Posts Tagged 'David Foster Wallace'

The Last Tycoon

Photo: B & B Rare Books, Ltd. A 1941 First Edition of The Last Tycoon. Value: $4,000.

Inspired on several fronts (seeing Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby; rewatching the 1974 Gatsby; revisiting Elia Kazan’s 1976 film of The Last Tycoon), I just finished reading again after many years F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous The Last Tycoon, edited by Edmund Wilson and published in 1941. The Last Tycoon is the title by which I still prefer to think of the novel. There’s an updated 1993 reconstruction by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli which uses what Bruccoli believed was Fitzgerald’s choice for the novel’s title, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Fitzgerald originally floated some curious titles for The Great Gatsby, too. How does Trimalchio grab you? By whatever title, The Last Tycoon is a great novel, even in its incomplete form. (A worthy contemporary comparison: David Foster Wallace’s unfinished but much-admired novel The Pale King, edited by Michael Pietsch and published in 2011.)

Thirty-five-year-old Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr’s obsession with an Englishwoman’s resemblance to his late actress wife might at first seem superficially similar to Gatsby. Fitzgerald in his letters and notes about The Last Tycoon, many of which were famously appended to Wilson’s reconstructed text, writes:

If one book could ever be “like” another, I should say it is more “like” The Great Gatsby than any other of my books. But I hope it will be entirely different—I hope it will be something new, arouse new emotions, perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena.

DeNiroStahr

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon (1976).

Stahr’s self-awareness evolves over the course of the narrative and differs significantly from Gatsby’s static and deluded nostalgia. This perhaps reflects Fitzgerald’s own battle with despair and loss in the years following Gatsby’s publication. (See Edmund Wilson’s posthumously edited collection of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical essays, The Crack-Up.) The Great Depression coincided with Fitzgerald’s falling fortunes: money woes, ill-health, his wife Zelda’s confinement to a mental hospital, and his career slide into near-obscurity. After living extravagantly as one of the country’s highest paid and most famous writers of the 1920s, he was an out-of-print and largely neglected author by the time he was writing his final novel. The romantic obsession at the core of The Last Tycoon is less about nostalgia than Stahr’s struggle to micromanage a psychological corner of his life while everything else seems to be spiraling beyond his control. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the Hollywood that Stahr once dominated as an autocratic whiz-kid producer is becoming decentralized. “At that time the studios feared mob rule,” runs one passage. Stahr’s preparation for a meeting with a communist union organizer has a political edge that signaled the author’s broadening skills as a satirist and social observer:

Afterwards Stahr told me that he prepared for the meeting by running off the Russian Revolutionary films that he had in his film library at home. He also ran off Doctor Caligari and Salvador Dali’s Le Chien Andalou, possibly suspecting that they had a bearing on the matter. He had been startled by the Russian films back in the twenties, and on Wylie White’s suggestion he had the script department get him up a two-page “treatment” of the Communist Manifesto.

Monroe Stahr is wonderfully alive in his sometimes cruel complexity (heightened by the novel’s occasionally spiteful narrator, a rival producer’s daughter secretly in love with Stahr). His confidence is shaken and something new and untested is awakened in him. “I want to show that Stahr left certain harm behind him just as he left good behind him,” Fitzgerald writes in another of the supplemental notes. Stahr isn’t adverse to change, but he wants change on his own terms, unshackled from the studio’s cash-driven bottom line. “For two years we’ve played it safe,” Stahr says at one point to a gathering of suspicious studio heads and money men. “It’s time we made a picture that’ll lose some money.” No dewy-eyed idealist, he adds: “Write it off as good will—this’ll bring in new customers.”

The Last Tycoon was also a reawakening of Fitzgerald’s preternatural talent for writing about romantic infatuation in a manner that manages to embrace clichés while at the same time reinvigorating them:

“I don’t want to lose you now,” he said. “I don’t know what you think of me or whether you think of me at all. As you’ve probably guessed, my heart’s in the grave—” He hesitated, wondering if this was quite true. “—but you’re the most attractive woman I’ve met since I don’t know when. I can’t stop looking at you. I don’t know now exactly the color of your eyes, but they make me sorry for everyone in the world—”

TycoonMovie

Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson in The Last Tycoon (1976).

