2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Further Evidence I Have The Raddest Wife Ever…


This gallery contains 7 photos.

Over the last eleven years, between Christmases and birthdays, my wife and I have essentially bought each other everything the other could ever need or want.  So because of this and the desire to save money, we decided to resurrect … Continue reading

Two Years and Counting…

It was just over two and a half years ago that my wife first handed me a copy of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” saying “here, I think you’ll like this.”  I loved it.  And thus, my life has not been the same since.

About this time two years ago my wife and I sat on our couch watching Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, the film that inspired me to begin this blog.  And once again, my life took a turn in an unexpected direction.

Two years into this project, I am far from completing my goal of reading and blogging my way through Wallace’s entire canon.  To date, I’ve only finished Consider the Lobster, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, The Pale King, and David Lipsky’s transcription of his week-long interview with Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.  In addition, I’ve written about a number of uncollected pieces ranging from short stories published in the New Yorker to his syllabus for and Intro to Fiction class.

This writing endeavor has been all I’d hoped for and beyond anything I could have imagined.  I started this blog needing focus and discipline in my writing.  Working toward a tangible goal has helped me gain those things, as well has helped me in shaping and developing my written voice.  In studying Wallace and emulating his style and voice, I have begun to find my own.

But this journey has been so much more.  It has opened up a world to me previously unknown.  Because of this blog I stumbled upon the Wallace-l community, making many friends and engaging in wonderful conversation.  For a time, I helped run the group blog, Supposedly Fun Things…, experiencing the ironies and absurdities of life with some of my fellow writers.  And I was able to meet several listers in person for the first time at The Pale King release party at Skylight Books in Hollywood.

Writing this blog has given me opportunities I never thought I’d be afforded.  Last spring, I was approached about participating in an online tribute to Wallace on Broadcastr.com commemorating the release of The Pale King.  Shortly after this, I saw a post on Wallace-l requesting proposals for an academic conference focusing on The Pale King hosted by the University of Antwerp.  It’s amazing what 500 words can do.  My proposal was accepted, and a couple months later I was on a flight to Belgium to join some of the greatest scholars in the field of Wallace studies as we blazed the trail for discussion and criticism of Wallace’s final novel.

While in Antwerp I was inspired to take my studies of Wallace’s works in a new direction.  A number of the presenters alluded to the religious, and specifically Christian, themes in TPK and others of Wallace’s novels.  This was something I need to pursue further, and thus begins a new direction and focus in my blogging endeavors here.  In order to write about these themes in his writing, I need to read and ponder the rest of his canon.

So with the new year just a few weeks away, I am renewing my commitment to see this project through to its completion.  I want to turn this new train of thought into a book one day – The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace – and I will be diligent to finish this blog with that end in mind.

I still can’t believe where this blog has taken me, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

… And I invite you to continue this journey with me.

A Really Fun Thing I’d Love to Do Again – Day 3, Part 2

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.[1]

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.[2]  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,[3] 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,[4] 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.[5]

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;[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]  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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] How could you not after the day’s presentations?

[4] 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.

[5] I mean there were probably ashtrays on the café tables outside with more history than anything I was accustomed to back home.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

A Really Fun Thing I’d Love to Do Again – Day 3, Part 1

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.[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]

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.[4]  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;[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]  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.”[9]  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.[10],[11] 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…

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] This connotation seemed rather fitting, given the emphasis so many speakers had placed on the Chris Fogle story.

[9] Just the 100-page essay, not the entire collection of essays.

[10] This one seems to have sealed the deal for many a Wallace reader.

[11] 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.

Birthday Cakes Revisited

My wife started a new blogging endeavor about six weeks ago, chronicling her life as a stay-at-home mom.  One of my wife’s favorite hobbies – and a very popular topic on her blog – is making specialty birthday cakes.  She recently posted an entry about my last two birthday cakes, both of which were inspired by this blog project.  The first DFW-inspired cake she made me was a cake in the shape of a book version of my blog that I hope to publish someday.  The second was in the shape of the SS Nadir, the cruise ship featured in Wallace’s essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”  The first time I posted pictures of the Nadir cake, this blog got over five hundred hits in just a few days and my wife got a marriage proposal (if things ever go south for us).

