The Pale King approacheth

It took me a while to read the reviews of the soon-to-be-released David Foster Wallace novel The Pale King. I think I am the only academic who has cried at the two conferences I’ve attended where Wallace papers were presented. I might be the only contemporary literature scholar who is not eagerly anticipating the arrival of his final novel.

And I’ve been saying that since Michael Pietsch announced that Little Brown would be publishing whatever he could agglomerate of Wallace’s final, incomplete work. (Quick note: I am of the school that Pietsch and Green knew and loved Wallace and his work well enough to know whether they had enough to publish and honor the art and artist. I find it ludicrous that some people are alleging that this novel is about cashing in or commodifying Wallace’s death. Those people should, with no respect due, shut their pie holes.)

But I digress (so you don’t remember I’m the one crying when someone reviews a book I haven’t read yet. Ahem.)

I feel like an ass admitting that I cry every time someone mentions the upcoming book. I feel like a dolt blogging about it. But such is my asinine doltishness. See also my asinine doltish posts on parenting, scholarship, flotsam, and jetsam.

I read one sentence into the Esquire review of The Pale King and burst into tears. After two more tries (a couple of days apart) I actually made it through the glowing, bowing, scraping, and genuflecting review.

Now I might actually read the book. Who can turn down a text that Publisher’s Weekly calls “one hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace, being, as it is, a transfixing and hyper-literate descent into relentless, inescapable despair and soul-negating boredom”? Not me. Already transfixed by boredom and relentless despair. To have that frustration and what’s-it-all-for anxiety narrated by my favorite author?

Sign. Me. Up.

Alsup alleges, in his Esquire review, that The Pale King might keep you up at night because “because D.F.W. writes sentences and sometimes whole pages that make you feel like you can’t breathe.” That is true, sir. That’s why I absolutely devour Infinite Jest each time I read it. That’s why I still wince at the pain of knowing David Foster Wallace isn’t writing any more. And I wince a bit with fear that The Pale King will be as uneven and good-but-uninspired as I found Oblivion.

If I read this novel, I need it to be earth shifting. I need it to top Infinite Jest. I need it to be a gift befitting DFW.

And that’s an unreasonable request, especially for an unfinished work.

That, probably, more than the sadness that lingers about his death, is why I don’t want to read The Pale King.

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IJ quote of the day 2

“These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light—the soul’s certainty that the day will have to be not traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something talll and sheer” (46).

Go read Infinite Jest.

So yo then man…

I’m having a seriously hard time returning to Infinite Jest.  I know I love the book,  for the same reason Dave Eggers urges us— in the 2006 edition— to read it:  “There is also a very quiet but very sturdy and constant tragic undercurrent that concerns a people who are completely lost, who are lost within their families and lost within their nation, and lost within their time, and who only want some sort of direction or purpose or sense of community or love.”

But this reading is different.

The reference to Hal’s father’s umbrella early on made me cry, as did the harried but attuned orderly’s “So yo then man what’s your story?” at the end of the first chapter. More tears as Orin introduces us to the howling fantods.

Damnit, what kind of genius brackets his novel with a traumatic scene in which our hero is pinned to the floor of the men’s bathroom then fastened into a psychiatric gurney and asked to tell us, the psychically incomprehensible and strapped  down, the rest of the novel? Tell me.

This reading is infinitely depressing, people. His writing is so amazing, but it didn’t make me cry in 1997. Now he’s dead and I have a kid, and I can’t take it.

IJ quote of the day

In honor of infinitesummer.org, I feel like posting the most awesomest Infinite Jest quotes as I come across them (all within the rules of Infinite Summer, for I will not post a quote before the online world reaches the week’s requisite pages.)

“Uncle Charles, a truly unparalleled slinger of shit, is laying down an enfilade of same, trying to mollify men who seem way more in need of a good brow-mopping than I” (13).

Come on. Go read it!

“The Unfinished”

It has taken several days for me to finish D.T. Max’s New Yorker article, biography of sorts, of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. The article is moving, and includes correspondence from Wallace to Franzen and DeLillo, and quite a bit from his wife, Karen Green, whose pain I cannot even fathom and would love more than anything to salve with…what I don’t know. Because it’s none of my business, but if I cry reading a biography what must she do living in it?

Aside from being a touching portrait of an intensely intelligent writer who wanted simply to make readers feel “less alone inside,” and who in that quest felt increasingly more alone (except in the sunshine that was his marriage…thank heaven for Karen Green, who from the article I gather made him feel more at home and comfortable in his own skin than, it seems, anything else could outside really great writing).

