Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.”
His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace’s reading about the brain.
In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace’s reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace’s reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can’t Talk About It.” In Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson’s remark that “Freud’s vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace’s scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.”
These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing.
If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it’s because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO’s True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom is actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.”
The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace’s Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author, he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”
As it turns out, Wallace’s assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch’s horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide.
“Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc’s of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary.
In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace’s neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator’s consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator’s attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain.
The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father’s “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah’s “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace’s work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.”
This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection’s “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon,” Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal’s extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal’s condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it’s “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal’s suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal’s fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.”
In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can’t tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator’s “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story’s oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story’s eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE’S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story’s focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion.
Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch’s movies were about “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one’s stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror.
If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace’s final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace’s pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”
I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace’s attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace’s potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James’s. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace’s neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to…how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism.
The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace’s suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn’t think his way out, couldn’t “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It’s possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn’t able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace’s own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO’s True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don’t choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit:
STRAIGHTFORWARD, NO-BULLSHIT THESIS FOR WHOLE ARTICLE
The David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe.
The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace’s complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer.
BRIEF INTERPOLATION VIS A VIS WALLACE’S FICTION
I love Wallace’s novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. “Good Old Neon” and “Forever Overhead” are two of the best short stories I’ve ever read. And The Pale King, I’ll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace’s nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it’s the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention.
Basically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he’s about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn’t come across that way. Because without fiction’s distancing Narrator, Wallace’s voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn’t trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn’t lying about his credentials; he isn’t lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he’s about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it.
A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE OF THE WAYS IN WHICH WALLACE’S POSTMODERN TECHNIQUE WORKS DIFFERENTLY IF NOT CONVERSELY IN FICTION AND NONFICTION, WITH A FURTHER ELABORATION ON ETHICAL APPEALS
The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it’s related to Wallace’s approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace’s directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in “Authority and American Usage”:
The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press’s recent release of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today’s US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront: “Should you buy this book?” And because Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative “…rather than that book?” to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.
The “question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront” is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he’s going to do but also how he’s going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We’re reminded of the writer when we’re not “supposed” to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere.
Let’s get back to “Authority and American Usage.” In dissecting “how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind,” Wallace focuses his attention on Garner’s rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically “preaching to the choir,” they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace “amounts to…a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,'” which “requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s hopes and fears.” What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It’s the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, “In those essays…there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am…I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much like everybody else.”
Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with “regular guyness:” his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of “Authority and American Usage,” he does exactly what he’s praising Garner for doing. He creates “a certain persona” that allows the reader to trust him: he asks “unmentionable” questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a “SNOOT”); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases.
One must admit, though, that there’s a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he’s too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace’s prose to be “regular” in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for:
A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen.
By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority.
In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza’s ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of “Good Old Neon,” who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he’s admitting that he’s fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character’s neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:”
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
The main point of his little riff is that our desire to “be liked” often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was “preserve good relations,” which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed.
But the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it “are written on the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse,” a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith’s essay on BIWHM), he says:
Metafiction…helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion’s dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it’d become a god-awful trap.
That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace’s legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people’s thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace’s prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what’s to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author’s Foreword, which begins thusly:
Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.
Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don’t actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that’s required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can’t do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is “not some abstract narrative persona,” distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he’s assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks.
The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator’s prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace’s nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that “the novel was the big form, the one that mattered.” More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It’s as if he didn’t attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate.
Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here’s a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the “extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:”
The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field’s dewy turf, a twirler who’d attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin’s body watery and distant and oddly refracted.
Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn’t it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin’s life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character’s idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice:
In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family’s home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let’s just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever.
(I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn’t super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same “regular-guyness” with his usage of colloquialisms like “the point is,” “more or less,” “pretty much,” etc, and his final blasé conclusion: “Although, you know, whatever.” But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from “Authority and American Usage” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” And that’s what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic.
CONCLUSION –– AT LONG LAST –– IN WHICH WE RETURN TO WALLACE’S NONFICTION AND, PERHAPS, CONCLUDE A THING OR TWO
All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free.
