Thursday, September 22, 2011
As the sun began to rise at about 6am, I decided to finally get out of bed after the worst night’s sleep ever, and take a shower and get dressed for the big day that awaited me. After all this, I still had about half an hour before breakfast would be served at 7am, I decided to suck it up and practice reading my paper in front of the bathroom mirror. Despite my stumbling over the words here and there, my presentation came to almost exactly 25 minutes. Perfect. As so many people had advised me, the worst thing a presenter can do is go over his/her time.
A little after 7 o’clock, I went downstairs for the breakfast buffet. This was not the continental breakfast I had seen at other hotels back home. Yes, there was an assortment of baked goods and fresh coffee, but there was so much more. A two-foot-long loaf of fresh-baked bread greeted me as I walked into the breakfast room. I sawed off a nearly inch-thick slice and placed it on my plate, to which I added some scrambled eggs, bacon, and yogurt with granola. When I sat down at a nearby table, I opened what I thought was butter for my bread, but much to my surprise I found it to be a little package of heaven. Chocolate spread. I spread a thick layer of the creamy goodness onto my slice of bread. I figured on my last morning I would have to sneak a few of these into my pocket to take home to my girls.
Back up in my room, I finished getting ready for Day 1 of the conference. I read my speech a second time – a little slower this time, trying to add more inflection and cadence to my voice – and ended at just over 25 minutes once again. So assuming my nerves didn’t get the best of me during the real presentation, I figured I should be just fine. I packed up my things and, giving myself plenty of time for getting lost, I headed down the street in the direction of the University.
Even with a few wrong turns, I still made it to the University by 9am, the start of check-in. I know it sounds uber-cliché, but my breath was taken away as I stepped through the main entrance and into the University courtyard. The centuries-old brick facades covered in ivy were like nothing I’d ever seen before. And then the inner courtyard that I walked through next only rivaled the beauty of the first. I eventually forced myself inside the building and found the right lecture hall and registration table. Being one of the first to arrive, I took advantage of the extra time to go out and take some pictures of the spectacular courtyards just outside.
When I went back inside, I began to see faces familiar from the night before, as well as new faces as the other speakers and attendees arrived. I finally met Adam Kelly, whom I had gotten to know over the last few months via email as he was a tremendous help in editing and revising my paper and getting it presentable.
At about 9:30 we filed into the lecture hall and found our seats. Toon Staes, the host and organizer of the conference, made some opening remarks pointing out the fact that with the singular focus of the conference – no one seemed to be able to recall a conference devoted to a single novel – and with the newness of the book, that we would be laying the foundation for interpretive analysis of The Pale King. A rather sobering – and for me humbling – thought to consider. I, a blogger who was over 7000 miles from home, would have the privilege of sitting amongst the leading scholars in the field of Wallace studies and would be contributing to the formal, critical discussion of the unfinished novel.
Dr. Stephen Burns, the first keynote speaker, gave an excellent overview of the novel and the variety of critical approaches to understanding it. But the one part of his presentation that caught my attention was the connections he made between Wallace and my other favorite writer, CS Lewis. He referenced Wallace once saying that his favorite book of all time was Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. He also drew connections between The Pale King and one of Lewis’s works I have not yet read, Experiment on Criticism. Dr. Burns emphasized the novel’s spiritual themes, particularly in the story of Lane Dean, Jr. in § 6. I fixated on this Wallace-Lewis connection as this opening presentation planted a seed that would be watered over the next two days and one that I will have to continue to cultivate. I want to see how much more there is to this Wallace-Lewis connection and further explore these spiritual themes in Wallace’s work.
The next speaker, Adam Kelly, traced Wallace’s development as an author and narrative voice through three dialogues from Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King. Adam made an interesting point about how through this progression, the characters involved seem to recede into the background so that the ideas being discussed move to the forefront. He focused on §19 – one that proved to be a favorite among presenters – and showed how we hardly even know who is involved in this elevator conversation about civic responsibility, much less who says what, proving his point that Wallace uses this dialogic model to focus on important ideas. This narrative method allows Wallace’s moral didacticism to come through unhindered by characterization.
Jan Hammerquist, next to take the podium, touched on similar themes in his discussion of Wallace’s “zero-level writing.” He highlighted how Wallace’s narrative voice has been described a “brain voice,” or in other words, the voice in the readers’ heads. His voice sounds very familiar to our own thoughts in such a way that it feels much like we – the readers – are just “hanging out with Dave.” Jan pointed out how this shows a great deal of respect on Wallace’s part for his readers and was his way of making sure he was understood by his readers.
After the Q & A with Adam and Jan, we broke for lunch, but that didn’t stop the conversations spurred on by the morning’s speakers. The variety of sandwiches was delicious and the discussions, of both personal nature and focusing on Wallace, were wonderful. My freshly enjoyed sandwiches were soon joined in my stomach by a few butterflies as the time for my own presentation grew near. A couple of the attendees asked if I was nervous; I’m not sure if they were asking to make conversation or whether I was showing visible signs of anxiety. I answered frankly. Yes, I was nervous. I mean, who wouldn’t be after the morning’s three phenomenal papers? I think it was maybe fifteen minutes into Stephen’s keynote presentation that I started asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” I very much felt like the kid taking a seat at the adults’ table. I was by far the newest to the world of Wallace studies and had surely read less of his work than anyone else in the room. But now was not the time for backing out or backing down.
