After 28 matches we’ve finally made it to the World Cup of Literature semifinals, and are only a few days away from crowning the first ever WCL Champion. (If only we had a giant papier-mâché trophy for the winner . . .)
Before that though, we have two semifinal matches that are as intriguing as anything to date, starting with a face-off between two of the most beloved authors of recent times: Robert Bolaño and W.G. Sebald.
Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile) made it to this point by beating the Netherlands and Koch’s The Dinner by a score of 3-0, taking out Brazil’s Buarque and Budapest by a score of 3-1, and then upending Italy’s great hope, Elena Ferrante and The Days of Abandonment 4-2.
W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (Germany) got here by wrecking Ghana and Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country 5-1, sliding past Algeria and Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by a score of 1-0, and knocking out Bosnia and Saša Stanišic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone 4-3.
This is a match that no one really wanted to judge—both books are brilliant and deserve all the accolades they’ve ever received.
That said, this is a competition and only one can move on to the Championship . . .
Shaun Randol: Germany
Both By Night in Chile and Austerlitz have the protagonist confronting demons from a real political past. Amoral authoritarian rulers, institutions, and systems are indicted with barely contained bitterness and rage. And both authors—Bolano and Sebald—mix fact and fiction to get the point across. The teams go into overtime, not even the prose distinguishes one team over the other. In the end, the deployment of photography in the fictional musing gives Austerlitz the artistic edge.
George Carroll: Chile
James Crossley: Germany
Sebald’s roll through the tournament—he earned the highest percentage victories from the fans in the first and second rounds—finally slows down. He’s up against a fantastic book, and this matchup feels more like a final than I think the final will. But in the end, I don’t think Chile earns the win. Things might have played out differently with 2666 or The Savage Detectives in the mix, but By Night in Chile just isn’t Bolano’s best novel. Austerlitz is probably Sebald’s, though, and it gets the nod from me.
Hannah Chute: Chile
Trevor Berrett: Germany
If you forced me to name my two personal “most important” literary discoveries of the last decade, I’m pretty sure they’d be Bolaño and Sebald. I’m not alone in my esteem; both were awarded posthumous National Book Critics Circle Awards. Putting these two books together like this shows some fascinating overlapping themes, and everyone should read each. Now to decide which of their “life histories” should progress: Sebald’s. Bolaño’s architecture is destroyed by corruption and pigeon droppings; Sebald’s is erased by time, which I find more terrifying.
Stephen Sparks: Chile
How the fuck is someone supposed to choose either Bolano or Sebald? Since either one of these books could easily defeat the winner of the other bracket, I’m casting my vote in the same way I decide who to root for in the actual world cup: root for the poorer country.
Nick During: Chile
I’m often a terrible fan. Sometimes I’ll start a game rooting for one team, but then change my mind several times during the course of the 90 minutes. My soccer-watching friends get very frustrated and angry at me, but I feel this fickleness and indecision is part of human nature. Urrutia Laccroix would be like that too if he was a real person.
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Germany
As I reread Austerlitz and By Night in Chile, a phrase by Alexander Pope kept echoing through my thoughts: “Homer makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers.” It was an apt way to describe the divide between Sebald and Bolaño: while the latter submerges me into words and worlds, the former opens up words to their strange resonances, and opens up the world in which we live to its full brilliance. As I closed By Night in Chile, it settled into my mind as a mere story, albeit better-told than most. But walking out of my apartment after Austerlitz was a shock; every building and tree and passerby burst at the seams with unexpectedly visible significance.
Rhea Lyons: Chile
I like trippy, dark and reflective more than bleak, atmospheric and reflective.
Florian Duijsens: Chile
Two stunning books, both about characters trying to make sense of their past, both obsessed with arcane factoids and architecture, both consumed by a survivor’s guilt, yet Bolaño’s story of self-deception is the more visceral of the two. While Austerlitz haunts Sebald’s book in beautiful spectral form, it’s Father Urrutia Lacroix who has haunted me in the years since I first read By Night in Chile, and it’s the dying priest’s voice that ultimately gives Chile’s representative the edge over Germany’s otherwise more than worthy opponent.