To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt’s assessment of Wallace’s essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are “uneven.” For Schmidt, Wallace “makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction,” and his essays “entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres.” And also:
He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire.
What is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here’s how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” essay excerpted above): “Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential.” Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn’t his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his “regular-guyness.” Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn’t have meant a damn thing if the voice didn’t lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that’s the magic.
Schmidt characterizes Wallace as “a postmodernist with premodern values,” and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the “tricks” and “gimmicks” of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to “impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring,” as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we’ll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.
In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes the origins of his first publishing endeavor. The first ad (well, it was a sticker, but whatever) read thusly:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
In typically postmodern (and neurotic) response to this, Eggers realizes that something’s amiss about the sticker: “It’s unclear who is being screwed. Who are the idiots that should be getting screwed?” He imagines a few ways in which this ambiguity could have been avoided:
MIGHT MAGAZINE SAYS:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
“SCREW THOSE IDIOTS,”
SAYS MIGHT MAGAZINE
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS
(“THOSE IDIOTS” NOT REFERRING TO THOSE BEHIND
MIGHT MAGAZINE, THE MAKERS OF THIS STICKER,
WHO ARE GOOD PEOPLE AND SHOULD NOT BE SCREWED.)
The whole point of the marketing strategy was to intrigue people, to make them think, “What is Might?…I do not know, but when it becomes clear what it is that they will be doing, I will be very interested in their doings.”
One could have easily said the same of Mr. Eggers at that point in his career. Who is this young, ballsy writer? Though older than the rest, Eggers’s debut came along with a group of writers we could call the Undergraduates –– young, precocious authors with daring, audacious styles. Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Z.Z. Packer all made their debuts around the same handful of years. (The Graduates, of course, being David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenidies, et al.) Eggers, here, would be that older guy in the class, somehow funnier and smarter than everyone else, even if he never ends up graduating.
For Eggers definitely did not graduate with his class. No, he dropped out and started his own ventures. Who would have been able to predict the trajectory of Eggers’s career? From that original (but now in some ways dated) first book, Eggers has since stepped in nearly every field relating to writing: he published two story collections (one of which is flash fiction), novels, and two nonfiction works; he co-wrote two screenplays; he has written comic strips and essays and song lyrics; he founded The Believer, Wholphin, and 826 National, a non-profit that helps kids with writing; and he edits the annual Best American Non-Required Reading series, with the help of students. He’s been nominated for numerous awards (including the Pulitzer and the National Books Critics Circle Award) and won others (including the Salon Book Award and the American Book Award). But by the far the most influential contribution Eggers has made on the literary landscape is McSweeney’s, the so-called “Quarterly Concern” that has, for the last 15 years, produced some of the most original fiction and nonfiction out there, all packaged in some of the most beautiful and innovative book designs ever printed. Who is this young man? We didn’t know, but when it became clear what it was that he was doing, we all became very interested in his doings.
McSweeney’s could be called aggressively progressive. Not only are the stories often unconventional, experimental, and unique, so are the issues themselves. Some are conceptual designs, as in Issue 21, the cover of which has a little flap and if you pull it out it makes the cover connect to the back, creating “an unending panorama, a revelatory 360-degree immersion into a packed and pointy world.” Or Issue 26, which came in three small, postcard sized books and were “based on the World War II-era Armed Services Editions released by the Council on Books in Wartime, under the auspices of the U.S. War Department’s Morale Branch.” Or Issue 33, which was presented as a full-blown newspaper called The San Francisco Panorama. Others featured extremely original (and sometimes downright odd) theme: Issue 31’s aim to unearth “neglected or deceased literary forms,” such as the pantoum, the whore dialogue, the Socratic dialogue and Graustrarkian Romance (whatever the hell that is), or Issue 32’s challenge for authors to “travel to somewhere in the world…and send back a story set in that spot fifteen years from now, in the year 2024.”
Even the issues without a conceptual design or a creative theme are elegantly and beautifully rendered. Behind this progressive innovation lies an old-fashioned love of books as objects. McSweeney’s, I think, deserves much credit (and should, in various ways, be followed) for figuring out a way to make printed works not only relevant but also wholly separate from the latest digital iterations. You can’t ever make an e-book as gorgeous to look at or as wonderful to hold in your hands. And to those people who think covers and jackets and designs don’t matter, well I say this: Screw those idiots.
