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vortexlike wormhole of 20th-century American fiction
November 20, 2010 3:07 PM   Subscribe

From the Mixed-Up Files of David Foster Wallace explores the late author's archive at the Harry Ransom Center.

Accompanying: extensive samples of material that did not make it into Infinite Jest, starting with a spare vignette a reader can appreciate without needing any further knowledge of the book.
posted by jjray (31 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
(When Wallace assigned genre fiction to his students, he warned them against slacking off. “Red Dragon is a hard novel, at least the way we’ll be reading it,” he wrote in one handout.)

What I wouldn't give for that opportunity....
posted by Dr. Zira at 4:04 PM on November 20, 2010


love this. thanks for the link!
posted by fuzzypantalones at 4:28 PM on November 20, 2010


I'd just like to say that when it comes to material that didn't make it into Infinite Jest, there wasn't nearly enough of it.

The adulation DFW receives is like an infinitely deep black pit of mystery, to me. It's not even like the emperor has no clothes. It's like there isn't even a fucking emperor.
posted by Decani at 4:48 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Decani: What parts of the novel do you think should have been cut?
posted by Dr. Zira at 5:07 PM on November 20, 2010


DFW archives previously.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:22 PM on November 20, 2010


These are great. Thanks for posting.
posted by pts at 5:35 PM on November 20, 2010


Great link. It's been a long time since I've read anything this interesting in Newsweek...
posted by alexoscar at 5:37 PM on November 20, 2010


> Decani: What parts of the novel do you think should have been cut?

Given this previous comment, I'd wager that Decani's answer to this question would be something like "the parts between the front and back covers." But I'm hoping that we don't go down that low road that so many DFW threads divert toward.

I'm not much of a fan of DFW myself, but I do have to admit that this sounds kind of intriguing (perhaps less the imagined footnote, but certainly the ability to play with the sentence -- and even just what that source material says):

One fascinating folder contains Wallace’s typed letters to a tax lawyer, complete with questions about the single most confusing sentence in the tax code. (The lawyer responded in some detail, and it’s easy to imagine Wallace working digressive wonders with a footnote about all that information.)
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:39 PM on November 20, 2010


Ugh, might as well book some plane tickets to Austin next March. Spend the first week at SXSW, second week being the weirdo camped out at the Harry Ransom Center. Thanks for this post.

And yeah, I'm 1/2 with Decani, the deep black pit of mystery part. Except I'm mystified by the extremely wide demographic of people I've met who've found some piece by Wallace that they think is just the best thing they've ever read. He's always seemed to have a by-eggheads-for-eggheads reputation, but I can't think of another author who has appealed to just about everyone I know, from all walks of life. I've had more than a few people with pathological allergies to books/reading come away reading some of his essays/short fiction and just talking their heads off about it afterwards.

Like, an electrician friend of mine reading, of all things, the Michael Joyce tennis essay, tennis being a sport the electrician had some pretty deep antipathy toward, and just going on and on about the section where Wallace mentions how, before starting the piece, he had really wanted to hit some warm-up rallies with Joyce but decided that it would be grotesque to even ask Joyce for the privilege. In all the years I knew this guy, I'd never heard react with any animation to anything in a book, and I still remember that reaction.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 6:00 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


The adulation DFW receives is like an infinitely deep black pit of mystery, to me. It's not even like the emperor has no clothes. It's like there isn't even a fucking emperor.

As if!
posted by humanfont at 6:20 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Spend the first week at SXSW, second week being the weirdo camped out at the Harry Ransom Center. Thanks for this post.

Every year I go to SXSW I wind up spending some time in the cool quiet of the Ransom Center and I'm sure this year will be no different.

What I wouldn't give for that opportunity....

I've yammered about this before, but I took a writing class with DFW way back before he'd published anything but Broom. He was an odd and intense teacher who taught me an awful lot about writing and more to the point how to get points across. I've got a love/hate relationship with a lot of his work some of which has been recontextualized for me by his suicide, but the raw sincerity of a lot of the stuff he did was what mostly stuck with me. In these days of ironic detachment, I always felt that he was striving for the opposite, somehow. And I think that's a tough thing to do. I love this geeky Ransom Center inventory, thanks for this.
posted by jessamyn at 6:59 PM on November 20, 2010 [13 favorites]


jessamyn, that's unbelievably cool, and I'm curious what the /hate part is for you.
posted by hackly_fracture at 7:04 PM on November 20, 2010


I'd love to see some of the long comments that he wrote on student papers.
posted by mecran01 at 7:24 PM on November 20, 2010


I actually hadn't heard of this Signifying Rappers essay. Why isn't it represented at the HRC?
posted by mannequito at 8:32 PM on November 20, 2010


Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present is sort of split with Mark Costello-- he and DFW trade off chapters (for the most part, it isn't 100% consistent)-- and is very, very out of print. I think there's one copy in circulation in all of the Chicago Public Library system, a fact which necessitated a two-hour bus trip to the far south side five years ago just to read the damn thing.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:36 PM on November 20, 2010


Thanks shakespeherian, now I have a new treasure to hunt down on my various used-bookstore visits.
posted by mannequito at 9:17 PM on November 20, 2010


Be warned: This is a task for the DFW completist only-- the book was published before A Tribe Called Quest even existed, and DFW and Costello are pretty painfully Smart White Grad Students Who Want To Legitimize Black Culture. It's not a great book, most of the time, but is sometimes still fun.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:29 PM on November 20, 2010


ha! all the better.
posted by mannequito at 9:41 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


DFW's stuff was jam-packed with irony. Maybe not ironic detachment, but when I think of absence-of-irony or overly earnest, I don't think of Wallace, at all, with the exception of some late-period work I saw (and I wasn't paying attention then). "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," the essay, the ridiculous film listings in the appendix of "Infinite Jest" ... there was irony in there galore, and even ironic detachment from American/western/consumer/pop culture at large (and cinematic culture too, in the case of those spoof-ey film listings).
posted by raysmj at 11:12 PM on November 20, 2010


1. raysmj is right. I think Wallace aspired to something he called sincerity, but also understoood that there was something impossible about that aspiration, and that what he was actually good at was putting words together artfully on a page. The tension there is one of the things that makes his work so interesting.