Chris Schaefer: Germany
This is one of those match-ups that really should have occurred in the final and not in the semi-final: Sebald vs. Bolaño, Germany vs. Chile, an architectural historian’s sifting of past trauma vs. a dying priest’s feverish thoughts about literature in a dictatorship. Both books have digressive styles, a blending of fact and fiction, and an overly casual disdain for paragraph breaks. It’s a fight to a draw, but Sebald’s Austerlitz wins on penalties.
Jeff Waxman: Chile
It never occurred to me that this late in the game, in the games, that I would have to cast a vote for a book I actually liked. And against a book I liked. But I’m calling this one for Bolaño for two reasons: the sheer aggressive drive of this particular narrative and because I drank four margaritas last night while explaining to a friend why Bolaño is good.
Chile, guys. Fucking Chile.
Hal Hlavinka: Chile
And with that, Bolaño moves on. Convincingly. We’ll find out tomorrow who he’ll be up against in the final.
On this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom preview the semifinals of the World Cup of Literature (both suspect Chile will meet the US in the Championship), and then discuss The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair and this New Yorker piece about its limited U.S. success. Also, the Penguin Cup is stupid.
In relation to the rants and raves portion of the podcast, here are three videos from the Estonian sketch comedy troupe that Chad praised.
First, here’s one about how much it sucks to be Estonian:
And the “Knight Rider” one that he mentioned:
More can be found at this YouTube channel.
And in keeping with the Estonian-themed “rave,” this week’s music is Zaha Hadid from Deserts.
Be sure and write us at email@example.com with any suggestions, criticisms, etc.
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.Tweet
In the last of the four quarterfinal match ups, BiH, represented by Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, goes up against one of the World Cup of Literature favorites, Germany and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
Stanišic made it here first by bribing a judge and beating Iran’s represntative, The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi 1-0 and then by upsetting Honduras and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness by a score of 5-3.
This one is going to be close . . .
Hal Hlavinka: Germany
Saša’s payment pending, the ghost of Sebald runs ragged.
Stephen Sparks: Germany
Although the exuberance of How the Soldier fared well against Senselessness, the methodical, evenly paced tenor of Austerlitz won the day for me here in the quarterfinals.
James Crossley: Germany
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has a lot to recommend it where the World Cup of Literature is concerned: quirky chapter titles, some actual soccer content, and a flukish celebrity appearance on the hardcover dust jacket. (The designer used a stock photo—man playing accordion on the beach—without realizing that the subject was author/musician Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket.) Sorry about the tough draw, Stanišić, but that’s not enough. Literary landmark Austerlitz for the win.
Hannah Chute: Bosnia
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is what Catch-22 would be if Yossarian were an eleven-year-old Bosnian kid. It’s funny, touching, and all-around brilliant.
Nick During: Bosnia
Books, like soccer matches, often hinge on the unexpected. The depth and knowledge and verve of a truly great team can be defeated by the rare moment of creative brilliance at just the right time. Don’t get me wrong, Austerlitz is a truly great book, a Sebald classic that makes the reader search for hidden memories and mysteries in the buildings that surround us, but in the flexible paragraphs and sentences of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone lies the imagination that has gives the reader another look at the past, and in a different way that can free them from the weight of official history.
Florian Duijsens: Bosnia
Every Cup needs at least one slightly partial ref and, having taken both books out into a park today (the closest I could think of coming to the championship field), I will gladly to give my vote to Bosnia, and not just because Saša and I follow each other on Instagram. Where Austerlitz smartly and digressively peers into the past and its oblivion, How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone brings a version of the not all that distant past to vivid life through the child narrator’s unobstructed observations, which manage to surprise as often as they stun with sudden bursts of painful truth.
