I don’t know where @LeeRourke was yesterday when he tweeted ‘Photographs of writers’ rooms are boring.’ but I know where I was when I read it. I was on the train, absolutely the best place for Twitter – and the worst. (I wonder how many of those quickly-regretted footballer tweets we’re continually reading about are made on the coach home after the match, adrenaline still pumping, forced to sit still?)
I joined in the enjoyable flurry of tweets which followed, and which included, from @badaude, ‘boring is best’ and, again from Rourke, ‘I heart boring :-)’. Which were perhaps meant, if not exactly ironically, then at least lightheartedly. But they still got my goat.
Boring is not good. Boredom is the enemy, and I get antsy when I see it raised up as some kind of goal in life.
It is a very modern theme. Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, was blurbed as “a shocking tale about… boredom”, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, too, takes boredom as one of its subjects, Continue reading
So, on Tax Day (US) The Pale King was finally, belatedly, officially launched, more than a week after it had first started appearing in bookshops. Foyles in Charing Cross Road hosted an event featuring Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, and his agent, Bonnie Nadell, in an event chaired by New Statesman Culture Editor Jonathan Derbyshire and featuring short reading from Wallace’s work by Paul Murray and Catherine O’Flynn.
The room was packed, and the conversation enlightening in places, but the atmosphere was no doubt far less fervid than it would have been had we all been clutching our copies of the book for the first time, riffling through the pages as we listened.
Paul Murray (author of Skippy Dies – reviewed by me for the Independent here) read the opening section of the novel (well, though a little fast) followed by Catherine O’Flynn (author of What Was Lost), who rather bizarrely read an excerpt from the videophone section of Infinite Jest. It got some laughs, and stopped proceedings getting off to a too-gloomy start, but seemed a bit strange all the same. Surely she could have found some funny passages from the book we were supposed to be celebrating?
Then Jonathan Derbyshire began his intelligent questioning of the two main guests. He was an excellent chair, steering the discussion where it needed to go in terms of the life of the book following Wallace’s death, without ever pushing too many personal or private buttons.
Much of what was said was not new, having been aired either in Pietsch’s introduction to the novel (excerpted in The Guardian), in Wallace’s memorial service or elsewhere, so I’ll restrict my notes here largely to things that were new to me – if they’re not to you I can only apologise.
First off, Nadell talked about starting out as an agent in 1985, aged 23, when Wallace, two years older, became her first client on the strength of one chapter from Broom of the System. The novel was turned down by everyone she sent it to (she didn’t say how many) until it was accepted by an editor – not Pietsch at this point; he only came on board with Infinite Jest.
Pietsch talked a little about the process of editing that book, mentioning in an aside that one of the sections he had suggested Wallace cut was the videophone riff we had all just heard and enjoyed. Beyond sentence-level editing and some compression, he said that he had succeeded in getting Wallace to do some major expansion and clarification work on the scenes involving the Quebecois separatist terrorists Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, which he had initially found “really complicated” and “opaque.”
Nadell talked about the necessity of acting as a shield for Wallace following the depression that he experienced following (or after?) the lukewarm critical reception of his first story collection, Girl With Curious Hair. She talked about his generosity, how he wrote back to everyone who ever wrote to him, often on postcards, but never had a mobile phone, and, although he had secret email addresses, he rarely gave them out, and indeed rarely read them.
Again talking about his relationship with publicity, Pietsch said that Wallace tried not to read reviews, and once told him only to call him “if there’s a really bad one in a really public place, so that he could understand why people were looking at him pityingly.”
The discussion then moved onto The Pale King, which Pietsch had Wallace characterising as “a novel about the bits [of life] that other great writers have left out” and concerned above all with the problem of solipsism, of how to get beyond yourself, when your own self is so fatally interesting, towards the possibility of actually reaching out to another person.
Nadell recalled trying to convince Wallace to set the novel in the present day, rather than in the 1980s, but he said he wanted to “write about now, but from a 1980s perspective.” Pietsch talked about it being set “at the cusp of the Reagan/Bush era.”
Much of what was said about the job of constructing the “unfinished novel” The Pale King out of the various elements found in Wallace’s office is covered elsewhere. However, I was certainly interested to hear Pietsch clarify that the 200 pages left in the “neat stack of manuscript” on Wallace’s desk were not the opening of the novel; rather they were the sections that Wallace had polished enough to feel comfortable sending out to editors to try and get an advance. The first section in the office stack was in fact the ‘Author here’ section that currently makes up Chapter 9.