2. I own a copy of Signifying Rappers.
posted by escabeche at 5:47 AM on November 21, 2010


Decani, I went into reading IJ hating the very idea of DFW, and much like you, finding Pynchon intolerable. And you're right to an extent. Sometimes his rhetorical flourishes seem gimmicky or too much and I could have done without an index that contained a great many of the book's secrets. I would have rather seen that information somehow contextualized into the rest of the book (though the list of movies made by James incandenza is pretty great). What made the book work for me was his ability to write so many heartbreaking, funny, fascinating, believable characters into the book and have them behave in ways that made sense to me no matter how outlandish the plot became. I still haven't read anything else by him, and I'm not clamoring to, but I found reading iJ to be one of the best and most rewarding reading experiences of my life.
posted by orville sash at 6:00 AM on November 21, 2010


Orville.. then just read the title essay in "A Supposedly Fun Thing..." I don't see how anyone could hate the writer of that piece. It's hilarious.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:49 AM on November 21, 2010


DFW's stuff was jam-packed with irony. Maybe not ironic detachment, but when I think of absence-of-irony or overly earnest, I don't think of Wallace, at all, with the exception of some late-period work I saw (and I wasn't paying attention then).

My impression was that, for a beefy part of Wallace's early life, irony/ironic detachment was going to be his thing, and it's always looming in pretty much everything he wrote. That said, there was a huge break in this regard from his early work (Broom, parts of Girl with Curious Hair, most obviously the story "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") and his later work, IJ-onward.

If Wallace ever wrote anything close to a Fiction Mission Statement, at least for him/his contemporaries, it's the last little bit of the essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" in Supposedly Fun Things:

... The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of "anti-rebels," born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the "How banal." Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity. Willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows. Today's most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line's end's end ....

And maybe Wallace could never really lose all of his well-exercised irony muscle, but I think anyone familiar with at least a little of his mid/late period work would agree that he was always trying to move away from cold irony and toward something the he considered sincere.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 10:24 AM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think DFW decided that irony is awful but earnestness impossible in our age and was seeking to create a new way forward. Unfortunately, I don't think he succeeded, although I'm a big fan.
posted by callmejay at 12:18 PM on November 21, 2010


I think callmejay is right, though I think he succeeded in writing great fiction and essays while not succeeding at the grand goal the works were aimed at.
posted by escabeche at 2:36 PM on November 21, 2010


One riff, cut from the finished novel, involves a hilariously hard grammar quiz proctored by one protagonist’s mother. - please please please someone find this part!
posted by vito90 at 2:53 PM on November 21, 2010


HA - "I had three diskettes stolen"
posted by vito90 at 2:57 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've spent a lot of time at the Ransom Center going through the Wallace archive. I saw the letter to the tax attorney referenced above. It was a letter to Stephen Lacy. A great line in it: “I have a vague, hard-to explain interest in accounting and tax policy (utterly divorced from my own taxes, which I pay promptly and fully like an Eagle Scout)." It's the last sentence of section 509(a) that Lacy says is the most difficult sentence to understand: “For purposes of paragraph 3, an organization described in pagragraph 2 shall be deemed to include an organization described in section 501c(4), (5) or (6) which would be described in paragraph 2 if it were an organization described in section 501c(3)." [I took copious notes.]

A few other interesting things:

- you can see through the wite-out on the running heads of Girl With Curious Hair and it looks like the title of the book at some point was Dried Roses. New one on me.

- about half of the books in the Wallace collection have minimal markings at best. The other half are annotated within an inch of their life.

- Wallace's copy of Delillo's End Zone is a falling-apart mass-market paperback that is preserved in its own little case now. It was purchased in Arizona in 1986. Page 20: the word Onan is circled.

- his copy of Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2 (a personal favorite of mine) has some markings and obscure words underlined, but then nothing after page 113.

- an early short story: The Enema Bandit and the Cosmic Buzzer

Do let me know if you come to Austin!
posted by mattbucher at 7:55 PM on November 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


I left his "creative non-fiction" class wishing I'd taken his "grammar for writers" class instead. His responses to my work are piled with the rest of the papers I've saved from college and they're not any more valuable to me than anything else in that folder. I haven't really been able to enjoy anything of DFW's since he hung himself. I'm not sure if I'll have any interest in his posthumous novel, probably not. Glad to see his stuff being archived, it's deserved.
posted by Locobot at 9:05 PM on November 21, 2010


Wow, would love to hear more, mattbucher!
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 9:35 PM on November 21, 2010


"POLICEDOG SUSPECT." - There's a story behind that, for sure.
posted by funkiwan at 3:05 PM on November 22, 2010


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