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hell 8: david foster wallace in hell

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Via the Rumpus, Tim Martin on David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming posthumous novel:

There is also much unpublished work. For at least 10 years before his death, Wallace was working on a long novel that he called The Pale King. Set in a branch of the US Internal Revenue Service, it aimed to articulate the hard-won thesis of mindfulness that Wallace had come to after years of depression and treatment: “Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

Wallace threw himself into the research. “He was taking accounting classes from 1998 onwards,” remembers Bonnie Nadell. “We found these syllabuses from accounting classes as well as books you can’t even imagine, books that if you were locked up and forced to read them you would die of boredom. You can’t imagine anyone writing a book about it that would be entertaining, but of course this is David, and it is wonderful.”

Michael Pietsch, who is piecing together the many drafts of The Pale King in collaboration with Nadell and Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, agrees. “The thrust of it,” he says, “is an attempt to look at the dark matter of tedium and boredom and repetition and familiarity that life is made of, and through that to find a path to joy and art and everything that matters. Wallace has set himself the task of making a moving and joyful book out of the matter of life that most writers veer away from as hard as they can. And what he left of it is heartbreakingly full and beautiful and deep. He was looking at how one survives.”

As I was saying before, there is a temporality that’s essential to the novel as a form and against which authors can only ever really tweak and vary. The sunniest it gets is purgatorial dullglow; generally, though, it reverts to the infernal on a low-setting. It is something to mark the historical progression of the form and its affectual expectations: we run from Emma Bovary’s (and her author’s) scandalous discovery that all of these heightened moments and blissful intervals advertised by novels were at the whim of repetitive, reiterative time’s erosive power all the way to this: a sense that after years and years of boredom one might, if one is lucky and DFW was not wrong or lying, find one’s way somehow to a narrow window of pleasure drip, measured in seconds, and grounded in nothing more tumultous than a sense that it is on-balance good to be alive.

Of course, this steady slide into bleakness – the reversal of the axes of happiness and the boredom that it costs – is driven in part by the internal logic of a form running its course, a sort of intrinsic tendency for the rate of profit from generic trope to fall as the genre is refined toward fulfilment. But it’s also hard not to take this intensification of the problem, as it runs from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace’s Flaubertianism, as a particularly bleak if also complex index of something that’s gone a bit wrong with the world and our collective and individual daydreams about it.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

10 Responses

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  1. Or maybe, just maybe, some people find accounting and excel relaxing and enjoyable to begin with. DFW may have been a good writer/ stylist, but his promotion to some kind of Byron Katie for the bookish is a sad spectacle.


    August 14, 2009 at 1:11 pm

  2. I’m sure some do. I’d hope I’m not doing anything like that. What does interest me about him (and sure, his end) is the fact that he was in fact plumbing what I see to be the depths of narrative form… And those depths may indeed have a shape in common with depression. It makes sense to me, anyway… I’ll have to keep working on how to articulate it.

    (There’s a bit more to it than that…. he and I had many of the same teachers. Not really worthwhile getting into this, but there maybe be things that I’m attributing to him without quite, erm, showing my spreadsheets…)

    But of course, the flipside of narrating the seemingly tedious may be that the seemingly tedious reveals itself in all of its softly ecstatic wonder. Sometimes this happens, I guess.


    August 14, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    • Could there be such a thing as a genuinely euphoric narrative? would it be readable/bearable?

      Chris Horner

      August 14, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    • Well, erm, that’s Dalloway, isn’t it?

      I’ve hesitated to comment on these posts on narrative, mostly because I very much admire the work on here. But in this case I feel like I should jump in. In my mind there are two things getting in the way here:

      -this feeling comes from multiple posts, and it would be hard for me to find quotes to back my claim up (maybe the baseball analogy with Jane re: poetry being about time?), but it seems like you’re confusing “narrative” with “anything that is experienced temporally”. Just because one reads something in sequence does not make it narrative; sequence is a way of organizing, prolonging, making sense of the event, the situation that is as much spatial as temporal, and is not simply a foil for the experience of time passing. This runs parallel to Aristotle’s discussion in the Poetics about confusing emplotment and mimesis.

