Yesterday’s semifinal—which saw Roberto Bolaño secure a place in the WCL Championship with By Night in Chile —is a tough one to top, but I think we did it. Today’s match features upstart Valeria Luiselli from Mexico, whose first novel, Faces in the Crowd, is up against David Foster Wallace and his posthumous book, The Pale King.
Luiselli got to this match by sliding past the Croatian representative Dubravka Ugresic and her Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 3-2, running rampant over Australia and Murnane’s Barley Patch by a score of 3-0, and cruising past Uruguay and Mario Benedetti’s The Rest Is Jungle 7-0.
DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but prevailed 3-2. He then took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1, and just got by France’s Michel Houellebecq and The Map and the Territory, 4-3.
Although DFW is a household name, this one could go either way . . .
Scott Esposito: Mexico
An actual book has to beat some notes hewn together by an editor. So Faces takes it.
Chad W. Post: Mexico
I love DFW, but I think Luiselli deserves a spot in the finals with her incredibly well crafted Faces in the Crowd.
Lance Edmonds: USA
Before the tournament started, I thought Your Face Tomorrow was a lock for the finals. I guess that’s why you play the games.
Tom Roberge: USA
I’m just going to plagiarize myself. “The volume of perspectives in the book, the scope of humanness in these characters, is Wallace’s point: that as interesting as war orphans or autodidact artists or amoral professors are, so are paper pushers, if not for the details of their lives then for the substance of them, for the way they cope with a boredom that is as much a part of modern Western life as sex, war, or free trade. And then borrow a famous blurb for DeLillo’s Underworld, from Michael Ondatje, which I think applies here just as aptly: “The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes.”
Lori Feathers: USA
Faces is a smart book with an interesting structure of doubling back on itself. “Horizontal vertigo,” a phrase that Luiselli uses, is a good description of that structure. But somehow I still felt distanced from the characters’ (or is it really just one character’s?) descent into crazy because the book is over-constructed—like seeing more nails sticking out of a wooden frame than are needed. I didn’t feel trapped in a mad mind like, for instance, reading The Yellow Wallpaper, and that made the narrative less compelling than it could have been.
Laura Radosh: Mexico
After forcing myself to finish Infinite Jest only to find out the joke was on the reader I was sure that another DFW tome would be no match for Faces in the Crowd. But after page 6 of Pale King, I was hooked. That is some fancy footwork. Goal for USA!
But although I appreciate the fact that editor Michael Pietsch resisted cutting out dozens of pages just because his author could no longer object, DFW gets a yellow card for wasting time. Besides, the USA never makes it to the finals in the real World Cup.
Mexico evens the scores for that pretty little book in the last minute of extra time and gets a dramatic win on penalties.
Will Evans: USA
Dude this is cancer-inducing stress. I love Valeria; Faces in the Crowd is great. But I have to vote for DFW. Faces in the Crowd is like a hello to the world from a brilliant new author, the process of an artist finding her voice; and her voice, the only female voice left in the tournament, one of precious few in the entire World Cup of Literature, scored the opening goal for Mexico against the weak American backline (all hype?!), but the Americans pressed, they’d been honed to a veteran’s precision and quickly countered. The Pale King is the final goodbye for a legend, a fully realized literary idea, a narrative voice that is as powerful as it is precise (which one can’t often say of 550-page “unfinished” final novels). These two books slugged it out for the remainder of the game, and it was in DFW’s philosophical musings on the state of twenty-first-century existence that the game winner was scored. Faces in the Crowd packs a punch far greater than its 150 pages, and I would peg Luiselli’s next novel as the odds-on favorite to reach the finals of the 2018 World Cup of Literature, she has many, many, many more World Cups of Literature ahead of her, and this is the last hurrah for DFW, and he makes it to the final by the skin of his teeth. RIP.
Ryan Ries: USA
Mexico is certainly the Cinderella story of this tournament, earning a berth in the semifinals against three world-renowned (and, incidentally, dead) literary powerhouses. And, for the most part, its success is justified: Faces in the Crowd is a spare, punchy little book, impressive in construction and economy, but the reader can’t escape the feeling that you’ve read this all before somewhere (shades of Bolaño, Aira, and, to a lesser extent, Moya, to name a few fellow WCOL competitors). The Pale King isn’t without flaws, but it’s an original, mature, occasionally brilliant work, and it wins the match going away.
P.T. Smith: USA
Faces in the Crowd is a wonderful debut, the discovery of the World Cup of Literature for me, but Pale King scores an early goal with bizarre powers (mind-reading, talking baby, ghosts) of many of its characters without a detachment from reality. Page by page, Faces in the Crowd is more entertaining, rewarding, and rush after rush to the goal is eventually rewarded with an equalizer. The heights of Pale King reach a greater lever though, the tie is preserved and we go to PKs. There, the focus, to attention to detail and ability to accomplish repetitive tasks without fault, serves Pale King and takes it to victory.
Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Mexico
It’s not that Pale King isn’t interesting. It’s not that the book’s Pulitzer nomination isn’t interesting. It’s just . . . I’m recommending Faces In The Crowd to everyone I know. Maybe it’s because that book is more interesting.
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Mexico
Is it because I am not Caucasian American that I don’t light candles to Saint DFW? Probably not. I enjoyed Good Old Neon, parts of Pale King. I can never make it pass page 100 of Infinite Jest due to extreme boredom though. Que le vamos a hacer. Viva Mexico, carajo!
Kaija Straumanis: Mexico
A year or so ago, I was watching TV and wound up seeing a game played by UANL Tigres, a professional Mexican football club. Their uniforms were bright yellow, emblazoned with the logo of their sponsor, which I read as: BANANAMEX. It seemed appropriate. I then spent the next 60 minutes or so shouting “GO BANANA!” and things like “GET ANOTHER BANANA GOAL!” at the television, before I realized that the logo on their banana-yellow jerseys actually read “BANAMEX.” Which is a bank. Not a tropical fruit. Regardless, that night, UANL Tigres became my default favorite soccer team. They aren’t particularly good, they have absolutely nothing to do with bananas, but they have spirit, and they play with heart.
I’m one of the people who was left depressed after Mexico’s loss in the Real World Cup last week. I don’t want to go into the obnoxiousness of statements on how a team “deserves” to win—but Mexico deserved to have a fair ending to that game. And in our World Cup of Literature, where there are no champion floppers and no tasteless fans chanting “Vir-gin! Vir-gin! Vir-gin!” at the indifferent and unaware refs on the flatscreens overhead, Mexico actually gets a fair chance to represent itself and fight for its place in the finals, and for Faces in the Crowd to even win it all. Admittedly, I haven’t read The Pale King, though I want to, and I know I’ll probably like the book—I just don’t want to leave my favorite in the gathering dust and pick up a new team in the final stretch. Everyone’s entitled to their bias, and I’m going with mine. Mexico all the way!
Elianna Kan: Mexico
While I tip my hat to DFW for his literary project and though I understand the tremendous undertaking that was the posthumous publication of Pale King, the novel simply does not stand up to his other work and is merely a more garbled, fragmented, inconsistent exploration of the same deeply depressing themes. For the sheer power of these themes and his exploration of them, Team USA earns a couple goals, but for the lack of a consistently impressive narrative framework and for what feels like a lazier deployment of those themes in this as opposed to his previous works, the win goes to team Mexico for never waking me from the dream, for at least making a consistent and lyrical effort to construct the dream with whatever tools were at Luiselli’s disposal.
Upset! And with that, we have an all-Spanish-language final pitting Chile’s Roberto Bolaño and By Night in Chile against Mexico’s Valeria Luiselli and her Faces in the Crowd.
The winner will be announced at 11am on Monday, July 14th.
And with Germany’s defeat of BiH the semifinals for the World Cup of Literature are all set.
You can download a PDF version here.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown on these two match ups:
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Originally published in 2000—making it just barely eligible for our competition—By Night in Chile is best described by Richard Eder of the New York Times as “a 130-page rant—part confession, part justification, part delirium—by a dying man, representative of an intellectual class that the author depicts as alternately tugging its leash and licking it.”
Bolaño is one of the authors that literary hipsters love most, although many seem to prefer 2666 or The Savage Detectives. By Night in Chile is more condensed and precise though (and more about Chile the country Bolaño chose to represent in this competition), and that might help him out against Sebald’s longer, more erudite Austerlitz.
Also worth pointing out that Columbia University Press is brining out Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews later this month.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Austerlitz came out in German in 2001, literally a month before Sebald’s tragic passing. It went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2001 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002. And for her translation, Anthea Bell received the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. That’s a lot of prize winning.
Sebald is renowned for his particular style, which combines fact with fiction, images with text, and often revolves around ideas of memory, history, and decay. Here’s a bit from a review of Austerlitz in the Observer:
Sebald describes a universe which is peculiar but recognisable, the way experience of the world can be shaped by a strongly academic and historical intelligence. I can’t really comprehend his prose style, so distinctive in the length of his sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences probably due to the fact that it was originally written in German and then translated. But I would strongly recommend anyone who has not experienced his writing to do so, because it succeeds in communicating issues of great importance concerning time, memory and human experience.
