On Wallace being a fraud
Granted, he writes like an asshole at times. Other times, you admire him for sticking it out and spinning the narrative his own way. Bret Easton Ellis wrote about him on twitter once, seven times, consecutively – that DFW was (was because he is dead now) the master of pretention. In all probability, something to do with large words, excessive usage of latin roots and long sentences among others.
[Earlier in 1993, Wallace had this to say about Bret Ellis and American Psycho: “it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism. It’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership.”]
About that: there are two schools of thought one could venture while reading his books:
1) That he is a genius; you are not. Ergo, everything he writes makes sense and any fault that shows stems from your inability to comprehend the vastness of his work- human error i.e.;
2) That he has the deliberate intention of making his work a tough read, a weapon to impress the weak-willed, and that his narrative method has no secret dimension.
No: 1 makes him easier to read, because everything is seen in the light of hope. Your adoration is better spent on a genius than on an asshole. No: 2 make you want to close the book and read American Psycho.
Readers and critics have often spoken out about finding Wallace snobby. I feel it is important to understand the nature of pretention with regard to Wallace. Famous artists, especially musicians and writers, tend to develop a God like stature post suicide. Wallace suffers from the same. He hung himself in early 2008 and has since then, attained the status of a brooding intellectual, a messiah for his depressed readers, a certain someone who tried very hard to express himself, and then tragically failed, leaving the world at fault.
Not quite so – over the many things he has written (including and especially non-fiction and short stories), Wallace seems to have had adequately expressed himself and his interests. The world was never at fault for not understanding him; all his work is in fact quite attainable by anyone who takes an interest in them. His fiction is what it is by design; carefully calculated, tedious in many ways, equally comic, and severely experimental at places. As to the ostentatious quality attributed to them, it rises more from his readers than his work- readers who consider it to be the absolute epitome of mental gymnastics. There are parts of Wallace’s writing that are unbearable and over the top, but then again, that is the case with most writers who choose alternatives, be it good or bad.
On long sentences and footnotes
Passages with dense, long sentences are something Wallace signs his fiction with. Each sentence uses many deviations, attacks multiple lines of thought, and surveys many stages of time. This is fun to read since what it ends up being is a combination of academic writing and daily conversation. While reflecting the natural course of thought, it is also a parody of modern lingo (abbreviations and colloquialisms are something he uses regularly in these academic type sentences). It is also a statement on the severely short attention span of his readers- in some places it is sort of like sending you into cloud of colorful streamers and then thumping you in the back with a log. In his widely acknowledged magnum opus, the infinitely heavy (with a finite 1073 pages), Infinite Jest, he employs these sentences to test the reader. And that bodes well somehow, since the novel is about, among other things, an increasingly distracted post modern generation in search of constant entertainment. One thing to note here is that, barring certain exceptions, these long sentences in no way make his work a slow read. In fact they make it prompt, since unlike writers who use long sentences to paint scenic pictures or establish locations/ physical descriptions, he uses them mostly, to tackle solid thought or new information. Clarifying further: When writers employ long sentences to describe scenic images, the reader is quickly exhausted because what is at play there is usually different ways- metaphors, similes, and parallels- of elaborating one thing in many ways. Wallace however, uses long sentences to describe several different things, not one thing in several ways, attributing hence, the fast pace to his work.
When he employs such sentences in short stories, it makes them more agile than fast. Though stopping to take a leak or leaving to open the door is not advisable, since that would be like jumping out of a moving car.
His twisted sentences make extra sense in the context of Pale King as well. Pale King being a novel about boredom (just like Infinite Jest was one on entertainment), a slight manipulation of the pace and the inclusion of high level mundane detailing in each sentence serves to convey that boredom first-hand. There are several chapters, for example, which combine lengthy passages, tax-codes and information on the working of the Internal Revenue Service, USA.