      -that narrative finds its most mystical depth not along the axis of tedium/ecstasy, but instead between time moving and time not moving, in the attempts to prolong the moment and, in effect, cease to be a narrative. Only at this point, the flirtation with becoming image, does narrative reach its outer edge. Think of Joyce or James and the epiphanal scene (relevant as well, perhaps, to the discussion on Wallace/Katie). Worth reading in this regard is Ricoeur’s reading of Augustine.

      In fact in general most of my disagreement comes from Ricoeur; perhaps I’m partial to him out of some institutionalism (I study at where he used to teach, all that bs, etc), but Time and Narrative to me outshines many of the other critical texts on this topic. At the very least the first 100 pages or so would perhaps be useful here.


      August 14, 2009 at 5:18 pm

  3. Yeah that is close to my point, I suppose. Narrative resists euphoria. Offers it in spots, but generally works to erode it. It’s a structural feature of the form, which consists of tons of words all in a row.

    Of course, people have tried for euphoria though… The late 19th century is dotted with attempts, and not just the late 19th century.


    August 14, 2009 at 1:36 pm

  4. W,

    Dalloway is really complicated, isn’t it? It is euphoric, at the end, but brokenly so. It doesn’t make any sense, what happens at the terminus, and I think we’re meant to see that.

    You’re right – I do overuse narrative. In fact I spent the day today trying to untangle that mess in the thing that I’m writing, and let me tell you: no fun. So I agree with you on that point.

    But do you know, as this is the dummkopf me that occassionally turns out to be right: I don’t know what people mean by “spatiality” when it’s used the way that you use it above. Even the space is durational, comes this after that, but there’s no entre niveau bit where there’s any access to space that’s not mediated through sequence. So yes, absolutely, sequence is a way of organizing time, and “narrative” is one particular form of that sequencing – one that usually involves moving people together and apart from one another, and when things get more sophisticated moving in and out of their heads. The pace slows and speeds up, almost comes to a stop, but never ever does finally come to a stop.

    The problem with becoming-image is that it just can’t shut up. As it slows to a stop the text becomes extra-loquatious – the chatter speeds as the action slows. Something’s always moving – it’s a constant really.

    I have a very, very idiosyncractic reading of Joyce’s epiphany (one that I happen to think is quite good too) that comes right at the end of my book. Probably too long (and a bit awkward, pseudo-wise) to go into here. I think you’re pushing in the right direction… But I can’t help but read the epiphanies in Joyce as sendups of literary “events” gone statically circular in a sort of performance of exactly what I was talking about above. More to say, of course, on this.

    But I’ll admit I should read more Ricoeur. I’ll read more Ricoeur this weekend – it’s been a long, long time and I need a refresher course.

    If you’re a Ricoeurian, I’m a Barthesian. I can never quite leave him behind…

    But thanks for this. I’d love to hear more – very helpful stuff, good to poke at me like this.


    August 14, 2009 at 8:28 pm

  5. It really is quite lovely in that way. At the same time, I wish I hadn’t first read it when I did–in high school, for senior English–because of that somewhat-silly collegiate prejudice against anything-that-one-did-in-high-school (perhaps you know what I mean; I have a feeling this is a universal experience among all those who went to American public high schools).

    I’m eagerly awaiting this book, by the way; even if it disrupts the whole anonymity thing, you must announce its coming into the world.

    What I’m trying to get with this is twofold, but let me clarify the stakes a bit so we’re on the same page; I’d hate to just talk around each other and misappropriate terms. I’m interested in how sequence, narrative in particular, and to a lesser extent non-narrative poetry, can be and is about things other than time and the experience of time: how narrative relates to the space (I promise, I’ll clarify this term soon enough) and structure of particular moment, in short, the relationship of narrative to the politics of the moment. Of course, the moment is never really removed from time, never escapes its place in history, but in some real senses these temporal contexts become muted and out-of-focus in comparison to the structure and formalization occuring in the situation.

