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In Cases Like These, The Rules Will Only Get You So Far
October 18, 2012 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I find it almost impossible to finish cataloging. I spend days away from the fourth floor, ruminating over things I’ve read and unable to return to my place in the pages. I read things that really piss me off. I read things that frighten me. I read things that delight every bone in my body. When I’m working on it, I feel as though I’ve gone underwater. One day I forget to leave at five. The clock on the fourth floor has stopped at some point while I’ve been working. When I finally get up I find the elevator has been locked. Jenn Shapland is cataloging the archive for David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.
posted by chavenet (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
So when he was writing Infinite Jest, DFW and his editor cut down a significant chunk of it. Apparently this made the structure of the novel hard to see.

I wish somebody would restore the stuff that was cut out and publish it. I know I'd buy at least one copy.
posted by nushustu at 9:09 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wish somebody would restore the stuff that was cut out and publish it. I know I'd buy at least one copy.

Imagine a world in which every author has a Christopher Tolkien, who publishes the scraps he left on his floor. How odd that would be. I'm not sure most living authors want their skirts raised like that.

Wonderful insight in that article. This sentence and the approach to writing it represents kind of bugged me, though: "An archive like the Harry Ransom Center is so viscerally structured that it seems governed by something inhuman." The word "viscerally" in there gives the sentence a good rhythm but I don't understand why it's the right word. There's a mental formula people have that an adverb is called for in certain places regardless of whether such an adverb is inherent in the thing being written about. This seems like one of those situations. In terms of meaning I haven't the slightest idea why 'viscerally' is here, or why it's preferable to another adverb, or no adverb at all, except in the number of syllables.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:30 AM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a request - I feel like DFW discussions invariably attract people with a strong need to express just how much they disliked him and/or Infinite Jest. Could those people please just not do so, this go 'round? I mean, if you're interested in discussing ways in which The Pale King failed, great, but a lot of these comments don't seem so discussion-oriented. There's a good example in the article comments:

On Being David Foster Wallace Or How Reading His Work is Like Committing Intellectual Suicide

Stuff like that. Can we skip it? Can we skip the stuff where you come here and express how stupid you feel anyone is who actually likes Infinite Jest? Or the bit where you assert that you really, really "got" it, but it was still awful dreck? That would be lovely.

As for the article:

Many others will have a lot of things to say about this set of papers. I expect to read comments from the members of the Wallace-l listserv, from certain reporters and bloggers, from the scholars I know, from the writers who always have something to say when it comes to Wallace. Most will be men and some will fit stereotypes that I don’t need to describe.

Ummm, I guess I need them described. Can someone fill me in on what she's talking about, here? I was oblivious to the gender divisions in opinions about his work this seems to imply.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:31 AM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Other people will find things I missed, they will write about things I would never disclose." That is, essentially, the central issue with DFW's work - the desire to catch all the info and stick to some semblance of integrity.
posted by zenon at 9:37 AM on October 18, 2012


I really do wonder what a completed Pale King would look like, since the book we have is already decently lengthy but structurally feels like maybe only the first 15% of the novel. I would think a lot of what we do get would have been pared down, as was Infinite Jest, but at the same time it doesn't seem to be moving too slowly-- the pacing is pretty decent, considering the circumstances.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:41 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Right, shakespeherian, the pacing does seem decent, but then at the notes at the end I more get the sense that the stage was just being set - there's that detail about how one of the management team seems to be assembling agents with paranormal abilities. Of course, there's also the reference to the guy's play where nothing happens, so maybe the ending wouldn't have been too dissimilar.

I love that chapter about the baby with the disconcerting glare.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:51 AM on October 18, 2012


I was oblivious to the gender divisions in opinions about his work this seems to imply.

Between that, and the "Yes, I’m a reader and a scholar of this author’s work. But I’m nobody’s fan girl." quote it seems like she's imagining some false persecution. I wouldn't've known it was written by a girl unless she'd brought it up.
posted by DynamiteToast at 9:56 AM on October 18, 2012


I think she's onto something with her intimations of a "type" of Wallace nerd, but I honestly can't think of a better way to articulate it than she did.

Anyway this was a nice piece, of a different sort than the typical hagiography, which is refreshing.

And it's a shame about the Pale King. Completed, it would have far surpassed Infinite Jest. Who knows how he personally felt about it, but the reality is that it was at once more restrained and more ambitious than his previous novel. It was on track to be great. If only.

God damn, but it is a shame.
posted by Sokka shot first at 10:10 AM on October 18, 2012


Between that, and the "Yes, I’m a reader and a scholar of this author’s work. But I’m nobody’s fan girl." quote it seems like she's imagining some false persecution.

Yeah, I was wondering if that sentence stemmed from the same causes I felt to make the first part of my post. The collective public attitudes about his fame are complex and interesting, and I also frequently see something expressed along the lines of "people who like him are dumb people who want to feel smart" and so I can sympathize with wanting to manage perceptions of my own interest.

(I'll shut up now, being almost half the posts in here.)
posted by neuromodulator at 10:12 AM on October 18, 2012


I read things that delight every bone in my body. When I’m working on it, I feel as though I’ve gone underwater ... I linger in full awareness that many other people will have at this archive once it’s open. I’m possessive in a way that makes me uncomfortable.


I can't recall the last time I read something that so accurately described the allure and addictiveness of working in special collections, and the seductive trap of thinking of the materials as "yours".
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:16 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Stuff like that. Can we skip it? Can we skip the stuff where you come here and express how stupid you feel anyone is who actually likes Infinite Jest? Or the bit where you assert that you really, really "got" it, but it was still awful dreck? That would be lovely.

Your request would probably be better if you hadn't started that part of the conversation yourself by quoting something that no one in this thread wrote, which does what you don't want done.
posted by OmieWise at 10:17 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


And it's a shame about the Pale King. Completed, it would have far surpassed Infinite Jest. Who knows how he personally felt about it, but the reality is that it was at once more restrained and more ambitious than his previous novel. It was on track to be great. If only.

I've been putting off reading Pale King. I'm afraid I'll have a similar reaction to Sokka shot first's. I'm already depressed that it is the last new thing of his that I'll ever be able to read. Adding on feeling disappointed in the book itself seems too much to risk.

There's an old family joke/tradition from my mom's Boston roots that you never eat the last oyster on your plate because what if it's bad. You won't have any other oysters to take the bad taste away. Some sort of New England Schrodinger's glass half empty worldview I've absorbed makes me reluctant to risk the last one being unsatisfying.

This from the article...
I begin with a delicacy that is paralyzing. I fear getting anything out of order, out of place. I fear removing the rubber bands, the paper clips, the numbered Post-it notes. I’m distinctly aware that if I mess up, if I lose the order, the order is lost.
struck me as mirroring a very Wallace like state of being. He worked so often in analysis of the debilitating effects of self-doubt taken to the point of paralysis.
posted by Babblesort at 11:53 AM on October 18, 2012


Adding on feeling disappointed in the book itself seems too much to risk.

There are some fantastic, fantastic passages in the book that are right up there with my favorite stuff Wallace ever wrote. It's more disappointment that I'll never get to see all of these things leaning against one another in a way that makes them more than the sum of their parts-- but the sum of the parts is still pretty great.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:55 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I felt like The Pale King, as published, was approximately 0% of the finished work. A ton of it is rehashed material from his other work, to start with. And as most readers note, it doesn't go anywhere or even do much more than vaguely hint at a plot, whereas Infinite Jest was (although this is rarely noted, unfairly) very tightly plotted.

It reads like Wallace working out mood and some broad themes, to me, using a lot of cribbed stuff that he was already familiar with as stand-ins for new characters, and not even worrying about where the story is going yet. It's sort of a shame it was even published as an "unfinished novel." I think he would have been embarrassed by it. I thought it was almost all stuff that would have wound up being cut, in any finished novel.
posted by rusty at 11:57 AM on October 18, 2012


...and that it’s the puzzle itself we’re trying to preserve. Not solve. Just maintain. Let live on. My job is to organize it all just enough to preserve the wonder of its discovery.

Most of my archival arrangement work has been with organization and government records. There, we're trying to arrange the records that tell the story of the org or office and verify that it was fulfilling its mission. And at the same time, make sure we are preserving records that protect the rights and obligations of the government to its citizens.

I've never worked on or in a literary figure's papers and manuscripts, but I think in that quote above, the author of this piece nails her mission pretty well.
posted by marxchivist at 12:23 PM on October 18, 2012


This is a nice description of archives/archives work - although she does seem to be approaching it at least partly from a lit crit and historian's point of view, as well as an archivist's perspective.

Have not read DFW, does anyone know if she rights like him too?
posted by carter at 12:26 PM on October 18, 2012


Pedantically, I want to say that books are cataloged, archives are processed. That grates more than it should, somehow.

This:
"The secret, best, juiciest, and most exhilarating part of working in archives is the way they reach out and form webs; each thing points you to something else, gives you new things to read and avenues to explore."
however, gets it exactly right. Being the first into a writer's archive is like some kind of intellectual voyeur's dream and a Christmas morning where the delights just keep coming and coming.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:56 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


octobersurprise, that was pretty much my favorite line to. Also, part of the skill in archiving a collection lies I think not just in assigning descriptions, metadata, keywords, etc., to individual documents and objects, conveyor-belt fashion, but in figuring out how it all forms a whole, what that whole is, and how the parts relate to the whole.
posted by carter at 1:01 PM on October 18, 2012


Ummm, I guess I need them described. Can someone fill me in on what she's talking about, here? I was oblivious to the gender divisions in opinions about his work this seems to imply.

Yeah, this is definitely a thing. Wallace seems to attract male fans who are, on the plus side, very sharp and very earnest, and, on the minus side, very attached to their own sensitivity and sometimes inclined to be petulant. Also, as a female mega-fan of Wallace, I've encountered some male fans who are (a) really attached to having finished (and enjoyed) Infinite Jest as a proof of their own intellectual vigor (b) vaguely surprised that a woman could have finished it and (c) really surprised that a woman could have loved it. It's like the Fight Club (or pick any Palahniuk) for a certain type of guy -- they think of it as a male-experience-gestalt sort of thing. I mean, it is kind of dudely. I still loved it.

Can't quite decide whether I envy this woman her job or not. Also, I'm having Babblesort's exact reaction as regards The Pale King. Thanks for summing it up so well! The metaphor also works with pistachios.
posted by ostro at 1:50 PM on October 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Thanks, ostro, for explaining.

I really, really dig The Pale King. It's obviously far from finished, but as shakespeherian said, it contains fantastic passages. And you can sort of squint and imagine what might have been in a way that's not just disappointing.
posted by neuromodulator at 3:58 PM on October 18, 2012


I actually liked The Pale King more than Infinite Jest. I felt in aesthetic that it was much clearer, even if plot coherence was somewhat undeveloped.
posted by solarion at 1:08 AM on October 19, 2012


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