Sunday, April 17, 2011

on reading unfinished novels

There's no reason to read an unfinished novel if the author is alive. He just might finish it, for instance, and then that finished product would have the stamp of approval from an artist (presumably) one is already interested in, or at least, one has heard is worth being interested in. If that artist has produced an unfinished work worth consuming, one might as well wait until he/she is dead before consumption in order to ensure that one doesn't eavesdrop on notes and ramblings when a mature work is imminent.

[Exception which proves the rule: the recent trite crap "completion" of the Star Wars saga. nuff said.]

[Of course, in media other than the written word, unfinished status can be conferred by situations other than the writer/creator's death: go watch post haste if you have not already, Andrzej Żuławski's On the Silver Globe, the greatest unfinished movie of which I am aware—and be moved.]

There are, of course, famous examples here, e.g. Kafka's Amerika or Nabokov's Dying is Fun—although in both cases an ethical question arises since the respective authors requested their unfinished works destroyed upon their deaths.

In the case of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, I know of no such request. The question does, nevertheless, arise: what legitimates publishing this unfinished work and distributing it widely?

Apparently, upon Wallace's suicide from depression, he left behind on his desk "a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages" and "hundreds and hundreds" of additional pages and notes for the novel scattered about his office. (There was, however, no outline, or explicit description of the novel's intended structure and ordering of events / written sections.) His editor on Infinite Jest, Michael Pietsch, was tasked with assembling this chaos into something that could be published, and make money for the publisher / the estate.

Graciously, the details of these circumstances are described in an introductory editor's note.

So, when reading the book, there are many questions: is this the right order of the information? Would this chapter have even been included? In this form? Questions which, when reading a completed work, are not raised. And worries (questions / confusions / imaginations) about the structure of the work are no longer criticisms of the author (and, perhaps, only on some occasions criticisms of the editor), but rather merely circumstances under which one might imagine one's own perfect version of the work, or extrapolate its completion into the ideal work for you, the reader (even if not one that's realistic for the author to have produced, editor to have approved, etc.).

Was it right? ( . . . to publish this unfinished, to charge $27.99, etc.?) In the case of The Pale King, I know of no countervailing demands expressed by Wallace, and I emphatically agree with Pietsch's assessment that there is plenty here for the reading public to enjoy / value. (Even if there is some sense in which the dead are being taken advantage of, you, the $27.99 reader are not. I say this only a fifth of the way through the book, and already having earned back the cost through insight, amusement, and beatific and sublime experiences.)

The first chapter (only a page and a half) is almost worth the price of admission alone for sheer beauty. There are ups and downs, but chapter 9, the "author's forward" definitely confirms the value and insight of the work, no matter how disjoint, and (ultimately, despite the fact that only Wallace's name appears on the title page) collaborative the work in this form is. (Look, chapter 11 is just notes, it would not have appeared in a finished novel by Wallace. And the influence of its content on the novel would not have been felt at the precise place in the ordering in which it was placed. Pietsch knows this. But he acknowledges it and, more importantly (consequently?) you the reader know it as well: this affects your processing and interpretation of chapter 11.)

I have to admit, however, a spooky feeling, when reading passages like
. . . this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829—deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true.

Of course, even in this "autobiographical" section, there are deliberate obfuscations and falsities. But from the style, from the circumstances, we know that one day Wallace sat down and wrote these words, and he wrote them from a perspective in which the novel was finished, and published, and it had only taken 3 years to write. We know that he put himself in that frame of mind, and "talked" to the potential reader. But within 3 years he had become so completely unable to find this frame of mind in which the novel was done again that he committed suicide.

This is a man talking directly to you, the reader, from beyond the grave, yet it was not him who decided that you would hear him, but his estate and publisher and editor. Again, not that that's wrong (this is the start of the aforementioned chapter 9, well worth the price of the book alone in terms of insight and depth), but that it's certainly spooky. And you allow yourself to imagine Wallace cutting it, or rephrasing it, or (more likely, my imagination), dropping the conceit that the work is real, and introducing the (admittedly, startlingly profound) discussion of the history and nature of American taxation into it in a more organic way. To imagine that this was an exercise in the style of his popular nonfiction essays to bring together information that ultimately would be more effectively (?) conveyed through fiction.

But then that's just my fantasy of David Foster Wallace, and what he might have done. But to even take the first tentative steps on this staircase, to even find a direction in which to look, is not only worthwhile, but strangely creative as a reading experience.

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