Anyway, here is the post on her blog about my DFW-inspired birthday cakes:


The Pale King Release Party @ Skylight Books

What does one wear to a book release party, exactly?  This being my first one, I stood before my open closet for a good five minutes trying to decide what to wear.  Despite the unseasonably warm weather,[1] I assumed long pants were in order.  But should I wear khakis or jeans?  After a short internal debate of the merits of each, I settled on my nicest pair of jeans.  But what shirt to go with them?  I have several Hawaiian shirts, but thought I should wear something a little more “artsy,” given the nature of the event.  I have a black and gray bowler shirt, but it sort of screams “Charlie Sheen” and I wanted to avoid those connotations.  I opted for a dark pseudo-Hawaiian shirt with palm fronds in various shades of green to go with my dark blue jeans.  After finally getting dressed, I grabbed the Google Maps directions and my copy of The Pale King,[2] and was out the door.

After topping off the gas tank, I was headed down the freeway toward Skylight Books in Hollywood.  Some forty-five minutes later I found the store, circled the block after seeing Vermont Avenue lined with parking meters, and found an unmetered open curb about a half mile away.  I grabbed my TPK and notebook, and walked back toward Skylight.  Walking past several sidewalk cafes, I turned into the most incredible indie bookstore I’ve ever set foot in.  I was – I thought – a few minutes early, so I decided to browse around a bit.  Something about the dark, rustic wooden bookshelves up against plaster and brick walls made any book on them at least four times cooler than it would be on the shelves of a big chain bookstore.

A few minutes after 2:00, I walked over to the information desk to ask about the event.  I didn’t see the type of pre-release-party preparations one would expect to see right before the start of such an event.  Was I in the right place?  At the right time?  I hesitantly inquired about when and where the party would be happening.  The woman sitting there had a rather perplexed look on her face as she told me that I was in the right place, but that the event was not until 5:00.  I was three hours early.  Apparently I was misinformed by the Facebook announcement I had received several weeks ago.  The woman at the info desk gave a sympathetic smile as she told me there was a movie theater next door.  I thanked her and walked outside to think over this turn of events and to make a few phone calls.[3]

My original plan was to attend the party that I thought was scheduled from 2:00 – 5:00, and then meet an old friend for dinner afterward.  But now… should I hang around for three hours and still go to the event?  It would be a long wait, but having spent over four dollars per gallon to fill up my car, I didn’t want to just turn around and drive home.  And with the event starting at 5:00, that would mean a much later dinner than I had planned.  My already tired muscles were starting to stiffen up from helping load and unload a 22-foot moving truck just a few hours before.  I ducked into the quasi-alley a few doors down from the bookstore and came up with a plan: I would hang out in Hollywood until the party, but call my friend to see about postponing our dinner plans until later in the week.[4]   I called my wife to let her know, then texted my friend to let him know that the plans had changed.  He was very understanding.

Entering the store for a second time, I felt a great deal of shame over having a second job at a big chain bookstore.[5]   But if I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with the clerks, perhaps no one would catch on.  I walked up and down the narrow aisles absorbing the quirky, artsy ambience of the place.  A journal notebook with “HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE” in block letters on the front cover was the first item to catch my eye.  I later noticed that they had properly shelved Stephen King’s On Writing in the “Writing Reference” section.[6]   There was a collection of poems by one of my favorite poets, Steve Kowit, which I have found only online.  Near the poetry shelf, lying stretched out in the window sill was Franny the cat, the store’s mascot.  I had to deduct a few “cool points” when I saw the complete Twilight series and several Ellen Hopkins novels on the Young Adult shelf, but those points were regained when I found the Freaks & Geeks Complete Scripts Volume 2 on another shelf.

At least an hour passed as I examined each title on each shelf, then I left the store a second time to see what else Vermont Ave. had to show me.  About three blocks away, past several posh boutiques and swanky sidewalk cafes was a Starbucks.  A cold drink and an air-conditioned lobby seemed appealing, given the heat of the afternoon.  Inside I ordered a venti iced tea, found the one empty chair, and settled in to read The Pale King The time passed rather quickly as I distractedly read about ten pages of chapter two.[7] At 4:45, I left my comfy chair and headed back to Skylight.