He, Nadell and Wallace’s widow Karen Green considered 3,000 pages of material. Some sections were eighth drafts. Some were handwritten first drafts. Pietsch said that roughly 20% of The Pale King as we have it is taken from such handwritten first drafts.
The final part of this discussion covered the sense of Wallace as a moral writer, and the importance of civics in The Pale King, with taxation being “the lifeblood of the nation” and the centrality of the stuck-in-the-elevator scene, in which IRS employees discuss whether they should act according to moral considerations – i.e. chase down the biggest tax defaulters so as to punish them – or simple financial ones – i.e. follow those cases that will deliver the highest revenue.
Then Derbyshire opened the talk to questions from the floor, though he did move the conversation on himself at times, also, for it must be said, the questions weren’t exactly overabundant. It looked for scary moments that nobody had anything to ask. Certainly, nobody that wanted to ask a question didn’t get to.
The first question (from me, as it happens: I hate silence at these kinds of things) was about choosing the beginning and end sections of the novel. Pietsch said that the final opening (“Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs…”) was one of “various designated openings”, i.e. Wallace had marked various sections at various times as possible openings. Conversely, no section was marked in any way as being a possible ending, and Pietsch had chosen the beginning and ending sections because they were the only two that are specifically addressed to “you”, i.e. the reader – although obviously Chapter 9 (“Author here”) fits that criterion too.
In discussing how they chose what to cut (a topic that has been covered elsewhere) Pietsch said that some of the drafts were 15 years apart, which Nadell corrected to 10 years. Pietsch also gave an example of the difficulty presented by Wallace renaming characters during the writing process: he didn’t realise until quite late that the penultimate chapter was about Chris Fogle under a different name.
Pietsch had said earlier that a lot of the material he cut simply repeated other sections, whether specifically as redrafts, or more generally, and someone asked how much cut material was not repetitive, but was cut for another reason. Pietsch said that if the finished novel was made up of 50 chapters or sections, then these were culled from 90 unique (ie non-repetitive) sections, and that those 40 sections were cut because he thought they didn’t cohere with the general themes of the book, or specifically contradicted other sections, in terms of what characters did or would do. He mentioned chapters on Claude Sylvanshine in this regard, but gave no concrete examples; and he repeated that all this cut material was available for scholarly access at The Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas, where, for example, all five drafts of Chapter 9 (“Author here”) are currently available online.
A question as to whether (or in what way) they had considered not publishing at all – for whatever reason – was met by Nadell with the response that “it was very clear he had left it to be found, and published,” and by Pietsch that, once he had read the material, “the idea of not making it available was inconceivable.”
Someone asked if there was further posthumous material that we might see at some point in the future. This was met with something of a loaded pause, as if this was not something the two of them were prepared to fully answer at this point (which, if true, is probably forgivable, all things considered).
Nadell then said that there was “no trunk in an attic” (i.e. with significant unknown works in it), but that “there may be some things down the line.” She said for example that there were some uncollected early pieces in obscure magazines that weren’t even available on the internet. Pietsch talked about his desire to see a Collected Stories, bringing together Wallace’s three published collections with uncollected stories from elsewhere.
A question about Wallace’s heroes didn’t throw up any new names, although Pietsch did make the interesting comment, with regards to Don DeLillo, that he saw an echo in The Pale King’s opening section of “some passages in The Names.” The questioner then responded with the comment that he had been reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and saw a double connection, in that the two writers, although very different in many ways, were both Mid-Westerners (something that had been discussed earlier) and were both highly interested in civics. Pietsch said it was certainly a hugely interesting comparison but that, as he had managed to get through the US education system without reading any Steinbeck he couldn’t comment further. (Which, to be frank, is a pretty startling admission: how many UK editors would admit to not having read, for instance, Orwell?)
Things wrapped up with Pietsch rehearsing the idea that Wallace had spent much of his career working through his own anxiety with regards to the influence of Thomas Pynchon, and then noting again the tragedy of the situation we all found ourselves in. That was all. It was not groundbreaking. It was enlightening in parts. It was more about a book than a person. Which, for when and where and who we were, felt right.