What compelled me yesterday, reading the final pages of Max’s article (I still haven’t read the new piece of fiction that follows—I can’t yet) was Wallace’s root idea for The Pale King, as he articulated it in a typed note amongst his papers: “Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—likes on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious things you can find…and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

I think that technicolor bliss can probably come after any intense “almost kills you” period of intense focus on undesirable emotions (fear might work as well as boredom).  As melodramatic as I oft am, I know that the weeks of intense three-year-old battling, of taking each breath as though it might be the only thing that could keep me going, is part of what made yesterday, a gorgeous, sun-filled day of hiking and strawberries and camaraderie with Peanut, the second-by-second bliss it was.

It was not a perfect day. It was a perfect-as-human-existence-can-get-if-you-have-a-dollop-of-realism-adorning-the-top-of-your-daily-trifle day.  And I’ll take it.

Do not read that story.

I didn’t know what I was in for, reading that story, but I know that it is the single most tragic thing I’ve read, including Hemingway’s famous six word story, and that the final line is eight hundred thousand times more (just more—more everything—more compelling, more shocking, more evocative, more terrifying, more conclusive, more emotive, more beautiful, more provocative) than any last line, including the last line of Infinite Jest. And I wish I had never read it, because this is now seared in the softest part of my mind.

I can’t quote it and I can’t bear to recommend it. Please don’t read it if trauma haunts you.

Incarnations of Burned Children at Equire and in Oblivion.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter this much, but it does.

I was trying to explain to Spouse, again, why my world is still upside down about David Foster Wallace’s death. Why I still read hours’ worth of blogs and comments and articles about him instead of doing the other work I’ve promised editors and conferences and myself.

And here’s what I came up with tonight.

It’s not just that he’s gone and we won’t get any more of his work. I mourn that, sure, but there’s a few pieces I haven’t read, and they will last me a while. It’s not just that I’m paralyzed with the breadth of non-DFW work that has been published since my reading has slowed to the pace of a cold, squeezie bottle of honey fresh from the fridge and in need of a serious thaw to disgorge its contents, and that I’m convinced that there are dozens of fabulous works just waiting for me, most of which I’ll never get to. Even rereading IJ will last me a year, given the whole toddler in my care thing. The posthumous twisted knots in my stomach and mind are not just stemming from the remembrance that, when I began reading Infinite Jest, the first piece of his work I ever picked up, fewer than 100 pages in I decided I wanted to go to grad school and study literature, theory, rhetoric, and writing so I could bend my mind far enough to more than just appreciate what he was doing to mine. It’s not just that I stopped reading his work, caught up in life and a grad school that didn’t value his fiction as much as I did, and I now feel terribly guilty that I didn’t read everything fresh off the presses, couched as it was in moments of time, popular culture critiques and all.

So why am I still absolutely inside out about his death? Forget the normal psychological, Oh no I’m going to die, too. Oh no I will never write as well as him. Oh no he’ll never write again. Oh no my kid is going to die and I don’t ever want to know what his mother knows. Oh no we’re all going to die and most of us won’t even notice when the rest o us go. I know all that. I deny it like everybody else.

It’s that I want to stop my day to day life right now so I can consume his prose non-stop. I want to read and read and read and read everything David Foster Wallace ever wrote. Because when I read his work—fiction and  nonfiction—right there, in the moment, I am everything I want to be. He leads me to a place where I’m smart and interesting and humane and giving and wise and raw and empathetic and genuine and white-knuckled, staring my demons in the face. He lets me into worlds I’ve never known and deepens the colors for me on worlds I know better than I thought anyone else could.

His words make me the best things about myself, and nothing else does that. So, yeah, I’m absolutely shattered. Still. And I don’t see that going away anytime soon, even if that’s unseemly or silly or just downright unhealthy.

So how do we get up in the morning and make toast and do the dishes, now that he’s dead? What really sucks is that we just do. Because it really shouldn’t matter this much, to those who were not his wife, his sister, his parents. But it does. It really does matter.

Aaaah, bliss.

You know, sometimes it’s just good to be exhausted.

Now that Peanut has adjusted to Daylight Savings Time, a little government intervention I like to call The Fcuk with Parents Solstice, which was clearly invented and perpetuated by old men with no sense of empathy for the month that it takes to re-regulate a child’s sleep patterns after the shift, I’ve decided to join a gym that opens at 5am so I can workout before Peanut and Spouse wake.

This seemed more self-cudgelingly painful and ludicrous than volunteering for a lifetime of respecting my child’s needs, but the first morning I slipped out of the house before dawn, every moment was glorious. I woke groggy, but that was no different than the days Peanut wakes me in the wee hours. (Background: I have a kid who doesn’t sleep well. Never has. He wakes every 3 hours or so. He sleeps no more than 9.5 hours total, even with the waking. Totally normal, well precedented in my family, yet totally eroding the little patience with which I came to this parenting game. [NB: Do not email me with Babywise bullshit. Letting your baby cry is not parenting. Throughout the world children do not sleep until 3 or 4. It’s just biology. Stop telling me to force my kid to be different. He goes to sleep fine. He has nightmares. He wakes and needs us. Just because it’s killing me doesn’t mean I need your child abuse handbook.] And because of his sleep pattern, if I spend a little time in the evening with Spouse, and either clean or write, I’m looking at 6 or 7 hours of sleep, which is almost hourly interrupted by either a screaming child or a yowling cat. Daily considering asking the SPCA to take both.)