Of the remaining four books, Austerlitz is probably the betting man’s favorite.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
The only living author still in the competition, Luiselli also comes to the competition with the most recently published book—Faces in the Crowd came out in 2011, and was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press (along with Luiselli’s essay collection _Sidewalks__ earlier this year.
It’s received some great literary praise, mostly for its unique structure and interweaving of various viewpoints, all of which keep readers on their proverbial toes, having to figure out who’s writing and what is (or isn’t) “true.” From the L.A. Times:
Faces in the Crowd is itself a highly original work of many parts—but one that does, in its own unique way, add up to a satisfying “whole.” At the heart of this engaging and often hauntingly strange novel is a wildly original character: Luiselli’s protagonist lies to her boss, commits literary fraud and assorted acts of adultery, all while raising a baby and a toddler son.
Or maybe she doesn’t do all those things — we can’t be certain, since it’s clear Luiselli’s protagonist isn’t just an unreliable employee and spouse, she’s also an unreliable narrator.
DFW is a formidable opponent, but the fact that Faces is a truly finished book, and that this is a first novel (instead of a posthumous one), might help her through to the finals.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
By now, I suspect everyone knows the story behind The Pale King: In 2008, after DFW committed suicide, editor Michael Pietsch pieced together the unfinished novel and writings that DFW left behind and produced The Pale King. A novel about boredom and the IRS—the only government agency designed to make money, therefore one that should be efficient in modern corporate ways—The Pale King was widely praised, including by World Cup of Literature judge Tom Roberge, in this review for Deadspin. Over at New York, Garth Risk Hallberg also nailed it:
Under the hood, though, what’s remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace’s earlier ambitions. Recent generations of Americans have, with a few notable exceptions, been allergic to what used to be called “the novel of ideas.” Information we love, and the more the better. Memes? By all means. But inquiries into ontology and ethics and epistemology we’ve mostly ceded to the science-fiction, self-help, and Malcolm Gladwell sections of the bookstore. A philosophy-grad-school dropout, Wallace meant to reclaim them. _Infinite Jest_ discovered in its unlikely milieu of child prodigies and recovering addicts less a source of status details than a window onto (in Wallace’s words) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” And The Pale King treats its central subject—boredom itself—not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale.
David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest writers of the second half of the twentieth century (or the twentieth century as a whole? or of all time?), but the phrase “unfinished novel” will likely discount this in the minds of some judges, so maybe the mighty American isn’t as unbeatable as he seems at first glance.
That’s it. Stay tuned to find out who’s going through to Monday’s Championship.
After two exciting quarterfinal match ups yesterday—with Chile and Mexico moving on to the semifinals—we’re back today with two “impossible to call” matches. First up is Michel Houellebecq and the pride of France facing off against America’s David Foster Wallace as The Map and the Territory takes on The Pale King.
Houellebecq’s trek to the quarterfinals started with a 3-2 victory over Ecuador and Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin. He then rolled Cesar Aira and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter 4-1.
DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but the American prevailed 3-2. Then, he took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1.
Two heavyweights in today’s first quarterfinal . . .
P.T. Smith: USA
The Map and the Territory may play a flawless game, but it’s a familiar one, and like in soccer, those teams are always at risk against ambitious teams that have moments of glory, hoping their inevitable stumbles don’t cost them. The Pale King made me laugh more than anything in a long while, and created full consciousnesses on a single page. There are flaws, yes, but DFW’s writing is to an unfinished book as Tim Howard is the U.S. defense, and The Pale King holds on. Besides, when, other than WCL and the WC, do I get to root for the U.S. and have it not involve corporate capitalism or the military?
Lori Feathers: France
The Map and the Territory defeats The Pale King because it contains all the elements of the perfect novel: big ideas (art, death, capitalism), a great narrative with good pacing (this is where Houellebecq smokes DFW), and Houellebecq’s expressive (sometimes great) writing style. Not to mention, inventing his own brutal murder (so few remaining body parts that they fill only a child’s coffin) is original and ballsy enough to advance beyond the quarterfinals.
Tom Roberge: France
This match makes you painfully aware of the folly in pitting works of art against each other. If I’m forced to choose a winner, then I give the edge to Houellebecq if only because I enjoyed reading The Map and the Territory more, and pure and simple pleasure has to count for something.
Scott Esposito: France
The Pale King isn’t even actually a book after all . . .
Lance Edmonds: USA
By a mile.
Will Evans: USA
How funny to have two powerhouse novels by two brilliant authors who feature caricatures of themselves as characters in these two sloppy but brilliant novels. I preferred The Pale King but it came down to a shoot out for me.