Same goes for those who dismiss the entire enterprise of McSweeney’s as a hipster outlet for quirky nonsense and youthful haranguing. We have now The Best of McSweeney’s, a 600+-page anthology that samples from everything they’ve put out in the last decade and a half. I would defy anyone to read this thing cover-to-cover and still maintain that McSweeney’s has contributed nothing to the world of creative art. As the back of the books promises, The Best of McSweeney’s gives us “a fascinating glimpse into recent literary history.” This is true for more than just the merit of the pieces included (though they are nearly all great), but for the unexpected insights their inclusion brings out.
This book is simply brimming with priceless inside looks into the workings of contemporary writers. Many of the stories are introduced by their authors, giving us a little bit of backstory into the creation of the thing. Wells Tower’s presents us with two versions of the same story, “Retreat,” which appeared in Issues 23 and 30, respectively. Each contain the same characters, the same essential setup, and even much of the same lines. Only the perspectives are different, but boy does that change the whole of it. In explaining why he struggled so much with this story, Tower cites “all the long-form nonfiction” he’d been writing. Here, he explains one difference between fiction and non-:
Nonfiction –– even ‘literary’ nonfiction –– call for tools and processes that are pretty much useless when it comes to making short stories. In metalworking, they have this term, ‘cold connections,’ which is when you take two pieces of metal and rivet. A few smart bashes, and you’ve got a bracelet with lots of nice bangles on it, and you’ve spared yourself the hot, tedious business of soldering and sweating joints. In a pinch, nonfiction can squeak by on cold connections.
Tower’s two iterations of “Retreat” (as well as his comments on them) offer a fascinating example of how much one can do with a single premise.
We are later, of course, to see Tower’s “Retreat” reappear in his collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and we now know which version he prefers (the second one, FYI). Many of the stories here ended up in well-acclaimed collections, and one of the great aspects of this anthology is getting to see them in earlier drafts. David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” appears here, and one very subtle change that occurred between its appearance in McSweeney’s (under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm, a moniker everyone saw straight through)and its inclusion in Wallace’s Oblivion is worth noting. When “Mr. Squishy” graced the pages of Issue 5, the opening line read: “The Focus Group was reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt’s 19th-floor conference rooms.” In Oblivion, it reads: “The Focus Group was then reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising’s nineteenth-floor conference rooms” (italics mine). Besides spelling out 19th (Wallace often used shorthand, acronyms and abbreviations in order to fit as many words in as little space as possible) and clarifying just what “Reesemeyer Shannon Belt” did as a company, the addition of the word then is hugely significant. It completely changes the opening line, albeit in a small way. In the first version, the line functions as a beginning; in the final version, we join a narrative already in progress. We missed what came before then, as if the story had been going on long before we came to it.
Other highlights: a rare short story from Zadie Smith, taken from the issue that pitted McSweeney’s against They Might Be Giants. A section of comics from Issue 13 featuring funny and poignant pieces by Chris Ware, Daniel C. Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Adrian Tomine. Andrew Sean Greer’s hilarious account of his and his husband’s experience at a NASCAR event in Michigan (from the San Francisco Panorama issue). We get Jonathan Ames’s “Bored to Death,” inspiration for the HBO series of the same name, George Saunders’s “Four Institutional Monologues,” one of which only recently (despite the story being published in 2000) appeared in his latest collection, Tenth of December, and a trio of stories from International writers, deriving from issues dedicated to Norwegian, South Sudanese, and Indigenous Australian fiction.
But this being McSweeney’s, there’s a lot more than stories. Included here are also the best letters they’ve ever received, from the likes of Sarah Vowell, Peter Orner, and John Hodgman. There are four pantoums from the “neglected and deceased” forms issue, as well as a few 20-minute stories, which are exactly what they sound like: stories written in 20 minutes flat (although Aleksandar Hemon admits that his took 30). In other words, this is a fun and eclectic anthology, perfectly in keeping with the McSweeney’s philosophy, which Eggers explains in his Introduction thusly: “That’s what we look for –– writers who make us feel like they’re seeing their world, whatever that is, with fresh eyes, and who allow us to experience it through their words.” McSweeney’s, like Eggers himself, regularly provides the world with interesting and unique perspectives –– from different cultures, different personalities, and different aesthetic approaches. It does what all literary journals should aim to do. That is, be bigger than the sum of its parts, yet still allow each part to stand on its own. It’s a hard line to walk, but McSweeney’s, with its irreverent attitude and pure love of good writing, manage to do every issue, every year.
