To Risk Sentimentality

“Sentimental” is one of the worst charges a critic can level at a book. Sometimes the insult is couched in “overly sentimental” or other adjectives and adverbs intended to soften the blow, but any novel that deals extensively with overt sadness or tenderness will likely have to weather such a criticism—or work hard to preemptively avoid it. The challenge is for those novels to rebut the label of sentimentality by proving that they are in fact not exaggerating the magnitude of suffering or slipping off into the embarrassing territory of self-indulgent storytelling, but rather to risk seeming sentimental in order to emotionally connect with readers. I would argue that Infinite Jest succeeds in hoeing very close to the boundaries of sentimentality without stepping over them. Though Wallace stated in interviews that Infinite Jest was about “sadness” of some form or the other, that sadness is not existential, but is a symptom of some other, deeper problem.

The Big Book of AA doesn’t give a shit about sentimentality. It starts out with the surprisingly unsentimental and straightforward tale of the group’s founder, Bill W. His story is written in the first person and the story’s goals are not primarily literary, though it is laced through with supremely sophisticated rhetoric. Bill W. writes simple, declarative lines like: “I was very lonely and again turned to alcohol,” which intentionally don’t tug at heartstrings or exaggerate or euphemize what is the foundation of all AA rock-bottom stories. If you’ve read Infinite Jest and heard enough of these AA rock-bottom stories, then Bill W.’s story is what you might expect: here was a successful Wall Street banker and alcohol ruined his life. He compresses much of the story down and even skips over the worst of his binges with candid phrases like “drinking caught up with me again” or “I went on a prodigious bender.”

Bill W.’s story is so sad because of the prolonged period wherein he knows he must, absolutely must stop drinking and yet is unable to find the resolve to quit drinking on his own. This genuinely perplexes him. He desperately wants to quit drinking, but every hospital he tries only keeps him dry for a few weeks. When he gets home, every time, he says “the courage to do battle was not there.” Simple self-knowledge or awareness is not what saves him from an early grave. It is a chance meeting with an old friend—a former alcoholic who has found religion.

Bill W.’s story lacks the syrupy sentimentality we might expect because ultimately, like Infinite Jest, it is a story about personal enlightenment. Hal’s own path towards enlightenment involves wrestling his way out of the cage of loneliness: “We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young.” It is this very encagement that shoots down the very thought of sentimentality or engaging deeply with one’s own emotions in order to make peace with them. “We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration).”

Part of what Wallace is arguing here is that there is no such thing as authentically transcending sentimentality. To do so only denies one’s self access to true humanity. “Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human, at least as he conceptualizes it is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” Another name for that hip, cool mask is irony. (“The worst thing about irony for me is that it attenuates emotion.”)

When Bill W. meets his formerly alcoholic friend and asks him how he has obtained this new-found sobriety, the friend says point blank “I’ve got religion.” This is one solution that Bill W. had not seriously considered. Something innate in him resisted the idea of giving up control of his life to a higher power. But yet he is interested in any program that would lead to lasting sobriety. This paradox is the climax of Bill’s story, which feels somewhat postmodern (especially for a story published in 1939) because the complex solution to saving his life turns out to be relatively simple. The whole point of AA is the attempt to find this power greater than (and thus outside of) one’s self. Bill looks at his now-sober friend and admits “It began to look as though religious people were right after all. Here was something at work in a human heart which had done the impossible. My ideas about miracles were drastically revised right then.” What allows Bill W. to change his mind about “God” and religion and higher powers is the tacit permission to choose his own conception of God. When the grace is unshackled from dogma, it transforms him for good.

The challenge of AA is to get new members to accept this basic fact: they must give up control of their lives to a Higher Power. The challenge of writing fiction about human emotions is to get readers to identify and empathize with characters instead of just pitying them.

In a 2013 interview, George Saunders talked about some conversations he’d had with David Foster Wallace and other writers about this very subject.

[Saunders] described making trips to New York in the early days and having “three or four really intense afternoons and evenings” with, on separate occasions, Wallace and Franzen and Ben Marcus, talking to each of them about what “the ultimate aspiration for fiction was.” Saunders added: “The thing on the table was emotional fiction. How do we make it? How do we get there? Is there something yet to be discovered? These were about the possibly contrasting desire to: (1) write stories that had some sort of moral heft and/or were not just technical exercises or cerebral games; while (2) not being cheesy or sentimental or reactionary.” {emphasis added}

To empathize, one must truly see outside of one’s self. It is a process of forgetting the self. The “destruction of self-centeredness” is the price to be paid for sobriety, AA will tell you. Part of that involves a traditionally religious idea of servitude, sacrificing for others over and over, “in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” The alternative is not just the default setting we are stuck with (or literal godlessness–the ultimate solitude), it is the modern and postmodern rat race, “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

There is a myopic idea in the academic world of Wallace Studies that DFW & empathy has been “done.” Time to move along, now. Because they seem to lack sophistication and were covered early on, the recurring ideas of irony, sentimentality, and loneliness (or whatever) no longer hold appeal for the scholars who are, by the very nature of current scholarship, required to find some worthy topic that has been thus-far neglected. No one has written a dissertation on bird imagery in Wallace’s work so it’s suddenly “neglected” (for example) or maybe we do need more on Wallace’s work as it relates to race and gender and sexuality or analytic philosophy and political theory or any number of topics. But “empathy” was not just another topic Wallace was throwing out there for scholars to explore. This nexus of empathy-sentimentality-and “moral heft” gets to the DNA of who Wallace was as a writer and what he was hoping to accomplish in his art. Academics and critics can easily stand back and observe what it must take for a fictional character (which is basically what Wallace Himself is now anyway) to destroy “self-centeredness” but it is a uniquely human experience (rather than a purely cerebral one) for the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of one’s actual self to take charge and command that other part of the self to keep silent, “as if looking it levelly in the eye and saying, almost aloud, ‘Not another word.'”