Chris Schaefer: Germany
Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz are both haunting novels about savage twentieth-century European conflicts. Stanišić’s novel elicited more laughter from me than anything else I’ve read recently, but its creative tragicomedy could not compete with Sebald’s innovative and weighty erudition. The known quantity Sebald defends his reputation against the upstart Stanišić, but we can expect great things from the young Bosnian in the future.
And there you have it—the semifinals are set. On one side we have Chile (Bolaño’s By Night in Chile) going up against Germany (Sebald’s Austerlitz), and on the other we have Mexico (Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd) taking on the USA (DFW’s The Pale King).
See you tomorrow for the first of these matches!
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.
The second quarterfinal matchup today features Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd up against Uruguay stalwart Mario Benedetti and his The Rest Is Jungle.
Luiselli got to this match by sliding past the Croatian representative Dubravka Ugresic and her Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 3-2 and then running rampant over Australia and Murnane’s Barley Patch by a score of 3-0.
Benedetti’s first-round matchup was against Costa Rica and Óscar Núñez Olivas’s Cadence of the Moon. He won by a score of 2-1. In the second round, The Rest Is Jungle triumphed over Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma by a score of 1-0.
Here we go!
Chad W. Post: Mexico
I said all I have to say about this book in my post on the second round. It’s brilliant in any context, and definitely deserves to move on to the semifinals.
Mauro Javier Cardenas: Mexico
It is exciting when a debut shows so much promise, so much wistfulness written in the kind of Spanish prose I prefer: an admixture of casual and literary, the American English of New York visiting paragraphs every now and again. No fue penal!
Katrine Jensen: Mexico
Everybody should read Faces in the Crowd. Read it for Luiselli’s language. Read it for the masterly translation by MacSweeney.
Nick Long: Mexico
Mexico (Faces in the Crowd) wins by its sheer pace, a literary zoetrope filled with allusions distilled into vignettes that dress up this boring match. The breadth and depth of Faces in the Crowd’s references are legion, and literature is just like soccer, in which things are always fluid and bribing the referee is usually the best plan of action. Mexico may not be able to win in Ohio, but calling upon the powers of d.a. levy was sufficient to bring victory to Faces in the Crowd (albeit not Dos a Cero).
Laura Radosh: Mexico
No match. Does Benedetti write well? Of course he does, he made it this far. Does it hold up to Luiselli’s fragmented wild ride through the (literary) ghosts of two cities? No. Win for Mexico.
Elianna Kan: Mexico
Mexico! A million times Mexico!
Kaija Straumanis: Mexico
I enjoyed Benedetti’s short stories—I really did. But not even 10 pages into Faces in the Crowd) I’m already so hooked, so much more interested in what the following pages will hold and what Luiselli will do with her novel that it already outshines most everything done in The Rest Is Jungle. Also, Luiselli is kind of hot and, well, Uruguayans bite people.
Well, that was rather convincing . . . Mexico annihilates Uruguay and cruised into the semifinals to play either France or America—we’ll find out if it’s Houellebecq or David Foster Wallace tomorrow . . .
The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Juan Carlos Postigo on Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero, translated by Philip H. D. Smith and Graziella de Luis, and published by Hispabooks Publishing.
If you’re still not familiar with Hispabooks, they were founded in 2011 and brought their first books to light in 2013. They work solely with Spanish-language literature, and in the very brief time they’ve been around they’ve already done great things for the authors and works they represent.
Here’s the beginning of his review:
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of José Ovejero’s Nothing Ever Happens lies in its five protagonists (the chapters are titled with the names of the characters; almost everyone gets two chapters to his or her name). Carmela, an excessively independent woman, and her husband Nico, a too gentle man respectively, lead a quiet and comfortable life of middle-class marriage, full of almost imperceptible silences. But the secret of Olivia, their Ecuadorian immigrant housekeeper, could bring down the appearance of normality. Especially with the potential involvement of Claudio, a gifted boy of convoluted ideas who has fun in revealing what is hidden.
