Friday, March 13, 2015

The Impossible Book

Previously on The Fictator:
But what's helpful about what Joyce and DFW and Wagner definitely have in common is the data associated with them - the small output, the unlimited unpacking that can be done to their art, the difficulty in creating with which they coped.
I have more to say about DFW and Joyce, specifically about their respective final books, but as I was putting that post together I realized I was trying to express two different ideas that didn't really go together and making a monster of a post. So here's the other idea.

DFW's last, unfinished novel is called The Pale King. This is also the title of the D.T. Max biography's closing chapter, which takes the reader through Wallace's struggle to write the novel and his final illness. I think Max was nudging the reader to see Wallace himself as a pale king (a comparison that's somewhat lost on me), but it seemed he was also casting the novel as an endeavor that battered Wallace and potentially broke him. Not that Wallace's life would have ended differently if he'd succeeded in writing The Pale King. Not exactly. But that he could not surmount the difficulty of writing the novel, and this made him despair of his art.

Wow, he would have been SO uncomfortable with this image

Joyce, for his part, struggled with Finnegans Wake for seventeen fucking years. (I often joke that I think Finnegans Wake is a hoax, and that Joyce, had he lived a few years longer, would have retracted it and released the real novel instead, i.e. that he was working on two novels at the same time, one real, one fake. I don't really actually think this, because scholars would have found it out by now, but it makes a good joke, right?) I imagine he despaired frequently: in gradually losing his eyesight, in all of his friends deserting him, in trying to harness the intrinsic, animal power of language and idiom - like harnessing the sea. But he finished. His was a different temperament than Wallace's, after all.

I can't claim that these books necessarily have a lot in common, especially since I haven't read either one. But there are threads connecting Wallace's life and work with Joyce's life and work that become eerier and more interesting the more I learn about the two figures. Kind of like the coincidences between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations. So I puzzle over their final endeavors, and wonder what analysis thereof will illuminate - about each artist, and about the nature of writing the impossible book.

I love Eyepatch Joyce. This sketch is by Djuna Barnes

Here is the question that's been nagging at me for weeks: What was it about The Pale King that Wallace could not surmount, that made him fail where Joyce (in some senses) succeeded? Why did that book [maybe] break him? Why did he spend years struggling with it, and decide to give it up, and start it again, and make himself wretched over it? Did perfectionism conquer him? Had novels become the wrong form for him? Was he working on a bad book, and should he have just trunked it and tried something else? Or was he reaching for exactly the book that needed to be written, and was he too impatient or weak or unskilled to write it?

[Not that I think any of those three adjectives apply, at all, to DFW as a writer, but this is where my mind has gone. Was The Pale King really that...big, I guess, that even this virtuoso could not manage it?]

Max says that part of Wallace's effort with his final novel was to write about boredom, which, okay, good luck making that topic into a book people will want to read. Hat: off. I'm not at all sure that the consuming humanism of his later work is a philosophy that lends itself to the same kind of maximalism epitomized by Infinite Jest. So he had a hard row to hoe, absolutely. Joyce, in writing the Wake, seemed to dive headlong into technical and linguistic experimentation, and perhaps (it seems to me, and to some but not all critics) was even reaching for postmodernism. Wallace was reaching past postmodern meaninglessness to see what lay beyond. Do these artistic approaches have anything to do with the two projects, and why one was finished and the other was not?

Maybe the connection is that The Pale King proved unwritable, while, according to a wide majority, the Wake proves unreadable. Maybe if he'd finished King, it would have suffered the same fate as the Wake. But Wallace cared so much more what people thought of his work than Joyce seemed to. Is that why he couldn't finish, and Joyce could?

Or is there actually no parallel here, and I'm analyzing Kennedy/Lincoln coincidences to no useful purpose?

More unanswerable questions, more uncertainty, at the close of a post. Like the end of Wallace's life (and, frankly, the life that came to an end yesterday): too much left unwritten. Too much to bear.

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