 

 

To Toil and Not to Seek for Rest: Prayer in Infinite Jest

There are no atheists in halfway houses. Of course, more about they might enter the door as self-identified agnostics or nonbelievers, but to maintain a residence as part of a 12-step recovery program at such a halfway house they will be required to at least go through the motions. Rob mentioned that many, many of the earliest AA members butted up against this “higher power” requirement and declared that they were agnostics, too. AA, of course, butted right back and said Just Do It, Fake it Til You Make It, etc. And if you can’t fathom a higher power, AA itself can be your higher power. But here’s another barrier you might have: pray to this higher power. And this requirement might cause one to step back and contemplate just what is prayer, really?

“…and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it — how can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?”

At the end of his 1996 interview with David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky looks around Wallace’s house and sees a postcard tacked to the wall. That postcard contains the prayer of St. Ignatius.

Lord, teach me to be generous

To serve you as you deserve

To give and not to count the cost

To fight and not to heed the wounds

To toil and not to seek for rest

To labor and not ask for reward,

Save that of knowing that I do your will.

 

This is often called “St. Ignatius’s Prayer” or the Prayer for Generosity. (BTW, Richard Powers wrote a book shortly after Wallace’s death called Generosity that includes a writing instructor who is losing is faith in writing. And “Ignatius” immediately calls to mind Ignatius J. Reilly, to me. There are a lot of parallels between Confederacy of Dunces and Infinite Jest, and of course John Kennedy Toole was a depressive who committed suicide at a young age.)

In Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lipsky says this reminds him of the AA prayer, which is also known as the Serenity Prayer. The Serenity Prayer is probably repeated at 99% of all AA meetings. However, there are some other AA/12-step prayers related to specific needs or steps.

http://www.12steps.org/12stephelp/prayers.htm

The full version of the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr goes like this:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

 

This longer version (which is not the one oft-repeated at AA) adds several AA concepts like accepting hardship, One Day at a Time, and surrendering the will as a requirement for reasonable happiness.

But in the halfway house, reasonable happiness is often far in the distance. An Ennet House resident drops in to Pat Montesian’s office and says “I’m awfully sorry to bother. I can come back. I was wondering if maybe there was any special Program prayer for when you want to hang yourself.”

Gately struggles, though not as fatalistically, with the prayer thing.

“He says when he tries to pray he gets this like image in his mind’s eye of the brainwaves or whatever of his prayers going out and out, with nothing to stop them, going, going, radiating out into like space and outliving him and still going and never hitting Anything out there, much less Something with an ear. Much much less Something with an ear that could possibly give a rat’s ass. He’s both pissed off and ashamed to be talking about this instead of how just completely good it is to just be getting through the day without ingesting a Substance, but there it is.”

Wallace works hard to convey exactly how AA works—and these moments of clarity or epiphany are the end results of that mysterious process, what is essentially a new form of belief. In a fantastic essay published in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, Lee Konstantinou writes that “What Wallace wants is not so much a religious correction to secular skepticism allegedly run amok as new forms of belief—the adoption of a kind of religious vocabulary (God, prayer, etc.) emptied out of specific content, a vocabulary engineered to confront the possibly insuperable condition of postmodernity.” There is another post coming on that idea of “a vocabulary engineered to confront” but what rings true here is the way AA functioned (both in fiction and reality) as a new system of belief and a blueprint for life for Wallace.

Zadie Smith told us that “This was his literary preoccupation: the moment when the ego disappears and you’re able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward. At this moment the gift hangs, like Federer’s brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer.”

 

Infinite Jest as Moral Novel

What is the point of life?

In this 1996 interview with Chris Lydon, pilule Wallace says that somehow the present culture has taught us that “really the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can and the implicit promise is that will make you happy.”  That’s a sort of simplistic overview of the whole novel’s theme, cheap but it fits with the ideas related to why alcohol and other pleasurable substances maybe don’t ultimately lead to happiness. So, information pills if pleasure and entertainment are not at the core life’s purpose, what is? Or what should be?

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous starts out by trying to convince you that you are an alcoholic. Pretty much every defense you can think of to rationalize getting drunk is refuted, or at least diffused, right up front. The idea of the responsible “gentleman drinker” whom every alcoholic aspires to be is debunked as myth right out of the gate. AA teaches you that the solution to stopping drinking is what we sometimes call “soul-searching” or what The Big Book sometimes calls being “properly armed with facts” about one’s self. This soul-searching leads to abandoning pride, a “confession of shortcomings” and the inevitable conclusion that the ability to stop drinking lies outside of one’s self.

Chapter 2 of the Big Book states the result of this soul-searching pretty starkly:

The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God’s universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.

This is the organization that Ennet House requires its residents to attend every week. When life becomes impossible, they send you to AA.

In the book we are presented with many case studies of substance abuse, but the two most prominent are Don Gately and Hal Incandenza. One is forced into a halfway house after years of drugs and crime. The other is just starting to experience the spiritual side-effects of substances. We think of Hal as primarily a pot smoker, but he also drinks.

Hal’s mother, Mrs. Avril Incandenza, and her adoptive brother Dr. Charles Tavis, the current E.T.A. Headmaster, both know Hal drinks alcohol sometimes, like on weekend nights with Troeltsch or maybe Axford down the hill at clubs on Commonwealth Ave.; The Unexamined Life has its notorious Blind Bouncer night every Friday where they card you on the Honor System. Mrs. Avril Incandenza isn’t crazy about the idea of Hal drinking, mostly because of the way his father had drunk, when alive, and reportedly his father’s own father before him, in AZ and CA; but Hal’s academic precocity, and especially his late competitive success on the junior circuit, make it clear that he’s able to handle whatever modest amounts she’s pretty sure he consumes — there’s no way someone can seriously abuse a substance and perform at top scholarly and athletic levels, the E.T.A. psych-counselor Dr. Rusk assures her, especially the high-level-athletic part — and Avril feels it’s important that a concerned but un-smothering single parent know when to let go somewhat and let the two high-functioning of her three sons make their own possible mistakes and learn from their own valid experience, no matter how much the secret worry about mistakes tears her gizzard out, the mother’s.