For the rest of the review, go “here”:Tweet
The first quarterfinal matchup features two prominent, stellar authors: Roberto Bolaño represents Chile with his novel By Night in Chile, facing off against Italian author Elena Ferrante and her Days of Abandonment.
Bolaño made it to this point by annihilating the Netherlands and Koch’s The Dinner by a score of 3-0, then taking out Brazil’s Buarque and Budapest by a score of 3-1.
Ferrante got here by knocking off England’s Zadie Smith and NW 5-3 and then getting by Japan’s Haruki Murakami and 1Q84 by a score of 3-2.
So here we go . . .
Trevor Berrett: Chile
Two brutal teams come together today, Italy stern and frowning because for them this is a real fight, Chile smirking because they already know the fight doesn’t matter: it’s after the match that the storm of shit begins.
Rhea Lyons: Italy
I love By Night in Chile but I identify with Olga. She is close to my heart.
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Italy
With the first line, Italy scored with a direct, violent kick not even the world’s fastest goalie could have seen coming: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” And, with a last-minute headbutt, Chile finally scored in the final minute of the game. But it was too late: Italy’s Ferrante played with a fire and a speed that Chile’s Bolaño could never have hoped to match.
Shaun Randol: Chile
In By Night in Chile, a lucid man abandons his people. In Days of Abandonment, a woman abandoned loses her mind. Chile’s ball-handling is steady and consistent. The bench is deep and there’s a real sense of teamwork. Abandonment’s play is frantic, uneven, and the striker—Olga—is a ball hog.
George Carroll: Chile
There’s a restaurant in Berkeley, CA called Cafe Gratitude. The entrees are named “I Am Terrific” (Pad Thai), “I Am Magical” (Black Bean Burger), “I Am Great” (Granola), and so on. The last time I was there, the server approached me and, as a greeting, informed me what she was grateful for, then asked me that same. Maybe I had low blood sugar, maybe I thought it was silly, maybe I didn’t want to discuss my wife and dog. But I didn’t answer, didn’t participate in the ordering ritual. Today, I might have said that I’m grateful for book recommendations from my trusted friends.
Paul Yamazaki from City Lights Books suggested that I read The Savage Detectives. Which I did, then more, and more. I’m not one of those I-read-Bolano-back-when fans; I hate those assholes. I get to recommend him to others now, without the cloying pretension.
I’ve got nothing against Ferrante. Reading Story of a New Name for #BTBA2014 was a pleasant experience.
By Night in Chile is the clear winner. If it should lose, I suggest a double WCOL inquiry into this match and, of course, the Marias/Murnane match.
Jeff Waxman: Chile
And there you have it, Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile moves on to the semifinals to play either How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone or Austerlitz.
Now that all of the second round matches have been decided, it’s time for an updated bracket.
You can download a PDF version here.
These quarterfinal matches are all pretty tight . . . And, they’ll all be decided over the next two days.
Today, Monday, July 7th, Chile (By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño) and Italy (Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante) face off, and on the other side of the bracket Mexico (Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli) goes up against Uruguay (The Rest Is Jungle by Mario Benedetti).
Tomorrow we find out who the winners will face in the semis, starting with France (The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq) taking on the USA (The Pale King by David Foster Wallace), and ending with Bosnia (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić) going up against Germany (Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald).
(Interesting note: Anthea Bell translated both the Bosnian and German entries, so she’s already made it to the semifinals.)
On Wednesday we’ll post semifinal match number one, with the second to follow on Thursday. The First Quadrennial World Cup of Literature champion will be named on Monday, July 14th, hours after the Real World Cup has been decided.
Once again, here’s the current bracket in both jpg and PDF forms.
And the PDF version.Tweet
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.
When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .
Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist. . .
On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were. . .