Being alone in a quiet house was exhilarating. Driving alone in the dark, without having to explain why, yes, we need to share the road with other cars and trucks, and that, if you really don’t want to share you ought find yourself a job and some money so you can build your own infrastructure, because the logistics of buying out the freeway system so you can watch the world go by from your car seat with a view unobstructed with other humans is a little out of mommy’s purview this week, was almost orgasmic. And the foggy sunrise was delicious. But far away the best part of getting up after 5 hours of sleep to exercise my wayward body into some semblance of energy was that I got to start, finally, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays.

This is my definition of heaven.

I would do the elliptical backwards for four hours straight to read that man’s writing. (I wish I could footnote in wordpress [not for some hackjob parody, but because I really need to add a few notes that are too long to put into the text], but I’m angry about the new design so I’ll do parenthetical asides, instead.) (To wit: ) (This month, I have to do the elliptical backwards because of the cast I’m in for the next month. And I get my actual fitness from the erg, but I can’t read while I row, and I can’t get my pedal stroke to functional at all well the cast. So elliptical backwards until I lose feeling in my foot, then switch to the erg, silently debating Wallace’s arguments in my head until I can feel my toes again.)

And Consider the Lobster,  and thoughtful and moralistic and borderline self-righteous (in all the right ways) collection of essays (predominantly articles he’s written for some of this country’s finest magazines) has eye-rollingly pleasurable topics nestled within. I’ve often recommended that my fair readers read or re-read Infinite Jest. But honestly, I may have found my favorite DFW piece, blissfully ensconced as I now am, seven pages into Wallace’s review of a grammar usage text. This chapter/article/review has me deliriously happy.

Without fail, Wallace’s writing brings me to two, independent, and wonderful conclusions. One, I am not crazy, but if I am, I am not alone in my particular breed of insanity. If no one else does, David Foster Wallace understands me. [NB: Yes, I know I should use the past tense. But because I am still coming to grips with his death, and because I prefer the critical approach of reading the text as always present tense, as always available to us regardless of the author’s state of being, I will say that he understands me, by which I mean that I feel understood when I read his work. I attribute no intention to this sensation, for I do not believe he wrote for me, personally. Issues with the whole “not knowing me,” bit, and all.]  Two: I need to get one hundred times smarter and better each day, and read more and write more because I am compelled to express myself as beautifully, compellingly, intelligently, and hilariously as this man did. I won’t get there, but I’ll live trying.

Now, of course, wiping away tears in the gym, thrice, I have a new conclusion, one I’ve been working on since September 15 when I found out: This world, each day, is poorer for having lost him. I, again, offer condolences to his family. And I, again, roll myself into an intellectual black hole wanting more of his mind spread—-like a freshly blended hummus made from a secret family recipe that will be lost after its last knowledgeable chef burns it in a passion-fueled fire and vows, because of the pain cooking causes him in the wake of a divorce from a woman who was his gustatory muse, never to blend that garbanzo-tahini-garlic extravaganza again—-across the pages of book and magazine. May Hollywood never, never violate his words with a film version. (Just saw Into the Wild last night, finally, and found, yet again, that the book was far better. Sorry, Mr. Penn. Love your work. But the film didn’t do justice to the epistelary memoir.)

Wallace’s review, the fourth piece in Consider the Lobster (after a riveting and pathetic look at the porn industry’s Oscar night, a scathing review of Updike’s latest self-absorbed book, and a brilliant explanation of what I’ve always found interesting about Kafka’s work—that it’s funny in a way few people comprehend) offers frenetic  grammatical satisfaction to those among us who cringe at the general linguistic ignorance of those around us. If you get off on words, and are passionate about the language in which you read, write, and speak, turn to “Authority and American Usage.” It strokes the grammar wonk’s ego, it oxygenates the fires of grammatical anger, and it offers 62 juicy pages of critical argument about the political nature of language.

62 mathafuckin pages, y’all.

Laugh all you want. I gladly fly my geek flag, higher today now that I know Wallace’s flag is right there in my courtyard, too.  To read that DFW, a man whose work I admire more than any other author I’ve read, in whose words I’ve found a friend and a home, and for whose memory I plan a long critical academic career (which might well having him doing subterranean 360s), gets just as frothy as I do when college students submit their first papers riddled with such eggregious errors that we feel the need to conduct an emergency English grammar seminar in our classrooms, pushing literature and critical thinking off the gurney and diemboguing our linguistic scalpels with the sole intent of making the world a better place to read.