Right here we are introduced to a family with a history of alcohol abuse (which ended in suicide for Hal’s father), a protective and worried mother, a private-school system that is so ingrained in equating success with the ability to “handle” substances that it tolerates a degree of underage drinking in the process. Wallace is quite clever in entertaining the reader (a blind bouncer!) as he doles out these diagnoses of systematic, societal-level problems that it lulls the reader into believing we are now insiders aware of all this modern-conundrum stuff too, but in the end don’t we want things to turn out well? Can’t we all just get along?

And Charles supports whatever personal decisions she [Avril] makes in conscience about her children. And God knows she’d rather have Hal having a few glasses of beer every so often than absorbing God alone knows what sort of esoteric designer compounds with reptilian Michael Pemulis and trail-of-slime-leaving James Struck, both of whom give Avril a howling case of the maternal fantods. And ultimately, she’s told Drs. Rusk and Tavis, she’d rather have Hal abide in the security of the knowledge that his mother trusts him, that she’s trusting and supportive and doesn’t judge or gizzard-tear or wring her fine hands over his having for instance a glass of Canadian ale with friends every now and again, and so works tremendously hard to hide her maternal dread of his possibly ever drinking like James himself or James’s father, all so that Hal might enjoy the security of feeling that he can be up-front with her about issues like drinking and not feel he has to hide anything from her under any circumstances.

What Avril values is this need for security and honesty when in fact her choices have created the exact opposite of her intentions. Hal is not open and honest with her about anything. He smokes pot in secret, addicted more to the solitude and self-punishment than the substance itself. He does not feel secure in the world or in his emotionally distant relationships.

The answers to the questions about how should one live are not answered explicitly in Infinite Jest, they are implied and inferred. The first step involves seeking meaning outside of one’s self, outside of the cage of one’s head. And at a very basic level, that’s the definition of religion.

The Big Book and Infinite Jest

In an interview, order Cormac McCarthy famously said “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Infinite Jest is no exception. The books that Wallace drew on for inspiration while constructing his novel include Don DeLillo’s End Zone, erectile The Cinema Book, and many others. Perhaps the book least familiar to me but most familiar to Wallace—and the most influential on Infinite Jest—is the core text of Alcoholics Anonymous, titled simply The Big Book.

In conjunction with the 2016 Infinite Winter project, Rob Short and I will post here on various ways The Big Book, other AA literature, and AA in general helped shape Wallace’s fictional project. This issue also intersects with other major themes and topics at work in the novel, including the ideas of belief, faith, morality, and agnosticism—so we will likely get into those issues, too.

This blog will not be “spoiler-free.” That’s probably not ideal for first-time readers of the novel. However, the book has been out for 20 years now and there is a sizable population of readers who have read the book or re-read the book several times.

I’ll let Rob write a formal introduction (if he chooses!) but you should know that he is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, writing about David Foster Wallace. The work he has presented at the DFW conferences in Illinois is remarkable because it consistently breaks new scholarly ground, but is highly accessible (and relevant) to general readers. He and I have discussed these issues (about Wallace and AA and “worship”) privately for a while  now, but I figured this is as good a time as any to invite others into the conversation and help us work out these ideas more publicly.

A Few Trends in DFW Studies

There has been something like “David Foster Wallace studies” for a decade now, online maybe longer. Stephen Burn’s reader’s guide to Infinite Jest was published in 2003. A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies was published in 2013. The first academic conference on Wallace was held in Liverpool in 2009. The Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference was held last week, in May 2015, at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.

I didn’t get to attend half as many panels as I’d liked to, but I did get to read several other papers that I missed (in the past two years of conferences) after the fact and I noticed that there are some clear trends emerging in the scholarship, now in 2015. So what follows is just my own general impression of what people are doing at this point in time. It’s way more complicated and there are tons of mini-niches that I’m not even touching on here, but this is a broad-strokes overview of my own thoughts.

1. Fogle

My own paper at this year’s DFW Conference was about Section 22 of The Pale King (the story of Chris Fogle), so I was attuned to other mentions of Fogle’s story. In fact, there were at least two other papers that talked about Fogle’s conversion from a wastoid to a tax examiner. In previous years, I think it was Don Gately’s story that was used as the most common example of Wallace’s fictional project about redemption and adulthood. I was happy to see Fogle mentioned in so many places because I believe that section of The Pale King contains some of Wallace’s finest writing.

2. Baudrillard

Several papers talked at length about Baudrillard’s simulacra and the phases of the image. This is a rich subject for engaging much of the post-post-modern (or whatever) literature out there today and so it’s not too surprising that so many scholars have brought it to bear on Wallace’s work.

3. Theology/Religion

Wallace’s relationship to religion and the supernatural, both in his work and in his life as an artist, is fascinating because of how it evolves over time and how that belief or concept of the supernatural is reflected in his work. Current work in this area shows that theology / religion stands as a major element in Wallace’s fictional works.

4. The Letters

Stephen Burn’s keynote address at this year’s conference was centered around his effort to assemble a collection of Wallace’s letters on writing (rather than personal letters). Because of some difficulty securing permissions, it’s unclear when and if Burn’s manuscript will be published. It might take a couple of more years before we see this book, but it stands to be a major contribution to DFW studies. Burn separates out Wallace’s correspondence into three eras: The Apprentice Years, when DFW wrote to older masters; The Genius Years, when DFW wrote to contemporary writers; and the Emeritus Years, when DFW wrote to younger writers. The letters also reveal a lot about what Wallace was reading at each stage in his career.

D.F. Wallace Both Flesh and Not

Like many others, more about I greet the publication of this collection of nonfiction pieces, buy Both Flesh and Not, by David Foster Wallace, with a little bit of trepidation. For one, I’ve read all this stuff already. Granted, I am a devoted fan of DFW’s, but I’d reckon that almost every fan of his has read either the Federer essay or his Salon.com list of under-appreciated novels or one of the other shorter pieces in this collection for free, online. So that’s a little disappointing. There’s nothing here previously unpublished or expanded or gleaned from his recently opened archives at the Harry Ransom Center. But I am glad this book exists and that it pours into concrete book-form some of Wallace’s lesser-known essays.

The title piece, “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (from which the book sorta takes its title) was published in the New York Times “Play” magazine under the title “Federer as Religious Experience.” The version here is exactly the same as that published in the New York Times. Wallace’s editor at “Play,” Josh Dean, writes about “how much [Wallace] cared about every single letter in an 11,000-word story” and then later quotes a letter from Wallace saying “I’ve got the fucker down to like 8,400 words. Another maybe 100-200 words can come out without much problem, if need be. Cutting much more from that will cripple the piece, which I’ve worked hard on and feel protective of. (If you decided, for instance, that you want to run only like 5,000 words of it, I wouldn’t do it — I’d settle for the Kill Fee.” And then we learn: “Another 100 or so words were trimmed for space, and the piece ran as Play’s cover story on August 20, 2006.” My question is: why not give us the 11,000 word version here in the book? Maybe we’d get to see more of the “religious” storyline or more rococo detail about Federer’s beautiful moves (“Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip”). Why not restore it all when you are not bound by the strict printed-word limits of the New York Times? I don’t get it.

Roger Federer has been directly asked about this piece several times and he’s said he admires the piece. Here he is 2009 when asked about it:

Q. There were times during your match today when I was reminded of an essay by the late American author, David Foster Wallace. It’s called “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” I’m wondering if you have heard of this essay, read it, or what you think of it?

ROGER FEDERER: Sure, I remember his piece. I remember doing the interview here on the grounds up on the grass. I had a funny feeling walking out of the interview. I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of it, because I didn’t know exactly what direction he was going to go. The piece was obviously fantastic. You know, yeah, it’s completely different to what I’ve read in the past about me anyway.

But one of his joking comments caused a minor stir. The Italian paper La Stampa published an interview with Federer in September 2009:

Foster Wallace wrote that seeing Federer play was like a religious experience.

I did an interview with him at Wimbledon for half an hour, one of the strangest I’ve ever done. As I was leaving I was still wondering what we had talked about. I was very [stricken]* by his suicide.

Have you any idea about that?
I hope, I’m sure it was not because of me. … Artists like him have high level ideals, which often do not hold up, unfortunately, the confrontation with life. He wrote a wonderful essay about me. Thanks to him, also, the world is a better place for me.

That “stricken” [molto colpito] could also be interpreted as “impressed” or “affected”, (it’s not clear what language the interview was conducted in before it was translated into Italian) but the hint that Wallace’s suicide “was not because of me” seems odd here because in the context of the interview, it feels like it’s Federer’s way of pointing up what an absurd question it is for him to comment on, and yet Federer still manages to append a couple of genuinely heartfelt and eloquent sentences after that moment. Still, some fools tried to connect Federer’s decline (or Sarah Palin’s nomination) with Wallace’s suicide and Sports Illustrated’s tennis writer was asked about the comments to the point that he had to clarify “Just to put this rest, I’m sure Federer was right: He did not trigger Wallace’s suicide.” That said, at the 2012 New Yorker Festival in October, Mark Costello made the point that, before his death, Wallace just “couldn’t write anymore” and that the Federer piece “was the last time that his ass left the chair”, meaning that Wallace was so inspired while writing it that he no longer felt his ass in the chair. So maybe it’s not entirely fair to say that there is no connection at all between this essay on Federer and Wallace’s own decline.

Unless you read the flap copy, there is no indication from the front or back cover that this book contains the seminal essay about Roger Federer—and one of the best extant essays about contemporary tennis, period. (There is a standalone Italian edition. DFW is very big in Italy. And there is an illustrated version.) I don’t know how many other reviewers will be compelled to draw comparisons between Federer and Wallace—the best essayist writing about the best tennis player. Of course the title of “best” is subjective and only grudgingly granted, and always fleeting. Wallace is gone, Nadal and Djokovic have surpassed Federer (though, at this very moment, Federer is back atop the ATP rankings {or near the top, it changes frequently}). Wallace claims that seeing Federer play live at Wimbledon is a “near-religious experience.” Even then, he has to qualify it with “near.”

Of course, this insight is nothing new. Sublime victory on the playing field has been compared to religious ecstasy thousands of time before (just ask Yankees fans). However, the narrative of Federer winning Wimbledon was not thrilling or ecstatic so much as routine (in 2006, at least) so what Wallace is talking about in terms of “religious experience” is something else, something related to the beauty of an athlete who is able to routinely use his body to do the seemingly impossible. This resembles the beauty of Wallace’s writing to me: something bound not by a thrilling narrative or personality, but the depth of action between the baselines of the page.

“Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” is an important essay about a group of fiction writers who all emerged around the same time in the early 1980s. He wrote this essay in the Fall of 1987 after he’d submitted his MFA thesis and taken a short-term gig teaching at his alma mater, Amherst.

 

“Back in New Fire” is a piece that DFW probably never collected because the argument, even couched in “ifs” and “but so thens”, could sound completely hideous: AIDS is a blessing?? The piece first appeared in Dave Eggers’ Might magazine under the title “Impediments to Passion” and was collected in the Might anthology, Shiny Adidas Track Suits and the Death of Camp, under the title “Hail the Returning Dragon, Clothed in New Fire.” Not sure where the title “Back in New Fire” comes from, but it isn’t Wallace’s.

http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-Hail_the_Returning_Dragon.pdf

I have this very slight notion that Wallace got the idea for this piece while he was in the halfway house in Boston. One bit in support of that idea is this remembrance by a fellow AA member in Bloomington, IL:

Dave shared a story once with—there was a newcomer in a meeting—no, I think somebody had come back from a relapse. And he shared this story about when he was in the halfway house. And he said they always had like these people that’d come in and they would kind of educate you about some life skills. And this person talked about the AIDS virus and how it lives in very dark places, dark, damp places. And that it’s not airborne. And he made the relationship for the newcomer about alcoholism. And that once you talk about it, it loses its power over you. Once you talk about what’s going on, it loses its power. And that person just lit up with this confidence that they could, you know, stay sober, they could do this. He was very generous with sharing his experience with people, his struggles, and—I don’t know.

Jay Jennings, the former editor of Tennis Magazine, who in 1996 commissioned Wallace to write an article about the U.S. Open (“Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”), donated the page proofs of that essay to the Ransom Center’s collection.