Ryan Ries: USA
The Map and the Territory is a dark (and darkly funny) novel about death and art, a work that might be deemed a masterpiece if its author hadn’t already written one. The Pale King is shaggy, of course, disjointed and overlong too, but it also contains a few dazzling passages that make your heart ache in recognition of the so-called “human condition.” In a close match, it is these moments of transcendence, despite a consistent and accomplished effort from France, that push USA through to the semifinals.
And the US World Cup of Literature representative does what the US Men’s National Team just simply can’t: move on to the semifinals where The Pale King will face off against Mexico and Faces in the Crowd.
Conventional wisdom pronounced that Team USA would face a quick death in this year’s World Cup: drawing into the “group of death”; no superstar players; Coach Klinsmann’s pessimistic prognosis of his team’s chances. But Team USA survived (just barely) to advance to the “knock-out” stage and so too, The Pale King to face-off Belgium’s, The Misfortunates.
A few years after his death and much later than really serious readers of contemporary American literature, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I had mixed feelings before starting. I’ve always loved fat, dense novels—tomes of 700 plus pages are, by their very nature, projects, commitments, not something that you undertake on a whim and works that challenge your perseverance. But, experimental fiction left me cold—the effort to do something different (dare I say novel?) was too apparent, overwhelming the characters and the story. When I reached the last of its 980 pages (plus 95 pages of (very small print) endnotes), I admired Infinite Jest. I did not always enjoy reading Infinite Jest. And in any case, I was certain that I had read enough DFW to last my lifetime. Then I drew The Pale King in the 2014 World Cup of Literature . . .
On its face The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service and a bureaucratic snafu that creates a case of mistaken identity between two IRS employees named David F. Wallace. The characters orbit a back-story involving the mismanagement of tax returns and an IRS regional processing center’s bungled cover-up. (I don’t think that Lois Lerner read The Pale King.) But do not read The Pale King if you are looking for a novel with a strong plot. What you will find are fully drawn characters who feel alive and true, with their various neuroses, skin conditions, glandular disorders, and hardship enduring the consistent drudgery of the Service. These people (mostly men) are boring. Their work is boring. And DFW’s slow, granular descriptions, use of repetition and bureaucrat-speak make the tedium of their lives palpable. The labyrinthine IRS procedures and protocols depicted are absurd. But for these “anti-actors” adherence to them is a test of will, even heroic. Weak will is failure.
I worked for a number of years as a GS-9 and GS-11 (I never got to ride in a government repossessed Gremlin), and as I recall, my federal agency was less grim and more sensible than that depicted in the pages of The Pale King. But when your topic is the IRS, artistic license allows, even demands, some exaggeration. And this is a funny book. The Pale King is every bit as brilliant as Infinite Jest but its focus is the mendacity of office work, a world more familiar than Quebec separatists, elite tennis academies, and movies that inflict mind controlling paralysis and death on unsuspecting viewers. And, this, I think, makes it a better book.
And the writing is great: immediate, but not urgent; technical, but accessible; overly descriptive, but entertaining. All of the opposing elements combine to create something extraordinary, like eating something that is both sweet and salty. Obviously The Pale King could (should) have been written with more economy, but the effect would have been diminished. The time and attention given to the characters’ emotions, impressions and thoughts made them mine, as well. Self-doubt, pride, paranoia, hubris and many of the feelings that equate to being human, are acutely felt.
The Misfortunates is a collection of short stories about a very poor, beer-addled family in a small Flemish town, a place that I imagine as similar to the Appalachian village (yes was and still is today, officially, a “village”) where I grew up. Only in Arsendegem, the beer has to be better than Schaefer Light!
The book’s eponymous narrator, Dimitri Verhulst, shares a dozen or so tales from his childhood and early adulthood: misadventures about town, all involving mind-boggling amounts of alcohol, mostly beer. The Verhulst’s are very poor, and when the men of the house take up work from time to time, it is for the single purpose of paying-up their tab at the local pub. Dima’s mother abandons him to his grandmother, father and uncles when he is only ten. Despite the poverty, motherless childhood, and general, non-malicious neglect, Dima’s life is not particularly sad, and his story does not follow the well-trod path of an alcoholic father begetting a damaged son. Instead, Dima is loved by his grandmother and her brood of four sons—he is “our Kid,” and this brings cohesion and a weird normalcy to Dima’s life. It’s refreshing when we see Dima at the end of the book, mostly sober, mostly stable and with a woman that he really loves. The Misfortunates and The Pale King both are very funny. In The Misfortunates, the laughs are copious and frequently ribald, and translator David Colmer deserves kudos for translating Danish humor into sharp, colloquial English. (By contrast, The Pale King’s humor is dry and requires the reader to excavate the text (including the footnotes) carefully in order not to miss some of the funniest bits.) The Misfortunates is good fun, and I encourage you to read it (preferably over a beer or two). I look forward to reading more from Verhulst.
