Archive for the ‘david foster wallace’ Category
I’m re-reading (as much of) Infinite Jest as I can this weekend, as I’m teaching it (for the first time – I’ve before done The Pale King in graduate seminars) on Wednesday. Made it up to page 318 yesterday, no mean feat, and want to do the same sort of numbers if possible today. Ah, the joys of the end of term. I spent the entirety of last weekend reading Midnight’s Children.
One thing I’m on the look out for this time through Infinite Jest are early signs of the themes of The Pale King. How about this one, on bureaucratic heros. It comes from an essay that Hal Incandenza writes for his Entertainment History class:
Chief Steve McGarrett of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ are useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed from the B.S. 1970s era of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ to the B.S. 1980s era of ‘Hill Street Blues.’
Chief Steve McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action. He acts out. It is what he does. The camera is always on him. He is hardly ever offscreen. He has just one case per week. The audience knows what the case is and also knows, by the end of Act One, who is guilty. Because the audience knows the truth before Steve McGarrett does, there is no mystery, there is only Steve McGarrett. The drama of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ is watching the hero in action, watching Steve McGarrett stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does.
Steve McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Políce-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention. His field of action is bare of diverting clutter. Thus Chief Steve McGarrett single-mindedly acts to refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.
In contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single- mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields. In each broadcast episode of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ Captain Frank Furillo is beset by petty distractions on all sides from the very beginning of Act One. Not one but eleven complex cases, each with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress. Hundreds of tasks to delegate, egos to massage, promises to make, promises from last week to keep. Two or three cops’ domestic troubles. Payroll vouchers. Duty logs. Corruption to be tempted by and agonized over. A Police Chief who’s a political parody, a hyperactive son, an ex-wife who haunts the frosted-glass cubicle that serves as Frank Furillo’s office (whereas Steve McGarrett’s B.S. 1970s office more closely resembled the libraries of landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscot-ted in thick, tropical oak), plus a coldly attractive Public Defendress who wants to talk about did this suspect get Mirandized in Spanish and can Frank stop coming too soon he came too soon again last night maybe he should get into some kind of stress counselling. Plus all the weekly moral dilemmas and double binds his even-handed bureaucratic heroism gets Captain Frank Furillo into.
Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ is a ‘post’-modern hero, a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration. Frank Furillo retains his sanity, composure, and superior grooming in the face of a barrage of distracting, unheroic demands that would have left Chief Steve McGarrett slumped, unkempt, and chewing his knuckle in administrative confusion.
Go take a look at this – where someone’s drawn up the edits that between a reading and print publication of a story that seems to be a section of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, soon to be released. Quite a good idea, this, and I can’t wait to sit down and read it closely. Here’s a little bit to get you started:
Oh and here’s a recording of the initial reading… Makes me quite sad to hear, geez. “I assure you that I’m not going to look up but I’m acutely aware that you’re here.”
Shamefully, though there’s a decent reason why, I’m just now getting to Raymond Carver. (The reason has something to do with my intensely anglo- and euro-slanted undergraduate and graduate education, except when it comes to poetry…) But I’m reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and was just about to write a post about the endings of the stories, which as you probably know if you’ve read Carver are bemusingly ambiguous and frustratingly curt. But then I happened upon this piece by Charles McGrath from the New York Times in 2007, which reveals that I would have mislabeled the post. I was really going to be talking about Gordon Lish’s endings, not Carver’s. Go look at the whole article, but here’s the most relevant part:
That Mr. Lish was an early and tireless champion of Mr. Carver is beyond doubt, and some of his editing, or what one knows of it, appears to be brilliant. (There are no published scholarly studies of Mr. Lish’s edited manuscripts, which are now owned by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, but Mr. Carver often published his stories in magazines and journals before turning them over to Mr. Lish for collection in hardcover, and by comparing the magazine and book versions it’s possible to infer a fair amount.) Mr. Lish was a macroeditor, ruthless and aggressive, and he sometimes seemed to sense what Mr. Carver was trying to say even more clearly than Mr. Carver. He transposed, he retitled and rewrote (the endings especially), and most of all, he cut, sometimes reducing a story by 50 percent or more to get at what he felt to be its essence.
Not all his changes were improvements, however, and some resulted in considerable distortion. The most famous instance is “A Small, Good Thing,” a story about a couple waiting for their child to wake from a coma that is now regarded as one of Mr. Carver’s masterpieces. The Lish version, retitled “The Bath,” is a third shorter and eliminates the original story’s key passage, a moment of redemptive hopefulness at the end; instead, the couple are left frozen in despair. Mr. Carver was so upset that he insisted the original version be used in “Where I’m Calling From,” a 1987 collection of new and selected stories that was not edited by Mr. Lish. But several others he left in their edited versions, even though years earlier he had written to Mr. Lish begging him to restore the stories to the way he had written them. “If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form,” he said in the letter, “I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.”
In fact it was “The Bath,” the Lish edited version of the story, that I was going to write about, along with a few others, and what I would call the 70/30 ambiguities that they leave us with. What do I mean with the fraction? Well, take “The Bath.” (Spoiler warning!) Basically it goes like this. A mom goes to order a birthday cake for her son, who at the same moment is walking to school. He gets hit by a car, stumbles home to mom, ends up in the hospital, and drops into a coma. The parents wait by his bedside, taking turns to go home and bathe. First the father goes home, where he takes annoying calls from the baker about the birthday cake that’s due to be picked up. Here’s the very end of the story as the mother has just driven home, leaving her husband at the bedside:
She got out of the car and went to the door. She turned on lights and put water on for tea. She opened a can and fed the dog. She sat down on the sofa with her tea.
The telephone rang.
“Yes!” she said. “Hello!” she said.
“Mrs Weiss,” a man’s voice said.
“Yes, she said. “This is Mrs Weiss. Is it about Scotty?” she said.
“Scotty,” the voice said. “It is about Scotty,” the voice said. “It has to do with Scotty, yes.”
What do I mean by 70/30? Well, probably, of course, this is the baker calling again – though of course, we can’t be sure. Maybe it’s more like an 85/15 in this case… As so much has gone into setting up the birthday cake angle of the story. In this case, the entire piece culminates on the pathos of the mother thinking that she’s getting a relevant, life-changing telephone call, when it’s really (probably) from a baker frustrated that he’s waiting around for payment and to get this cake off of his shelf. But then again… it could well be from the hospital… News good or bad, likely bad given the direction of things when she left. We’re left sharing some of her uncertainty as she waits for an answer that might, but probably won’t, arrive in a few seconds.
There’s a lot for me to say about this sort of tactic, Lish’s it seems in this case rather than Carver’s. And now I’m not sure who’s responsible for another 70/30 – the one at the end of “Why Don’t You Dance?” where we’re left half-wondering what it is that she wants to get “talked out.” (An issue like this one, not knowing what to call what, could either really put you off or really put you onto writing about Carver, depending upon what sort of scholarly type you are…) Anyway, I just for now want to say something quickly about the end of the original version of the story, before Lish got at it, and when it was titled not “The Bath” but “A Small, Good Thing.” It’s available in its entirety here. At the end of this one, after the boy actually dies and after taking repeated phone calls from the baker, the mother and father, driven by maddened despair, drive down to confront the baker:
They drove down to the shopping center. The sky was clear and stars were out. It was cold, and they ran the heater in the car. They parked in front of the bakery. All of the shops and stores were closed, but there were cars at the far end of the lot in front of the movie theater. The bakery windows were dark, but when they looked through the glass they could see a light in the back room and, now and then, a big man in an apron moving in and out of the white, even light. Through the glass, she could see the display cases and some little tables with chairs. She tried the door. She rapped on the glass. But if the baker heard them, he gave no sign. He didn’t look in their direction.
They drove around behind the bakery and parked. They got out of the car. There was a lighted window too high up for them to see inside. A sign near the back door said THE PANTRY BAKERY, SPECIAL ORDERS. She could hear faintly a radio playing inside and something creak-an oven door as it was pulled down? She knocked on the door and waited. Then she knocked again, louder. The radio was turned down and there was a scraping sound now, the distinct sound of something, a drawer, being pulled open and then closed.
Someone unlocked the door and opened it. The baker stood in the light and peered out at them. “I’m closed for business,” he said. “What do you want at this hour? It’s midnight. Are you drunk or something?”
She stepped into the light that fell through the open door. He blinked his heavy eyelids as he recognized her. “It’s you, he said.
“It’s me,” she said. “Scotty’s mother. This is Scotty’s father. We’d like to come in.”
The baker said, “I’m busy now. I have work to do.”
She had stepped inside the doorway anyway. Howard came in behind her. The baker moved back. “It smells like
a bakery in here. Doesn’t it smell like a bakery in here, Howard?”
“What do you want?” the baker said. “Maybe you want your cake? That’s it, you decided you want your cake. You ordered a cake, didn’t you?”
“You’re pretty smart for a baker,” she said. “Howard, this is the man who’s been calling us.” She clenched her fists. She stared at him fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men.
“Just a minute here,” the baker said. “You want to pick up your three-day-old cake? That it? I don’t want to argue with you, lady. There it sits over there, getting stale. I’ll give it to you for half of what I quoted you. No. You want it? You can have it. It’s no good to me, no good to anyone now. It cost me time and money to make that cake. If you want it, okay, if you don’t, that’s okay, too. I have to get back to work.” He looked at them and rolled his tongue behind his teeth.
“More cakes,” she said. She knew she was in control of it, of what was increasing in her. She was calm.
“Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living,” the baker said. He wiped his hands on his apron. “I work night and day in here, trying to make ends meet.” A look crossed Ann’s face that made the baker move back and say, “No trouble, now.” He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand. “You want the cake or not? I have to get back to work. Bakers work at night,” he said again. His eyes were small, mean-looking, she thought, nearly lost in the bristly flesh around his cheeks. His neck was thick with fat.
“I know bakers work at night,” Ann said. “They make phone calls at night, too. You bastard,” she said.
The baker continued to tap the rolling pin against his hand. He glanced at Howard. “Careful, careful,” he said to Howard.
“My son’s dead,” she said with a cold, even finality. “He was hit by a car Monday morning. We’ve been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn’t be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can’t know everything-can they, Mr. Baker? But he’s dead. He’s dead, you bastard!” Just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders rocking back and forth. “It isn’t fair,” she said. “It isn’t, isn’t fair.”
Howard put his hand at the small of her back and looked at the baker. “Shame on you,” Howard said to him. “Shame.”
The baker put the rolling pin back on the counter. He undid his apron and threw it on the counter. He looked at them, and then he shook his head slowly. He pulled a chair out from under the card table that held papers and receipts, an adding machine, and a telephone directory. “Please sit down,” he said. “Let me get you a chair,” he said to Howard. “Sit down now, please.” The baker went into the front of the shop and returned with two little wrought-iron chairs. “Please sit down, you people.”
Ann wiped her eyes and looked at the baker. “I wanted to kill you,” she said. “I wanted you dead.”
The baker had cleared a space for them at the table. He shoved the adding machine to one side, along with the stacks of notepaper and receipts. He pushed the telephone directory onto the floor, where it landed with a thud. Howard and Ann sat down and pulled their chairs up to the table. The baker sat down, too.
“Let me say how sorry I am,” the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. “God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. But I’m not any longer, if I ever was. Now I’m just a baker. That don’t excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this,” the baker said. He spread his hands out on the table and turned them over to reveal his palms. “I don’t have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I’m sorry. Forgive me, if you can,” the baker said. “I’m not an evil man, I don’t think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don’t know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please,” the man said, “let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?”
It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.
“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. “It’s good to eat something,” he said, watching them. “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.”
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Must say – I vastly prefer Lish’s ending. But it occurs to me that there’s something interesting to say about this, in light of some of the other discussions “we’ve” been having on here. Basically, the end of this story is an inverted narrativization of the central logic of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech, which I wrote something about here. It is a fantasy of the alienated interpersonal relationships of the everyday, when we brustle angrily past each other in the supermarket, yell at telemarketers, and generally move around the world with guard up, getting restored to some sort of empathetic civility via the epiphanic realisation that someone, in fact, is having the worst day of their lives. Odd relationship, when you think of it: Wallace is often figured as the hero who overturned the chokehold of Carveresque minimalism upon the post-MFA set in America, but were it not for Lish, at least some of the time, their work comes off the interstate at the same exit.
(Forgive me if all of this is obvious to those of you who know something about Carver – it’s new to me, and so I notebook away on here….)
I’m sure most of you have seen this by now, but just in case you haven’t: the Harry Ransom Center has purchased David Foster Wallace’s papers and books and now a selection of them are on display on the website. Above are his notes on Don DeLillo’s Players. And here’s a handwritten draft of the first page of Infinite Jest:
Last week I finished – and really liked – David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. I didn’t have high expectations for the book, which is basically a long transcript of recordings that Lipsky made while accompanying Wallace on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour while interviewing him for Rolling Stone.
There’s a lot to say about the book, but let’s just start with this. Just as the new edition of Van Gogh’s letters reportedly (still looking for the link I want – sorry) demonstrate that the artist’s best work happened when he was living through moments of relative sanity – the harshes bi-polar episodes stopped the brushwork – Lipsky’s interview with DFW reveals not a romantically-depressed writer but rather one who struggled every day and in very material ways to hold off madness in order to get his eight hours a day of writing in and to keep those hours clear of anxiety.