Despite some notable exclusions (no Joyce Carol Oates? no Yannick Murphy?), The Best of McSweeney’s is a triumph, not only as a stand-alone book, but also (and especially) as a testament to the power of the short story, the essay, the experiment. A tribute, too, to the power of one person’s vision, proof that writers can influence the world outside the borders of their prose. Eggers, lucky for us, has a great deal of passion for the work of other people, for supporting new writers and celebrating neglected ones. His and his colleagues’ (Jordan Bass and Eli Horowitz, the two editors of McSweeney’s) is an essentially artistic project but underneath that is a layer of fierce morality, one that believes in the rights of people and the importance of their stories.
The Conde Nast building is located just off Times Square, an uncomfortable area of NYC I try to avoid like the dickens. The flashy billboards and the noise and the crowds disturb me, and I wasn’t at all pleased to see a person in a dirty Elmo suit waving at me. I did not wave back at Elmo because I had other things on my mind, namely an appointment to talk with D.T. Max, a New Yorker staff writer, author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery (check out the Amazon.com book description and read what “prions” are; they will frighten you), and most recently the author of a biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.
The new book tells the difficult, at times joyful, but ultimately sad story of Wallace’s life, couching it in a forward-driving narrative that is difficult to put down, bridging the life and the work in a way that is sensitive to the complexity and ambition of Wallace’s literary project. All told, the book promises to do what a good literary biography should do: return old readers to the work and gain new readers for the work.
I met Max inside the Conde Nast building’s “cafeteria” where he was kind enough to purchase your interviewer a small drip coffee and chocolate chip cookie. “Cafeteria” is in quotes because the place was really more like a fine dining restaurant or night club with large twelve-person booths and low lighting and high windows and an aura of exclusivity — pretty much the opposite of my idea of “cafeteria.” Despite my confusion, Max and I settled into an hour long conversation about his book, a truncated and edited version of which follows.
The Millions: What initially drew you to Wallace? Was his work the kind of stuff you typically read?
D.T. Max: Well, I had this long love affair with David — embarrassingly enough, I loved the wrong book. I loved Broom of the System for most of my 20s and 30s. It was only when I wrote the piece after his death that I found out he had turned on the book. I didn’t know that he referred to it as written by a very smart 14 year-old. It stunned me.
TM: Well you put up a pretty good defense of Broom in your book.
DTM: You can’t take something away from me that I love! I think the book’s terrific. But I do see what he’s saying. So I grew — one of the pleasures of the book was that I grew as a reader and I grew as a Wallace reader. So where I always appreciated Infinite Jest, writing about David and reading Infinite Jest made it richer and richer. And I was also just willing to be engrossed in Infinite Jest in a whole different way. (I’m talking about now when I was working on the magazine article.) But then when I was done with the magazine article I felt I just barely scratched the surface. I felt like what I’d written was very focused on his later years. I wanted to do something that was bigger and wider and less focused. I was very affected by people who said things to me like, “He was much happier than you portrayed him as,” and, “You didn’t catch his laughter.” So let me try to do a book and catch his laughter.
TM: So what was your approach to the biography?
DTM: Well one thing I was trying to do in the book was if David wrote realistic fiction for a world that was no longer real, then I felt an obligation to write a biography for a world that was no longer real. I wanted — not to extent that it was impossible for the reader to negotiate — I wanted to in some ways strip away some of the biographical conventions, in terms of what you can know and what matters, so that his story would feel a little more consonant with who David was and how he wrote. Really the two great factors in David’s writing are an affection for the reader and a refusal to write realistic fiction, so you’ll notice that the book has an emphasis on story. It begins, “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.” And then the last line of the book is, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” And the idea is that we’re dealing with story, that every story is a ghost story, and among other things that’s a gloss on biography.
TM: Same with the epigraph from the Oblivion story “Good Old Neon” (“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant”).
TM: I was thinking about the epigraph as talking about the limits of language and storytelling, and also that your subject lived in his head to a great degree, which poses particular challenges for a biographer.
