Discovering David Foster Wallace

I've come to his work late, but I'm looking forward to reading it all.

There's a bookshop in my favourite part of the city in which I live in which marauds an unshaven man with dishevelled hair. I know nothing about this man, but he is the tool with which I measure the aptness and the good sense of my taste in literature. Usually, he is found to be in one of two positions: either lying on the sofa looking angry, or deliberately disordering the books on his shelves (he owns the shop, and he's entirely right to think that people will stay longer if his books aren't alphabetised. It's because of wisdom like this that I use him as my tool). It was from this man that I bought the only book I own by David Foster Wallace - and when I bought it his features reassembled themselves from a look of slight fury into a look of slight misery. This is what he does when he thinks you have made an excellent choice of book. I promptly congratulated myself.

Wallace is a much talked about author. He is also an author whom I hadn't read, and knew nothing about. I began reading Oblivion, which I discovered was the last work of fiction to be published before his death, and was suspicious. To my closed and inattentive ears, Wallace is one of those writers who inspires an untrustworthy intensity of love in otherwise trustworthy people. It's not that I didn't want to like Wallace, or even that I crassly sought to disagree with those who liked him for no reason other than the contrariness; but many admirable minds laud him as one of the greatest novelists of his "generation", and I distrust both praise and references to generations. Imagine the delight and the shame I felt when I discovered that Wallace wrote a mockery of the hagiographic use of "generation" too - in his short story "Death Is Not the End" he writes a parodic biography of a dead poet which "two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation".

By virtue of almost nothing other than my own ignorance, I suppose I'm ripe to fall into the second generation of Wallace admirers (which is exactly what I am - I decided a couple of days ago whilst sitting on the Northern line). The forthcoming, posthumously published novel The Pale King is not a book that I, unlike Wallace's legion of fans, have been "eagerly awaiting". It's not even a book I knew existed until recently - but in reading two early reviews (in Time and GQ), I've learnt the odd thing about Wallace that has made me abandon my scepticism. What would Wallace think about the consolidation of my respect growing from the textual peripheries of others, rather than from his own writing? I suppose he'd look sad and shrug, but then, I haven't even finished Oblivion yet, so I wouldn't know. In any case, I should qualify myself - my respect has been consolidated not by these reviews, but by the extracts of Wallace's writing embedded in them.

Still, assertions like Lev Grossman's (in the Time review) that Wallace's remaining notebooks are "chewed over and bent and practically charred by the intellectual energy Wallace expended in them" are symptomatic of the kind of mythologising that good dead authors find themselves subject to. That one of these notebooks had a picture of one of the Rugrats on the front is testament of how, to put it tritely, paper was paper to Wallace. I'm not sure he'd want his manuscripts monumentalized - tempting as that might be. "He switched pens practically every paragraph" Grossman breathlessly notes. Well, he probably didn't. And if he did, that makes him silly, not a genius.

His essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again begins quietly with a distancing "supposedly" and escalates into an absolution of a "never again" - which sounds both a threat and a loss, like a child covering disappointment with disobedience. It makes me wonder, of the so many people who have waited for The Pale King, how many would really have the ability to be disappointed with this last slice of Wallace. John Jeremiah Sullivan articulates a feeling that any reader who has fallen in love with an author has felt: "I was surprised to have the wind sucked out of me by the thought ... that there would be no more Wallace books". Perhaps this is the best thing about my slowly dissolving ignorance: I've got a lot of Wallace books still left to read.

Jonathan Derbyshire reviews "The Pale King" in this week's issue of the New Statesman

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism