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April 12, 2011

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Zack

I read it to review over a couple weeks (finished it on Sunday), and enjoyed that chapter immensely. It's a weird book; I remember getting a hundred pages in and suddenly realizing, "There's no possible way this is going to be long enough," despite having over four hundred pages left to go. Which, as observations go, isn't, as one might say, exactly the height of profundity, and I can't really imagine what it would be like to read this as someone who actually knew DFW IRL, so to speak. But as a fan, it was a frustrating, depressing, and intermittently profound experience, and I'm glad they chose to publish what they did, warts (Type of thing) and all. It made me wish I had the time to go and re-read his essay collections and Infinite Jest again. Maybe this summer. (I always have a hard time with Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, for some reason.)

Did you see the article in The Awl about Wallace's self-help book collection? (http://www.theawl.com/2011/04/inside-david-foster-wallaces-private-self-help-library ) Apologies if you'd already mentioned this. It's not the greatest article--the author makes some interesting points, but fails to bring them together satisfyingly, and there's a frustrating sense throughout of someone trying to understand depression and despair without being particularly capable of empathizing with sufferers of either.

bill

"since Lev Grossman clearly has the whole thing covered (kidding) (asshole) (grow some fucking hair)..."

I enjoyed that.

And I'm slooooooooowly reading INFINITE JEST at the moment. I figure, this thing is going to pretty much be a second career, and accepting that is the only way I can prepare myself to psychologically make it all the way to the end. What I wondered to a friend of mine the other day, regarding Wallace and INFINITE JEST, is: How do you decide to *do* something like this? How do you then plan out an 1,100 page novel about tennis and addiction and depression and Quebec and all the rest of it? In some ways, the doing of it is less amazing to me than the initial decision.

Glenn Kenny

@ Bill: I'm not sure that what you call the "initial decision" was an ENTIRELY conscious one. I think there was certainly an element of literary swinging-for-the-fences inherent in "Jest," but by the same token none of it would have happened had that stuff not been in Dave's head, and heart, and experience. It's an interesting question.

@ Zack: Yeah, that piece is...interesting. Really interesting. And it upsets me personally in a very fundamental way, not because of the writing or whatever, but just because when I knew and worked with Dave I was an active alcoholic, and I discussed the issue with him on occasion, and didn't do anything about it myself, and now I am no longer an active alcoholic, and, well, I don't really need to say much more here, right? It's sad all over.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Bill: Psychologically, I found it helped the first time to think of it like a TV series---initially, it's very episodic, and you don't stay in one place long enough to get bored. Then by the time the over-plot takes over (inasmuch as it ever does), you're hooked. It's like if I said "Wanna watch this movie, BREAKING BAD? It's 25 hours long!" that would sound intimidating in a way that 33 episodes of 45 minutes doesn't. By the second time through, I was just devouring it---I've read that freakin' thing nine times, and times #5 and #6 were literally getting to the last page, turning to the first page, and resuming.

The Awl piece I found fascinating, and of course, sad as hell. It was interesting to see how fully DFW committed to his refusal to be snobbish or dismissive of poorly-written pop-psych---consistent with what he preached, but then, so few writers are that consistent. If only it had been enough, but it seems like what went wrong for DFW was more a matter for Vonnegut---"Breakfast of Champions" specifically---than for anyone more psychologically inclined.

bill

@Glenn - "I'm not sure that what you call the "initial decision" was an ENTIRELY conscious one."

Well, no, of course, but even so a great deal of planning had to go into INFINITE JEST, more than likely before anything other than notes was written down, by which I mean before he wrote the "official" beginning. And at some point, Wallace must have decided that all of this would be one novel, and it would be a long'un. That's all I mean.

@Fuzzy - Yes, that's a good way of thinking about it (I like your BREAKING BAD analogy). I'm reading short stories in conjunction, and as a way of not becoming overwhelmed by INFINITE JEST. So far, it's working, and may even eventually include other short novels.

Zack

@Glenn: I'm very sorry I brought it up, then.

Glenn Kenny

@Zack: No apology necessary! just sayin', is all.

@ Bill: Indeed. Certainly not disagreeing with you, just thinking out loud about his process as I understood it. When one commissioned a piece, one knew it was going to come in long; that's just how it worked. he wasn't arrogant or snotty about it, it's just that he wrote long, and you were gonna have to deal with it if you were gonna work with him. Sometimes it didn't work out. It could be a rather peculiar process, with peculiar results. In 1997, I asked him to contribute to Premiere's 10th anniversary issue on "Movies That Defined Our Decade" and he chose "Terminator 2" and turned in a 3,000 word piece. Problem was, the "package" we were working on had been planned to include 10 pieces of about 300 words each, give or take. And there was no way we could distill the piece down to a 300 word bite, or reformat the package to allow for a longer piece, so we had to pass on it. (It eventually turned up in the house organ of a British bookstore chain.) And he wasn't particularly upset by that. Of course, Premiere now looks like the chumps of the universe for that, right? The upside is that I had a nice time working with Chris Buckley, who did a tidy little meditation on the film...

bill

And the process is what I'm fascinated by here. I don't want to hammer this into the ground. I guess part of it is the idea that anyone could write this novel, or any of the other similarly massive and complex novels that have been written, and still have any time to do anything else with their lives. Like eat, for instance.