Final score: USA 3 – Belgium 1
The Misfortunates scored some fast, hard laughs, but The Pale King kicked it na gaveta with the undeniable talent of DFW whose fiction reshaped what American literature is and what it can be. Maybe Team USA can do the same for US soccer.
Lori Feathers is an attorney who lives in Dallas, Texas with her two, fat English bulldogs and (not-fat) boyfriend. She is a member of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas.
The result came to me as a shock, more of a shock to me even than to you: the US pulled out a 3-2 stunner of a victory over Portugal in the 2014 World Cup of Literature: David Foster Wallace’s final, posthumous novel The Pale King defeated the concise, nearly-perfect Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares.
Victory came for the Americans in stoppage time of a tightly contested literary deathmatch—there could be no tie, there could be but one champion in this contest—and the scrappy upstart Americans delivered a deathblow in the final seconds over beautiful, sweet Portugal, nation of literary greats like Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Lobo Antunes, Pessoa, Ronaldo . . . oh wait, I’m getting literature and soccer mixed up, and letting my obsession show. But that’s what this is all about. Soccer is fun and beautiful and capable of transcendent, much like literature, and sometimes a team like America, a nation that is both overrated and underrated at the same time as much in literature as in soccer, can beat a small but extremely talented punch-above-its-weight literary and soccer powerhouse like Portugal. On any given day, anything can happen, and it did.
The match started off basically at 1-0. I thought of myself as a referee (or, rather, more like what a referee should be), I tried to distance myself from the action in the books, to give an impartial rendering to my judgment. But I can’t lie, I came in pulling for Portugal. After all, I am a translation publisher; I prefer translated literature to American literature. And I had already read Tavares’ brilliant, perfect Jerusalem (arguably his masterpiece) and had never read the massively-hyped, no-way-he-could-ever-live-up-to-the-weight-of-expectation David Foster Wallace, except an essay on lobsters or something (the ridiculous hype this man conjures among people was almost reason enough to start the American squad down a man since I can’t give negative points)—who in so many ways represents what I don’t like about American literature—that, combined with the fact that I honestly thought that since The Pale King is most certainly not his masterpiece that it would be a close game that Portugal would eventually pull away and win in a resounding victory . . . I was wrong.
Without writing actual reviews of these books, because there are plenty of reviews out there, including a tremendous review of The Pale King by Garth Risk Hallberg in New York Magazine and a wonderful profile of Tavares in The New Yorker, neither of these writers are lacking in critical attention, so I will spare you any attempt to write a review and instead get into why DFW/USA beat Tavares/Portugal . . .
These two books are both phenomenal, and packed punches that landed squarely in my gut and my brain at the same time, different in their execution but similar in their ambition, and I recommend everybody to read both (and actually, try to read them both at the same time, like I did, re-reading Jerusalem as I made my way through The Pale King—you start to notice similarities and connections that make each book that much more impactful, which then got me wondering if I should always read two books at once because then all sorts of links are going to open up between the two texts). They both deal with the big questions of existence and of making connections in a modern world that is set up in so may ways to destroy us, break us down, make us inhuman or, worse, tragically normal. The tedium, the crushing boredom, the weight of expectations, the essence of tragedy, the root of human cruelty, it’s all on display in both books. Chalk up another point to each team for getting at the meaning of it all. I appreciate that about literature. It’s tied 1-1 at the half . . .
It has to be said that this is the match of the 2014 World Cup of Literature, and it came in the first round. It felt like a championship. This is like how the Spain-Netherlands championship rematch in the first round should have been played. And in the end, Tavares vs. DFW felt like the Argentina-Bosnia game in the first round: both teams should have won, and when Bosnia finally lost, it was a beautiful loss. They had arrived, they had played, and they could hold their heads high in defeat, knowing they had the skills and talent to take down the mightiest of teams—it’s like that for Jerusalem. If the World Cup of Literature were like the soccer version and there were three matches in the first round, there are only one or two other countries in this literary battle who could take on Tavares and hope to win.
My horror-graph could then lead us to discover something even more basic to the problem of human atrocity: the underlying formula. I mean a numerical, objective, specifically human formula—removed from our animal natures, aside from sentiment and instinct, changes of heart, fluctuations of mood—a purely mathematical, purely quantitative, I would even say detached formula, implied by my results. But: not merely a formula serving as a concise summary of the effects of past horrors; no, my intention is to arrive at another, greater equation; a formula that will allow us to predict the horrors to come, that allows us to act and not just ponder or lament. I intend to develop a formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason—not even out of fear—the evil that seems almost inhuman, precisely because it’s inexplicable. I believe that this is not only possible, but practical. (Jerusalem)
In fact, he started to think that thinking of the speech’s line so much just made him all the more afraid of the fear itself. That what he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse hall of mirrors of fear, all of which were ridiculous and weird. (The Pale King)
Fear. Horror. Tragedy. Not just the tragedy of war but of everyday atrocities.