I’m actually ready to get out of bed every morning, with maybe five hours of sleep behind me, to read David Foster Wallace’s essays again and again. I only wish I hadn’t quit reading his work during my grad school and baby years, because I feel like I’m playing catch-up, devouring his writing like a person who finds herself, after a full day of unblinking focus on a newborn, starving and ready to eat anything in the house; and just as she scours the cupboards for something edible, she turns around to find a gorgeous, tasty, well balanced, hot meal from a caring and likeminded friend just sitting there, as though it’s been waiting for her.

Goddamn he’s good.

My third and final DFW post

[I just can’t leave this post as I originally wrote it. But I can’t delete it entirely because the comments from blueeyedsoul are lovely. Rather than leave this angry, name-calling post as is, I’ll repost here my original reaction at DFW’s death. I feel, first and foremost, for his parents and his wife at the stomach-turning loss. And I feel deeply for the reading community. See also my first post about his death.]

posted sept. 16 here:

In grad school, the professors wouldn’t let me write my thesis on Infinite Jest because none of them had read it, and when they saw that it topped 1300 pages (I don’t have my copy to give you precise numbers, I just moved and don’t have anything in the fridge and need to go shopping and am not in the best mood, so bear with me on estimates) of densely packed text and endnotes sheer rambling genius, they balked at the workload reading both his novel and my thesis would bring to their carefully balanced lives.

I resented their laziness. Then I changed topics and vowed one day to write an erudite lit-crit analysis of the text. Especially because Wallace excelled at but distrusted literary criticism. But shite happened and I haven’t gotten around to it.

I blogged about a month ago that I felt disconnected from the world when I realized Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been dead for three days before I knew. It was as though my sadness didn’t count any more because I had missed the window.

This time, the world rotated twice before I knew DFW died. The announcement rocked me to the core but didn’t change my day. And that, itself, saddens me because it means my life is so shifted off its base that the shockingly early death of one of my top ten creative inspirations doesn’t even rate a schedule change. The rest of my week, though, shuddered and sputtered as the implications of his death sunk in.

And I don’t know what to say. I’ve known for two days and I don’t know what to say. (Updating this weeks later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) [Updating this almost a year later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) His writing changed me. I saw him speak once (thanks MPB and SBB) and his speaking did not change me. The creepy cult curiously smarmy cadre of followers did not change me. I was rarely tempted to quit my job and run off to Pomona to be his student, because I didn’t feel any need to be connected with him personally. I didn’t want to be taught by him or to talk with him or to write for him.

I wanted to read his work.

And now there won’t be more.

I may be silly to feel his death as a weighty presence in my life. The man himself had no presence in my life. His characters, their actions, their idiosyncrasies, their seismically surreal lives had a transient presence in my life. But all I have to do is recall the cover of his weighty novel and I can again touch the intellectual dance of reading it, tender humanity of the characters, and its mind-bending importance on post-postmodern literature. I can, remembering, feel my hunger for more as I read myself bleary-eyed for the entire summer of 1997 (I was busy in the summer of 1996. I didn’t pick up IJ because of the grant. I picked it up because I wanted a book that would ensure nobody would talk to me on BART, a la The Accidental Tourist. But I loved it intensely then, and would love to reread it now.) [I am rereading it now, thanks to infinite summer.] I can feel my connection and revulsion and confusion at Wallace’s characters every time someone says his name.

And I want more. I’m angry and disappointed that there won’t be more.

I loved his lobster piece for Gourmet magazine. I love that he took the job, puzzled at the pop cultural status that brought him such tangential work, and I loved his rambling thoroughness. I loved that he came to the conclusion that it’s just not okay to boil creatures alive.

I haven’t read the obits. I don’t even know how he died. (I found out later and wrote a horrible post on this blog, of which I am embarrassed but which I will not erase.) I don’t care how he died. This is not a Jeff Buckley story or a Kurt Cobain story or a River Phoenix story. I wish I knew what kind of story this is. All I know is that the woot from Sept. 16 made me feel all too keenly that nobody will take DFW’s place.

And now all I can think is, I hope all you bastard literary canon snobs will read his work, because you missed the boat the first time. When I write my PhD dissertation on his work and one of you lazy self preserving pricks says you haven’t read it, I will produce all the contemporary fiction on the shelves and say, “well, it’s better than and worse than and different than this….And it’s all we have left.”

The Macarthur grant bit always forces the genius label. I don’t know that he was genius. I just know I really love reading his writing. I don’t even know that I love his writing itself. I love the experience of reading it. And that is the ultimate compliment for an author. I may not love your work, man. I just love what it does to my head. Your writing makes me want to work harder and smarter and be a better and more empathetic person.

We’re all going to miss you, and our minds are poorer now that yours is silent. I hope, at least, that the pain is gone.