For instance, one of the most interesting revelations for me was about DFW’s career as a teacher. We all know that “creative writers” earn their living by teaching in MFA programs and the like. But what’s interesting about Wallace is that, at least at the time of Lipsky’s interview, he was refusing to take an advance on his next book. Given the fact that he’d been profiled as America’s Best Young Novelist in just about every mainstream magazine, he was likely in a position to pull down a seven-figure advance for his next work, and even negotiate a long time frame in which to complete it, while if he waited till he actually produced the book, well after the celebratory hoopla had died down, there was a good chance that he’d take less. But the thought of working under deadline, of writing to fulfill a contract, filled him with terrible anxiety. Thus, despite the fact that he really didn’t need to, the teaching provided him with a financial buffer against one of the few preventable forms of anxiety that come of writing.
More on related matters from the Lipsky book soon….
I was recently led back to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College by Alex Abramovich’s post at the LRB blog. What a strange piece of writing it is. And how strange, in a way, that it’s been repackaged as a sort of fully giftable edition, appropriate to amazon off to any graduating senior that you know and love. The other day, at the end of my last tutorial with a student in her final year, I emailed her the link above only to realize immediately afterward that I was more than slightly uncomfortable with what I had just done, even if I wasn’t quite sure why this was. I’ve been trying to figure it out over the past few days, so here goes…
In order to understand what I’m going to try to say about the address’s weirdness you should probably just go read it yourself before continuing, but just in case you can’t be bothered, I’ll lay the terms of the piece out quickly. (Correction – actually I’ve quoted a ton of the piece below… Forgive me for the long, citey post… You still might want to go read it first anway…) DFW’s first major move is to welcome the graduates to the adult world of “boredom, routine and petty frustration,” and illustrates his introduction with a vivid little set-piece about going to the supermarket after work:
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
There’s lots to say about this echt-pomo vision of hellish banality, but let’s leave it be for now. What’s more interesting to me, and where the strangeness comes into the piece, is in DFW’s proposed response to such situations or to our situation in general as bored, tired inhabitants of the late capitalist wonderland of shit. Despite the fact that adult life is full to the brim of such situations and “many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides,”
that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
So boredom and solipsism become two faces of the same coin. Fair enough. But it’s the proposed solution (if that’s the word) to this issue that Wallace proposes that seems to me at once problematic and revelatory in a subtly devastating way. The answer, as it turns out, is a fundamentally literary answer, even a novelistic one.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
So the answer to the soft brutal boredom and disgust that comes of the alignment of individual solipsism and consumerist alienation is the deployment of a kind of continuous fantasy that the individuals you encounter are immersed in all sorts of worst-case scenarios and household devastations. Everyone’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer or been left by their wife, every car is full of the injured and diseased rushing for care that will come too late if at all, every whining child has just lost a sibling or a parent, every impatient adult is impatient due to economic or psychological collapse.
Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. As Wallace admits, the operation that he proposing requires something more than suspension of disbelief – something that I think more resembles a particularly perverse and perversely secular sort of Pascalian Wager. The world is unbearable if other people simply are this hideous without cause, so one places a bet, choosing to fantasize tragedy everywhere instead, which at least renders the hideousness comprehensible and therefore somehow more bearable. The final line of the talk – “I wish you way more than luck” – is in the light of the strange probabilistic casuistry of the piece an appropriate place to end.
It should be clear by now what’s strange and disturbing about the speech, and why it makes a less than appropriate gift for your favorite graduating niece or nephew. Though it’s tempting, I’ll avoid writing here about the clearly infernal logic of his argument and how it comes to seem itself like a last-ditch attempt to maintain operational sanity when one’s coordination is off and systems are failing generally. But in addition to all of this, it points us back to one of the central problems of the relationship between literary representation and ethics or politics.
One of the basic ethico-political use-values of literature has ostensibly been that it allows us access into the lives and minds of others – that we learn empathy and understanding through these experiments in otherness. Well and good. But there is something troubling about this basic value that comes across in Wallace’s address. No matter how hard it tries, literature kicks against the representation of others in their average everydayness, in their quotidian normality. It loves to take its quarry on the worst day of its life, the days of dramatic action and traumatic suffering. It definitely not that it’s impossible to write otherwise, but that’s the way the gradient runs and resistance to the affectual mandates implicit in the form leaves the work haunted by what’s not there. Is this normal day actually the worst day? (Think for instance of Mrs. Dalloway, which plays out this haunting quite literally…) Like the depressive logic of Wallace’s after-work drive to the supermarket, even the seemingly ordinary is luridly tinged by what we might call literature’s all-encompassing tendency to crisis.
Whatever the life-logic advocated in the commencement speech, Wallace’s wider work of course displays a disturbingly deep awareness of this very problem. While it may be overly-broad and somewhat self-indulgent to think so, what the speech nonetheless communicates is a basic incompatibility (or is it an over-compatibility?) of the literary perspective and a healthily coherent personal perspective on life.
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.