Toon called us back into the lecture hall for the start of the next panel, of which I was a part. Mark Peter West led off the panel with a study of the word “abide” as used in both Infinite Jest and The Pale King. He juxtaposed the use of the word in relation to the Gately character in IJ with its use in relation to the work of the wigglers at the IRS processing center. He also brought in the use of the word in the Gospel of John and in the old hymn, “Abide with Me,” which spurred more thoughts for me in this new direction of study into the spiritual dimensions of Wallace’s works. But I must admit I found myself rather distracted during his presentation; I was still fidgeting nervously in anticipation of my own presentation, and getting like five hours sleep in the past 36 hours was starting to catch up to me.
Mark finished his presentation and took his seat to a hearty round of applause. The panel chair introduced me and the title of my paper, “What the Hell Is Water?” as I got settled at the podium and poured myself a glass of water for my already parched mouth. I began my presentation with a few words about how honored and humbled I felt to be invited to present at this conference and how I never would have imagined when I began my Letters to DFW blog two years ago that I would be here, over 7000 miles from home addressing a roomful of the top Wallace scholars in the world.
I began reading my paper, trying my best to add emotion and inflection to my Ben-Stein-esque monotone voice. I made my case that Wallace’s Kenyon College address is, in many ways, the interpretive lens through which to read the bulk of his canon, and particularly The Pale King. The internal struggle with the “default setting” and the boredom and tedium that it brings is central to much of Wallace’s writing, both his fiction and nonfiction. I argued that this thematic conflict culminates in Wallace’s final, unfinished novel. I stumbled and stammered here and there, but I got all the way through it. A rousing applause came when I concluded my presentation, the volume of which was aided by the acoustics of the room.
Mark then joined me at the podium to field questions and comments from the audience. Most of the questions were directed to Mark – which I was totally fine with – but I jumped in when I had something to add to the conversation. After about fifteen minutes, the panel chair ended the discussion despite there being several hands still raised. He suggested we all continue the conversation out in the lobby during the break. More applause filled the room as I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had done it. I had survived. I could now just relax and enjoy the rest of the conference.
Several people congratulated me on a good presentation as I guzzled a few glasses of water. As I stood by the drink table, Dr. Marshall Boswell – arguably the leading DFW scholar – walked over to me with a smile on his face and hand extended. He shook my hand and told me I had done well. It was probably the greatest compliment I could have received, and the moment proved to be one of the highlights of the trip.
During the break, several people asked me how I first came across Wallace’s writing, almost as if asking about a religious conversion experience. I recounted each time how my wife’s book club had decided to read Consider the Lobster and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” About halfway through ASFTINDA, she said it seemed like the type of writing I would enjoy, so she passed it over to me. By the end of the first section of the cruise ship essay, I was hooked., I went on to read both of Wallace’s nonfiction collections over the next few months, then about six months later – as a New Year’s resolution – I decided to start my blog project, through which I found the Howling Fantods! site and the Wallace-l online community, through which I heard about the call for papers for this conference, and the rest – as they say – is history.
To be continued…
 Despite what some of my students may think, I really don’t like the sound of my own voice. I tend to stutter and stammer quite a bit. I am really not a very good orator and have always struggled with reading aloud. I guess that’s why I have taken to writing as my preferred means of communication and expression.
 This little bit of deliciousness was creamy like butter or margarine, but made of rich chocolate. I didn’t recognize the brand name and couldn’t read the label; all I knew was it was so good.
 I mapped out my route on Google Maps and asked the receptionist at the hotel for directions, but given my experiences the day before, I knew that getting lost was a real possibility.
 Or like the minor league ballplayer making his debut in the big leagues. Choose whatever metaphor you like, but it wasn’t so much that I felt out of place as it was that I felt like I was making a huge leap in my writing and academic career. Fortunately, the “big leaguers” were incredibly gracious and welcoming.
 For which I apologized to him afterward, and I said I would like to read his paper sometime in the near future as his ideas seemed a fitting part of the next paper I hope to write.
 With a nine-hour time difference, it was going on about 6am back home, so I had essentially stayed up the whole night and was now minutes away from perhaps the biggest moment of my writing career.
 Not to say that I hadn’t enjoyed it up to this point. I had learned so much in the morning’s sessions and my head was still spinning with ideas for further reading and study. But looming over that was the anxiety of my upcoming presentation. Now I could just sit back and focus on what the following speakers had to say.
 This connotation seemed rather fitting, given the emphasis so many speakers had placed on the Chris Fogle story.
 Just the 100-page essay, not the entire collection of essays.
 This one seems to have sealed the deal for many a Wallace reader.
 Seeing how this selection for book club seemed to spur what some might call an obsession, the book club member who suggested it has been apologizing to my wife ever since for getting me started on Wallace.