In the time since I left, the staff had decorated the store for the party.  Behind the “stage” area, which consisted of a metal podium and a microphone, was a very cool streamer made of assorted tax forms and giant King of Clubs playing cards.  One table had an assortment of Wallace books along with staff-picked “if-you-like-Wallace-you-might-like-these-books-too” books; another table was graced with bottles of wine, cheese and crackers, and other delicious snacks.  Several folding chairs were set out, and a small crowd had already gathered.  I grabbed a chair toward the back and anxiously waited for the festivities to begin.

One of the clerks stepped up to the microphone and, after the necessary sound check, welcomed the crowd of about twelve to Skylight Books to celebrate the release of The Pale King.  She previewed the festivities for us, which would include a recorded reading from Brief Interviews by Dave himself, followed by an open mic time when celebrants could read their favorite passages from his works.  Also in her introduction were at least three invitations to enjoy the refreshments set out on the table.

After the welcome and introduction, she played the seven-minute recording of Wallace reading “Death is not the End.” [Click here to listen to the recording]  This story had slid to the back of my memory, overshadowed by some of the more widely discussed stories contained in BI.  It seemed an odd choice at first, but then it all started to make sense and listening to it turned into a rather poignant and moving experience.  The story really isn’t a story at all, but rather the description of a washed-up former Poet Laureate sitting poolside drinking iced tea and flipping pages of a magazine.  What struck me first was the overly monotone tone of Dave’s voice as he read.  I wouldn’t call him the most dynamic or emotional reader or speaker, but his tone was – for lack of a better word – boring as he was reading the non-story of the boring non-life of a formerly great writer.

It was in pondering the title within the immediate context that I was moved emotionally.  The word “unfinished” in the description of The Pale King looms ominously as a reminder of tragic end to Dave’s life.  I don’t know of a Fantod out there that doesn’t consider this book a gift, but it is bittersweet in the receiving.  We were all gathered to celebrate the gift he left for us.  But he wasn’t able to finish the work he started, so we will never see the novel in its completed form, as he intended it to be.

But, as the title of this beautifully selected story reminds us, his death was not the end.  Not for his work.  Not for his legacy.  Although his death left a hole in the hearts of many and a void in our literary landscape, his death was not the end.  His death came – in the minds of so many – far too early, but at least he never had an end like the washed-up Poet of his story.  And besides, he left behind a number of gifts: David Lipsky’s 300+ page transcript of his five-day interview of Wallace during the Infinite Jest tour, his senior philosophy thesis, and now The Pale King.  Even in the midst of our sorrow, we have cause to celebrate.  His death was not the end.

After a moment’s pause, E—[8] stepped up to the microphone and read the stinkin’ hilarious segment from Infinite Jest, “Mario Incandenza’s First and Only Even Remotely Romantic Experience, Thus Far.”  I have not read much of IJ, and don’t know where this scene fits into the overarching narrative, but the lively, joyous reading made me really want to give the book another try.[9]

E— was followed by C—, who read a snippet from Everything and More, Wallace’s non-fiction work about the history of infinity.  The book sits on my shelf, but if there is one book in Dave’s bibliography that scares me more than Infinite Jest, this one would be it.  Anything by Wallace requires utmost concentration to unwrap and unravel, and that is when he writes about things I do understand.  But I haven’t taken a math class in fifteen years – and it was only College Algebra – and I got a C for the semester.  So I’d imagine that 90% of Everything and More will just go straight over my head.  But what I did hear in C—‘s reading was Dave’s very distinctive voice.  I didn’t understand a word of it, but I could tell from the start that he had written it.[10]

Next was B—, who read a short passage – the exact part escapes my memory – from Brief Interviews and then shared with us an original poem.  Then J— read a darkly affecting segment from the “Octet” chapter from the same book.  Both captured that raw depiction of humanity that is the signature of Dave’s fiction writing.