Wallace’s reviews of Borges: A Life and The Best American Prose Poem are excellent, but I really wish that this collection had included even more pieces (see Ryan Niman’s excellent bibliography at The Knowe for the most complete list of Wallace’s unpublished or uncollected nonfiction). I mean, if you are going to go all out and collect the stuff then why leave out Wallace’s early book reviews (of Clive Barker’s Great and Secret ShowJ.G. Ballard’s War FeverDead Elvis by Greil Marcus, and others). Also missing is Wallace’s introduction, titled Quo Vadis, to the issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that he guest edited. That piece includes gems like this:

I have observed in myself a kind of sine-wavelike cycle of interest and boredom and interest in riding herd on a project like this. In a way, it’s sort of like my cycle of feelings about religion. To me, religion is incredibly fascinating as a general abstract object of thought—it might be the most interesting thing there is. But when it gets to the point of trying to communicate specific or persuasive stuff about religion, I find I always get frustrated or bored.

Or it would be nice to see the long contributor’s note he drafted for the Best American Short Stories 1992. These omissions just open the door for another (albeit slim) volume to be published later.

The lists of words that run between essays are nice, but don’t add much in this context. I’d rather see just a reprint of the list of words without the definitions or maybe a nice reproduction of one of the handwritten pages housed in the Ransom Center. One neat addendum to this book is this ad, which ran in the same issue of Rain Taxi as Wallace’s review of The Best American Prose Poem, and includes his blurb for Davis’s book (“Probably well worth checking out”) and the small-type disclaimer: “Paid for by the reviewer of The Best American Prose Poem: An International Journal.”

 

If you are a collector of all-things-DFW, you probably ordered this book and have already reread it (since you likely read the contents of it long ago). You will remove it from its box, turn it over, glance at it, and kindly shelve it in the Ws. If you love tennis and/or beautiful sentences, you need to stop and read “Federer Both Flesh and Not.”

Pale Winter

The great DFW Italian site Archivio DFW is hosting a group read of The Pale King called “Pale Winter” (aka #palewinter). I contributed a short essay (here: “Always Another Word“) that was translated into Italian by Roberto Natalini. Below is the English version of that post. Many thanks to Roberto and Andrea Firrincieli.

 

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Like any posthumous novel, order  The Pale King comes to us from the hands of an editor. All novels are edited, cost but those assembled by editors after an author’s death face the dual burdens of shaping a narrative and a legacy. At their core, clinic novels are sequences of words laid out end-to-end. The sequencing matters. Infinite Jest would be a different novel altogether if the first seventeen pages were moved to the end of the book—or if the end notes became footnotes. We have no way of knowing how David Foster Wallace wanted the various sections of The Pale King assembled. The version we have now was painstakingly assembled by his longtime editor, Michael Pietsch. Pietsch’s care and attention to detail are apparent—as are the challenges of his job.


The Pale King is made up of two long sections, several short-story-length sections, and dozens shorter fragments. There is basically no plot. There are scenarios and situations and parables and character-developing background stories, but The PaleKing defies any attempt at figuring out of what might be happening in this tax office in Peoria. In that sense, it feels unfinished. Yet, as a novel of characters and ideas, it feels full and rich.

In several notes to himself, Wallace referred to the novel as “tornadic” or having a “tornado feeling” with pieces flying at the reader from all angles, and I think, with Pietsch’s help, he achieves this. There are metafictional asides, voice exercises, fake news items, novellas, suspense, and civics lessons all swirling about. With a tornadic structure, the exact sequence matters less than the fact that the random pieces do fly at you, the reader, and feel random and real. The sections spin in and spin out, but ultimately move higher, deeper, building toward a more complete understanding. At the bottom of the tornado, in the smallest circles, there are backstory formulations of childhood naivete. The circle widens through adolescence and we follow the wider circles of life in the IRS. Then we spiral up to a wider circle of life outside of work and finally to the widest, most windblown, most adult territory: Truth. At the center of the cyclone is a calm hole of enduring boredom. Or maybe a better distillation of the idea of engaging with boredom is: what you give your attention to. Wallace talked about this in his Kenyon commencement address in 2005:
It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. . . .”Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. . . . . The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline.
Attention is the holy grail. Our lives are collections of how we choose to spend our attention. The constant choices we face can seem overwhelming, but so can the monotony of everyday life. What is the responsible, adult way of coping with the boring and monotonous parts of life?

The tornadic/thematic structure of The Pale King bears some resemblance to Infinite Jest insofar as we see the lines build and blur between adolescent struggles and concepts of maturity and adulthood and responsibility. Both novels are ultimately about a search for Truth: What matters to you? Why does it matter? Stay focused on what matters, even if it is boring–especially if it is boring.

I don’t believe there are any real clues to Wallace’s suicide within the text of The Pale King. The related questions that arise seem far-fetched: Would Wallace have been a different person if he’d finished The Pale King in, say 2001, and published several more subsequent novels? Of course. Does that mean Wallace would still be alive in 2012? Who knows? There are too many variables in trying to re-imagine history, and the sad questions are just that—hypotheticals.

Part of the truth is that DFW always struggled with how to end things. One of his earliest stories published in The Amherst Review ends in the middle of a sentence, as does his first novel, The Broom of the  System. The ending of Infinite Jest frustrated thousands of readers. The ending of The Pale King frustrates just as many, partly because it represents the ultimate frustration: the end of David Foster Wallace, the end of his novels. In his memorial tribute to Wallace, Don DeLillo said:
We see him now as a brave writer who struggled against the force that wanted him to shed himself. Years from now, we’ll still feel the chill that attended news of his death. One of his recent stories ends in the finality of this half sentence: Not another word.

But there is always another word. There is always another reader to regenerate these words. The words won’t stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.

I take comfort in that. There is always another word and another reader. And today that reader is you.