I didn’t actually see The Pale King in the flesh until last week, when I saw two copies – one US, one UK – at the flat of Sam Byers. (My UK edition was waiting for me when I got home.) Among other things we discussed the covers: me saying I preferred the UK version, designed by British designer gray318; Sam saying the US, with a cover image designed by Wallace’s widow Karen Green. It nearly ended in a fight, so I quickly invited him onto the Tiny Camels blog to settle our differences in prose.
SB: “Please flip back and look at the book’s legal disclaimer, which is on the copyright page, verso side, four leaves in from the rather unfortunate and misleading front cover.”
So instructs ‘Dave Wallace’ on page 67 of The Pale King. It’s a disarming moment. As he wrote it, Wallace could not have known that the book would actually carry a cover designed by his wife, Karen Green, constructed from the shredded remains of one of his very own tax returns.
Coming up with a Wallace cover must be a difficult business. How exactly is one supposed to reduce thousands of pages of densely-shaped data and prose into a single representative image? The designer of the UK edition clearly had the same thought, then stopped thinking at ‘thousands of pages’ and considered his job done. It gives us the Wallace stereotype: a great big stack of paper one feels distinctly unmotivated to plough through. The title, scrawled on the pages’ sides, seems like an afterthought, an act of petty, white-collar vandalism.
Green’s art for the US edition works because it operates from within Wallace’s literary technique. Where the UK edition sees only the ‘density’ of Wallace’s work, Green reminds us that intricacy and impenetrability are not the same thing. In Wallace, raw data is not simply amassed in heaps, it is artfully threaded through the narrative; technical jargon is not used simply to bulk out the word count, it is repurposed to poetic effect.
In Green’s image, information and a sense of necessity (a tax return) penetrate a symbolic human figure, streaming through his head and chest, splitting him into a sort of fractured burst. Compare this with, for example, chapter two of the novel, where Claude Sylvanshine sits on a plane and considers possible questions for his upcoming exam. Tax codes bump up against niggling memories and roiling fears in a way that feels artistically fresh yet emotionally familiar. The passage is meticulous in its construction; omnivorous in what it appropriates for its artistic ends.
Hardly a great wodge of paper with some scribble on it, is it?
JG: Well, I like the UK cover. First and foremost, because it’s pale. If, as we have been told, but which I’m not far enough through to have found out for myself, the pale king of the book’s title is depression, then let’s agree that this cover majors in pallor. And in eeriness: the way the letters stretch and disintegrate, shearing off on the lateral axis and even – weirdly – drifting up and down at the right hand edge, as if the pages have been compressed at the left hand side (like where they meet the spine?).
Pallor, eeriness, and depression. The cover is as far from bright and brilliant and show-offy as possible, a fact that honours the circumstances of the novel’s publication, and its essence. Which is – above and beyond depression – boredom, the challenge of the mundane. This is a boring cover, and is so much the better for it.
But let’s think about those sheets of paper. Two possibilities occur: firstly, that the image represents a stack of tax returns or supporting documentation sitting slap on Claude Sylvanshine’s desk, him or one of his colleagues, the sight that waits for him each morning. How many sheets? It seems almost possible to count them, for… yes, they gradate and striate, just like tree rings.
So you squint at your cover, and you realise the resolution just isn’t up to it. There’s no way of telling how many they are, nor how long it would take poor Claude to process them. For each horizontal line, plain or scrawled on though it may seem from our perspective, is in truth a page crammed full with lies and pleas, self-justifications and evasions. Each horizontal line a human life, most likely a failed one, or one at least in jeopardy. There’s so much more to this cover than just a ‘stack of paper.’
But there’s a second possibility, though it’s one that frankly makes me a bit queasy. Because that stack of paper might not be one from Claude’s desk, it might be one – the one, the “neat stack of manuscript” – from Wallace’s desk. That way, the scrawled title makes more sense, but it pushes the book airlessly close to the whole question of how far it, The Pake King, can ever be considered separately from the facts of its creation, abandonment and publication. I don’t like that idea. I like to think of it as Claude’s stack.
So, much as I like Karen Green’s image, I do find it rather folksy, and I question the king – why a playing card? And anyway, he’s not pale enough – and I shrug my shoulders at its contemporaneity – all that white space! that elegant, spare font! I’ll keep my pale, eerie, boring one, thanks.