Elia Kazan’s 1976 film of The Last Tycoon never quite catches fire, but it’s a fascinating attempt nonetheless, in its Harold Pinter script (remarkably faithful to the more polished sections of the novel), and many of the performances, especially Robert De Niro’s elusive and darkly internalized portrayal of Monroe Stahr. A notorious flop when released, the movie ended Elia Kazan’s directing career. Kazan devotes seventeen painful pages to the making of the film in his 1988 autobiography, A Life. He was dealing with his mother’s failing health and, finally, her death, during production. Moreover, there were clashes with producer Sam Spiegel. The film deserves reevaluation. It’s never revived or talked about anymore. There’s a strong and richly amusing climactic scene with Jack Nicholson as Brimmer, the novel’s communist union organizer, playing a spirited match of Ping-Pong with De Niro’s Stahr. It’s taken nearly verbatim from the novel and it’s a highlight of the movie. Kazan’s film would make for a great double feature with Last Call, a surprisingly eloquent 2002 Showtime movie based on Francis Kroll Ring’s memoir about working for Fitzgerald during his final days in Hollywood writing The Last Tycoon.

Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned

Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned
Michael Sheehan
Colony Collapse Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

PrintThe four short stories that comprise Michael Sheehan’s Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned are ambitious and often darkly amusing fictions that adroitly mesh genre-busting experimental writing and rock-solid literary instincts. While each story succeeds well enough on its own ingeniously devised terms, the title story is perhaps the strongest in the collection. Stripped of the hypertextual footnotes and pop culture references that function as metafictional ballast in the other stories collected here, “Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned” is instead a tightly composed narrative about the mounting internalized horror of a woman plunged into a coma-like state of “conscious paralysis” after stumbling and falling outside of a New York dance club. Passages of dryly delivered historical documentation on “suspended animation” are woven directly into the text and add to the story’s powerful effect. Sheehan never pushes the existential metaphor of an unmoored and despairing Beckettian consciousness, allowing us to intimately share the protagonist’s dislocation:

Deep inside herself, willing her body limp and empty and motionless and withdrawing every bit of her true self inside, away, acutely aware of everything around her and through this awareness focused more and more on nothing but staying still, hidden.

sheehan_headshot

Michael Sheehan. Photo: Colony Collapse Press.

The final story, “September,” is the longest in the collection and its hilarious over-the-top self-indulgence is clearly intended as an homage to the influential writer for whom the story is dedicated: David Foster Wallace (1962-2008). Sheehan cleverly glosses aspects of Wallace’s Infinite Jest (the novel’s apocalyptic tennis court game of Eschaton—which also inspired the Decemberists’ video for their “Calamity Song”—becomes an epic round of Civilization in Sheehan’s story). More than mere parody, Sheehan’s “September” finds its own rhythms and drug-fueled conspiratorial compulsions, and the story’s final section (dated September 12, 2008, the date of Wallace’s death) is heartbreakingly beautiful as writing and as eulogy.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story
D.T. Max
Viking 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

D.T. Max’s solid biography of American writer David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, portrays with emotional force Wallace’s successful struggle to stay sober for the better part of his adult life. From roughly 1989 up until his 2008 suicide (resulting from a recurrence of severe depression that plagued him on and off since his Midwestern adolescence), we learn that he worked a rigorous recovery program, attending regular support group meetings (even when on the road in unfamiliar cities), and befriending and helping fellow recovering addicts. The importance of sobriety to his life and work cannot be overstated. His career-making 1996 maximalist novel, Infinite Jest, can legitimately be considered The Great American AA Novel.

Wallace honored recovery group tenets by not divulging his personal involvement in one organization over another (and the biography never directly links him with any specific twelve-step program by name). Max quotes from a Newsweek interview in which Wallace was asked about Infinite Jest’s verisimilitude and insight regarding Alcoholics Anonymous and halfway-house living conditions. The author replied at the time:

I went with friends to an open AA meeting, and got addicted to them. It was completely riveting. I was never a member—I was a voyeur. When I ended up really liking it was when I let people there know this and they didn’t care.

Michael Pietsch, his editor at Little, Brown, recognized early on that the recovery material was the heart of Infinite Jest, what Pietsch called a “huge roiling story about addiction and recovery, their culture and language and characters, the hidden world that’s revealed when people come in and tell their stories.”

Less impressive to the editor was the novel’s “ornately bizarre-to-goofy superstructure” of dystopian Canadian terrorist cells and the hunt for a lethal video cartridge that induced addictive stupor and even death in those who watched it. The manuscript was cut and reshaped, a process during which Wallace devised his soon-to-be-iconic solution of off-loading some of the novel’s pile-up of political and cinematic arcana and narrative tangents into 100 pages of small-print endnotes, 388 in total.

