DFW goes to Texas

David Foster Wallace's papers are acquired by the University of Texas's archive

Meredith Blake, at the New Yorker's "Book Bench" blog, reports that the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas (the repository of the personal archives of writers such as D H Lawrence, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and homegrown writers such as Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer) has just added to its holdings the papers (and part of the personal library) of the late David Foster Wallace.

The recently acquired haul from Wallace's garage in Claremont, California includes heavily annotated copies of novels by, among others, Don DeLillo (a salient influence on Wallace, of course) and Cormac McCarthy (the fly-leaf of McCarthy's novel Suttree bears the observation "set-up is slow -- does not set stage"), some juvenilia from his pre-high school days and a handwritten draft of his second and last novel, Infinite Jest.

Wallace's agent, Bonnie Nadell, announced the acquisition in a blog post:

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a "look ma no hands" kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are.

Nadell knows whereof she speaks, of course, but I'm not sure anyone who'd actually read Wallace's fiction (or listened to him talk about his fictional practice) could ever have thought he was an "undisciplined" writer. On the contrary, the sinuous sentences and swollen paragraphs of his mature style were feats of an almost inhuman syntactic and rhetorical discipline. In an essay on Wallace I wrote for the NS not long after his suicide in September 2008, I quoted a passage from the story "Mr Squishy" (from the 2004 collection Oblivion) that seemed to me representative of his later mode:

. . Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness . . .

This, I wrote, "is writing of extraordinary syntactic control" -- the product, precisely, of what Nadell calls Wallace's "exacting eye".

Wallace left behind an unfinished novel, entitled The Pale King. It is due to be published next year.



Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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On Wheels

A new poem by Patrick Mackie

The hills swarm and soften towards the end of the day just as
flames do in a fireplace as the evening
loosens and breaks open and lets out night.
A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,
and the new one will be bitter,
tired, opaque. Words wrangle in every inch of air,
their mouths wide open in stupid shock
at what they have just heard every time they hear anything. Venus,
though, blazes with heavy wobbles of albeit frozen
light. Brecht, who I like to call my
brother just as he called Shelley his,
has a short late poem where he sits by a roadside, waiting
while someone changes the wheel on his car,
watching with impatience, despite not liking
either the place that he is coming from or
the place that he is going to. We call it
connectivity when in truth it is just aggression
and imitation writ ever larger. Poems, though,
are forms of infinite and wry but also briskly
impatient patience. Brecht’s poem seems to end,
for instance, almost before you
can read it. It wheels. The goddess is just a big, bright
wilderness but then soon enough she clothes
herself again in the openness of night and I lose her.

Patrick Mackie’s latest collection, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, is published by CB Editions.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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