10 Oct 2011, 9:04am
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2 comments

[sic] by Joshua Cody

Joshua Cody’s new memoir [sic] is partly the story of how he—a young man living in New York City, this web a composer, story a descendent of Buffalo Bill Cody—was diagnosed with cancer (a lymphoma of some sort, more about he never really says) and the treatment didn’t work and he had to get a bone marrow transplant, but really it’s mostly the story of what it’s like to be inside Joshua Cody’s head. One thing fiction (and memoir) teaches us, one of its greatest assets is that it’s possible (and good) to think beyond our selves—to actively try to adopt another’s point of view. David Foster Wallace says it way better than me: “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.” And then in the same breath Wallace goes on to explain some of the same stuff about suffering that Joshua Cody is dealing with in [sic]:

Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

But we’re getting a little ahead of our selves here. Both Wallace and Cody struggle with knowing something long and complex and looking at it, think “How do I tell this story? Where do you begin? How about this little bit here? Is that really the beginning? Bear with me while I go back and explain…” This struggle to deal with narrative and the flow of the story/plot reflects a lifelong struggle to live in a way that is not constantly fracturing and forking off in different directions. But that does not mean the story and the life are formless. Cody is a trained composer, a musician. He is deeply concerned about form and framing.

Cody is clearly a David Foster Wallace fan—and Wallace’s struggle with depression and eventual suicide haunt him. “Our greatest writer. As if I wasn’t thinking of him during that whole thing. My God. As if he hadn’t helped.” Cody contemplates killing himself (in a scene reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums), standing in front of a mirror, well actually “it was me between two mirrors, producing an infinite line of selves, like at the end of Citizen Kane.” And the crucial question he finds before him is: “How do we position suffering in human life?” And this is where it gets interesting, because maybe we think of a cancer memoir as one where the writer is faced with death and discovers the beauty of life or some such thing. But Cody, raised on aesthetics, says “I do love being alive, sitting here with this first edition of the Cantos my father gave me—and maybe, you may well argue, the house is too thick and the paintings a shade too oiled (and the old voice lifts itself, weaving an endless sentence), and you may well be right—but my goodness, fuck you, I happen to be so happy here with all these gifts and words and all these selves.” And if you yourself have been in this position of having a doctor refer to your imminent death and the chemotherapy you need to receive and if you have browsed the bookstore’s self-help-dying-cancer shelves and thought “pure dreck,” then Joshua Cody is right there with you:

If there are some people who require disease to teach them such things then fine, but I am not, was not one of those those, thank you very much. I loved life and found beauty and sources of pleasure in things on the outside and on the inside, and illness was not an opportunity for existential awakenings, it was the very opposite of beauty or grace, it was a harrowing, a descensus: and then it went down.

More than Wallace, this attitude (and the opening scene of receiving a chemotherapy treatment) call to mind, to me at least, Walter White and Breaking Bad. The nearness of death accentuates the urgency of life while also accentuating its inherent suffering, its opposition to neat and tidy endings. Both Cody and Walter White show us that the relatively commonplace occurrence of cancer can lead not only to introspection and carpe diem, but also to sad risk-taking and (personal and public) failures.

Wallace says “What the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves. They’re entirely themselves, they’ve got their own vision, they have their own way of fracturing reality, and if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.” Joshua Cody is a great artist, entirely himself, and in [sic], while we watch him flay his own nerve endings and try to mend them back together again, we see glimpses of our selves.

Shattercane & Lamb’s Quarter

I’ve written here about how I’m interested in dating the various sections of The Pale King–when they were written, web what else DFW might have been working on concurrently, this site and how the other might have influenced The Pale King (or how The Pale King might have influenced what else he was working on at the time). I think some of that might be discernible from some of the small details that show up in other works (more on this), but of course we’re likely to know more when The Pale King materials make their way from Little, Brown down to the Ransom Center. The HRC tells me that the Pale King materials will arrive in Austin after the paperback is released. Typically the paperback comes out a year after the hardcover (so maybe April 2012), but perhaps Little, Brown will release the paperback in time for Christmas? Either way, I doubt the Pale King materials will be indexed and accessible to researches before Fall 2012.

In any case, there might not be any meaningful connection that shows Wallace was working on more than one thing at once, but just that, like most writers (and professors), he had a lot of things that continued to interest him, and in many cases he retold the same things multiple times. Some of the same motifs show up in all his work and many of the same details get recycled and slightly retold.

I mentioned in the recent contest here that I was surprised no one chose any of the words from The Pale King‘s opening section as the “best” word.

I was a little surprised that no one submitted any of the words from the opening page of the novel: shattercane, sawbrier, muscadine, vetch, invaginate, chert, corn-bound.

Honestly, I didn’t think much of this passage when it appeared in Tri-Quarterly under the title “Peoria (4).” And I thought it was a curious choice for Michael Pietsch to use as the opening of this particular novel. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder what inspired Wallace to write it in the first place. Is it just a paean to his “home” state of Illinois? Was he trying to do his best Cormac McCarthy impersonation? Did he really intend to use this passage in TPK or had he written it for some other purpose? Am I overthinking this?

And then the other day I was listening to the audiobook of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, read by The Man Himself (get it here: http://www.sonn-d-robots.com/dfw/readings/), specifically, I was listening to the long (55 minutes), closing chapter of the book: BI #20, The Granola Cruncher. Toward the end of the story, when the girl is driven to a remote location and is forced out of the car by the predator, and then forced to lay in the grass, face down, this passage suddenly sounded terribly familiar to me:

Lying there helpless and connected, she says her senses had take on the nearly unbearable acuity we associate with drugs or extreme meditative states. She could distinguish lilac and shattercane’s scents from phlox and lamb’s quarter, the watery mint of first-growth clover.

Compare that to the opening sentence 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.
So there is a basic similarity of using “shattercane” and “lamb’s quarter” and “mint” as floral descriptors, but does that mean the two pieces were composed anywhere near the same period of time? Who knows? Let’s look at the terms, though.
Shattercane (sometimes “shatter cane” or “wild cane”) is just another name (albeit more poetic) for an invasive variety of sorghum (sorghum bicolor). It is a weed.

Lamb’s Quarter (or lambsquarters) is a type of goosefoot or pigweed (also great names)–another weed.

Now listen, as good as The Pale King is, to me, there is nothing in it as powerful as Brief Interview #20. Nothing. Wallace always struggled with how to end a story–and a book. But I believe he mastered it with Infinite Jest (although many people hated that ending) and then got better with it by ending Brief Interviews with #20, and then even better by ending Oblivion with “The Suffering Channel.”