Joel

I'm only on the second chapter (or §2, as the novel has it), and I'm thinking about rationing it over the next few months while I study for the bar exam. Having taken a Tax course last year, and found it weirdly fascinating, I'm certainly enjoying what would have been otherwise been horribly dull. Also, I find the book far less dry than some of the longer stories in Oblivion, which read (intentionally) like technical writing. In only 20 pages, there's so much beautiful stuff, most of it a loving, almost Cather-like description of the midwest plains. I'm definitely looking forward to the chapter that Glenn describes.

YND

Back in 1998 I had an amazing job as basically Night Watchman for a camp out in the middle of the woods in rural Minnesota. I'd show up at 10pm (lights out), make a pot of coffee and just make sure the place didn't burn down before I went home at dawn. In addition to being the perfect job for a screenwriter trying to crank out a script, it afforded me the opportunity to read both "Infinite Jest" and Don DeLillo's "Underworld" in about a week each. Good damn times. I'm looking forward to returning to IJ someday, but I know it's going to be tough to ever find the concentrated time to just immerse myself like that.

Matt Dutto

Perhaps Wallace intentionally meant to snub Frey by refusing to mention him even in passing, but consider that the Frey/Oprah debacle didn't blow up until January '06. The "Dave Wallace" character appears to have written the foreward to THE PALE KING in 2005. (See page 80: "...except that one disadvantage of addressing you here directly and in person in the cultural present of 2005....") Again, this may still have been an intentional snub. We'll likely never know for sure, of course.

bstrong

I'm on page 258 myself. I hadn't thought of it, and I had to thumb back, but you are right Glenn, that would have been the place to acknowledge Frey. He probably didn't even mean to snub him intentionally, but it's nice Frey didn't seem worth mentioning by name. Even "trivial" soap operas like As the World Turns or Guiding Light have been named so far.

Bryce

Dare I ask what Lev Grossman did? He always seemed a reasonably solid guy, what with getting Snow Crash and Watchmen on Time's best books of the century list, and I really did enjoy The Magicians.

Bryce

Ah... Never mind.

Scott

I'm about 100 pages in. "The Pale King", so far, is cohering as a novel a lot more than I thought it would. I totally agree with Joel, in that there's some descriptive writing here that's almost lyrical. (The long opening sentence really jarred me, it seemed so un-Wallacian.) I can definitely hear the Cather echoes, but I also thought of Lorrie Moore, for some reason.

There's an extraordinary, moving piece by Jonathan Franzen in next week's issue of The New Yorker that details, among other things, Franzen's friendship with Wallace, as well as touching on a number of the important themes in "The Pale King" (using "Robinson Crusoe" as an interesting counterpoint). In an odd promotional move, TNY is making that essay freely available to readers who "like" the magazine on Facebook, but for this week only. If that's not your style and you don't subscribe, be sure to pick up a hard copy. It's very much worth reading.

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_franzen

Zach

Haven't yet picked up a copy of TPK. For some reason I don't really feel up to reading it yet, although I'm sure I will soon. It's release has accelerated the flow of Wallacalia - as people here have no doubt noticed - and some of the pieces have left me befuddled, sad, and tired. Franzen's piece is one of them - it's astonishingly forthcoming and, um, piercing, with lots of uncomfortable things discussed and ruminated on. It can also be angering at parts, for reasons I'm attempting to figure out.

I think one of the best pieces so far regarding DFW's tragic demise is the Guardian interview with his widow, Karen Green. Of all of his intimates who have thus far made some of their respective thoughts known, she seems closest to understanding what is, ultimately, impossible to understand.

Thanks for linking that AWL piece, too, Zack. What a strange, sad, and terribly fascinating article. While reading it, I kept thinking that I shouldn't be reading it, but now I'm glad I did. Maybe.

Whatevan Dando

Wasn't Grossman's piece highly complimentary? Don't get me wrong, I laughed at your parenthetical crack, just wondering why you've got beef with him...maybe it was that dumb "Harry Potter with ATTITUDE!!!" novel he wrote.

Glenn Kenny

@ Whatevan Dando: Yeah, it was complimentary, but the thesis that "The Pale King" is more "successful" than "Infinite Jest" is a lot of crap. Also, whenever Grossman's written about Wallace, there's always been this undercurrent of, "This guy's a weirdo, why aren't MY novels getting HIS reviews?" Like I said: Asshole.

bill

I can't say I got that undercurrent from Grossman, exactly, but what gets up my nose is stuff like "Reading INFINITE JEST now, what you'll realize is..." I don't even have a solid opinion on the book yet, but Grossman seems to think he's got the book, and everyone's opinion of it, nailed.

