems absent at best, and he finds it in paying close attention to the tedium of life. For me, it’s The Pale King’s strange metaphysical moments that are the most intriguing (and frustrating) then. We have the aforementioned Sylvanshine, a fact psychic who can parse data, but cannot glean real meaning from it—

The fact psychic lives part-time in the world of fractious, boiling minutiae that no one knows or could be bothered to know even if they had the chance to know. The population of Brunei. The difference between mucus and sputum. How long a piece of gum has resided on the underside of the third-row fourth-from-left-seat of the Virginia Theater, Cranston, RI, but not who put it there or why. Impossible to predict what facts will intrude. Constant headaches.

In a world of information-overload, attending deeply and meaningfully to data becomes prohibitively difficult, if not impossible. Sylvanshine’s blessing/curse dramatizes the paralyzing post-20th century crisis of too much information (and therefore too many choices). The Pale King’s metaphysical elements manifest again in the ghosts Garrity and Blumquist, who kinda-sorta haunt the IRS center in Peoria; one of them shows up to explain the etymology of the word “boring” to Lane Dean. There’s a boy whose devotion to kissing every square inch of his body (clearly an impossible feat) takes on a spiritual dimension. There’s Chris Fogle, who experiences a religious-type epiphany in an accounting class. There’s also a “fierce infant” who seems to have some metaphysical powers, although I don’t know why I’m lumping him in here. Like I said, (didn’t I say?) I don’t really know how to review this book (I’ve also had a few beers at this point). The infant is one of those threads that goes nowhere, that fails to cohere, that might have a missing piece somewhere else, somewhere unwritten. A more complete picture of the transcendental bliss that prolonged attention might hold comes late in the book, in a longish piece (§46) that details a tête-à-tête between Meredith Rand, who is too-pretty, a little crazy, and ultimately both boring and alienating to almost any guy she actually talks to, and Drinion, an asexual man I take to be autistic. Drinion pays absolute, intense, true, human attention to Meredith Rand’s story of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in her teens for cutting herself; there she meets her future husband. During their conversation, Drinion begins to levitate—via his attention, he literally transcends gravity. And yet the catch of it all is that Drinion’s autism and aesexuality somehow make it easier for him to attend others, to truly connect to this beautiful woman who simultaneously bores and alienates most of the men she bothers to speak with.

Still, Wallace posits in Drinion—and elsewhere in the book, but hey, let’s face it, this is getting pretty long for a blog review—Wallace posits some kind of answer to existential despair and boredom, an answer that goes beyond a trite commonplace like “empathy,” in that empathy is ultimately about self-identification: the answer in The Pale King seems to be selfless identification, in the most literal sense. There’s no cheat here—the narrative bits with Toni Ware especially dramatize the brutal ugliness of life, its essential Darwinian unfairness, the random cruelty that might be there. This is a book about death and taxes, and Wallace works to sanctify these costs of life, to make them count in a in a world that has largely abandoned the sacred, in a society where many people are incapable or unwilling to think empathetically about their relation to (via taxes and social institutions) other humans whom they do not personally know.

The Pale King is not as rich or funny or sad as Infinite Jest; it has nothing to match Don Gately nor does it have a Prince Hal Incandenza. But why hold that against it? It is, after all, an unfinished thing, but as incomplete as it may be, its ends not just loose but frayed, it is still a marvel of heart and intellect. Highly recommended.