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Beyond the Pale, pt. five (of seven)

(continued from pt. four)

Mission Control celebrates after conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission

The Pale King also echoes some themes that were first broached by Wallace in the by now famous Kenyon College Commencement Speech he delivered in 2005 (infamously exploited by Little, Brown in what must be one of the lowest points literary fiction publishing has ever stooped to, i.e. the publication of a commencement speech which fills five pages of 12-pt. single-spaced A4/LT paper sheets, as a 144-page book with one sentence printed on every page), namely the choice of where to place your attention as a human, and the Symplegades of existential boredom and the tedium of work life.

He casually mentions E pluribus unum on pg. 102. It means “Out of many, one”, and is one of the dictums of the seal of the United States. The title of one of his lengthier essays, E Unibus Pluram, is the dictum inverted (“Out of one, many”) and was originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993. IRS agents ride in repossessed and unmodified Mr. Squishy vans. Mr. Squishy is the inaugural story of the Oblivion collection, a perfect example of obfuscation, research and incompleteness (not to mention a sphincter so tight it could cut through a bar of a particularly hard experimental titanium alloy intended for lunar landings). §14 and §18 are chilling replays of Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, his 1999 short story collection, this time featuring IRS agents. The interviews could be a publicity stunt of the IRS prelacy, reality TV as reality, which is never a good idea. They could be psychological warfare between branches of the IRS which try to impose their own agendas on the Service as a whole. They could be someone’s idea of a bureaucratic confessional, an empty room somewhere in the second basement of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport which was easily converted to something that would hold the true face of America, and by extension, this civilization’s grey, atrophic heart. Also the fierce and supra-intelligent baby that echoes the answer-prone and omniscient child in his short story Another Pioneer, in Oblivion. Although there is no way to verify this, Wallace pulls together various strings from earlier stories, draws on his earlier fiction to construct and suspend, in the center of the bare room in the second basement of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, a merciless ball of light, probably xenon in hue, to illuminate every corner, every square inch of the room’s floor, walls, door, the medallion twining itself around the light’s base, in order to give us as good a view as he could manage of what lies within, even though the room is empty.

It’s not clear whether all this is a latent intertextuality that crawled up on him in his middle age, or if it is an ironic species of intertextuality (he was a master of pointing out the ironic tropes of post-modernism and then following them with an aw-shucks-look-at-what-I’m-doing-now attitude, how-cliché-of-me) or if it is something that he always did after Broom, and always ended up editing out just before mailing it to Pietch.

But in addition to connecting the Pale King to various things he had written in the past, he connected it in certain ways to his own life.

In a tidy doublethink move, he names §9 the Author’s Foreword, the unorthodox placement “not the editor’s choice” as he writes. This dubious move falls under the following-the-pomo-beaten-path-while-at-the-same-time-pointing-at-it-and-laughing type of thing, but also, through the blizzard of technical and legal footnotes and the cliché Author Within His Work/Fake Memoir type of thing, he trumps it by making the Pale King the omniscient kind of novel (like IJ was) with all sorts of details thrown in that he could not have noticed even if the book were a memoir and he had been there (let alone by hearsay or memoiristic interviews). So the novel’s details, a prime source of “realism” and “authenticity” also rob it of realism. It’s as if Wallace used some sort of novelistic camera obscura to construct something that looks (or even is) real, but could never have been observed in any real, first-hand authentic manner. Scattered across the line of this dichotomy between memoir and fiction, reality vs. hyper-reality, are little details, rarely more than a couple of sentences in length, which are quite jarring if you’ve read your Wallace. First up, the sweat chapters (§13 and §27) about a newly recruited IRS examiner, but not “David Foster Wallace”, who sweats uncontrollably if he is somewhere he can’t get out of immediately or without being noticed, say a classroom or an elevator. Karen Green, his widow: “David was a big sweater”. And the Kenyon College Commencement Speech’s opening sentence: “If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to.” The scrutinizing of in-flight leaflets, or two people driving in a car, having a conversation, are set pieces that will be familiar to those who have read David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. On pg. 150 Toni Ware is living with two large dogs, much like how Wallace lived with his two dogs, Jeeves and Drone. Chris “Irrelevant” Fogle recounts his employment history which includes the positions of a security guard (Wallace worked briefly as a security guard for Lotus Corp.) and worker for a company installing gymnasium floors. Wallace briefly worked, after Broom, in a high-end gym as a towel boy and quit when Michael Ryan, a writer who had received the Whiting Writer’s award the same year with Wallace, went there to exercise. He has said he dived (“I pretended not very subtly to slip”) behind a counter and lay still and prostrate until Ryan left.

(the sixth part is scheduled to appear on Wednesday, 28 September 2011)

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  1. Pingback: Beyond the Pale, pt. six (of seven) « Seven Steps Back - September 28, 2011

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