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A supposedly fun thing I’ve never done (yet): Read David Foster Wallace.

April 15, 2011

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s unfinished posthumous book, The Pale King, is being hailed as “the most exciting novel of 2011,” even though it’s set in a Peoria IRS office and its theme is boredom. Even from the grave, it seems, Wallace manages to tease and madden those of us who care about literature.

The task of rendering boredom, a common and universal experience to be sure, into art that is not in itself boring would seem to be beyond even such a protean literary talent as Wallace. I can’t help wondering if the goal the author had set himself was so big that it played at least a tiny part in driving him to hang himself in 2008.

Of course, Wallace had bigger and more persistent demons — chronic depression and various addictions, mostly — that more credibly explain his untimely death at the age of 46. But it’s not unheard of for a book to kill its author. Most famously in modern times, John Kennedy Toole  committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31 after failing to find a publisher for his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.

After Toole’s mother finally succeeded in getting Confederacy published in 1981, the thing won the Pulitzer Prize. Toole suffered from depression, too, so I don’t want to hit this point too hard. I’m merely making the observation that both men killed themselves with important books left either unfinished or unpublished.

Be that as it may, the world seems to be divided into two kinds of readers: Those who believe, as most of the book’s reviewers do, that David Foster Wallace was the greatest fiction writer of his generation. And those who, having perhaps been put off or annoyed by the ravings of the first group, have never read his work.

As a book reviewer and literary journalist, I’m supposed to pretend that I’ve read all and know all, but in this case I confess that I belong to the second category. It may be a character defect, but whenever a new talent –and this is true for singers and actors as well as writers — is forced down my throat by media hype, a resentment rises up and I spit it out in disgust.

Actor Christian Kane: If theres ever a Foster biopic....

I justify this, at least when it comes to literature, on the “so-many-books-so-little-time” principle. I’ll never be able to read more than a fraction of the books I’d like, so it really doesn’t matter whether I get to Wallace or not, even if he is some uber lit genius. I humbly realize this is self-defeating, but some perverse part of me doesn’t care.

Those who fall into the first, Wallace-worshipping category, are doubtless hissing and baring their teeth as they cross their index fingers in front of their faces. David Foster Wallace is something like the Kurt Cobain of literature, his work and suicide evoking nakedly personal reactions. I’m amazed at how many the Pale King reviews begin with personal anecdotes of the critic’s response to this or an earlier book or to news of the author’s death.

Nonetheless, with a tsunami of publicity rising around my feet as the publication of The Pale King drew near (it goes on sale today), I’ve started to think –grudgingly to be sure –that maybe I need to catch up on “the greatest writer of my generation.”

I’m probably not the only one. The thing to remember as you approach Mount Wallace is that as a genius, he’s not an easy, breezy walk on a well-marked trail. Reading Wallace, whether his 1,100-page masterpiece, Infinite Jest, or any of his less ambitious books, requires commitment. You have to be willing to submerge yourself into his world, his way of constructing sentences and stories, his syntax, even his words.

Reading Wallace, in other words, is less like the date-and-a-movie-and-maybe-some-hanky-panky that most writers, even literary ones, promise, and more like a marriage. It’s a long slog and what you get out of it is dependent on what you put into it. But it may be worth it if you persevere– or so the acolytes promise.

How difficult this can be was illustrated by some wiseacre who posted the opening passage of Infinite Jest as an unknown work in progress on Yahoo Answers and asked people to tell what they thought. No surprise: It was blasted for “rambling descriptions,” “no discernible voice/tone” and other sins against clean writing. MobyLives has a perceptive take on how this nasty joke, intended to show Yahoo Answer’s responders as stupid, is unfair.

But still, that first page of Infinite Jest does not embrace the reader, at least not this reader. The writing is intentionally banal. Greater than usual concentration is required just to visualize the scene and the people in it. If you plan to tackle that book, or The Pale King, I say: Go with God. Report back when your mission of exploration is done.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2011 6:21 pm

    I met Wallace twice. We served together on a Los Angeles Bookfair Panel. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he wouldn’t engage. Maybe he thought I wanted something from him. No matter, I bought Infinite Jest and tried to read it, but couldn’t get past the first ten pages. I tried again after Wallace hung himself. I pushed myself, got 50 pages in. Still couldn’t. No matter how sad I feel about his manner of dying, I’m not reading Pale King.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 17, 2011 9:59 pm


    Well, thanks for that. I don’t feel such a philistine now. I know Wallace’s case is complex, but I can’t help thinking he suffered as a writer for being told relentlessly how great he was. Many years as a literary journalist have led me to conclude that nothing is more dangerous to a writer than self-consciousness. And nothing breeds self-consciousness like praise, especially early praise. I suspect that Wallace labored under the ridiculous notion that everything he wrote had to be great, which is why he shied away from the novel after Infinite Jest, and why he set himself the ridiculous task of writing a novel about boredom. Yes, I know Beckett and a few others have tilled that barren soil and coaxed a green shoot here and there, but I say there’s enough boredom in life. I don’t really need it in my art.

    • Eileen permalink
      April 18, 2011 1:52 pm

      I couldn’t even finish his short story in the New Yorker. The one thing he wrote that I did read every word of and loved was “Consider the Lobster” in Gourmet mag.

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