DTM: Yes well, you know, I wanted to make David live in a modern way, the way his characters live in his fiction — slightly more than a classic biography would provide. I don’t know if I achieved it or if anyone will notice it — but for instance I don’t try to do every year of David’s life. I think every year is in there, but I’m doing it more as memory would do it, almost like a memoir written by another person. It was a big effort to keep stuff out. There’s lots of wonderful things I left out.
TM: Were the decisions about what to exclude surrounding Wallace’s family hard? The relationship between Wallace and his mother seemed like delicate terrain.
DTM: It is delicate, but it’s also really hard to know. The biggest impediment to telling is knowing. And even when you think you know do you ever really know something as delicate as relationships?
TM: The relationship between Delillo and Wallace surprised me.
DTM: What surprised you?
TM: I didn’t imagine the relationship as Wallace looking for advice, bouncing his anxieties about writing off him, Delillo playing the role of the consoling father, especially in the letter where Delillo tells him he belongs to elite club of writers who suffer.
DTM: “Let the others complain about book tours.” It’s a wonderful line.
TM: The Franzen relationship, too — I was surprised that Franzen had a little more power in the relationship. I always imagined Wallace as the more domineering author, I guess on the basis of his reputation as the Big Novelist with the Big Book. But Franzen really steered him the whole moral fiction direction.
DTM: Well, Franzen caught him at a “teachable moment.” David’s just out of rehab, he feels he can’t write well anymore. I think if he met him at any other time in his life he would have bounced right off him — they knew each other before — Jon just keeps offering his ideas in a modest way — forthright way — eventually he catches David when he’s open to the ideas. He’s desperate. What’s stronger than to look for both your life and your writing? He was looking for both obviously. That’s one thing that makes him a great biographical subject is that there’s so little division between the work and the life.
TM: Part of the fun of your book is catching Wallace when he’s exaggerating and misrepresenting himself.
DTM: Oh God, I’m sure he got some by me. I took all the letters at face value initially. And then when I began to think a little bit harder about some of the exaggerations in the non-fiction I would see similar patterns in the letters. And I began to think, you know, this seems like a very unlikely scenario. He mentions that he goes and plays a basketball game in this rough neighborhood — this is the letter to [critic] Steven Moore when he talks about his nose being broken for the second time — and so he breaks his nose, but that doesn’t really sound like David. David was sort of fearful, basically.
TM: And you say he wasn’t much of jock.
DTM: He was and he wasn’t. But playing basketball with a bunch of rough street kids is not something he would have done. And then, theoretically, he has his nose broken again during a fight with a downstairs neighbor over Wittgenstein’s Mistress, so when he writes that to the editor [of Wallace’s piece on Markson] — what better way to show your commitment to the piece? And also fundamentally David was a joke writer, he loved jokes. He began as a joke writer at Sabrina at Amherst. So then I asked Mark Costello who lived with him at the time who said, “No, David never had a broken nose.” So then I began to suspect a lot of things weren’t true.
TM: Did you feel any kind of special responsibilities writing the first biography?
DTM: Responsibilities, oh yeah. I mean, it’s a privilege. The privilege of being first is that it’s all new. You’re not glossing someone’s gloss. I’ll be glossed eventually — in the near future probably. So that’s the advantage. But the disadvantage is that you will be rewritten and new things will be found. More correspondence will surface. You can’t help that. But what’s the ultimate goal of the biography? It’s certainly to bring readers to David’s writing. And in that sense to be the first after his death to bring readers to David’s writing is a very special job. You want to do it the right way. You have to really show them how this writer can matter to them, and if the book does that I’d be very, very pleased. If you can take a reader who’s on the fence about David and whether it’s worth the effort and get that reader to really dig into Infinite Jest — I would think that’s really exciting.
TM: So that was your audience, people who had heard the name but not read the work?
DTM: Maybe one level more involved than that. Maybe people who read the cruise ship piece [“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out”] when it was offered to them or at least thought they’d like to, or who always looked at Infinite Jest, maybe given it as a present, tried 70 pages. They would be people who could come back to David — I think they’re already on their way back to him, so it’s not as if I’m starting any sort of trend that isn’t already underway. I mean, he has this quasi-readership that almost no writer has, and I would love it if that quasi-readership became a readership for him.
TM: Do you think it’s surprising he went into fiction? Wallace says he uses more of his brain when writing fiction, but with all the logic and sports in his background — he’s not a typical literary type.