And if you put Tavares’ entire oeuvre up against DFW’s oeuvre, who knows how it might tilt, considering that Jerusalem is but one book in a four-part series called The Kingdom (all four books have now been published by Dalkey Archive), and the brilliance of those four books could go up against Infinite Jest in as fair a fight as either side could ever hope to experience . . .
I will now admit freely that I was wrong about Foster Wallace in nearly every way, though at times I could get annoyed with the overwriting and the meticulously unnecessary details (that led to Portugal taking a 2-1 lead right after halftime), but when one steps outside of the novel, the minutiae of the inner workings of the IRS in a period of upheaval within the department as told through a vantage point in 1980s Peoria, Illinois (not far from where Dalkey Archive, the publisher of Tavares’s Jerusalem, is based). The Pale King is a spectacular novel that combines experimental technique with moments of breathtaking clarity and ridiculous sublime beauty in diagnosing the ills of our 21st-century American condition and trying to ways to persevere through the muck of existence.
I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering . . .
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (The Pale King)
The truly healthy man necessarily spends most of his life trying, like a child, to find what he feels he’s missing . . . because he lives with a feeling of constant loss, and this sensation is easily mistaken for the feeling of having been robbed, the feeling that someone has stolen something very important from you, a part of your own self—a part that, for the sake of argument, we’ll agree to call “spiritual.” (Jerusalem)
This quote in The Pale King sums up some of the main points of the whole book, and it alone is worth a point, because it’s a very lengthy digression that leads to the same point DFW made very succinctly in his much-lauded 2005 Kenyon College commencement address (published as the oh-so adorable little book This is Water). I like that DFW meanders his way around the point of boredom and finding meaning in things, it leads to The Pale King becoming exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect I have to look overseas to find, so grand in ambition, so sloppy in its telling. Those are my favorite kinds of books. Works of art should be rough around the edges, their perfection comes not from fitting in to any definition of perfection that ever existed before they were born, but rather from the combination of their transcendent and earthly qualities. DFW ties the score at 2 . . . the clock is ticking down.
Much was made before the competition began of the fact that The Pale King is an incomplete novel. Some people told me that the novel was like the 2014 version of the US Men’s National Team: big, fast, and incomplete. Another friend (a judge in this competition!) stressed to me that it is not an incomplete novel, that what DFW left behind was a fully-formulated novel of sketches set out on his desk in a particular way so that when his editor got a hold of the papers after DFW took his own life (right after completing The Pale King) the book would be sitting there, waiting. What has been published is certainly not the 3,000 pages of novellas, sketches, vignettes, ideas, and chaos, but rather a tidy 550+ page avant-garde novel that mixes high and low literature with tedious but necessary IRS lingo, jargon, and facts. And after finishing the novel, I tend to lean with the fact that this is indeed a finished novel. As finished as any novel ever is. Because I come from the school of readers who considers the author’s text to be sacred, it comes from years of schooling in Russian literature and Russian literary theory (or, more simply, from reading Master & Margarita ten times: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The text is sacred). I consider DFW to be an auteur, a master, an artist (even having never read him before, but definitely now, having finally read him, now with the burning desire to read his every word as if I were a 90s slacker at some Yankee private liberal arts college), and so I believe The Pale King should have been published in its full 3,000 page mess. But DFW’s editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch (he now of Hachette-running, Amazon-fighting fame), does not come from the same school of literary theory as me, and so he molded these messy 3,000 pages into a tidy 550+ page piece of strange, hypnotic brilliance.
Jerusalem by Tavares is as close to perfect as novels of ideas get. The characters are there, fully-realized, terrifying and sympathetic and alive, the ideas are in their words and their actions and the spaces surrounding their bodies, and the author’s form is architectural in its tightly-controlled structure, a form that allows the complexity of madness and tragedy in its characters to be realized. This is the point where the match could have gone either way—tied 2-all, a minute or two of stoppage time, desperation heaves on both ends, Tavares throwing his creative weight behind a complex structure that weaves his story in and out of time—and The Pale King too possesses all of those things except in its form, because the form is not the author’s but the editor’s. In American letters, the editor controls the form far more than readers ever realize. The same readers who give translators such a hard time for taking ideas and translating them for English-language readers take into account the interpretive role that editors play at our publishing houses, ruling over translators and authors alike. As I read The Pale King, I felt like I was reading Michael Pietsch as much as DFW, in a way that contrasts how I felt about reading Jerusalem, which I read as the fully-realized novel of one Gonçalo M. Tavares, overlooking the brilliant work of the translator Anna Kushner even as I knew I was reading her version of Tavares’s words, forms, ideas, etceteras. And I love Michael Pietsch for piecing this together (while simultaneously wanting a Nabokovian full-on release of all the notes in all their messy glory).
