The Pale Wallace (part one)
nd so it begins.
I have begun again, David Foster Wallace.
I’ve been carrying around a copy of Infinite Jest for months. Like all too many of my books it’s become slightly dog-eared and ratty looking, despite my best attempts at keeping the slightly-larger than life tome pristine. Over the past year the book has logged over 12,000km and over 320 miles (that’s four ferry-rides, for all you east-coasters). It is not an easy book. Heavy, floppy, your hands will ache after no more than a few pages. Further to not being the best travel book ever, my accessibility factor (read: poverty equals paperback) leaves you with copies of the novel that threaten to tear at the slightest jostle of a bus or other large mode of transportation.
Odometer aside, my bookmark in Infinite Jest has not advanced past p.47 in months.
Friends have received the novel with rave reviews, telling me it’s totally worth it, not to skip the footnotes (of which, there are hundreds), and despite taking months to finish (my last friend’s journey spanned February till yesterday), found it incredibly rewarding. The bar has been set. I’m confident that if I can withstand the urge to grab a racquet/hold off repeat viewings of the Royal Tannebaums, the book will swallow me up into the cult with the rest of them. It must be just like Les Misérables, I keep telling myself, make it past page 150 and you’ll be good to go.
All this to say, for the time being I’ve resigned myself to not reading Infinite Jest. After having a similar experience with José Saramagio’s Blindness, I’m fully prepared to come back to the book later. I’ve left it safely pressed in my book line-up for weeks. All that to say, the past few weeks I’ve had a mounting suspicion David Foster Wallace (DFW) will be the next author I tackle. Suddenly his book recommendations jump out. Interviews catch my eye. Everyone suddenly seems to be devouring him. I want to be in on the club. I’ve been messing around the past few days dabbling in my large stocks of Canadiana and huge reserve of second-hand fiction. I’ve been tearing my way through my latest non-fiction (Emperor of All Maladies) which is incredible. But I have yet to settle on a really decent fiction book. Nothing has fully grabbed me. After re-reading the opening chapters of The Finkler Question three times I resign myself to one indisputable fact: it’s bookstore time.
It was another stupidly gorgeous day.
A cloudless blue sky gave way to a stunning sunset, with the Olympic mountains emerging from the misty-strait. The streets were packed downtown, and after a lazy evening coffee (one of our favourite spots is open late on the weekends) we somehow stumbled into Munro’s books, a few blocks down from our flat.
Munro’s is one of those magical downtown bookstores that has become a bit of a legend. It moved to this gorgeous old building (formerly Royal Bank) and maintains that sacrosanct silence demanded of such places (banks, churches and bookstores) and that kind of ethereal buzzing holiness a collected group of engrossed people generate. I was captivated. Something about walking from back from Ogdin Point with the throngs of cruise ship port-of-callers had given me that travel-lust for a new book. The kind you get when you absently wander through the Virgin store at the airport when your flight is delayed-or better yet-when you’ve finished all the reading you’ve taken with you. For all my stacks of second hand copies, the thrill of a new one (the smell of freshly pulped paper, crisp pages, uncracked spine) is definitely an indulgence I reserve for the special-ist of occasions.
I was instantly drawn the The Pale King , which was one of the books in the glass display cases in the foyer. The proportions…the size (about half as many pages as Infinite Jest…and I could swear more generous margins and a notch up in type size). And the matte cover. Matte. It just does it to me everytime…
At first crack, The Pale King is far more accessible than Jest, albeit doubtlessly (depressingly?) I find tax policy an easier medium to digest than professional level tennis. I also found the sweet introduction by DFW editor, gently explaining the process he and the publisher used to produce the text (from notes, polished chapters and drafts) far more welcoming than the lofty praises David Eggers heaps upon you prior to Jest. Michael Pietsch (the editor) speaks with such tenderness about DFW you are given a beautiful picture of what he must have been like, and his meticulous writing style.
Somewhat intimidating, I actually find the shattered style of Pale King easier to digest, and have devoured the first hundred pages or so since the weekend. I provide for you the opening chapter by means of stylistic example:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spine cabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-coloured sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon is trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
It is incredible, the way he invites us in. Each little snippet of phrase like a brush stroke, taking us deeper and deeper into the scene. The following chapters (which range in length from a few paragraphs to upwards of twenty pages, and vary in content to include: a list of ailments most commonly suffered by auditors, to short unrelated vignettes and asides). This range of mechanisms effectively assemble a memoir, far more comprehensively than a consistent narrative would. As with the frenetic voicing, so are our lives. No one wakes up everyday the same person. No life is singularly or consistently experienced.
A few years ago I was in New York, visiting friends. It was a happy accident: I happened to have some extra time before Christmas and friends in the city finishing their exams the same time I was. Consequently, I was on an exceptionally tight budget, with nothing much left over after a weeklong subway pass and a small reserve of funds set aside for art. Near the end of my trip, as I was assembling receipts, postcards in the process of condensing my life (which seemed remarkably full despite the brevity of the visit), I came across my MOMA stub, to find that my admission into the satellite gallery, PS1 was included. I had been told to check out Five Pointz if I had a chance, so I tried to scribble down some directions on a sandwich wrapper in the Apple store and set out.
Naturally I got off at the wrong stop in Queens–saw 5 points only from a distance–and ended up walking well over a mile to the gallery. It was one of those instances where you get out onto the street and realize you are very, very lost and that things could get very, very ugly fast. On the upside, I definitely saw alot of stellar graffiti. Fortunately, I was coming directly from -30C weather in Montréal, so (naturally) was decked out in my (only) winter coat: a vintage Albertan knee-length wool parka, complete with leather appliqué flowers running down the front of the jacket, and men catching beavers on the back. The enormous hood was lined with ancient white wolf’s fur and had the effect of making me look like a total crazy person. I was obviously foreign (although people consistently identified me as Swedish or Aussie), or obviously crazy. I chalk my survival of the jaunt through Queens entirely to the latter.
PS1 was incredible. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s in an old retrofitted public school (hence PS) and tends to feature local artists. The shows were short, tight, and focused on single ideas. One show particularly stood out in my mind: Talent Show. My favourite piece was from a French artist named Sophie Calle. In 1983 she found a red leather bound address book, and upon discovering the owner was traveling in Scandinavia for several weeks Mlle. Calle decided (rather than to return the book right away-where is the fun in that?) would instead at random, contact entries from the address book at random, and interview them on the identity of the owner, to create a comprehensive picture of the person, without ever meeting them. Each interview is published daily in a Parisian paper, beginning with an inventory of the books entries (27 Britons, 87 French, 67 women, etc.). Reading The Pale King feels like unpacking someone’s life, walking through their house, leafing through their photo albums and speaking with their friends. So far I feel as though I am receiving a more accurate idea of the protagonist than if it were to be put squarely in front of me right away. You have the sense that DFW is going through a similar journey with himself, dissecting one year of his life in the 1980’s where he worked for the IRS. And he is externally reconstructing a portrait of himself.
Like the book itself, this post will be fractured and in several parts…for now I leave you.