    Where I’d argue for a space divorced from the movement of time comes, actually, primarily in Dalloway. There are first the numerous examples of singular events binding together everything in their geography: the motorcar breaking down as Clarissa picks up the flower and Septimus is parked on the sidewalk, the plane spelling toffee (though this is a lesser example, being mediated by the time it takes the plane to write, of course). Or, non-events serving as meditations on space: Clarissa thinking of her elderly neighbor across the way, and what it means to be over there at this time rather than over here; the appearance and disappearance of people at the party. Or, events occuring at once but in separate locations: Septimus’ suicide as Clarissa is preparing for the party, bound together not only by the doctor’s repetition of the sad story after the fact, but also by the narrative movement of one to the other during approximately the same temporal moment. Or, the shifting of perspectives and short distances during Peter’s dream (and what an odd, perfect little dream it is) on the parkbench. Of course, some of these examples require a bit more support than I’m giving in this brief form, but I do want to keep it somewhat short. I read these spatial/situational narratives as placed in a moment as outside of moving-time as one can get; time is placed in the background; the politics of the moment is elevated to the fore.

    (Another fragment that sticks with me in this regard is near the beginning of Wings of the Dove, where Kate feels the sameness between her father’s room and all the other miserable houses in the neighborhood; sure, this is mediated through a moving, temporally-experienced narration, but what’s at stake isn’t time–it’s the genericness of the event, its infinite repetition across space.)

    I don’t mean to suggest that narration and sequencing ever truly ends–only that the emphasis changes when the narrative attempts not to be itself. Where I pull Ricoeur in is his paraphrasing of Augustine and the dual nature of our experience of time: not only are the past and future located “in the soul”, as it were, but the more we concentrate (or, for that matter, focus our narration) on this experience of time outside of the now, the more the present moment extends itself ad infinitum.

    I would definitely like to hear your reading. His epiphanal scenes have always fascinated me, much more so than the common variety, and perhaps that’s somewhat of what you’re getting at…

    I can’t really claim to be Ricoeurian in that I really haven’t quite read enough, but T&N certainly left its mark, in somewhat of the same way that Badiou did. Just one of those nice little 1 degree shifts in perception.

    Yes, hm, as long as I’m not being one of those, what’s the term that was used, gray vampires? Something like that, as I can recall the phrase was monochromatic and gothic… and for that matter I have a project in the works on this subject, so to get feedback is certainly helpful.


    August 16, 2009 at 6:10 am

  6. What I get from your posts AWP, but do correct me as I’m often wrong, is a sense that narrative has something entropic in its character, given its sequentiality, and that it can gesture to but never actually achieve the ecstatic. In this it might repeat the experience of the quotidian for the average sensual- man-in-the street.

    The ecstatic then, would something reserved for poetry – where all the resources of language work to create an experience ‘in’ the reader – rather than prose with its ‘and then this..’.

    But are there examples – even in the 19th c novel – where if not ecstasy, then at least some kind of ‘lift off’ from the one-damn-thing-after-another is achieved?

    One way perhaps comes from the grotesque, the superfluous, from lists and digressions such as in Dickens. Nothing is ‘happening’ but the event of language (does David Foster W. go in for this at all?)
    Then there is the attempt to redeem – to rescue experience from the flow, and I suppose the example here is Proust: the way his writing can take the reader into another, heightened kind of experience that I’d be tempted to call ecstatic.

    Chris Horner

    August 17, 2009 at 1:26 pm

  7. w & Chris Horner,

    I promise I’ll get back to these soon! Thoughtful comments require thoughtful responses!


    August 18, 2009 at 2:03 pm

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    April 22, 2011 at 6:08 pm

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