Is the editor a sort of monolingual translator? The editor translates the words, ideas, and form of an author into the cultural expectations of the reader of that culture, while translators work to translate the words and ideas and form of the foreign language into the cultural expectations of the receiving reader. I’m getting into translation theory. You’re falling asleep. One could go on for days. But should I leave you with any one idea I’m trying to impart here: read The Pale King and consider at once both the role of the editor in the text you’re reading and the ways that you choose to transcend above the everyday boredom that crushes our souls.
It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.
. . . light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run under water. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. (The Pale King)
I love both of these books because they concern themselves with “the whole ball game.” Read Jerusalem at the same time and marvel in Tavares’s world, a world so much like ours, but slightly off . . . just like the world will be slightly off on June 22 when the US and Portugal face off in soccer. It’s not impossible for the US to win, in fact they have more than a fighter’s chance but the world may need to rotate slightly off its normal axis to fight off the sheer perfection that is Ronaldo . . . oh damn, there I go again, off on my Ronaldo tangent, when in reality I should know that the US will win because Clint Dempsey, because . . . Texas.
And in the last seconds, the crowd at fever pitch, this judge in a sweat, knowing legions of fans will be let down one way or the other, as my mind swirled, DFW pulled off a stunning goal to win the match 3-2. It could have gone either way, but today, today the ball game went to the USA.
Will Evans is the publisher of Deep Vellum, a new pressed based in Dallas, Texas dedicated to literature in translation.
Today’s post, written by Erik Estep, a librarian at SIU Edwardsville who has contributed to Three Percent in the past, is more or less an ode and reflection on David Foster Wallace and his work, as well as some commentary on the somewhat critically received DFW biography by D.T. Max. Since the majority of us at and related to Three Percent are, in fact, huge DFW fans, we thought it apt to give a little shout-out to Max’s book . . . Enjoy!
Even though he didn’t last long, David Foster Wallace left his mark on our culture. D.T. Max’s new biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, is an excellent introduction to the man and his body of work. Max, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has been on the Wallace beat for a while—he published a major piece on Wallace soon after Wallace’s suicide—and his familiarity with the material pays off in a book that is both readable and fairly comprehensive.
Wallace is a tricky subject because even though he has been gone for four years now, his influence lives on in our culture. With apologies to Douglas Coupland, Wallace can arguably be called the writer of Generation X, and one of the most important American writers in the last fifty years. With such an expansive subject, it would be easy to get lost in the details, but Max tells it straight and tells it well. He carefully traces Wallace’s roots in the Midwest, and sort of makes the case that Wallace is a regional writer.
Max also insightfully connects Wallace’s nearly life-long struggle with depression to growing up in the Midwest:
His mother thought of his anxiety, she would later tell an interviewer, as the “black hole with teeth,” but neither she nor her husband knew what to do about it, beyond letting their son stay home from school when he had to. Perhaps they hoped the problem would go away when he went to college. Clearly, biological changes were going on in Wallace—depression often first appears in puberty—but the young man may have also been responding to the environment that he had grown up in, to the wide-open spaces and unstructured world of late-1970s Midwestern America. If he was furtive or anxious, perhaps it was in part because he had a hard time figuring out what the rules were. (12-13)
Wallace will always be remembered first and foremost for Infinite Jest; appropriately, Max spends a lot of time unpacking that masterpiece. He carefully goes into Wallace’s past and links the figures in his life to the characters in Jest. For instance, one of the loves of Wallace’s life is the inspiration for the vaguely disfigured Jest’s Joelle Van Dyne—also known as Madame Psychosis. Wallace tried to self medicate his way through depression and ended up with addiction problems, which he tried to solve through the Alcoholic Anonymous programs. Wallace used those experiences to create the memorable and sympathetic character of Don Gately, who properly centers Jest. It is through his character that the vast Jest finds an emotional core. While the novel begins with Hal Icandenza’s nervous breakdown, it ends on a more peaceful and ambiguous note with Gately mentally drifting away. It is with his style of peculiar genius that Wallace ended what is arguably the best novel of Generation X on an emotionally satisfying note.
