(continued from pt. six)
At times, his writing and the stories he chooses to tell feel like the protective rituals of a severe OCD sufferer. The thing with Wallace is that reading him demands, or else incites, the use of the word ever, as in §46 is one of the best pieces of dialogue ever constructed on paper. He systematically does strange things to the English language but at the same time glorifies it, things that are aggressive but not devoid of sexual desire, a kind of low-grade, quasi-consented rape. As if the language is a Kogal picked up in Shibuya and paid for with a Gucci scarf, taken to a love hotel and then bound up Kinbaku-like. Extreme example: “The station’s flagpole’s flag’s rope’s pulleys and joists clinked dully in the wind”. The trouble is that the same parts that can be classified as truly stellar writing, truly stellar understanding, to use §46’s central word, is that his writing also incites the use of the word horrible or horrific. Its nature is unclear, or I am too squeamish, to even begin to try and describe his so-good-it’s-positively-extraterrestrial-or-maybe-even-siliconic-in-origin prose. Since as a person he is now unknowable to anyone who didn’t know him when he was alive (and to most of the people who did, par for the course for all but the more transparent or simple human beings, and my guess is he was far from being one), I can’t really say that this was the experience of the person himself: was he a stellar human being, but also horrible in an undertow kind of way, in the same rip-current way the reasons for dread aren’t immediately obvious in his writing? Some of them inhabit single words or sentences buried in the text, and others are thinly spread across the whole of it, the neurotic clarity too deeply painful and the necrotic rhythms of affect too scabrous for any reader to attempt an accurate re-enactment of (bar the suicidals, obviously).
People (that is, critics) talk (that is, write) about how Wallace was “kind” and “aware” and other warm and fuzzy words that they use with a kind of caution, gingerly in the way a novice bomb squad tech will handle heavy duty explosives. Wallace was not “kind” or “aware”. These are just words that try inadequately to mask the real horror of what Wallace was: an alien, cold intelligence, a foreign symphony composed of depression and computing power of awesome grade, sprinkled with a few frugal sub-routines of compassion. He imbibed the world, encrypted it with his own brand of pain, and reinstalled it seemingly unchanged, only now each part is colored with a distinct and quite transparent shade of black. Without wanting to dub Wallace as anything anti-, since his writing is the opposite of reactionary, he may well be the antipode of Borges in literature’s globe. An immense Beijing to Borges’ Buenos Aires, or maybe Borges is the empty Indian/Southern Ocean (it is still unclear, the International Hydrographic Organization has not yet made up its mind on the name) east of the Kerguelen Islands to Wallace’s dismal Illinois. Wallace’s exactitude and detail to Borges’ broad strokes. Wallace courageous and hard-working to a Borges timid and slothful in the face of the novel. Wallace emotional in the extreme without becoming trite, to Borges’ cool detachment. And don’t even get me started on the politics.
And this is why Wallace is for some people more admirable a writer than Borges. He recognized his talent, like Borges did, but, unlike Borges, he chose to go the distance, to set himself the highest goals he could think of and pursue them with dedication. It can of course be argued that this scaling-the-highest-mountains approach was a contributing factor to his death. This is pure speculation of the lowest order but his death may have been the result of more than his depression. It may also have been because of the nature of a writer vain enough to attempt to write something like IJ, ferocious enough to pull it off, and foolhardy enough to try and supersede it. This last attempt permitted his publisher to print for us the collection of drafts that comprise the Pale King, something that, and let’s just get this out of the way right now, was a financial decision by Little, Brown, an imprint of Hachette Book Group USA, or its parent company Hachette Livre, or its parent Lagardère Publishing, itself a division of Lagardère, a French company which is also active in the European defense industry and whose headquarters at 121, Avenue de Malakoff, 75016, France, is a more or less generic and unassuming building with mirror windows surrounded by grey wall and has a small plaque (compared to the magnitude of the company) with the company’s logo mounted next to the entrance; but also, I feel, as a final act of love for a writer who when read makes you feel, for a while, a little more human rather than just as a collection of various emptinesses surrounded by thin membranes of mundane experience.
(the appendix is scheduled to appear on Wednesday, 5 October 2011)