Coming to footnotes: He uses them passionately in both fiction and non-fiction. A notation that is made mid-sentences often leads to a ten page elaboration. Other times, they lead to comical digressions about characters, a clever aside that might be bit too long for parenthesis, or even absurdities like fictional copyright information. It seems to provide Wallace the second plain he needs, (albeit distracting the readers), to undertake digressions w/r/t space and time between say Sentence A and B without having to disrupt his first plain of story-telling.
Can he avoid using these Wallace-isms so readers are more at ease?
Yes he can. But why should he? People often associate tedious/flowery writing with lack of innovation or one’s inability to communicate effectively. Wallace is both innovative, and creative in his communication. His style- a conscious choice, different from his non-fiction- is simply different. Having said that, I wonder how one ever gets a publisher to put to print something like Infinite Jest.
Wallace and emotions
Wallace is unconventional when it comes to the portrayal of emotions. I find them present in a relatively bland, matter-of-fact manner. They are observed as other things are observed, and never in singular isolation, always through the observation of several hundred other things. This is not to say that they are not conveyed, simply that aren’t dramatized. His short story ‘The Depressed Person’ can be undertook as a study into his expression of emotions. The story is a portrait of depression, and all throughout, he employs several little things (anecdote like) in severe succession until he creates the wearisome feeling someone might feel around a depressed person, while also inflicting us (me, someone who has never suffered from depression) with a simple peak of empathy.
Wallace and the nature of fact in fiction
In Pale King especially, Wallace unloads a lot of trivia about the IRS and its history, most of which as it turns out, is false. What he presents as fact in fiction is almost just a manipulation of the original and true clause. He makes it interesting or absurd. Is this to be understood as a failure of authenticity? I find it quite amusing. (Incidentally, he is also accused, suspected rather, for applying a little amount of fiction to his non-fiction pieces, especially in his essay ‘A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’, courtesy his friend Jonathan Frazen’s interview)
On Michael Pietsch
The Pale King is an incomplete novel. 570 pages into it, he killed himself by hanging leaving behind untidy scribbles, loose pages, cartons full of notes and his research material on the IRS, IRS offices, tax laws etc. Michael Pietsch was his editor at Little, Brown, who engaged the pile to try and find a coherent narrative. He described it as ‘wrestling thin sheets of Balsa wood in high wind’. In an article with the LA Times, Pietsch is quoted as saying that a lot of chapters had at times “10 different versions.” One can only imagine the amount of work it must have taken to bring the book out ‘Wallace-like’, true to a dead man.
The Pale King
Most of the novel is set in the offices of the IRS in Illinois. It has a cast of idiosyncratic characters (idiosyncratic like for ex: one character has the ability to receive random and mostly useless facts about anything or anyone he deals with, another has a constant anxiety about sweating too much, which in turn makes him sweat too much; a character who counts the number of words he speaks as a speaks them or one who wants to touch his tongue to every part of his body) finding ways to deal with boredom or coping with boredom and in the process tiring themselves severally. It also features the author himself in a meta-fictional twist, who tells his readers that the disclaimer in the beginning claiming that ‘all characters and events are fictional’, is false, but then has to deal with the fact that what he had just said has appeared in pages already established as fiction. The novel also has a side-plot going on, about, machines coming forth to replace human workers at the IRS.
The best part about Pale King is how the author has chosen knowingly mundane situations from everyday life, things that you cannot skim, events that you have to deal with and presented them in high detail with just the right amount of dry humor.
Another highly appreciable part of the novel, or about the arrangement of the novel is that it can be read and enjoyed as individual stories as well. You can read one such excerpt here:
It’s hard not to view Wallace’s suicide as a poetic tableau, since he did it in front of his unfinished novel (570 pages into it), and that on one about boredom, of which he was ‘meta-fictionally’ a part of. It’s also difficult to believe that this wasn’t one of Wallace’s last thought, however fleeting, however small.
Read an excerpt from The Pale King here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/03/07/backbone