Go read BI #20 again. The whole thing is on The Paris Review‘s site:

The ending of the story is just devastating.

I displayed far more affect than she did. She learned more about love that day with the sex offender than at any other stage in her spiritual journey, she said. Let’s both have one last one and then that will be it. That her whole life had indeed led inexorably to that moment when the car stopped and she got in, that it was indeed a kind of a death, but not at all in the way she had feared as they entered the secluded area. That was the only commentary she indulged in, just at the anecdote’s end. I did not care whether it was quote true. It would depend what you mean by true. I simply didn’t care. I was moved, changed—believe what you will. My mind seemed to be moving at the quote speed of light. I was so sad. And that whether or not what she believed happened happened—it seemed true even if it wasn’t. That even if the whole focused-soul-connection theology, that even if it was just catachretic New Age goo, her belief in it had saved her life, so whether or not it’s goo becomes irrelevant, no? Can you see why this, realizing this, would make you feel conflicted in—of realizing that your entire sexuality and sexual history had less genuine connection or feeling than I felt simply lying there listening to her talk about lying there realizing how lucky she’d been that some angel had visited her in psychotic guise and shown her what she’d spent her whole life praying was true? You believe I’m contradicting myself. But can you imagine how any of it felt? Seeing her sandals across the room on the floor and remembering what I’d thought of them only hours before? I kept saying her name and she would ask What? and I’d say her name again. I’m not afraid of how this sounds to you. I’m not embarrassed now. But if you could understand, have I—can you see why there’s no way I could let her just go away after this? Why I felt this apical sadness and fear of the thought of her getting her bag and sandals and New Age blanket and leaving and laughing when I clutched her hem and begged her not to leave and said I loved her and closing the door gently and going off barefoot down the hall and my never seeing her again? Why it didn’t matter whether she was fluffy or not terribly bright? Nothing else mattered. She had all my attention. I’d fallen in love with her. I believed she could save me. I know how this sounds, trust me. I know your type and I know what you’re bound to ask. Ask it now. I felt she could save me I said. Ask me now. Say it. I stand here naked before you. Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, cooze, slut, gash, cunt. Happy now? All judgments confirmed? Be happy. I do not care. I knew she could. I knew I loved her. End of story.

Pale King Contest Winners

I’ve received a ton of great submissions for the Pale King contest I announced a couple of weeks ago. I want to thank everyone who submitted entries and put thought and energy into these ideas. I was really impressed by the quality of the answers. Many of the responses to the contest about themes and ideas were lengthy and sophisticated. I truly enjoyed reading all of them. I hope you enjoy them as well.
(Winners will receive copies of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, seek courtesy of Random House, website like this copies of David Hering’s Consider David Foster Wallace, viagra courtesy of SSMG Press, Infinite Jest posters from the amazing Sam Potts and other small prizes.)

Contest #1: Did any theme or idea in The Pale King remind you of Wallace’s earlier work?

Winner:

Matt King

The Pale King, approximately p. 270-284 vs. Infinite Jest, approximately pg. 601-619.

“The connection I have in mind concerns Wallace’s use of needlessly complicated and poorly planned (or deliberately planned to be inconvenient) parking situations and bureaucratic demands placed on specific individuals as a means of gaining insight into these characters. In the relevant section of The Pale King, David “Author Here” Wallace has to balance the (past) anxiety of his new job and the (current) demands of narration against the poorly planned parking situation at the Peoria REC. In the relevant section of Infinite Jest, Don Gately has to balance the rules of the halfway house and the consequences of Lenz’s shenanigans while also trying to make sure that the residents get their cars moved to the other side of the street. For Wallace, there seems to be a sense in which both submitting oneself to bureaucratic rules (of the halfway house, of the IRS) and enduring situations made needlessly complicated (in these cases, specifically with reference to parking) makes one stronger, or at least serves as a sort of test of Don’s and Dave’s abilities to let go of a sense of self. In other words, these scenes are about Don’s and Dave’s capacity to respond, not only to other people but to situations that test their patience and limits of boredom and annoyance.”

 

Runners Up:

James McAdams: “I noticed a direct accounting link between Sylvanshine’s observation that ‘the core accounting equation A=L+E can be dissolved into everything from E=A-L to beyond’ (The Pale King, p. 5) and one of the super long footnotes that rupture “Octet,” i.e. where the narrating author admits that ‘the Quiz spends five lines constructing a possible analogy between the world’s joy/misery ratio and the seminal double-entry A=L+E equation of modern accountancy, as if more than one person out of a thousand could possibly give a shit.’  (Brief Interviews, 150).”

Matthew Ritter: “Meredith Rand has a history of grappling with the classic objective/subject (or being-for-itself vs. being-for-others if you want to get existential) distinction. On page 484, she says, “I mean starting to see yourself as a piece of meat, that the only thing you’ve got is your looks and the way you affect boys, guys. You start doing it without even knowing your doing it. And it’s scary, because at the same time it also feels like a box; you know there’s more to you inside you because you can feel it, but nobody will ever know–not even other girls, who either hate you or are scared of you, because you’re a monopsony […]”

This discussion, the problem of being a body and, therefore, an object for others’ consumption/use is reminiscent of B.I. 46 in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (pages 98-105) [The story in which the narrator asks “How would you feel about me tying you up?”]. In both, the point seems to be that humans are both subject and object, but object much more so. We cannot deny our embodiment, our being seen by/thought of/addressed by others, that we are not simply just who we think we are inside our own heads, but that the lion’s share of the self resides in the intangible, private, and unseen world. When being-for-others/objectivity casts too great a shadow, the eclipse of self is frightening, dangerous, and destructive.”

