Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

The Pale King and the Absence of Finality

DFW's Unfinished Novel

“He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he’d ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices.”

“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all—all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience[…]Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

After David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, his former literary agent, along with his widow and his editor, ventured into his office to find a 250-page manuscript left on the center of his desk, as if Wallace were offering one last gift to the literary world. As Bonnie Nadell, the agent, told The New York Times, “If there had been a spotlight on those pages, it could not have been more obvious.”

The Pale King is being greeted as a kind of swan song for Wallace, one of the greatest writers in American history. In that respect, it is doomed to fail for a few basic reasons. First, I would be very surprised if The Pale King is indeed the last work that is published under Wallace’s name. Since Wallace’s death in 2008, publishers have managed to find very creative ways to release his older works* and even the inside flap of The Pale King seems to imply that there is more to come (“He died in 2008, leaving behind unpublished work of which The Pale King is a part.”).

* These have ranged from good-faith attempts to expose an unpublished work, to rushed efforts to feed the growing demand for his voice, to downright exploitive attempts to turn his work into a mass-market self-help book.

The other main reason that The Pale King can’t really grant “closure” to his fans is that the work itself lacks closure—the novel remains unfinished. Continue reading

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Reality Hunger: I’m Full

Reality Hunger, a new book by David Shields, is an important book—of this much I am sure. If I had any doubts about this fact, the torrent of blurbs on the book jacket would clear any of those up. There is not an inch of space on the back or front cover that is not taken up by someone’s praise of the book, whether that praise is from fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, poet and “cultural critic” Wayne Koestenbaum, short story writer Amy Hempel, or nearly a dozen others. Some of the blurbs actually cover the title. It’s a bit much.

But then, Reality Hunger is all about breaking boundaries—boundaries of taboo, genre, expectation, artificiality, and so on. It also seems by design that a fair number of the blurbers are quoted in the actual book itself. Shields wants to force the reader to think about the relationship between different texts and different authors. Not much of Shields’ “manifesto,” you see, is actually written—or at least originally written—by Shields himself. What he has done instead is aggregate an impressive amount of text from other sources, ranging from Michael Moore to T.S. Eliot to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and organize them into several distinct categories.

This does not make Reality Hunger an inferior version of Bartlett’s, since the organization is the primary creative act. I cannot begin to imagine how well-read Shields must be for him to have cataloged such a diverse group of texts and remolded them into his own stream-of-consciousness treatise. It is also important to note that the vast majority of quotations are not presented as quotations. Their original sources are only listed in the appendix (and even then only out of legal obligation—Shields frankly admits he didn’t want to include them at all), and they are presented as regular text in numbered chunks, marked no differently from Shields’ own words. Indeed, it took me several dozen pages to realize that not everything in the book comes from Shields himself. The idea is that Shields is using other peoples’ words to express his own ideas. Continue reading

Monday Medley

What we read while getting nostalgic about driving the New York State Thruway in the Summer of ’69:

  • We basically should just tell you to read the New York Times Magazine each week, but when Political Science gets a feature-length article, it merits additional mention: Check out this article chronicling Political Science Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s impressive modeling to predict Iranian nuclear behavior, among other interesting tidbits.
  • Want to know why to you have to shut-off your iPod during take-off? If you’ve ever flown on a plane before, you should find this series of interviews by the Freakonomics blog with an anonymous commercial pilot quite interesting.