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

Books, Literature, Writers

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.

 

About these ads

The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers
sleep of reason

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (detail), Francisco Goya

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

Chris Ware on DFW’s Novel The Pale King

Art, Books, Comics, Literature, Writers

Crippled Robot painting by Chris Ware

Cartoonist/graphic novelist/chronicler of shame and despair Chris Ware wrote about his favorite books for Foyles bookstore. The list includes UlyssesMoby-Dick, and works by cartoonists like Lynda Barry and Ivan Brunetti. Here’s what Ware wrote about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

The first great novel of the 21st century uses the sinister beauty of the American Tax Code as a springboard from which to launch into a genuinely serious discussion of the origins and importance of civic responsibility amidst the hazy, blurred stupidity of a country in quick decline. Contrary to many reviews, I don’t think it’s about boredom, and it’s certainly not boring. Another posthumous editor-to-manuscript resuscitation, the book hangs heavy with the clotted spectre of Wallace’s suicide, which makes the writing glow all the more painfully through it.

List with No Name #10

Books, Literature, Writers

1. 2666, Roberto Bolaño

2. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

3.  Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

4. The Last Novel, David Markson

5. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Lydia Davis

6. Agapē Agape, William Gaddis

7. C, Tom McCarthy

8. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

9. Sandokan, Nanni Balestrini

10. Open City, Teju Cole

Book Shelves #21, 5.20.2012

Books, Literature, Writers

20120520-111437.jpg

Book shelves series #21, twenty-first Sunday of 2012: William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace

Sorry about the glare in the photo above. As I seem to attest weekly, photography is hard. Photographing books is hard. Lighting issues, glare etc. Anyway, this shelf is half Vollmann, half DFW. I’ve written so extensively about these guys on the site that I won’t bother linking to anything here. A few months ago, Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions was hanging out here, but then I put Expelled and Imperial on the shelf, bought Everything and More, and also picked up some more Gaddis, and, well, anyway, had to move him up with Joyce, where he seems to belong. The paperback of The Pale King is a review copy; it has additional stuff. Maybe I should part with the hardback. It seems ridiculous to have them both.

The copy of Girl with Curious Hair is extremely important to me, as silly as that sounds. It was one of the first books I ever “reviewed” on this blog, back when I still focused almost entirely on books I’d stolen or books I’d never returned to. From that review:

Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think.

I leave the bookmark I’ve been using in almost every book I read. When I pulled Girl from the shelf, I found a Polaroid of my cat:

20120520-112636.jpg

He’s just a kitten here. His name is Remy. He no longer lives with us, but he’s still around. We moved a year ago from a bungalow set above the ground (i.e. with cat crawl space) to a ranch on a block (i.e. no crawl space). He didn’t want to move because he was having this romance with a stray my daughter named Pearly. I eventually trapped him and moved him to the new place, but I foolishly forgot he’d have no place to run and hide while getting acclimated. He ran away. A few months later I found him down the street. He looked happy and came up and talked to us. He followed us back to the new place and we gave him some people food treats. Then he left again. We seem him every now and then. He’s gotten surprisingly fat and seems to like the new people he’s taken up with. They have two boys, a little older than my kids. Sometimes I miss my cat.

The Pale King Paperback (Book Acquired, 4.07.2012)

Art, Books, Literature, Writers

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

I Riff–Again–on William Gaddis’s Enormous Novel JR (This Time After Finishing It)

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

20120208-170956.jpg

1. Let me point those of you who may care to my first riff on William Gaddis’s J R, which I wrote about half way into the book, and which will likely provide more context than I’m prepared to offer here. Also, there might be spoilers ahead.

2. The end of J R is heartbreaking. We find some of our principal characters—Bast, Gibbs, and JR—in nebulous spaces, their plans and dreams and hopes crumbling or smoking or fizzing out or jettisoned (pick your verb as I’m too lazy or unequipped).

3. The final face-to-face scene between Bast and JR, the one that begins with them riding in a limousine and ends with Bast’s psycho breakdown—heartbreaking. Little JR, we realize, is most motivated by his intense need for human connection, his desire for family, perhaps, or place, at least. Bast’s rejection of JR—really a rejection of contemporary consumer culture—is almost horrific, even more so because the reader (this reader, anyway) so readily identifies with Bast and JR simultaneously.

