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]

Letter 3: “Big Red Son” from Consider the Lobster

Disclaimer:  “Big Red Son” is DFW’s coverage for Premiere Magazine of the Annual Adult Video News Awards in 1998 in Las Vegas.  Although there are some intriguing observations and truths concerning human nature to be found in the essay, which will be discussed in this letter, the reader must wade through a lot of smut to find it.  Reader be warned if you decide to read the original piece.

Dear Mr. Wallace,

When I teach my students to write an essay, I always emphasize the importance of their hook, or attention grabber, in their introductory paragraphs.  I liken those first few sentences to the 30-second free preview of a song offered by iTunes.  The record producer – or whoever is in charge of selecting the half-minute bait – has only that short amount of time to convince the listener to spend 99¢ of their hard-earned money on a particular track.  Those thirty seconds can determine whether a song goes triple-platinum or recycled aluminum.

In the same way, I tell my students, the first couple of sentences can make or break an essay.  If you don’t grab your reader’s attention right from the start, you’ve wasted your time in writing the rest.  The reader will most likely be bored and not really care what you have to say.[1]

I can see that your English teachers passed along similar advice to you.  One of the classic attention grabbers is the “unusual or bizarre fact.”  I can’t think of a more unusual or bizarre fact than statistics from the American Academy of Emergency Medicine about the number of self-castrations that occur in the United States every year.[2]  Mission accomplished:  you got me hooked; I’m interested in what you have to say.

But it did leave me wondering, why start the essay with this fact?  Or more importantly, why start the book this way?  You have a number of great essays in this collection; why start with this one?  Was it your choice?  Your editor’s or publisher’s?  I realize sex sells, but really?  Self-castration?

You then move on to the actual topic of the essay: your coverage of the 1998 Adult Video News Awards for Premiere Magazine.  About halfway through the essay, I thought back to the opening paragraph and wondered, what the Sam Hill is the connection between that AAVNA’s and one to two dozen adult males castrating themselves every year?

At the end of your opening lines, you promise those tormented souls who are contemplating doing that to themselves an alternative.  That alternative is presented in footnote three, in which you calculate the amount of time it would take for a single person to watch of the 8000 adult videos released in 1997 in order to come up with nominations for the 106 awards to be given at that year’s awards ceremony.  As you say – and I can only imagine this would be correct – watching that much porn would take away every sexual desire and impulse a person could possibly have, and therefore take away the desire for self-castration.

But I don’t think that watching 1.4 years of non-stop porn as an alternative to self-castration is the main point of your essay.[3]  I wonder if you are perhaps trying to make some connection between the realities of the adult video industry and unattainable fantasies that lead to acts of self-mutilation.  Could the one be a contributing factor to the other?

In describing the starlets who saunter about the Las Vegas hotels and convention halls during the Awards weekend, you capture in microcosm the entirety of the adult film industry.  You describe (sometimes very vividly) how with four-inch stiletto heels and cleavage-revealing spandex bodysuits and perfectly made-up faces, these “actresses” are every man’s dream from a distance, but “on closer inspection [are] dry and dead” (13).  It seems, from your descriptions of the events of the Awards weekend, that the same could be said about just about everything in the industry.  It is, as I have heard other things described, “good from afar, but far from good.”

And perhaps that is the initial draw of pornography.  On the surface, and from a distance, it appears very appealing.  A person can watch any fetish or fantasy fulfilled with a quick trip to the video store or a few clicks of a mouse.  But, as you point out on page 24, it is all a “delusion.”  Any satisfaction rendered is purely temporary, leaving an even greater desire for more.  The desire becomes both all-consuming and yet insatiable, and the person caught up in all of this finds himself a prisoner of his own vices.  The only escape for some is to cut-off the source of those desires, thus leading us back to the opening statistics about the number of self-castration cases in America.[4]

Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, this connection you make here really isn’t a new idea at all.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to gouge out the eye or cut off the hand or foot that causes you to sin (Matthew 5:27-30).[5]  While JC’s commands are ones for pious living, I have a sense he had an understanding, and perhaps even empathy, for those caught in the webs of unhealthy sexual desire.  It would seem that the only real escape is one through drastic measures.[6]

As I close this letter, I am left wondering why, before you launch into the heart of the essay, you make mention of “commercialism and hypocrisy” (4) of the mainstream film industry and the Academy Awards ceremony.  It would seem at first notice that you are setting up a contrast between the “legitimate” industry and its “evil twin” (5).  But I wonder if these two actually have much more in common then surface appearances let on.  Both are exploitative and manipulative, offering little in exchange for all they take away from the consuming public.

If that is the case, if you are saying that both industries are full of delusions and enslave the unsuspecting through over-saturation and empty promises, then what options does one have for escaping the prison of the mainstream media?  What must one chop off in order to break free?

[1] And in the case of my students’ writing, they will probably earn a pretty low grade.  I hate reading and grading boring essays.

[2] According to your uncited source, one to two dozen cases per year.

[3] As previously stated, said alternative is presented in footnote three on page 5.  There are 45 pages to go still.  No one gets to their point that early in an essay.

[4] Although, to be quite honest, by the end of your essay I was rather surprised that only one to two dozen men resort to this form of escape.  Given the size and far-reaching influence of the adult film industry, this seems like a relatively small number.

[5] Given that these admonitions follow Jesus’ equating a lustful look with the physical act of adultery, there is certainly a sexual connotation to these statements.

[6] In This Is Water, you speak of the evil master which is the brain, and that those who cannot escape their slavery to its whims and passions will sometimes seek freedom through suicide.  And more often than not, the means of killing oneself is a gunshot to the head to silence the tyrant.