 

Philip Miletic: “One of the themes in Wallace’s The Pale King that has been a recurrent and rolling stone picking up moss is Trauma and the formative features of trauma on individuals or groups of individuals. Thomas Tracey, in his essay “Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion” in Consider David Foster Wallace, draws attention to Wallace’s peaking interest in trauma: “In Oblivion…the experience of trauma touches especially on human memory, dream, and fantasy” (173); and calls Infinite Jest‘s focus on AA as “a precursor to the detailed exploration of psychological trauma we later encounter in Oblivion” (172). In a New York Times review of The Pale King, Michiko Kakutani writes, “Wallace is focused on how various characters came to work at the I.R.S. — what combination of psychological tics, childhood trauma, financial circumstance and random luck propelled them into the rat race and tossed them onto the hamster wheel that is life as accountants there, pushing paper and numbers in a deadeningly generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation.”” The exploration of trauma as a formative function in an individual’s development is abundant in The Pale King w/ the numerous back stories (the boy who sweats, the boy who is incredibly nice and thus hated by everyone, Meredith Rand’s exhaustive retelling of her past trauma that elevates Drinion, captures his attention although some would find it drastically dull, and etc.) that may not seem overly traumatic in a blown-up magnitude kind of way, but are the little instances of trauma, sometimes subconsciously, that form character, that is unique to an individual and can be revealed to others if these small (or big) trauma are given attention. The narrator in “The Soul is Not a Smithy” calls their “unwitting” trauma “the original trauma” (Oblivion, 67) that is similar to the original sin of Adam and Eve, the original sin that is responsible of human existence. InInfinite Jest, the site of trauma is not just the AA center, but Hal too experiences trauma, discovering his father’s dead body, that forms his current identity; Joelle’s acid accident possibly gives birth to Madame Psychosis: Trauma here creates an entirely new identity. And even in The Broom of the System, Lenore Beadsman goes the traumatic experience of an identity crisis due to the shared name w/ her Grandmother, Lenore Beadsman. (This calls to attention the two David F. Wallaces in The Pale King. Because of the unfinished state of the novel, we can only imagine what traumatic experience both David Wallaces will go through, that is, from what we have only glimpsed from their displacement.) Trauma becomes for Wallace something that is overlooked, which is depressing because it is trauma that is wholly specific to an individual (even within a shared traumatic experience) and is what really creates an individual unique within a society that clumps people within groups, organizations, jobs, classes, etc.”

 

Jeff Stern: “The thing that struck me was the “what’s wrong?” device – the way the smoother of the tax guys would insert that phrase in a conversational pause strategically in order to be seen as insightful and attentive, while actually being less attentive and attuned to the person he’s listening to than he might be otherwise.  This reminded me a lot of the way that Orin would approach subjects in IJ, with the same story, the fake wedding band, and seem to connect in a way with them that other men were unable to accomplish. That sense of personal connection that is so rare – a feeling that someone really knows you, cares about you, has an instant connection in a way that others you have known your whole life have failed to make. And the parallels here are profound, I think. It’s not just the contrivance that fakes a true connection. It’s not just the way that the social con artist preys upon the ego and fragility of the subject. It’s also the newness. The way that we attach importance and profundity to someone who is able to show insight connection immediately. In fact, it seems all the more powerful that a stranger can tell you things and know things about you that those you have lived with all your life have failed to see. This is the power of fortune tellers, the power of Dr. Phil. They cut through the bullshit of everyday life in seconds and see into your soul, precisely because you are so desperate to have someone recognize you – the real *you* inside that you always keep partially hidden from the world for fear of ridicule (or worse, hurt or death due to exposure). And as a subject you don’t realize that these devices are so successful because you are just like everyone else. You don’t realize that those around you know these things too, but don’t say them out of politeness or out of fear or out of being absorbed in their own neuroses. You wouldn’t accept your friend saying this stuff to you anyway, precisely because of the shared history you have. You need to hear it from a stranger – you give them that power over you and the benefit of every doubt both because you crave that recognition and intimacy and yet are unable to deal with it on a regular basis because then that requires facing icky truths about yourself on a regular basis, and ewww.  And so whether it is the hook up artist or the professional networker, you are able to accept it then and imbue this experience with meaning and assign to this person a preternatural ability to see deep within your soul. And the nature of this exchange with a stranger or near-stranger – the social anxiety involved – helps to make it happen. And we would never do this in our regular lives with the regular people we love because we have to keep telling ourselves “this is water. this is water.” just to keep from exploding at that guy with the bad comb-over who has too many items in the express line at the grocery store, and our family – well, don’t get me started. Actual intimacy does breed contempt to a degree, and we’d much rather believe in magical intimacy even though it’s actually just pure trickery that leaves us cold and empty in the aftermath. So I guess that I think this is sort of a repetition of the theme of false intimacy trumping actual intimacy, and a sort of individualized version of the entertainment/boredom issues that Wallace addresses in IJ and TPK, flip sides of a coin on micro and macro levels, but really just talking about what it’s like to be human.”

Several folks submitted this one:  toward the end of Meredith Rand’s long monologue, she talks about “all the terrible country songs my dad used to listen to” and how if you change “the you to me, like, you understand that what they’re really singing about is losing some part of themself or betraying themself over and over for what they they think other people want.” (TPK, page 508). Wallace talks about this same phenomenon to David Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, page 198: “I remember just being real impatient with it [country music]. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized that, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know?”

The Menace of Insects – Glendennings obsession with mosquitoes as it relates to fear of insects (spiders) in Infinite Jest and “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.”

 

Contest #2: What is the single best word in The Pale King?

Winner: banausic, page 229, submitted by Jesse Hilson

“Banausic” is defined as serving utilitarian purposes only or mechanical or practical. The word and concept  (banausos) have an impressively complex etymology related to Greek mythology, economic insults, Plato, and philistinism. So much of The Pale King concerns the class of people who appear to actively choose to serve utilitarian purposes only—the practical, mechanical, routine tasks necessary that keep the nation’s finances flowing.

Runners Up:

scirocco

blancmange

neurospiritual

Other words submitted:

titty-pincher

dyadic

agnate

anfractuous

jejune

obtundated

hypoxic

Q-tipless

[I was a little surprised that no one submitted any of the words from the opening page of the novel: shattercane, sawbrier, muscadine, vetch, invaginate, chert, corn-bound. Read these.]

Congratulations again to all the winners. I will contact you about the prizes.


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