4. Here’s Gaddis on his character JR (from The Paris Review interview):

The boy himself is a total invention, completely sui generis. The reason he is eleven is because he is in this prepubescent age where he is amoral, with a clear conscience, dealing with people who are immoral, unscrupulous; they realize what scruples are, but push them aside, whereas his good cheer and greed he considers perfectly normal. He thinks this is what you’re supposed to do; he is not going to wait around; he is in a hurry, as you should be in America—get on with it, get going. He is very scrupulous about obeying the letter of the law and then (never making the distinction) evading the spirit of the law at every possible turn. He is in these ways an innocent and is well-meaning, a sincere hypocrite. With Bast, he does think he’s helping him out.

5. And again:

INTERVIEWER

Which is the novel you care most for?

GADDIS

I think that I care most for JR because I’m awfully fond of the boy himself.

6. In that same interview, Gaddis contends that JR is motivated by “good-natured greed,” which is probably true (see above re: letter vs. spirit). Despite his predatory capitalism, his willingness to strip company employees of basic safety nets, JR remains sympathetic.

7. Why is JR a sympathetic character? He’s just a child, one who lives in a world without adult supervision let alone love and care. In a touching scene that telegraphs the bizarre black humor that runs through the novel, JR suggests that the Eskimos on display at a museum are the work of a taxidermist: That is, said Eskimos were once, like, alive, and are now on display. Amy Joubert, his social studies teacher (and the object of Gibbs’s and possibly Bast’s affection) is moved to both pity and terror by JR’s confusion, and clutches him to her breast.

8. While we’re on Eskimos, which is to say Native Americans, which is to say, perhaps, Indians: The Indian plot in JR fascinates; it recapitulates a bloody, awful past, pointing to the brutal way the quote unquote invisible hand of the market might sweep entire people away and then come back (in a cheap costume) to offer modernity at a price.

9. Ethnic minorities in general find themselves displaced in JR, or at least displaced in the language of JR (and is there a novel that is more language than JR, if such a statement might be permitted to exist (at least metaphorically)? No, I don’t think there is, or at least I don’t know of one). The casual racism of 1%ers like Zona Selk and Cates is ugly and bitter, but the PR man Davidoff is somehow worse—he sees race as something to use, to manipulate, to control.

10. And, of course, JR’s infamous “Alsaka Report,” a connection to Manifest Destiny, to the valuation of our ecosystem in the most base and short-sighted terms (there’s a perhaps overlooked streak of environmentalism to JR):

20120208-171005.jpg

11. Sci-fi elements to JR: The Frigicom process, which promises to freeze noise. The Teletravel transmission process.

12. At the end of JR, we learn that poor diCephalis is lost in Teletravel transmission.

13. I couldn’t help but be reminded—repeatedly—of David Foster Wallace’s work during JR (diCephalis stuck in Teletravel recalls poor Orin in the giant glassjar at the end of Infinite Jest). In general, the loose threads of JR recall Wallace’s loose threads (other way round, I know).

14. The phone motif alone might have led me to compare Wallace to Gaddis—but there’s also all that, y’know, thematic unity.

15. And clearly, too, style. I’m sure that longtime readers of Gaddis have likely made the comparisons already, but throughout his work, Wallace repeatedly uses chapters or sections that comprise only dialogue. A good example is §19 of The Pale King (which I riffed on a bit this summer), a conversation between three IRS agents stuck in an elevator. In some ways, the scene, set only a few years after the publication of JR feels like a strange little sequel, or an echo of a shadow of a chapter of a sequel (or maybe not—just riffing here). Wallace’s concerns about civics, ethics, and compassion seem more straightforward than Gaddis’s angry vision of a desacralized world, a world where symphonies must be chopped into three minute segments to allow for commercial interruptions (or, rather, that symphonies must interrupt commercials). Wallace is obviously writing after the victory of Pop Art, of populism, of the slow sprawling stripmalling of America . . . but I’ve riffed off track (there is no track).

16. ” . . . I mean they never lose these banks don’t, I mean where we’re getting screwed . . . ” — JR laments on page 653 of my Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition.

17. The above quote as the briefest illustration that, published in 1975, JR is more relevant than ever.

18. To wit, Gaddis again, again from The Paris Review interview, commenting on hollow, false values:

. . . I’d always been intrigued by the charade of the so-called free market, so-called free enterprise system, the stock market conceived of as what was called a “people’s capitalism” where you “owned a part of the company” and so forth. All of which is true; you own shares in a company, so you literally do own part of the assets. But if you own a hundred shares out of six or sixty or six hundred million, you’re not going to influence things very much. Also, the fact that people buy securities—the very word in this context is comic—not because they are excited by the product—often you don’t know what the company makes—but simply for profit: The stock looks good and you buy it. The moment it looks bad you sell it. What had actually happened in the company is not your concern.