While they read, I thumbed through a copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again to find something to share with the group.  After the applause for J—, I walked up to the podium to read the first few pages of the title essay.  This had been my introduction to Wallace.  By the end of my first reading of that chapter, I was hooked.  This being my first DFW event, I wanted to share with the others in the room the words that won me over.  I struggled and stammered my way through the text, exceeding my two-minute time limit.  After placing it back on the display table, I returned to my seat with the feeling of officially being initiated into the Fantod community.  I have been reading and writing about Wallace’s works for almost two years now, and I have been a semi-active participant on the Wallace-l discussion board for over a year, but this moment felt like a true rite of passage.

The emcee took the mic after I sat back down.  She capped off the open mic time with a reading from The Pale King, then gave another invitation to enjoy the refreshments on the table as we hung out and enjoyed each other’s company.  There were a few minutes of awkwardness as we strangers introduced ourselves.  But we soon found common ground in the books we have read and loved.  Given the reason for our celebration, the topic of our conversation quickly turned to our Man.  Our favorites of his stories and essays.  Our common friends on Wallace-l[11] and the experiences we’ve shared.  And the few who had the privilege of meeting or corresponding with Dave shared stories of his kindness and graciousness.[12]   We stood around talking for almost half an hour, sharing and laughing and celebrating the writer and his words that have left an indelible mark on each of us.

[1] I never saw an actual thermometer that Saturday, but it must have been close to 90° by noontime.  I spent the morning helping my in-laws pack and unpack a moving truck as they were moving out of their house of 34 years and downsizing into a mobile home.  They normally have a pretty accurate indoor/outdoor thermometer in their dining room, but of course this was in a box labeled “dining room” that was, at the time, who-knows-where.  All I know is that I sweated more that morning than I had in months and that each of us on the moving crew complained at least fourteen times about how my father-in-law picked the hottest day of the calendar year for the big move.  My best estimation is the actual temperature was somewhere around “pretty damn hot.”[back]

[2] I realized that it is probably considered uncouth to bring a book purchased elsewhere into a bookstore, and that there would be plenty of copies at the store, probably ones that could be borrowed to follow along should someone be reading from it.  But I wanted to have my copy with me.[back]

[3] Even though I was in the heart of Los Angeles – the proverbial birthplace of obnoxious cell-phone-talkers – I could tell that pulling my phone out in the middle of this store would draw the look of death from booksellers and patrons alike.  This was way too cool of a bookstore to even think of committing such a sin.[back]

[4] It was the start of my Spring Break, so my schedule was pretty flexible for the next seven days.[back]

[5] And my Rewards Membership card in my wallet felt like a fifty-pound in my back pocket.  I would have taken it out and set it ablaze as a grand display of repentance, but I like my 40% discount on books and beverages from the café.[back]

[6] It seems obvious, but my big chain bookstore employer puts it with the rest of his books in the horror section.  Why?  After nine months on the job, I still don’t know.[back]

[7] Admittedly, a crowded Starbucks lobby is not the ideal place to read The Pale King, or any other work by DFW.  His is not casual reading that can be done in distraction-heavy settings; reading almost anything by him requires too much focus and attention.  With each turn of the page, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to reread every word my eyes were passing over.[back]

[8] I will refer to those I met by initial rather than by name.  I do this in part because I don’t want to be accused of misrepresenting anybody’s words or actions.  I also do it because I don’t remember (and didn’t write down) everyone’s name.[back]

[9] I began Infinite Jest about 18 months ago before I even had any aspirations of starting my Letters to DFW blog.  But my reading was halted about fifty pages in when I started having some health problems.  I had to drop almost all extra-curriculars and focus on getting healthy again.[back]

[10] Which made me a little less apprehensive about reading it in the near future.[back]

[11] We all spoke of our shared jealousy of those who were able to make the pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, to enjoy this momentous occasion with other fans at the Harry Ransom Center that houses the Wallace archive.[back]

[12] One woman shared the story of helping to arrange a speaking engagement for DFW at a local venue and having the chance to meet him and talk to him briefly.  She spoke of sending him a book – I don’t remember if she mentioned a title – and a thank you card.  He then sent back a thank you card for the thank you card, with notes about his favorite parts of the book she sent to him.  Is it any wonder so many people want him considered for sainthood?[back]