Max situates the development of Wallace’s nascent writing style (a mixture of Thomas Pynchon’s digressive erudition with the experimental playfulness of Donald Barthelme) within the polarized scene of mid-1980s American literary fiction. When he enrolled in the University of Arizona MFA writing program in 1985, the “dirty realism” of minimalists like Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips and Richard Ford was in vogue. So was the bestselling “brat pack” fiction (defined by Max as “minimalism with attitude”) of Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. Wallace found himself butting heads with writing professors who championed above all else “the well-made realist short story.” The dynamic with his teachers shifted, however, with the 1987 publication of his antic 500-page first novel, The Broom of the System. The book had been written as his undergraduate thesis at Amherst College before enrolling at Arizona. (Remarkably, he wrote two Amherst theses for a dual-degree. The second was in philosophy, published posthumously in 2010 as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.)

Wallace would later disavow much of what he considered the metafictional games of his pre-Infinite Jest fiction. Some critics, like A.O. Scott in a perceptive 2000 NYRB piece titled “The Panic of Influence,” believed the writer was kidding himself. As Max summarizes it, Scott “emphasized Wallace’s anxious relationship with postmodernism and also his expectation he could have things both ways, pursuing the questionable tactic of writing cleverly to assert the superiority of sincerity in a world wedded to cleverness.”

The growing ranks of Infinite Jest fans felt otherwise, of course. More than a few flocked to sign up for classes taught by Wallace in the English department at Illinois State University, where he was employed when the 1,079-page novel was published to near-instantaneous notoriety:

Students had begun applying to the graduate program specifically to study with him. He was becoming a beacon for a kind of writing, not the postmodernism of the rest of the department and not the realism of Iowa and everywhere else, but a third approach, uncomfortable but sincere realism for a world that was no longer real. Making the head throb heartlike had the potential to become a literary movement. Different names were bruited for it, from the New Sincerity to Post-postmodernism. Occasionally one heard Grunge Fiction.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story steers clear of hagiography by maintaining a thoroughly researched journalistic tone. The substance abuse, repeated suicide attempts and institutionalizations filling the first half of the biography make for harrowing reading, especially given that the scope and magnitude of some of this information is new.

Certainly the heretofore unreported womanizing documented in the book, with Wallace cavalierly sleeping with female students in the manner of Philip Roth’s Professor Kepesh in The Dying Animal, is far from flattering. His borderline stalking of married poet and future influential memoirist Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club), whom he met during the early stages of his halfway-house recovery in the Boston area, is disturbing and dark. If nothing else, we perhaps now have a little more context for judging novelist and friend Jonathan Franzen’s cryptic allusion (in a 2011 New Yorker essay) to Wallace’s brutish 1999 short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men:

I will pass over the question of diagnosis (it’s possible he was not simply depressive) and the question of how such a beautiful human being had come by such vividly intimate knowledge of the thoughts of hideous men.

The biography grew out of a well-received profile that Max wrote for The New Yorker in 2009. Wallace, it seems, was a compulsive letter writer, most notably to Franzen and the novelist Don DeLillo (a formative literary influence and someone from whom Wallace appears to have sought a good deal of working-writer advice, sometimes in dire desperation). Never a fan of the Internet—“He was wise enough,” writes Max, “to see a snare in it for an addict like himself”—he only began using email after 2000. Generous quotations from his correspondence with Franzen and DeLillo, his life-long agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch (whose posthumous assemblage of the author’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, was widely admired) add immeasurably to the portrait of Wallace and his writing process.

cbr 19 / summer 2012

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cbr 19 / summer 2012

The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Dwight Allen

the eelgrass meadow
Robin Chapman
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Unexpected Shiny Things
Bruce Dethlefsen
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Make it Stay
Joan Frank
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Ann Prayer
A short story
Elli Hazit

Men without Meaning
A short story
Gerald Fosdal & Jack Lehman

Fisherman’s Beach
An excerpt from the novel
George Vukelich

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The Pale King

The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown 2011

Reviewed by Bob Wake

By definition an unfinished novel shouldn’t be capable of supplying readers the satisfaction of closure, of completion. The late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, by this standard, is an anomaly. For starters, at 547 pages, it’s a lot of novel. Thematically, the center holds, aided by Michael Pietsch’s sensitive editing, but also because the material feels composed with a consistent core vision. As the author of the ambitious and gargantuan Infinite Jest (his career-making 1996 novel about addiction and recovery which in its own self-willed fashion refused conventional narrative closure), Wallace left behind fragments for The Pale King that are themselves large-scaled, suggesting a work that was intended to rival if not surpass the size and scope of the earlier novel. Many chapters are as fleshed-out and polished as substantive short stories or novellas.