Glenn Kenny

@ BIll: Yeah, it's ALSO that: the "[Your Name Here] Explains It All For You" stance all the kids are crazy about, that originated in its current form with Malcolm Gladwell, another motherfucker I don't like, to use Miles Davis's term.

I'm thinking of using that as the title for my own memoir, by the way: "Another Motherfucker I Didn't Like." Whadda y'all think?

bill

It certainly fits.

Whatevan Dando

Clearly a parody, Rotch. Written by some dude named Robert Brenner.

Bryce

(!!!) Day made.

A. Campbell

I can't read TPK. Just can't. Can't ever pick up THE LAST TYCOON, either. Or JUNETEENTH.

DFW's widow says she knows he wanted it published, the way he left it in a stack and illuminated on his desk. But even that is a meager half-measure.

He doesn't owe me anything- Lord knows he published enough, and suffered enough -but I'm not going to give him the satisfaction. Damnit, Dave! And good, eternal rest to you as well.

(Side note: I particularly loathe the way that hagiography now dictates that some reviews reexamine DFW's work as a whole in order to properly praise TPK. It's just distasteful- and ridiculous, since INFINITE JEST is more of a wholly realized work than all but a handful of writers ever achieve, and by itself alone would put DFW in the pantheon.)

Frank McDevitt

Reading it now, it's kind of wrecking me emotionally (in a good way), so it's slow going. But Glenn (or anyone else who's reading it), what are your thoughts on the one-two punch that is chapter's 5 and 6? Those chapters totally dazzled me, and I think they're some of the best things DFW ever wrote. Incredible stuff.

Scott

"Infinite Jest" does seem to be one of those elusive books that resists any kind of critical pinning-down. Didn't Dave Eggers review the novel negatively upon release, only to write a glowing forward for the tenth anniversary edition? I might not be right about that --I just read it somewhere -- and I can't seem to find that original review. And, of course, Eggers did publish Wallace in McSweeny's.

Like Zack, I have trouble with "Brief Interviews" and am always meaning to revisit it. I fear I've probably missed something. It's Zadie Smith's favorite DFW book, and Smith is one of Wallace's best critics (she wrote a terrific, thoughtful piece on him that is included in her non-fiction collection, "Changing My Mind").

Zach, I find your reaction of being angered by the Franzen piece interesting and, of course, completely legitimate. Being angered by Franzen seems to be quite a common response for a lot of people (including myself at times, since I'm not a huge fan of his fiction), but I was moved by his depth of feeling here, especially since I find his novels to be kind of smug and condescending. It's quite raw and confessional, and I agree it's often an uncomfortable read.

All that said, I must confess that I've put "The Pale King" down for now. I'm sure I'll come back to it, but, like some of you, I'm not quite up to it at the moment. This has a lot to do with the fact that the book I just happened to read before picking up the Wallace was Édouard Levé "Suicide". For those who don't know, Levé was a French artist and writer who wrote his book (about a man reflecting on the suicide of an old friend), handed it in to his publisher, and killed himself days later. It's excellent; reflective, idiosyncratic, more melancholic than bleak -- speaking of, Zadie Smith will apparently be reviewing it for Harper's, so hopefully more people will discover it -- but reading that and TPK back-to-back has felt a little morbid. Instead, I'm reading "Tristram Shandy" for the first time, which seems fitting.

Frank McDevitt

Scott: What is it about Franzen's fiction that you find smug and condescending? It's a criticism I see leveled at him a lot, but I can never see it when I read his writing. Perhaps my reading of him is just unique to my own experience, but I find his fiction to be thoroughly unpretentious, and well worth reading.

Glenn Kenny

I am going to read Jonathan Franzen's piece today probably, and since he's come up, I will say that I very much admire his writing, and I also admire him personally a great deal. We haven't met all that many times, but the last few times we have he's shown me some significant kindnesses that he's been under absolutely no obligation to. It's a side of him that isn't cited often enough, and it makes me wish I could say more about it, but discretion forbids, etc.; still and all, I wanted to put that out there.

James Keepnews

I wish I had more to say about Mr. Wallace, but as much as I love the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, that and some of his short stories are all I've been able to get through. His work daunts me like Proust -- moreso, since he's speaking my language, dismayed late American. He's at the top the I-need-twelve-lifetimes-to-get-to-everything list.

Rather more in my wheelhouse, as your jazzbo editor would undoubtedly tell you before it got to galleys, the correct title/quote of your memoir would be "One Motherfucker I Never Did Like". Putting a fine point on it, perhaps, but a mighty fine one.

Miles could really turn a phrase in re: persons he knew. The classic '64 Down Beat Blindfold Test has Miles correctly (and uncharitably) identify Eric Dolphy as the perpetrator behind "Miss Ann": "That's got to be Eric Dolphy – nobody else could sound that bad! The next time I see him I'm going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he's ridiculous. He's a sad motherfucker." FYI, it will be my personal goal in the next period to inform those who displease me of my intentions to step on their foot (feet). Alternatively, I have it on good authority Miles once remarked that if Al Green had one tit, he would have married the motherfucker -- so say all of us?

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