A researcher at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center discovered a childhood poem written by David Foster Wallace and posted it on his blog Write By Night (where he also penned an in-depth analysis of the poetry).
My mother works so hard
so hard and for bread. She needs some lard.
She bakes the bread. And makes
the bed. And when she’s
threw she feels she’s dayd.
Writer, editor, and Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin will host The Pale King: Monologues From The Unfinished Novel By David Foster Wallace on April 28, 2011, at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.
The staff at PEN Center USA recently interviewed Ulin about his relationship with Wallace, his thoughts on The Pale King, and Wallace’s influence on the literary world.
How did you know David Foster Wallace?
I knew David only slightly, as someone I spoke to over the phone a few times and met on occasion, and once interviewed on stage. I liked him, and enjoyed talking to him because of the agility of his mind, his intelligence. But like most readers, I also feel that I know him fairly intimately through the filter of his work. David was both guarded and unguarded—a combination that is compelling and fascinating. You see this in his writing as, I think, you did in his life. It’s a hallmark of his fiction, with its obsessive detail work, its tendency to notice and catalog everything, but it is also a key to his nonfiction, which I love for the self-conscious, questioning intelligence at the center of it.
You wrote once in a Los Angeles Times article that DFW’s first novel The Broom of the System wasn’t perfect but that it offered up “a set of possibilities” for the novel. Does The Pale King do the same, and in what ways?
The Pale King is a different animal, because it is unfinished, and because it was assembled by someone else. Rather than a finished book, I think of it as an imago, a trace, one out of an infinite variety of possibilities, a conjecture in book form. That’s fascinating for a reader, to confront the conditionality of literature, to be aware that there are always choices to be made. We have the sense, I think, that books are fixed, that they are edifices, but really, books are just the most finished version of whatever idea a writer set out to express. Return to your old writing and see how much you want to change it, how variable it really is. Clearly, that wasn’t David’s intention, but it is fascinating side effect of the circumstances of this novel, and what it tells is, inadvertently or otherwise, about the process of creative work.
You read a great deal of literature as the Los Angeles Times book critic. What about DFW’s work motivated you to refer to him as “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years”?
As I wrote in that piece, I think it really has to do with his adventurousness, his joy in storytelling, and his ambition for the novel as a form. When David came around, we were deep in the era of dirty realism, small-bore stories with narrowly focused visions—the work of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford. Don’t get me wrong—I love a lot of that stuff; Carver is one of my favorite writers to this day. But fiction can do more than that, and in the mid-1980s we seem to have lost sight of that. David, among others, brought it back. This, I think, has a lot to do with his enduring influence—the idea that fiction could be grand again, could be sweeping, could attempt to encompass the world. What’s interesting about him is that he recognized, I think, the futility of that ambition—there’s a reason why the so-called Great American Novel remains a mythic creature—but he continued to aspire to it all the same.
Jonathan Franzen has written a “rich, raw, complicated remembrance of his friend, David Foster Wallace,” in the latest issue of the New Yorker. Read Franzen’s essay on Facebook, where it will be available in its entirety for one week.
He was sick, yes, and in a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill. The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend … If you happened to know that his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and if you also knew that he was more loveable — funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies — than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him, it was still hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chose the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.
Source: New York Magazine
The Guardian has published an interview with artist Karen Green, David Foster Wallace’s widow. Green has only spoken to one other news source since her husband’s suicide in 2008.
On post-traumatic stress:
“It was a day in his life,” she says, “and it was a day in mine. Problematic for me is that there is a post-traumatic stress that comes from finding someone you love like that, as I did. It’s a real thing. A real change to your brain, on a cellular level, apparently. People tell me I should have been prepared, because of David’s history with depression. But of course I wasn’t prepared at all. I wouldn’t have left him alone in the house, ever, if I thought that would happen. I still feel like it was a mistake that was made.”
On speaking to the media:
I know journalism is journalism and maybe people want to read that I discovered the body over and over again, but that doesn’t define David or his work. It all turns him into a celebrity writer dude, which I think would have made him wince, the good part of him. It has defined me too, and I’m really struggling with that.
On The Pale King:
She is not sure about many things concerning the death of her husband but she is certain about one thing, the first thing I ask her: that Wallace wanted The Pale King to be published, even in its unfinished state. “The notes that he took for the book and chapters that were complete, were left in a neat pile on his desk in the garage where he worked. And his lamps were on it, illuminating it. So I have no doubt in my mind this is what he wanted. It was in as organised a state as David ever left anything.”
MediaBistro’s blog Galleycat posts a list of tax tips offered up in The Pale King:
As the hero suffers through an excruciatingly dull IRS orientation in chapter 27, an official explained the logic behind selecting tax returns for a dreaded audit. The instructor proceeded to tick off red flags in tax returns that could get your work audited. These warning signs follow below…
1. “Who’s got unusually high charitable deductions compared to averages for his income level?”
2. “Who’s in a largely cash business?”
3. “Who’s getting divorced? … divorces tend to generate unusally high net revenue from audits.”
4. “[L]ook for large dips in income or spikes in deductions.”
In “The Magic of David Foster Wallace’s Unfinished ‘King’”, NPR correspondent Daniel Roberts argues that The Pale King “is a David Foster Wallace novel to the core,” and that it is, in many ways, a complete work of art:
The notion that this book is ‘unfinished’ should not be given too much weight. The Pale King is, in many ways, quite complete: its core characters are fully drawn, each with a defining tic, trait, or backstory … Moreover, the book is far from incomplete in its handling of a host of themes, most of them the same major issues, applicable to all of us, with which Wallace also grappled in Infinite Jest.
But Slate blogger Tom Scocca begs to differ in his recent entry titled “David Foster Wallace Wrote Two Novels, and The Pale King Is Not One of Them”:
What is this book? If it were a David Foster Wallace novel, Wallace would have sent it to his publisher himself. It was made out of ‘heaps of pages,’ Time magazine reported, stuffed into a duffel bag by Wallace’s editor. Maybe, in a world where Wallace kept on living, the collection of words would have turned out to have been half of a novel. Maybe it would have been one compact novel and a one collection of short fiction. Maybe it would have been tinder for bonfire.
These are just two of several arguments made in the days leading up to The Pale King’s official release.
So…what do you think? Would DFW have wanted The Pale King published in its unfinished state? Would he have taken issue with the order in which the novel is structured? What does all of this even mean?
Christopher John Farley, editor of The Wall Street Journal’s culture website Speakeasy and one of the last people to conduct a significant interview with David Foster Wallace, is blogging his progress through Infinite Jest as he tackles it for the second time.
“I’m coming at ‘Infinite Jest’ from another direction than how I approached it when I first flipped through it. I’m not envious of Wallace and his literary acclaim (maybe because he’s dead, maybe because now I know how tortured he was in life). When ‘Infinite Jest’ was first published, my first novel was due out a few months later on Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Now, overwhelmed by the demands of work and family, I’m stalled out on my third. I want to read something big and formidable to help remind me about the possibilities of ambitious literature–and I want my kids (5 and 8) to see me tackling it, so they can learn, by example, that everything worth reading isn’t on a screen. ‘Infinite Jest’ isn’t on audiobook, it’s hasn’t been made into a movie, and you can’t buy the videogame.”