New unfinished DFW novel

What to make of this -- hundreds of pages found on his desk, the work of years, flights made to inspect by agent and editor? Would reading a "couple hundred thousand words" next year with no promise of the payoff of an ending but with notes, outlines and something called "other material" be worth the investment? It might be very interesting -- or not. Was reading The Last Tycoon worth it?

Give yourself a clue by reading the New Yorker excerpt, which is about an IRS clerk at his desk who is so bored he has looked up the etymology of the word bore and is apparently hallucinating. It is a meditation on the empty soullessness of this daily activity -- hell, it's a foray into the very philosophy of boredom.
The whole issue was almost unbelievably meaningless and small. He thought about the word “meaning” and tried to summon up his baby’s face without looking at the photo, but all he could get was the heft of a full diaper and the plastic mobile over his crib turning in the breeze that the box fan in the doorway made. 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 near him had heard it or were looking at him.
A little flag: Hasn't the ironic/existentialist take on office meaninglessness been done? Don't we have Kafka and The Office for that?

However, now I see that the truly hilarious excerpt in Harper's last year is also an excerpt from The Pale King, and so now my excitement is revved back up. And now I will try the D. T. Max article on the story behind impending third DFW novel -- I mean, I will after I complete some work here at my desk, and I will try not to look at the clock.


kclou said...

Reading The Last Tycoon is worth it. That would have been a brilliant book.

Grendel said...

I agree, kclou.

kclou said...

That long Rolling Stone profile and this long New Yorker profile have taught me more about DFW's life than just about any other contemporary writer's.

That having been said, Wood's famous essay on hysterical realism hit me harder than most literary criticism; I didn't like DFW that much to begin with, but I felt like there was a concrete reason after that article. I have a lot of respect for his intentions, though.

Grendel said...

Wood writes, "Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish." That means -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- that he did not read Infinite Jest, though he lumps it in with these others (did he read them either?). I'm about to blow a gasket here. IJ does almost nothing else but explore in crushing detail the modes of tragedy and anguish, and what's more, it finds a hard-won ray of light through them in Don Gately, the opioid addict who refuses painkillers after being shot in the shoulder and operated on. That book affected me emotionally, human to human, unlike any other book I've ever read. Which makes the Wood essay, though maybe interesting in certain spots, straw-manly suspicious to say the least and lingeringly infuriating if I let myself think about it too much.

Grendel said...

Having calmed down a bit, I want to clarify that I recognize that Wood is on to something here, and I would even accept "hysterical realism" as a good-as-any moniker for a certain kind of writing. Pynchon has been guilty of it, and I stopped reading Mason & Dixon because of that. However, Against the Day cleared that bar in my view and is a great work. DeLillo wallowed in it in Americana. And DFW definitely has been guilty of hysterical realism as well. Dickens, in his own way, too, I suppose. I was once sent a book to review by somebody's agent and I only got 75 pages into it before realizing I didn't want to write a review of it because I could only mock and slam it for its cartoonish over-the-top carnival of flat characters.

However, Infinite Jest -- brainy, hilarious, long, and character-filled as it is -- isn't hysterical realism in my book. Not by a long shot. It's a whole nother animal.

kclou said...

Well said.

Zadie Smith's reaction to that essay is interesting, as she agreed with much of it, showing a willingness for self-examination in relation to criticism you don't often see.

I wonder what DFW thought. Did he ever respond? He seemed similarly--if not more--introspective and must have known about it and its influence.

Grendel said...

Fifteen minutes of googling brought up nothing in the way of DFW response. I did find what seems to be an anti-James Wood blog, if you can believe it.

I have studiously avoided any literary criticism since my M.A. in English -- a degree that more properly should have been called an M.A. in Po-Mo/Deconstructionist Literary Criticism. It put me off it -- forever. From the moment I got out I have eaten food rather than examine the vomit of others.

cfp said...

Yeah, Wood doesn't like DFW. For what it's worth, he makes a better case in his new book, which is pretty good overall. There, the rhetorical DFW he argues against may or may not be the DFW of reality but he makes a reasonable case against that strawman's linguistic tendencies.

I think DFW makes an easy symbol of a certain kind of writing. But in interview and elsewhere, the guy seemed skeptical of ironic distance and all that, the very sort of stylistic quirks with which he is, in the broadest way, associated with. I remember first reading his non-fiction and thinking- "Whoa, this guy doesn't write like I thought he did." I think that's perhaps the difficulty in being famous for writing a book most people haven't read (including me!).

I read that excerpt and I think it would have been a book I'd have liked.

Grendel said...

Read Infinite Jest, everyone! At least give it 100 pages. And your defenses temporarily.