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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism