Wednesday, March 2, 2011

David Foster Wallace New Story

Speaking of off-form pieces, the New Yorker has a David Foster Wallace story called “Backbone.” It appears to be an excerpt from his forthcoming novel The Pale King, which is cheering—the story is pretty tightly edited, and the worry I had about the novel in general was that, having been incomplete after Wallace’s death, it would not be in very good shape. If this story is anywhere near representative—one would suspect this story is above average relative to the rest of the novel—then that worry doesn’t hold at all.

Wallace’s story, like a lot of his successful fiction, sounds odd and strange but has a way of convincing when read at length. For an idea of what the plot is, here’s the opening two paragraphs:
Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.

His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.

The story is in many ways not the typical Wallace story; in many others, it’s very typical.

Start with the former. There are no footnotes. It’s probably unwise to dwell on this too much; “the footnotes” are an easy way of identifying Wallace, and are too easy a shorthand, like that acquaintance you’ve met once who fixates on some minor fact about you because that’s his only knowledge of you…Reading Wallace extensively should dispel the idea he’s all about footnotes. Still: the footnotes are distinctive, and there aren’t any in the story.

There isn’t any tricky chronology; the story is pretty straightforward. There aren’t any metafictive tricks being played, and little irony or postmodern devices that I could detect. The mode is the standard realistic mode that students of a creative writing workshop will recognize instantly; perhaps the biggest difference—the most Wallacean touch—is the overgrown, dense vocabulary. Readers will, I suspect, know most of the words but the variety and frequency of them will force readers to slow down and think about what’s being said.

Wallace seems to have familiar things in mind, if you’re a close reader of the man. The child, as it turns out, is a child of earnestness: his father is an entrepreneur who sells motivational tapes and as such the child has grown up with the notions that things are under his control, that your attitude determines your altitude, etc. As such the idea that, through deliberate and mindful practice that transcends pain and boredom, the child can achieve his peculiar goal, is not strange to him. So he does it. (The father, meanwhile, suffers from a particularly Wallace-ish ennui: having wed his wife too early, he bores of the obligatory sex with her; therefore he has an affair with a married woman he meets but finds that, because they only interact over sex, the sex with her is obligatory; therefore he has an affair with another woman and….you see where this is going, but of course the father is unable to break it off with any of the women for fear of disappointing them.)

Paralleling the story, then, is Wallace’s: writing this story in this way was surely a feat of disciplined creativity in imagining how to write in a manner that was somewhat foreign and distilled. There’s a special richness to that, I think, and I’m looking forward to the novel, whenever it comes out.

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