DTM: George Saunders has interesting things to say about that — he comes from an engineering background. You know, on some level fiction for David was never what I think it is for an ordinary or even an extraordinary writer of the John Updike variety. David’s always seeing the seams and the struts — it’s always artificial — that’s probably why he had issues with The Pale King because he never gets past the artificiality of what he’s creating. There’s a wonderful quote by Thornton Wilder that fiction is the art of orchestrating platitudes. And I think for David that was always difficult because he had seen so far beyond those platitudes. I don’t think he was ever somebody for whom characters were really alive. The closest he comes is Infinite Jest. Of course the reader and writer see things from different perspectives, but I don’t think for David those characters were ever really alive in quite the way that other writers experience their characters as alive.
TM: Why do you think people care so much about his work?
DTM: It’s many things, but it’s not really that he had any answers for people. Because when you read the biography you have to understand how much he struggles with things that most of us have fairly compact. But he never stops taking his life seriously and he never stops taking the reader’s life seriously. And I think that’s the connection: you never stop mattering to him and he never stops mattering to himself. He never quits in that way. And I think that even non-readers of David’s books must be getting that now, given what’s gone on with his reputation, the amount of places you see his name, even how the Kenyon College speech has become so well known, deservedly so. But it’s an aspirational speech. It’s not what David achieved, it’s what he wanted to achieve. In the end you are the writer you are, and if there’s anything David teaches us it’s very hard to change the writer you are, and I had to be a writer who was interested in his efforts and difficulties. Because I never saw him as the pure joyous person that some people insisted he was.
TM: “Saint Dave.”
DTM: Well, I think the “Saint Dave” name is valid in the sense that I think what David teaches you, which is what a saint should teach you, is to take yourself and your life seriously. I don’t think he’s a candidate for the sainthood on the basis of his behavior, but many saints weren’t. So I don’t disown the saint idea. There is a way in which, faced with the massive seductions of modern culture, he did a pretty good job of pushing them away. Certainly in those later years there’s a kind of saintliness to his behavior —
TM: A kind of literary saint in his defense of fiction.
DTM: A literary martyr really. With Malcolm Lowry — who else never finished their last book?
TM: Ralph Ellison…
DTM: Another good example. I don’t remember him having agonized over his last book. David was never that way. He agonized over it. That’s what makes it so sad. So, no I don’t disregard the saint idea. I think Franzen had it right. He said at one of the memorial services that there’s nobody who seemed simpler and delightful on first meeting who grows more and more complex, yet all the same — he didn’t say appealing — but all the same endearing. In other words, as you get to know David better you just don’t like him in the same simple way that you started liking him. I think that’s got it exactly right.
TM: It sounds like you really enjoyed working on the book.
DTM: I loved thinking about him, writing about him, being in his head, reading his letters. I’d be very sad if the book makes people feel that he’s any less worthy of their love. The goal is the opposite. The quality that he has that he cares about you — that he cares about you caring about yourself. That’s very uplifting. I don’t think you get that from most writers.
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
One of the curses of fame in the age of mechanical reproduction is the way it renders the strange ubiquitous, the sublime habitual. There is the first time you hear “Born to Run,” and there is the umpteenth, and by the time you get to the guy drunkenly karaokeing it at 2 a.m. in Koreatown (rock on, Dave!) it’s kind of hard to remember the first time, when it still felt holy. I guess that’s called growing up, but still…
Notwithstanding his philosophical apprehensions about fame and adulthood, American style, J.D. Salinger could not quite escape this fate. It is difficult to remember, given his prominence on high school syllabi, that he was once ardently debated by college professors. It is hard to appreciate fully, now that Catcher in the Rye is a line in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the recklessness of Holden Caulfield’s address to the reader. After Life of Pi and The Mezzanine and Oblivion, the profound strangeness of Franny Glass’ religious epiphany and of Zooey’s endless bath and of Buddy’s recursive later mode start to seem ordinary. And it is hard to disentangle the heart-stopping endings of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor” from the clichés they would become. Esmé, recall, used to be an unusual name. So, come to think of it, did Zooey.
