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May 10, 2011


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It's Stecyk, not Steyck.

Adam R.

Seeing as the first comment on this entirely comment-worthy piece is a minor correction in a nitpicky fashion, can I just say: thanks for this. I'm only 150 pages into the book and unlikely to get much further right now thanks to various study crises, but I'm both a) really enjoying it so far, and b) looking forward to reading this at the right time (i.e. later).

Tom Russell

Thank you for sharing, Glenn. I've not read any of Wallace's work as of yet-- not because it's reputed to be difficult and full of footnotes, because I like both of those qualities very much, I just haven't dove into yet-- but I've found your posts about both the work and the man to be very interesting and touching.

I have what is no doubt a silly question about one of the "Big Red Son" excerpts in this piece. The Scotty anecdote goes into brackets for a bit during the second quoted paragraph; is that an aside that originally appears in the text?


@Tom - If I may answer based on my own recollection of the "Big Red Son", yes, it's originally in Wallace's piece.

And yes, great post, Glenn. I think you know my stance on unfinished books being published under these circumstances, but I'm not made of stone, either. I look forward to checking out THE PALE KING down the road. As for this:

"Well, without getting too much into the vexed issue of postmodernism and literature, to complain about postmodernist tricks is indicative that postmodernism has done a pretty shitty job of making itself understood."

I think it probably has, and at least one point, or on one night anyway, Wallace appears to have agreed with me. He was on Charlie Rose one night, and Rose asked him something like "What does post-modernism *mean*?" and Wallace answered "I don't know...*after* Modernism." Which remains my favorite definition to this day.


"If we look at the postmodern investigation as at least in part and attempt to pull back the curtain of artistic artifice in order to get at certain deeper truths about the stories we tell, then to express impatience with that investigation could be seen as an admission that we’d rather be lied to."

What's wrong with that admission? Assuming that it's true that expressing impatience with the investigation is an admission that I'd rather be lied to, which I doubt. I guess my objection to the claim that there's something wrong with the admission is the same objection I have to the claim that that admission is being made - namely, "being lied to" is a pretty absolute name for something that's quite relative. Dishonesty as to certain formal conventions, e.g. not appearing in your own book, may make it possible to tell certain truths that couldn't be told as effectively otherwise and that heavily outweigh that dishonesty. For that matter, thoroughgoing artifice may make it possible to say much that's profound. Hitchcock in his medium, and Henry James in his (the two, it strikes me, share a lot in common), are constantly lying to us about the way people talk, the way they live, the way (in Hitchcock's case) things look and sound, are forever omitting the things that make up everyday life, are constantly inventing impossible coincidences and contrivances. But what we get in return for all this artifice is immense, and probably impossible to obtain through a more 'honest' method. Or take Hawks, whose cinema is highly artificial in the seeming unartificiality and invisibility of his style - and necessarily so. RIO BRAVO couldn't work if it were in the least bit self-reflexive, if we were too conscious of a directorial voice that was separate from the characters and our thorough identification with them. I think that what postmodernism misses is that pulling back the curtain on artistic artifice is (a) just one of the many truths one can tell, not "the" truth or the most important truth, (b) probably one of the least important things an artist can say, when compared to all the things art can say about sex and death and faith and love and all the rest, (c) the sort of truth that, when told, impedes the telling of others, inasmuch as constant reminders that a fiction's a fiction diminish the fiction's significance, interfere with the telling of a story, and make it difficult to invest in the fiction emotionally - except in the way that you appear to be invested in The Pale King, as an oblique piece of autobiography.

Glenn Kenny

@ Tom R.: Yeah, what Bill said; it's from a footnote. Footnote #29 in the version published in "Consider the Lobster." Footnote #23 in the Premiere version.

@ Asher: I don't know that I was saying anything was "wrong" with such an admission so much as I was just setting up my terms, as it were. I suppose I ought to have given the post a different title, as I don't want to give the impression that I am only invested in "The Pale King" as an "oblique piece of autobiography." Leaving aside for the moment my feeling that that's a pretty shitty thing for you to throw at me, it's not actually true...but I did pick up one or two things on reading the assemblage that I thought were worth sharing, that maybe had a relevance to what would have been one of the book's more significant themes, not to mention provided some perspectives on its potential structure. There's quite a bit more that's immediately decipherable here than there is in the fragments of, say, "Original of Laura."

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Asher: I never knew DFW personally, so I can't speak to what's autobiography, coded or not. But I don't think that one can just dismiss DFW's noting of novelistic artifice as merely pulling back a never-all-that-thick curtain.

The great concern through just about all of DFW's work is the problem of solipsism and connection--- the insufficiency of available tools to connect the person in my head with the people around me. Whether it's DMT'ed Hal at the beginning of Infinite Jest, the Hideous Man constantly air-quoting words that aren't quite what he means, the ghost of Himself doing dopey poltergeist stunts because he literally can't talk to his son,, or---and this is the kicker---a journalist constantly back-tracking, rewriting in real time, and noting uncheckable facts, all of Wallace's characters, including "David Wallace" are people who are trying to tell you something who know they'll never quite tell it to you right.

So when Wallace draws attention to his own status as author, it's not just a way of being "honest" with the reader about his own fiction-making. Rather than pulling the reader out of the book, it actually pulls the reader, along with the author, *into* the book, making (or revealing) them as individuals trying to connect through language while painfully aware that language can't do the job. That's a concern that goes much broader and deeper than a mere awareness that fiction isn't, like, really real---it's an expansion of the definition of "fiction" to any interaction mediated by language (that is, almost any interaction), with accompanying and essential existential nausea.


Glenn, thanks for writing this. Makes me wish I knew DFW's writing better than I do.


I've brought it up around here before, but having not read THE PALE KING, I feel like what everybody's actually discussing is Wallace's story "Octet". That's one hell of an internal wrestling match regarding style/post-modernism/content/intent/fakery/etc., that story.


I find it weird that critics always assume an author is "playing a game" when he makes himself a character in his fiction, or, even worse, acknowledges that his fiction isn't real. In The Pale King, Wallace seems pretty clear that "truthfulness" has nothing to do with memoir writing, and that fiction does not always lie . I'm now halfway through the Fogle narrative, and I agree with Glenn: the plain, heavily detailed confessional voice is certainly more truthful than the ostensibly "true" fake-memoir parts about "David Wallace." The Fogle stuff actually reminds me of a Puritan spiritual narrative, especially in the way that it finds evidence of sin in nearly every aspect of Fogle's life until he hits the IRS and makes his conversion. It reads as so much more tedious than the rest of the book, which is fantastic, but the cumulative effect is definitely spiritual. TPK may not be a finished novel, but the parts are worth reading, on their own, as a great compilation of never-fully-connected stories and vignettes. Also, thanks for another great Wallace-reminiscence, Glenn.

Pete Segall

@bill: Or it could be "Good Old Neon," which may or may not be about another David Wallace character looking at what could be a different aspect of himself.

I finished The Pale King a couple of days ago. Taking Glenn's notion of it being about the self-torture elicited by the friction between different aspects of the same self I'm now seeing a particular and knotty poignancy to Wallace and Cusk - and their respective irregularities - encountering each other in the shuttle on Self-Storage Parkway and at IRS orientation. Wallace's skin condition and Cusk's perspiration are noted by the other with a good bit of disgust. I cannot claim that these are a divided self but the reflexiveness in the increasingly cramped settings (the circumscribed Peoria outskirts, the traffic on the Parkway, the overpacked car) lingers in a way that I can't shake.

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