19. Gaddis’s take on the “art” of capitalism: design mock ups for a potential logo for the JR Family of Companies:

20120208-171016.jpg

20. JR is one of the most prescient novels I’ve ever read—and not just in its illustration of the the chaos at the intersection of corporatism, Wall Street, government, and military, but also in its handling and treatment of education. Gaddis is way ahead of an ugly curve, showing us an educational system largely disinterested in intellectual, aesthetic, or even athletic development. Instead we get a storehouse for children, reliant on programmed lessons delivered via technology and assessment by standardized testing. It’s ugly and it’s more real than ever now.

21. And here’s Gibb’s railing against it, in a way, in (what’s likely a half-drunken or at least hung-over) rant to his students:

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

(That’s from page 20 of my Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, by the bye).

22. There are no happy families in JR. Just broken families.

23. I said this at the top of the riff, but again–-heartbreaking.

24. This is probably a direction out of this riff—to resuscitate the emotional dimension of the novel, which is too easily overlooked, perhaps, because Gaddis’s manipulations (and all novelists manipulate their audience) require so much active participation from the reader. JR is without exposition, without the overt imposition of the novelist telling us how to feel: instead there’s a thickness to it, a building of buzz and clatter, yes, but music under all that noise: even a kernel of love (and hope!) under the heavy folds of anger.

25. Very highly recommended.

“Entering The Pale King Is Like Entering a Familiar Room, Now Stripped Bare”

Books, Literature, Writers

At Seven Steps Back, there’s a marvelous series of posts—a long essay, really, broken down into digestible blog chunks—about David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. The piece is easily one of the better analyses I’ve read about Wallace’s last book, well researched and well written through an intertextual lens. A taste, a riff on Wallace’s names—

Entering The Pale King is like entering a familiar room, now stripped bare, but with the footprints of its former occupant, your departed friend, still visible in the dust on the floor. For example, the good old names are back, strange and unharmonious, vaguely Germanic, Latinate, French, at root un-American; names like Lotwis and Glendenning and Bondurant and Henzke, not zany and humorous like Pynchon’s (it seems to me that the names and the scope of his books are the only reasons he has been called an epigone to Pynchon, nothing else), but rather like clothes one cannot find it in himself to feel at ease in, even though they aren’t tight or loose, but just right. They also seem like they were once normal, everyday names –names like George Smith and Janet Cooper– but at some point were taken apart and reconstructed by a neurotic tinkerer, in order to establish how long they can go on working before exploding.

“Americans Are in a Way Crazy” — David Foster Wallace

Books, Literature, Writers

Chapter 19 David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (or, §19, if you prefer the book’s conceit) begins with this paragraph—

‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don’t understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business, because that’s my area.’

‘What do we do to stop the decline?’

I plan to write more about this later — Tea Party, Real America, all that slang — but I’m tapped out right now. Back to school, syllabi to stick in the toaster oven, too much red tonight, all that jazz.

The Pale King — David Foster Wallace

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

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.

The Pale King’s Opening Lines Vs. Hadji Murad’s Opening Lines

Books, Literature, Writers

Putting together a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King right now, I realize I have no place to put , nor anything intelligent or even thoughtful to say, about an observation I made about its opening lines (you know, that sentence you halfway paid attention to on some dude’s tumblr), which seem to echo the opening of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, which said observation I only observed because I read the books at the same time, and in fact read the opening chapters on the same day. Anyway.

First lines of The Pale King

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

First lines of Hadji Murad—-

I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers —red, white, and pink scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plaintains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly.

I’m not suggesting that Wallace is consciously following Tolstoy here, although the structures of the openings are remarkably similar, and in each case, the flora imagery is ultimately ironized by the narrative that follows.

Seven Fragmentary Novels That Aren’t The Pale King

Books, Literature, Writers

I finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King the other night (don’t worry—I know that there’s been a terrible shortage of coverage for this obscure book, so I’ll post a review pretty soon review here). The Pale King unfolds as a series of fragments, some short as one page, many the length of long short stories, and one novella length piece. Characters recur, but themes, images, and motifs hold these pieces together rather than any linear plot. The better pieces can stand on their own as short stories, yet are much richer when read with/against the rest of the novel. The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of Wallace’s death, but his notes on the manuscript (published at the end of the book) suggest that fragmentation was always his intentional method.