It is likely that Salinger, who like some keen but troubled falcon increasingly homed in on quarries too large for language – holiness, perfect truth – would have seen the domestication of his fiction as a defeat. I’d like to propose, however, on the occasion of his death at age 91, that it was a victory. It afforded him the leverage to shift, as few others have, the center of American literature. His candid introspection would liberate subsequent generations of storytellers (for better and sometimes for worse) to tackle without fear the personal, the intimate, and even the juvenile. Goodybe to the manly r-r-reticence of Hemingway. So long, even, to the social.
That, in a reduced form, is the what of Salinger’s career. Harder to talk about is the how. With each book, he drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, “literally” and literally, become indistinguishable from each other. After his last published stories, “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924,” (made available to subscribers in the New Yorker archive) he vanished beyond it. No one seemed able to agree on what to make of them, or of the silence that followed. Was he serious?
It is possible that further work will be unearthed posthumously. And I suppose, if we’re going to get to see The Pale King and Three Days Before the Shooting, we might as well see what Salinger left behind, in some similarly respectful edition. But the best place to start revisiting the Salinger canon – a body of work as perfect as any American has produced – may be those two final stories, those five a.m., all-stars-out productions. Their strangeness reminds us of just what distances this writer was willing to travel in pursuit of his truths.
It may also remind us afresh of how far, in the earlier works, he got. Though it has been talked about as the greatest vanishing act in the history of American letters, Jerome David Salinger’s career also turns out to be one of the major triumphs. He had something to say, he said it – beautifully – and when he couldn’t say it anymore, he stopped. Charming? Yes. Adolescent? Sometimes. But boy, reader, was he serious.
As we had hoped, our “Best of the Millennium (So Far)” poll stoked a fair amount of conversation around the web last week. List-making, as we’ve argued in the past, is an imperfect enterprise, and reactions ranged from “Great picks” to “Why didn’t you mention x?”
One of the difficulties of reaching consensus on books is that there are so many of them; The Corrections‘ appearance at #1 in our poll may reflect the likelihood of our panelists having read the book as much as it reflects inherent excellence. In our survey of 56 panelists – who had, collectively, 280 votes to allocate – something like 160 titles were mentioned. And so, as we sifted through the ballots, what struck us was not a “unified sensibility,” but an exhilarating diversity, which we plan to share with you in the coming days.
As we continue to discuss our “Best Fiction of the Millennium” results – and the heuristic value of list-making in general – we’ll announce the rest of the titles that received votes, and maybe some of those that came up in the comments. We hope that you discover some pleasant surprises on these lists, as we did, and we hope you’ll continue the conversation about what books from the last decade were worth your reading time. First, though, we thought we’d post an “Honorable Mention” list of 15 books that received multiple votes in our poll but didn’t crack our Top 20.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon.
This massive – and massively popular – novel follows two comic book creators in the World War II era.
Any Human Heart, by William Boyd.
A series of journal entries documents the life of an Englishman and his century. (See our review.)
By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño.
A Catholic priest embroiled in the hothouse of Chilean politics delivers a riveting dramatic monologue.
The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian.
A flood of possibly divine provenance turns the titular hospital into an ark in this, the second novel from a hugely ambitious young writer.
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus.
The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter.
Stories of love knit together a community in Ann Arbor in this novel by a critical favorite.
The first and third installments of the His Dark Materials trilogy open up a parallel universe of daemons and Dust.
The Great Fire , by Shirley Hazzard
Traveling East Asia after World War II, an English war hero finds love among the ruins. (See our review.)
HomeLand , by Sam Lipsyte.
Class notes from a ne’er-do-well form the spine of this comic novel.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Samantha Clarke.
Two magicians spar in this novel, which is long and erudite in the Victorian manner. (See our review.)
The Master, by Colm Tóibín.
Tóibín, an Irishman, recreates a pivotal period in the life of Henry James.
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall.
A half-Apache youth matriculates at the school of hard knocks and various other failing 1960’s institutions.
Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace.
Wallace’s final collection of short fiction is dark and dense, bleak and exhilarating.
Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.
McCarthy bends the legacy of the Gallic avant-garde in the direction of pop perfection in this novel of memory and forgetting.
Still Holding, by Bruce Wagner.
The final entry in Wagner’s cell-phone themed trilogy explores the glitter and emptiness of Hollywood.
One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out.