Wallace chose for The Pale King a workplace setting that in the popular imagination probably represents the sine qua non of tedium: a regional IRS office circa 1985 where workers sit at desks for hours on end processing tax returns.

He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t already been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his throat and he looked quickly around to see if any of the examiners around him had heard it or were looking at him.

Moreover, the office is located in the underwhelming middle America of Peoria, Illinois. (“The sky the color of motel ice—no color, no depth. It’s like a bad dream.”)

John Berryman’s famous poem from The Dream Songs begins, “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” The Pale King says so, brazenly says so, but also poignantly asks if there isn’t a means within reach of our mental apparatus (the “inner resources” that Berryman’s poetic persona claims to lack) that might transcend the void. This is ultimately a mystical pursuit, so it should come as no surprise that the novel is populated at the margins with ghosts and phantoms (a very funny chapter helpfully distinguishes between the two forms of apparition) haunting the IRS examiners’ cubicles and disturbing their monkish concentration. One accountant, when his focus is fully engaged, levitates above his desk like Teresa of Avila.

Much of David Foster Wallace’s fiction takes aim at consciousness itself, particularly the mechanisms of distraction and solipsism that lead us so easily astray. The Pale King, even in its unfinished form, pursues this investigation of our inner lives further than its author has taken us before. From this measure alone the novel must necessarily be ranked among his best work. Wallace’s ability to recognize and depict both the humor and the horror in depression, anxiety, and addiction, is one of his strengths as a writer. Even before his suicide in 2008 at age forty-six, fans of his work sensed a more than casual investment on the author’s part in capturing not just the “stream” of consciousness but also its unchartered tributaries, its splintered mudflats, and its black oceanic depths.

“It turns out,” runs an intriguing passage in the Notes and Asides appendix that closes out The Pale King, “that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” Wallace’s compassion for the book’s troubled cast of bureaucratic misfits, drudges, and savants seems warm and real, but also fragile in its own right, helpless finally to intervene. In fact, by inserting himself, “David F. Wallace,” as one of the characters employed at the labyrinthine Peoria IRS facility, the author mind-melds with the collective unconscious of his novel. If Infinite Jest showed us the manic pitfalls of a hyper-stimulated existence for which Alcoholics Anonymous offers sanctuary, then The Pale King is a quest for quietude inscribed between the lines of the Serenity Prayer.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
David Lipsky
Broadway Books 2010

Reviewed by Bob Wake

althoughofcourseIn the sad days following the suicide of 46-year-old writer David Foster Wallace in September 2008, when the Internet seemed to spontaneously erupt with eulogies far and wide, novelist Steve Erickson wrote: “There are no statistics to prove it, but the anecdotal evidence is that he may have influenced the upcoming generation of writers more than almost anyone else.” There’s his narrative style, certainly, discursive and intellectual, yet brimming with colloquialisms and concise twelve-stepisms. The dizzying footnotes. The convoluted self-consciousness unfolding like Chinese boxes of innerspace, compulsive, chatty. A humane and witty voice both inviting and wounded. George Saunders’s New Yorker short story from last year, “Victory Lap,” with its hypertext parentheticals is only one of the more recent examples of Wallacean influence.

David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace is not unlike one of those always fascinating Paris Review author interviews. Supersized, of course, befitting the author of Infinite Jest, the still notorious big fat dystopian novel of twining plots converging on addiction and recovery, cinema and suicide, tennis and terrorism. Lipsky’s book, apart from some graceful introductory material, is essentially a 300-page transcript—from what must have been a mountain of cassette-tape research for a Rolling Stone profile that subsequently wasn’t written—of Lipsky’s conversations with the writer during the last five days of the 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

Because Wallace—suddenly and explosively famous—was written about and interviewed extensively during and after this book tour, some topics of conversation will be thematically familiar to fans: the cigarettes and chewing tobacco that often got the better of him (“I’ve got a raging nicotine problem. That like that I really need to quit, at least the chewing tobacco. It makes your fucking jaw fall off. You know?”); John Updike is overrated (“And you just have to wade through so much purple empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill”); Stephen King is underrated (“He’s got an almost Salingerian feel for children”); the influence of filmmaker David Lynch on his writing (“I mean, most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra-realism, it’s something on top of realism. It’s the one thing in a Lynch frame that’s off”).