The fragmentary novel is nothing new, but its particular powers have gained resonance against the backdrop of a world where authority, information, and communication are increasingly decentralized, scattered, and, well, fragmented. Fragmentary novels might have roots in the picaresque (those one-damn-thing-after-the-next novels like Don QuixoteCandide, Huckleberry FinnInvisible Man, Orlando, Blood Meridian . . .), but picaresque novels tend to have a shape, a trajectory, even if they seem to lack traditional plot arcs or characterization. What I’m talking about here are novels made of pieces, segments, or chapters that work fine on their own, and  may even seem self-contained, but when synthesized help reveal the novel’s greater project. So, seven fragmentary novels that aren’t The Pale King—

Steps, Jerzy Kosinski

There’s force and vitality and horror in Steps, all compressed into lucid, compact little scenes. In terms of plot, some scenes connect to others, while most don’t. The book is unified by its themes of repression and alienation, its economy of rhythm, and, most especially, the consistent tone of its narrator. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same man relating all of these strange experiences because the way he relates them links them and enlarges them. At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Here’s David Foster Wallace: “Steps gets called a novel but it is really a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.”

Speedboat, Renata Adler

Telegraphed in bristling, angular prose, Speedboat unwinds as a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes, japes, and jokes all filtered through the narrator’s ironic, faux-journalist sensibility. Adler’s novel eschews plot, conventional characters, and resolution—its contours are its center. Speedboat was published in the early 1970s, but it would seem ahead of its time even if it were published tomorrow.  Adler captures the deep existential alienation of modern life, converting dread into verve and despair into marvel.

2666, Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s opus bears considerable superficial comparison to Wallace’s The Pale King: both were published posthumously, both have endured a process of buzz and backlash, both are unfinished, and both are purposefully fragmented. 2666 comprises (at least five) parts, some connected explicitly, others tied loosely together, but all interwoven with themes of violence, darkness, art, and love. The book’s most notorious section, “The Part About the Crimes,” is itself a fragmented beast, a procession of murders and rapes, dead-end investigations, bizarre TV appearances, and other sinister doings. Prominent characters disappear into the violence of Santa Teresa never to return again; the great mystery of the book seems unsolved. But like Ariadne, Bolaño offers his readers a thread through the labyrinth, a layering of motifs, as words and images repeat throughout shifts in space and time.

Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch’s cut-up origins are well-known and probably greatly exaggerated: the book is far more coherent than its reputation insists. Still, Burroughs’s infamous novel is all over the place (quite literally), moving through time and space and even to Interzone. Comic, rambling, lusty, and perverse, Naked Lunch’s satire is often overshadowed by its seedier, more sensational side. Burroughs claimed his novels were part of an antique literary pedigree: “I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel. People complain that my novels have no plot. Well, a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents.”

Vertigo, W. G.  Sebald

Vertigo blurs the lines between fiction, history, autobiography, and biography. The book comprises four sections. The first section tells the story of the romantic novelist Stendhal (or, more to the point, a version of Stendhal); the second section details two trips Sebald made to Italy, one in 1980, and one in 1987; the third section describes a trip Kakfa took to Italy near the end of his life; the final section describes the narrator hiking from Austria to visit the village where he was born in Bavaria. Underwriting and uniting these separate episodes is the narrator’s attempt to find a common thread between past and present, to find a unity in a Europe fractured by time and war. There’s also a deep, throbbing melancholy mixed with beauty and wisdom here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Mitchell constructs Cloud Atlas like a doubled matryoshka doll, nesting narratives inside narratives that work their way to an apocalyptic future; once Cloud Atlas hits its middle mark, it works outward to the past, back to its own edges. With the exception of the middle piece, a nod to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Mitchell fragments each piece of Cloud Atlas at a key turning point, an old literary trick really, but one that pays off. The tales likely hold up on their own, but their intertextual play is the real delight of the novel, as Mitchell showcases a variety of styles and genres and forms that reflect the content and era of each tale. At its core,  Cloud Atlas explores Nietzschean themes of eternal recurrence and the will to power; its clever fragmented structure emphasizes the loops of history humanity finds itself caught in again and again, even as brave souls seek a new way of seeing, living, doing.

Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner

Faulkner always insisted that Go Down, Moses was a novel, although in its initial publication it was presented as a collection of short stories.  And granted, any of the stories can be read on their own. “Was” is hilarious homosocial hijinks, but read against the sorrow and anger in “The Fire and the Hearth” and “Pantaloon in Black,” or the prolonged majesty of “The Bear,” Faulkner’s project becomes much clearer—he is taking on a century in the lives of the Mississippi McCaslins. Go Down, Moses is strange and sad and funny and truly an achievement, a book that works as a sort of time machine, an attempt to undo or recover the racial and familial (and in Faulkner, these are the same) divides of the past.

On the Feeling of Being In-between Books

Books, Literature, Writers

Like most bibliophiles, I have a big ole stack of books — multiple stacks, really — lying around the house; that is, I have unshelved books in little intermediary piles that I am either always reading or planning to read “next,” which is to say, sometime in the near future. I’ve written before about books I’m always reading (and re-reading), so I’ll set that aside for the moment; also, there are those books of a somewhat fragmentary nature that I like to read slowly (fodder for a future post, perhaps) — but let’s set those aside as well, because they are not what I’m speaking of here.

I found a few years ago that the best way to finish a book, especially a challenging book, but really any novel worth reading, is to simply give it as much undivided attention as you can — to do your best to not let all those other books jump the queue. And for the most part, I’m pretty good at doing this.

So well anyway.

I finished Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet the night before last. I’ve had the book for a while, and though I had desired to read it, I hadn’t had the feeling of wanting to commit to this particular book; so, what I’m doing now, gentle reader, is distinguishing between these two things. We, that is bibliophiles, we all desire to read certain books (lots of certain books, no doubt), but that’s not the same as the feeling of wanting to commit to the particular book. Because generally a bibliophile knows that a great book, or at least a book worth reading, requires a certain level of commitment.

I picked Amulet out of the stack after reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. I don’t know why. There was no intellectual impulse in the choice, although a connection might easily be made between the two novels, both set in Mexico; indeed, Bolaño opens The Savage Detectives with a quote from Under the Volcano, and the heroine of Amulet shows up in The Savage Detectives — so there is some connection. But again, the decision to read Amulet next, instead of, say, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time or any of the other dozens of books cluttering up Biblioklept International Headquarters, was, or at least I believe was, more a matter of intuition and feeling than intellect.

So, as I mentioned, I finished Amulet the other night, and, during the course of reading that novel, another dead literary darling’s novel came out, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Which I’ve been greatly anticipating. Which I’ve been very much desiring to read. Which I have absolutely no desire to commit to reading now, which is to say in that moment between books. Which is strange, I suppose, but perhaps easy to account for on several fronts. First, every day seems to bring some new, fully realized review of The Pale King to the internet, or some piece about Wallace’s “legacy” and The Pale King, or, even worse, some coverage about coverage of The Pale King (which, yes, I realize this post is now threatening to become). Another reason that might account for the fact that I have no feeling to commit to reading The Pale King now may be that it is Wallace’s last novel; maybe I want to wait a bit, give myself a bit of distance from the internet buzz, let anticipation build again. Divorce myself from the idea of having to read the book — especially in the context of Biblioklept, a maybe-literary blog.

To go back to my earlier point, the point of all of this (if this rambling can be said to have a point) is that I realize that I rarely choose to read the “next” book in an intellectual way — that is, the choice is almost always intuitive, born from some feeling that I don’t know how to name, except to say that it’s the feeling that I have when I’m in-between books. It’s a wonderful feeling, exhilarating and freeing and full of possibility, as corny as that sounds, but also a kind of anxiety, a feeling paradoxically tempered by the temporal messiness of being a reader, which is to say being a human, as if the limited time we have to read dampens — and thus defines — the edges of this particular exhilaration. I love the feeling because it opens a seemingly illimitable range of possibilities — the possibilities of new books, new narratives — even as the choice forecloses the possibility of another choice. Etymologically, the word “decide” means “to cut off.” But enough dithering. Time to riffle through the stack.

“Backbone” — David Foster Wallace

Books, Literature, Writers

The New Yorker has published an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King under the title “Backbone.” Many fans might have already heard the piece — and in Wallace’s own voice even — as it was part of the Lannan recordings and has been transcribed at least twice (although it appears one of those transcriptions has been taken down). (There’s also this fragment, by the way). Anyway, a taste–

Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.

His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.

There is little to say about the original animus or “motive cause” of the boy’s desire to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. He had been housebound one day with asthma, on a rainy and distended morning, apparently looking through some of his father’s promotional materials. Some of these survived the eventual fire. The boy’s asthma was thought to be congenital.