SB: Oddly, I think your arguments in favour of the UK edition actually highlight some of my squeamishness about the way the text has been (mis)represented. ‘Depression’ is a concept that has been radically overstated in this novel’s publicity. Wallace experienced depression, but this book is neither depressive in tone nor directly concerned with depression as a subject. Even the commonly-held view that The Pale King is ‘about boredom’ proves a little simplistic. Thus far in my reading (and I accept that I may be proved wrong as I progress) I would say that this is very much a book about happiness, and the way in which seemingly negative experiences can act as gateways to fulfilment. As Wallace himself wrote in one of his notes:
“Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”
Given the obvious and distasteful publicity angle provided by Wallace’s life and death, it’s no surprise that this book hasn’t been marketed as being about ‘bliss in every atom,’ but it is something of a disappointment nonetheless. You say, ‘The cover is as far from bright and brilliant and show-offy as possible, a fact that honours the circumstances of the novel’s publication.’ Yet Wallace was exploring what ‘stepping from black and white into colour’ might feel like. Why the emphasis on the former at the expense of the latter? And as for ‘honouring the circumstances’ of the most loudly trumpeted and highly anticipated novel in recent years, who are you trying to kid?
My suspicion, then, is that this ‘pale and eerie’ UK cover has more to do with perceptions and misconceptions surrounding the author than it does with any attempt to represent his work, and therefore sells us the myth in place of the art. The US edition sidesteps these issues while neatly summarising the title and the work in a visually arresting manner. I like the ‘white space,’ (quite ‘pale’ in itself, of course) and the ‘elegant, spare font.’ I adore the sharp simplicity of the spine, and the way the little club symbol is used as a motif throughout. It feels cohesive. Most importantly, though, I like the king’s flash of colour amidst all that blankness, reminding us of Wallace’s bliss amidst all that tedium.
JG: I suppose what the difference between the two covers comes down to is that line: “stepping from black and white into colour,” with one cover offering one, one the other. What I’d say to justify my preference for the monochrome UK cover (and Sam, white, or at least that white on the US cover, is not pale, despite the image on-screen; they’re almost entirely different things) is that, thus far in my reading, none of the characters is yet to reach that gateway, or make that step, though Lane A. Dean Jr in Chapter 6/‘Good People’ is brought tantalisingly close.
If the book is about the possibility of working through boredom and mundanity to a state of bliss, then I hope you’d agree that most of its actual contents, page by page, are concerned with the former, leaving the latter by and large as a goal, even an unconscious, unacknowledged one. The boredom is there to be “rode out.” In fact, that could be said to be true of Wallace’s writing in general: there is always something to be rode out, something tricky or difficult or oblique that must be worked through and accepted for the eventual lesson to become clear. And I think a cover that honours that aspect of his work is a fitting advertisement for it.
To take another analogy from that same quote, if The Pale King is about the possibility of finding “water after days in the desert,” then a cover that gives you the water right off the bat is in danger of a) mis-selling the book to people who wouldn’t spend half an hour in the desert without the cast-iron guarantee of a chilled bottle of Evian waiting for them at the nearest oasis and b) ignoring the fact that for most people who go out into the desert for days, the water remains fatally, tragically absent.
A final point re: the UK cover. I particularly love the way that the trompe l’oeil image of the stack of paper works with regards to the book-as-physical-object. We are used to trompe l’oeil playing with the gap between 2D and 3D, but here the flatness of the cover image quickly gives way, when you have the book in your hands, to the depth of the book itself, so that it’s possible to imagine the hypothetical A4 pages of the ‘stack’ (which are, after all, only a little smaller than ‘life-size’) extending horizontally through the real, vertical pages of the real book: the imaginary intersecting and passing through the real at a neat right angle, and sticking out the other side.
The cover, in other words, implies a bigger physical object than the one it wraps. If you’re willing to embrace the potential mawkishness of that thought (bearing in mind what we’ve said about The Pale King and its provenance) then it’s a subtle reminder that what we hold in our hands is far from the whole story.
Sam Byers (@Byers90) is currently studying for a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at UEA. His thesis examines illness and pain in the work of David Foster Wallace. His debut novel, Idiopathy will be published by Fourth Estate in 2012/3.