The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week. Links in our reader list go to Amazon):
by Jonathan Franzen
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by George Saunders
by Cormac McCarthy
by Cormac McCarthy
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
Out Stealing Horses
by Per Petterson
by Jonathan Franzen
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro
by Marilynne Robinson
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Zadie Smith
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami
Twilight of the Superheroes
by Deborah Eisenberg
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
by Norman Rush
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
by Richard Russo
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Alice Munro
The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
by Colm Tóibín
Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link
Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
American Genius, A Comedy
by Lynne Tillman
by Marilynne Robinson
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade. Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth). But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows.
With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson’s much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today?
Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I’ve been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that’s always had a lot of support in the online literary community. Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner.
Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed.
We’ll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.
Well, Wyatt Mason beat me to it. Over at his blog, Sentences, the Harper’s critic has registered a couple of cavils with D.T. Max’s powerful, fascinating New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace, “The Unfinished.” First, Mason suggests, Max makes his case for The Broom of the System at the expense of what may be a better book, Girl With Curious Hair. Second, Max might have profitably spent more time on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, and the nonfiction. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to find Mason anticipating, more eloquently, my own response to “The Unfinished”; I find him to be our most astute critic of Wallace (by which I mean, of course, the one whose thinking most resembles mine).It’s important to note, as Mason does, that these are minor quibbles, mere footnotes to Max’s achievement. (In my case, think of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy pontificating from the front row.) But they also betoken the immense, almost maternal protectiveness some readers feel toward Wallace’s reputation. We feel about Infinite Jest as William H. Gass does about Finnegans Wake: “Not to have been… influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time.” Our underlying anxiety is that the Kakutanis of the world will deprive our grandchildren of the beautiful thing we ourselves have been blessed to witness. And so, with an eye toward posterity – toward those who have not yet experienced Wallace’s writing first-hand – I humbly submit three additional footnotes to “The Unfinished.”1) It seems to me that there’s an assumption in certain passages of the article that writing fiction posed a “risk to [Wallace’s] mental health,” without sufficient evidence to discount the possibility that the causal arrow might have pointed the other way. In general, Max exhibits an admirable tact on the subject of Wallace’s depression and addictions; he wants to extend to the author the dignity that is his due. It seems important, therefore, that we not turn “The Unfinished” into an explanation of Wallace’s suicide. In particular – for the sake of reading the forthcoming The Pale King with a clear head – one wouldn’t want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge. Writing is a form of daily frustration; it can also be, as Max shows, a source of daily grace.2) Because “The Unfinished” suggests that Wallace “began to develop a taste for journalism” in the wake of the publication of Infinite Jest, rather than in the early 1990s, it skirts a more thorough examination of the relationship between Wallace’s fiction and his nonfiction.3) Perhaps most significantly, Max summarizes a bit too approvingly Wallace’s sense that he had never “hit his target.” Indeed, Wallace’s attempt to do so becomes the narrative hinge of the article. But many who have read Infinite Jest will feel differently.On the subject of his own creations, the novelist is, at best, an unreliable witness. As Robert Musil writes in that other unfinished monument, The Man Without Qualities:He loves creation as long as he is creating it, but his love turns away from the finished portions. For the artist must also love what is most hateful in order to shape it, but what he has already shaped, even if it is good, cools him off; it becomes so bereft of love that he hardly still understands himself in it, and the moment when his love returns to delight in what it has done are rare and unpredictable.It is seemly for an artist to never be satisfied with past achievements, as Wallace no doubt knew, but it’s readers who get the final word. As time passes, Infinite Jest looks closer to Wallace’s stated target – “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” – than any other English-language novel of its era. I felt this way before Wallace’s death, and I still do.(P.S.: You got me, Andrew.)Bonus link: Sam Anderson’s take on “The Unfinished,” from New York Magazine
For those of us wondering whether David Foster Wallace will ever publish another novel, the February issue of Harper’s seems to augur something good. The magazine’s “Readings” section features an excerpt from a “work in progress” Wallace first read at last year’s Le Conversazioni festival (heretofore notable mainly for its photo-ops of writers in short pants.) The excerpt itself concerns an Illinois-based IRS auditor, and, though it’s not a radical semantic departure from the stories in Oblivion, DFW is always good on bureaucracies, and on Illinois. A crackerjack ending had me eager to read more.Video from the Le Conversazioni reading is available.