Of course, Wallace was not done with Infinite Jest, but the success of that novel haunted him for the rest of his career: just as Orson Welles was always trying to top Citizen Kane, Wallace was trying to best Jest. Most readers have gotten their introduction to Wallace through his brilliant essays instead of through Jest, and it is here that Max could have provided some more details. Almost until the very end, Wallace was very productive (Both Flesh and Not, a collection of essays spanning his entire career, was released just last fall and features a nice selection of his last great pieces, including the justly famous “Federer or Not”), and Max could have spent more time fleshing out that aspect of his career. For example, Wallace wrote very aptly about professional sports, especially tennis. Max could have easily spent several chapters on that topic alone. As it is, Max gives us some gems; for instance, who knew that Elizabeth Wurtzel was the basis for the Wallace’s great short story “The Depressed Person,” or that Wallace may have had an affair with Wurtzel? Wallace’s private correspondence is extensive—he didn’t like to use the phone—and Max mines Wallace’s letters with acumen. Wallace considered Don Delillo an influence and almost-father-figure, and Max uses those letters to come up with some surprising conclusions. For example, Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, is modeled more on Delillo’s work than that of Thomas Pynchon.
Wallace’s sad story also has a lot to tell us about the stigma society places on mental illness. Wallace was born in 1962 and his mental illness hit him hard while in high school in the 1970s. Back then, our understanding of mental illness seemed like something from the Stone Age; even homosexuality was considered a form of sickness. Now, one can’t avoid seeing a commercial for a mental illness that has yet to be discovered. One wonders if Wallace would be alive today had he been born just a decade later. What possibly doomed Wallace was his decision to go off the first generation medication that had stabilized him for so long. Perhaps, if there were fewer stigmas attached to the dread disease of mental illness, Wallace would have felt less flawed being on anti-depressants and not tried to cure himself without them. Granted, all of this is merely speculation, but is that is what good biographers do, and one wishes Max, who knows Wallace’s work so well, would have taken that leap and given us some analysis. Although there will be many, many future books on Wallace and his work, Max’s book is a great place to start and is useful for both the Wallace completist and neophyte alike.
Here’s a message from Monica Carter of Salonica and Skylight Books—our featured indie store of the month—about some interesting upcoming events.
One of the trademarks of Skylight Books is the ability to recognize and promote the literary greats of our time. Ten years ago, Skylight Books not only participated in the Harry Potter phenomenon with a midnight release party, but was the originator of the Thomas Pynchon Against the Day midnight release party. The tradition continues at Skylight Books with our dedication to celebrating the literary talents of today with our second Thomas Pynchon Midnight Release Party for his new novel, Inherent Vice, on August 4. Along with Pynchon, we will be hosting not one but two parties for Infinite Summer (not a footnote of a party, a PARTY!), the effort of bibliophiles from around the world to read Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009. William T. Vollman has been a perennial bestseller at our store and also a staff favorite which is why we are the only independent bookstore in Los Angeles to host an event for his new book of photographs, Imperial. These events are indicative of Skylight Books’ commitment to fostering cultural vivacity in our own community as well as the global literary community.
Covering approximately 75 pages a week (the entire reading schedule can be found here) , this group will read one of the longest novels of our generation by September 21st. For anyone who hasn’t read this book, this looks to be a fantastic way of experiencing the book, with great commentaries by other interesting writers, and a host of other people enjoying it with you . . .
I’m personally interested in seeing how this plays out. Online reading groups have been a mixed bag, with the Golden Notebook Project getting most everything right and representing the most successful model to date.
Infinite Summer is a bit more traditional, with different commentators leading the group through the reading and trying to encourage comments along the way.
But it’s also one of the first online reading groups I’ve seen that’s incorporating a lot of social media possibilities and allowing for a very de-centered approach to the traditional reading club. For instance, this roundup post links to a separate blog detailing one reader’s reading of IJ, a site where you can download an IJ reading schedule bookmark, a site called Infinite Zombies that is part reading group part Fight Club, a Flickr pool, a Twittered version of IJ, and a site archiving the ongoing conversation of two IJ readers. This is reading group as controlled chaos, or social networking event.
With the popularity of DFW (and his sudden, tragic end), I can imagine that all of these sites will attract a lot of followers, and it will be really interesting to see what sort of long-term effect this has. IJ is one of those books that a lot of people own, but haven’t necessarily read, so who knows if this will be a bigger boost to sales or literary awareness. Regardless, it should be an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold, and short of reading all Open Letter books published to date, this is a damn good way to spend your summer.
David Foster Wallace’s passing this past Friday is a huge blow, and incredibly sad. There’s not much to add to the discussions and appreciations online (such as this one that Ed Champion put together). DFW was an amazingly talented writer, whose Infinite Jest is one of the greatest books to come out in the past twenty-five years. He will be greatly missed.
For more information about the online appreciations, I recommend visiting Literary Saloon.
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