In the archive with David Foster Wallace

Wallace's papers aren't a wormhole into the writer's psyche.

The late David Foster Wallace was often hailed as a literary genius, a writer who dwells in his readers' minds as a kind of meta-human, his mysterious and innate powers suggesting a different plane of existence. Even other writers are not immune to dishing out such hyperbolic praise. Zadie Smith, for example, declares that Wallace is "in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us". Visit the Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center, however, and a different story will emerge, that of "Dave Wallace", the ambitious, insecure and hard-working author of complex novels and expertly precise journalism.

The Harry Ransom Center, part of the University of Texas in the hipster enclave of Austin, is a climate-controlled humanities archive housing 36 million manuscript pages, five million photographs, and thousands of pieces from the worlds of art, theatre and film. The David Foster Wallace archive opened in September 2010 and contains correspondence, handwritten drafts, manuscripts, juvenilia and 306 annotated books from Wallace's personal library.

It should be noted that the archive is not a shimmering wormhole into Wallace's personal psyche or a curtain-twitching view into his private life. The archivist, Stephen Cooper, describes the collected manuscripts as "clean", meaning they are primarily work-related, with little annotation other than that to do with the nuts and bolts of writing (editorial interjections, corrections and the frequent and frantic use of the word "Stet").

Take a sidestep from the Wallace archive to that of the novelist Don DeLillo, however, and we find the younger writer with his guard down, in correspondence dating between 1992 and 2001. In these letters a clearer image of Wallace the writer surfaces, far from the mythical genius presented by the more zealous commentators. He engages DeLillo with an almost childish insecurity, worrying about his ability and his self-discipline, bemoaning the "daily temptation to dick around". Wallace clearly sees DeLillo as a mentor, someone to turn to for advice and inspiration. In fact, he openly worries about the influence DeLillo has on his work, admitting in the letters that parts of his second novel Infinite Jest (1996) may seem "piratical" (this influence can also be seen in the Wallace-annotated copies of DeLillo's novels in the collection, where notes for Infinite Jest have been jotted on the title pages and in the margins).

Wallace's relationship with DeLillo is mediated through talk of writing, books and film, and a picture of his cultural existence can be pieced together. His mini-reviews of films are particularly telling as they show him as an unpretentious consumer of entertainment (a theme in much of his fiction). He urges DeLillo to see films such as The Matrix and also-ran Hollywood thriller Boiler Room (depicting the film's main lure as lead actor Giovanni Ribisi's face: "male but like something right out of Klimt at his ghastliest").

Knowing Wallace was insecure about his ability as a writer gives the reading of the various drafts of Infinite Jest a strange inflection. Throughout the intricately numbered pages (sequential numbers, each with additional sub-pages labelled with letters), there are small splurges of this self-doubt in the margins. "I don't want to be writing," Wallace scrawls as he sweats through the construction of what would become footnote 110 in the novel, and a shaky-handed, "Thank God!" on its completion (there are also tiny outpourings of the heart in these margins; maudlin, teenager-like reactions to failing relationships and unrequited love that we are all probably guilty of). It is especially illuminating to see how much work Wallace and his astute, level-headed editor Michael Pietsch did together. Pietsch treads carefully between suggesting ways to make the novel better artistically and ways to make it more approachable to the paying reader (Wallace tells DeLillo that these commercially-minded alterations make him feel "slutty"). This torturous and intricate work began around 1994 and would continue for almost two years.

The Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center efficiently dispels the "genius" status awarded to the writer, not because his writing isn't singularly and bewilderingly excellent (it is, even in draft form), but because it presents him as a human being, one of us. Declarations that Wallace is in some other "time-space continuum" are unhelpful because he worked so hard to depict what it means to be a human being in this world, in an age lacking sincerity, but saturated with ironic posturing. With The Pale King, Wallace's long awaited posthumous novel approaching its release date, we should perhaps brace ourselves for another storm of this type of commentary. But thinking of Wallace as "Dave", the writer who slogged through research (the archive reveals he even took tedious classes in tax law to help with The Pale King), sweated each sentence to achieve perfect prose, and strove to depict our own world with unflinching emotional honesty, perhaps makes the work all the more astonishing.

Graham Foster is completing a doctoral thesis on the novels of David Foster Wallace at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder