Thursday, September 22, 2011
After the coffee break, I felt a great sense of relief. My presentation was done. The months of hard work and agonizing over getting my paper just right had all been worth it. It had all been worth it. I could now sit back and truly enjoy the rest of the conference and give my full attention to the rest of the presentations.
The final session of the afternoon began with Charles Nixon’s presentation which focused on the importance of awareness and concentration in the novel, paying special attention to sections 5 and 6. Charles had spent several weeks earlier in the year at the Harry Ransom Center viewing the Wallace archives doing research for his doctoral thesis. That alone made him the envy of the rest of us and the go-to guy for all things Wallace-Archive related.
Charles was followed by Clare Hayes-Brady. Her presentation centered on the enigmatic title of the novel and the potential connection to the John Keats poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” She pointed to a number of connections between the characters in the novel and the figures in the poem, making a strong case for this poem being the source of the title. Additionally, her analysis of the text in light of the poem made some conjecture as to who this mysterious “Pale King” might be in the novel.
During the Q & A, Matt Balliro inquired about the possible ties – in light of the poem – between the politics of the novel and the politics of the British Romantic era. Clare acknowledged the possibility of some correlations, but admitted she hadn’t taken her research down that path yet. Matt’s question got me thinking, and I followed his question with a wondering-aloud comment about whether Wallace may have not only been alluding to the similarities in political landscape between the British Romantic period and 1980’s America in which the novel is set, but also making a spiritual or religious connection as well. Clare and others in the room concurred that this could be a strong possibility given the frequent supernatural occurrences in TPK and other of Wallace’s works.
The Panel Chair thanked the presenters as they returned to their seats to gather there things. Toon made some closing remarks to end the first day of the conference as my mind continued swirling with ideas for further research and reading: Was there more to this connection between Wallace and Lewis? What were Wallace’s views on religion and faith, and Christianity in particular? Was there more to this than Wallace’s writing about members of his church in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” and the comment at the end of the Lipsky book about his heading off to a church social event? And what about the very authentic – almost raw – portrayal of Lane Dean Jr.’s struggles of faith? I’ve never read a more honest and sincere depiction of the Christian faith, not even in the Christian fiction that I’ve read. There must be something there worth uncovering; and even if there isn’t, the journey to the dead end would be a helluva ride.
At this point in the day – it was around 5:30pm – I was utterly exhausted. I was going on maybe six hours sleep in the past two days and had had very little to eat throughout the day. Plus my nerves were spent from my earlier presentation. But our day was far from over. The plan was to meet up again in the courtyard outside in roughly 90 minutes to walk to the restaurant for dinner. We had a 7:30 reservation. There was a small part of me considering calling it an evening, finding somewhere cheap and close by for dinner, and getting to bed nice and early. But I didn’t want to be the only one not attending. Many left to go back to their hotels to change and freshen up, but that option seemed out of the question for me. My hotel was farthest from the University campus, so it would take almost the entire 90 minutes just to walk there and back – especially considering my state of exhaustion – so it seemed hardly worthwhile.
Toon invited me to join him and some of the others who were headed to a nearby café for drinks. While certainly too tired to enjoy one of the many delectable Belgian beers I had heard so much about, the conversation sounded promising. So I followed the pack to the café a few blocks down the road.
Everyone else ordered local specialties, except for me with my glass of tepid tap water. I spent much of the time talking with Jan – a soon-to-be grad student who recently moved to town to study at the University of Antwerp – and Toon and his girlfriend / co-organizer, Leis. We talked some Wallace, but mostly listened to a brief Belgian social studies lesson from Toon. Apparently Belgium was on its way to breaking the world record for the longest span – some 500+ days – without a functioning government, a feat he almost seemed somewhat proud of. I did note some of the interesting parallels – as well as stark differences – between Belgian history and politics and the American history and politics I had grown up with. I a way, I was almost jealous of the long, rich history of his country.
Soon enough it was time to rejoin the others back at the University for our dinner. After everyone had arrived, we walked to the restaurant, whose brightly painted walls and gaudy décor was best described by someone in the group as “kitschy.” We sat at two long tables in the back room; I sat with and talked mostly with Tom, Clare, Mark, and Charles. Conversation came easily among us as a personal anecdote often led into a discussion of a scene from one of Wallace’s novels or short stories, which then led into talking about another of our favorite scenes. It was a wonderful time of getting to know each other as we shared insights into the life and writing of the man who had brought us all together for these two days.
The food was incredible; I had the pesto chicken and pasta while most of those around me had the bloody rare steak. The fries that came with their cuts of beef soon became communal. They were quite tasty. Though the wine was flowing freely, I once again abstained. I didn’t want to pass out during the walk back to my hotel.
The evening went very quickly as we talked and laughed and ate and drank. At about 10pm, I thought it would be best to head back to my hotel. While the food had given me a short energy boost, my body was crying out for sleep. I was one of the first to leave the party; the others were making plans to move the frivolity to a nearby café to continue fun. When I arrived at my hotel and climbed into bed – not wanting a repeat of the previous night and suffering from the nasal and ocular symptoms of prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke – I took a Benadryl before going to bed.
Should have set an alarm as well.
 We all loved hearing the stories he had about what he found while reading old drafts and notes in the archives. We must have looked like kids on the playground listening to a friend recounting the plot of a movie none of us were allowed to watch. Each of us had the dream of one day visiting the HRC – the Mecca for Wallace fans and scholars – and Charles had lived the dream and was allowing us to live it vicariously through his stories.
 Clare had just finished and submitted her doctoral thesis* on Wallace – although this presentation was not part of that paper – a few weeks before the conference, so her nonanswer was certainly understandable.
*which I received word this past week that she was successful in her thesis defense and had officially been “indoctrinated.” Congrats, Clare.
 How could you not after the day’s presentations?
 My cynical side was ready with all kinds of jokes and wisecracks about the “functionality” of our American government back home, but I was way too tired to attempt to put more than about three words together into a coherent sentence. So I mostly just sat and listened.
 I mean there were probably ashtrays on the café tables outside with more history than anything I was accustomed to back home.
 Not only did the large size of the group warrant the large back room, but the conversation quickly became very lively and enthusiastic, giving another reason why management would likely assign us the back room.
 Someone would later mention that it felt very much like the reception after the memorial service when everyone starts sharing their favorite stories about their very good friend. I couldn’t have agreed more with the analogy.
 I would hear the next morning that most didn’t leave the café – quite a dive, apparently – until after 2am, so I am glad I called it an early night.