Sentences — March 4, 2009, 11:03 am

The Voice of Days of Old and Days to Be

I would have to think that there isn’t a writer who, by now, hasn’t read D.T. Max’s piece on David Foster Wallace in the current issue of the New Yorker. I thought that Max did a very sensitive job of telling a very sad and troubling story. Wallace’s struggles with his art and his chemistry through time sound profound, and Max skirted the various potential pitfalls of telling such a story, the tendency to melodrama that a lesser writer might have been inclined to indulge. What’s more, he was able to include a range of voices that helped tell Wallace’s story—his parents, his wife, his friends—and so, just from a journalistic standpoint, Max provided a very useful object, a resource for people who loved Wallace’s work.

The piece is emphatically not a critical survey of Wallace’s output, and so I won’t fault Max for not being comprehensive. In the main, he included an impressive amount and variety of things (not easy), and quoted from and spoke to Wallace’s concerns, as a writer, with fairness.

Still, for those new to Wallace’s fiction, Max’s characterization of Wallace’s first collection, Girl with Curious Hair, which he calls “more narrowly post-modern than ‘Broom’”—Broom of the System, Wallace’s first novel—might make it seem as though the book isn’t very rewarding.I’d also say that that use of “post-modern” isn’t too helpful, much less accurate, in that I find Broom to be more po-mo than Girl—not that that assertion provides any sort of clarification (whereas Louis Menand happened to have done, also in the New Yorker quite recently, an excellent job of unpacking the term and redeeming it in a piece on Barthelme). Furthermore, as Max doesn’t mention that collection’s two best and most remarkable stories, “Lyndon” and “Girl with Curious Hair,” it may be that we have a taste gap here, and that Max just isn’t a big fan of them. Which is fine, of course, except in that those two stories are the first place I tend to send readers who’ve not yet read Wallace.They are simply great daring stories, each different from the other, and as human as anything you’re likely to find in modern fiction. They defy labels like “post-modern.”

So that would be another critical gripe of mine: the idea that Wallace had somehow increasingly bungled a human level of engagement in his work, that the human was always being blurred or marred or mauled by his mental and therefore verbal antics, that the brain was always stomping over and wiping its feet on the heart. My own sense is that Wallace’s late stories, in Oblivion, do run the risk of upsetting the balance between human yield and formal innovation (and by “run the risk” I do not mean they don’t manage the balance, only make the reader work very deliberately to recognize that the balance is there, behind all manner of effortful distraction), but that’s the fine line he walked from very early on, and to my mind managed with less effort in Girl and Infinite Jest.

The new excerpt, “Wiggle Room,” from Wallace’s unfinished third novel, The Pale King, requires a couple of readings to see clearly, and becomes stunning on a few levels. Technically very daring, how Wallace was embedding the voice of the ghost in with Lane Dean Jr.’s voice. And also daring in the way he continued to court the minute and precise agglomeration of particulars, as in the late story “Mr. Squishy.” But even more fascinating to imagine this excerpt as coexisting in a book with sections supposedly from it and which have appeared earlier, both the tortuous “The Compliance Branch,” as well as “Good People,” which is as gentle and direct a piece of fiction as Wallace had published since Infinite Jest (meaning, of course, not the whole, but many sections thereof), and to me most reminiscent in tone, in its empathies, of parts of “Lyndon.”

Anyway, I’m very eager to read The Pale King, and have been thinking about the title. It seems to cue to Arthurian legend. Edward Bulwer Lytton Lytton used the phrase first, I think, in his telling of the tale, in 1851:

Forests of emerald verdure spread below,
Through which proud columns glisten far and wide,
On to the bark the mourner’s footsteps go;
The pale King stands by the pale phantom’s side;
And Lancelot sprang—but sudden from his reach
Glanced the wan skiff, and left him on the beach.

And Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” seems to have popularized it.

Last, as by some one deathbed after wail
Of suffering, silence follows, or through death
Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore,
Save for some whisper of the seething seas,
A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle: but no man was moving there;
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,
And rolling far along the gloomy shores
The voice of days of old and days to be.

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