He talks about the too-easy resort to irony and ridicule that he finds in David Letterman and Rush Limbaugh. “I don’t know what’s going to come after it,” he says, “but I think something’s gonna have to.” Lipsky then asks Wallace to speculate—“What do you think it will be?”—and Wallace’s answer is startlingly prescient of an Obama-like appeal to civic virtue and our better instincts:

My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very … You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.” That it will be vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us.

Wallace struggled in his teens and early twenties with drug addiction and clinical depression, successfully overcoming the former while keeping at bay if never fully banishing the latter. Lipsky’s resurrected transcripts give us Wallace speaking openly about his past while cautioning that “there’s certain stuff about this that I won’t talk about.” To the extent that he feels remorseful about having pressured Wallace to the point of irritation in hope of some juicy disclosure about a rumored dalliance with heroin (“Why is this of particular interest?” Wallace asks, in a tone described as “annoyed”), Lipsky makes clear that he was himself feeling pressured by his editors to take this tack. All in all, his role as archivist and tour-guide is impeccable and heartfelt. Lipsky, like so many of us, clearly shares a deep sense of loss, as in this bracketed aside in response to Wallace recalling his troubled college years: “Wouldn’t it be great to fall in through this transcript, back to that house, and tell him to live differently, explain to him how it was all going to go? It’s suddenly odd that this isn’t possible.”

Wiggle Room

CV1_TNY_03_09_09.inddHave you read it yet? The New Yorker this week is running an excerpt from a posthumous David Foster Wallace novel, The Pale King, unfinished but apparently several hundred thousand words in length, and slated to be published next year by Little, Brown. The excerpt is titled “Wiggle Room” and it’s vintage Wallace: an office drone named Lane Dean processes tax returns for the Illinois department of revenue in the 1980s. He watches the clock, shifts uncomfortably in his chair, his stream of consciousness parsing every tedious micro-moment. Lots of bureaucratic-speak and flurries of tax form numbers, somewhat in the spirit of Wallace’s ad agency short story “Mr. Squishy.” Lane is visited by a specter (think of those hospital room wraiths in Infinite Jest), a kind of etymology guru—“The man had on a headlamp with a tan cotton band, like some dentists wore, and a type of thick black marker in his breast pocket. He smelled of hair oil and some kind of food”—who proceeds to define in excruciating OED detail the origins of the word/concept “boredom.” Can’t wait to read more of this.

And in the same issue: don’t miss this extraordinary piece—the most complete yet—by D.T. Max on Wallace’s career and final days.

Wiki for “Infinite Jest”

ijAn email from Tim Ware informs us that he’s launched an Infinite Jest wiki. Fans new and old of David Foster Wallace’s novel will find it a tremendous resource. Thanks, Tim, for including an external link to my warhorse website, Reviews, Articles, & Miscellany, a compendium of early Infinite Jest material circa 1996-99. Archaic in every way (before a brief touch-up this afternoon, I literally hadn’t updated it in the last ten years), it still contains some useful items unobtainable elsewhere.

David Foster Wallace: 1962-2008

Over two weeks now since the suicide death in Claremont, California of 46-year-old writer David Foster Wallace.

This is the kind of sad news that lingers.

While it was pretty well known that Wallace was never much personally immersed in Internet culture (his agent, Bonnie Nadell, remarked last week in the New York Observer that, “He has, like, dial-up. By the time you see something you’ve aged 5 years”), his legions of fans certainly were and are, so it’s not surprising that the web has nowhere near exhausted its collective grief over Wallace’s passing. The official unofficial DFW website The Howling Fantods is the place to stay current on the latest links to blogosphere memorials. A real heartbreaker appeared two days ago in the online magazine Salon.com, “The Last Days of David Foster Wallace” by Robert Ito, with quotes from family and friends discussing candidly and compassionately Wallace’s long battle with depression.

His daunting 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest appeared in 1996 when he was thirty-three. For readers unfamiliar with the writer’s work, his magazine journalism remains the quickest gateway into appreciating his seemingly digressive yet morally tough and often wildly amusing literary style. (Check out “Consider the Lobster,” a remarkably lucid rebuke to the cruel custom of boiling lobsters alive, which even more remarkably ran in Gourmet.)

I was thrilled, certainly, to have a blurb from my culturevulture.net review of DFW’s 2004 short story collection Oblivion appear inside the cover of the paperback edition of the book: “No other contemporary American author has so painstakingly—and hilariously—mapped the incessant dysfunctional chatter that streams through our heads and masquerades as rational thought … Oblivion represents Wallace blossoming into a writer of profoundly artful coherence.”


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