This year saw the highly anticipated release of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished opus, The Pale King. WORD, the indie bookstore in Greenpoint, had a midnight release party planned for April 15, where attendees could read their favorite passages from the author’s oeuvre. However, when online retailers started selling the book as early as late March, the store adjusted their plans and shifted the event to an earlier, more accommodating time slot. I assumed the role of loyal fanboy and showed up as soon as the doors opened with my copy of the novel in tow, confident that I wasn’t the only one to tear through it already, only wondering which sections people would select and hoping I’d get a chance to read too.
WORD’s event space downstairs is reminiscent of a rec center’s non-descript basement. The concrete walls and inconveniently-placed pole lend it a comforting, sterile charm. Only a rug, a tacky string of lights, and some chairs and bookshelves serve as decoration, though a low-rise stage features a chalkboard and table. The crowd was a healthy mix of men and women; the younger hipster girls seemed to outnumber the hipster guys, but the nerdy 30- and 40-year-old men may have filled the most seats. An older, bushy-bearded engineer grabbed the only seat next to me and yammered on about the profound experience of reading Wallace and the similarities between himself and Jonathan Lethem. Even as he recalled a long-winded tale of bumping into Paul Auster at his local video store, there was an energy coursing through the room. We weren’t casual fans, after all, but what DFW die-hards refer to as “Howling Fantods,” a term coined by Wallace in his masterwork Infinite Jest.
I wanted to be a reader as well as a listener, but I spent too much time searching for the perfect passage. I had marked an exquisite portion within a rambling chapter narrated by a reformed druggie-turned-accountant, Chris Fogle. On the final day of undergrad classes, he accidentally stumbles into an advanced accounting course and hears a humbling “sermon” from the substitute professor, a fastidious Jesuit priest. It functions well as a standalone scene and is epiphanic for both the character and reader. Waiting to call dibs on it two days before the reading, however, landed me a spot on the waiting list, presumably toward the bottom. It upset me a little bit, but simply being there was enough to demonstrate my appreciation for the author’s work.
Jenn, WORD’s event coordinator, read a lengthy introduction about the first reader, an unknown author whose bibliography stretched longer than DFW’s. The woman, wearing a tight leather jacket and trying to ward off middle age, hit the stage and launched into an aimless anecdote about why she picked “Little Expressionless Animals,” a story from Girl with Curious Hair that was originally published in The Paris Review. She started at the beginning of the story and then stopped arbitrarily at a paragraph break. I noticed her slipping out of the store during intermission.
Another author read a different passage from the same story. He looked a lot like one of my co-workers, pale with a completely shaved head and reddish beard. He had first read the story during an MFA workshop and realized that fiction could be really funny in addition to being really sad or serious. His portion focused on an individual scene with Alex Trebek at his therapist’s office. The audience laughed at all the appropriate moments and sat attentively during the non-humorous beats. He probably received the biggest applause.
Incidentally, Julie Powell was present. She wrote that book Julie & Julia, which proved that a high-concept, gimmicky blog might help you land a book deal and eventual film adaption. She tackled one of the “interviews” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. All the “interviews” feature pretty depraved characters, but her choice was one of the “lighter” ones of the bunch. I was skeptical of how she would perform and subsequently shocked by how fantastic she was. However, I still have no interest in her book or film.
Only two people read non-fiction selections. A pretty woman read the end of the title essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, while a smug South American went for a “deep cut” and read part of the introduction to Everything and More, Wallace’s book on infinity.
My history with Wallace was a bit more scattershot. During my sophomore year of college, I bought a copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men on a whim. The stories were challenging: the lengthy, recursive sentences and metafictional twists; extended passages of dialogue without character tags; and pages of those infamous, tiny-type footnotes. As much as the collection excited and frustrated me, it wasn’t until I tried out his essay collection Consider the Lobster that I became a true fan of his work. Through a variety of topics — prescriptive/descriptive grammar, the adult film industry, McCain’s campaign trail — Wallace reveals much about the human condition and raised important questions about the way we act and live. His verbose essays are suffused with humor, insight and beauty.
Then, in the fall of 2008, Wallace hanged himself. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, already feeling pretty miserable, and the news only exacerbated my sense of dread. If this genius couldn’t handle existence, what hope is there for me? I thought. Luckily I had brought my copy of Consider the Lobster with me, and its pages helped me cope with the loss and my own despair. A few months later I returned to the East Coast and cycled through his backlist, becoming a bigger proponent of his fiction. It wasn’t until last year that I built up the confidence to tackle his masterwork, Infinite Jest.
That novel is what launched Wallace into the mainstream and arguably helped him reach his largest audience. There are three narrative threads to the novel: Hal Incandenza, a troubled teen at the Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA); Don Gately, a resident at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic); and the origins and implications of a video cartridge entitled “Infinite Jest” that makes viewers become lifeless once they’ve seen it. There’s a badge of pride that comes with finishing this thousand-plus paged tome, but all vanities aside, it probably ranks as my most powerful reading experience. If you’ve suffered from any form of depression and/or addiction, or pondered the notion of “entertainment,” especially in the context of living a life of meaning, his sentences will hit you in your nerve endings.
The first Infinite Jest reader carried up a beat-to-shit copy. “I’m sure mine isn’t the only one like this,” he told the crowd. His friend had selected the passage, since the two had read the novel together during college. As for his reading strategy, he rested the book against the table and traced his finger over each sentence to help keep his place. His rhythm was jagged but steady, each word clearly articulated, until he fumbled over “cinematographically.” “Fuuuuck, I knew that one would get me,” he said in comedic self-reproach. Everybody laughed along.
Two girls read similar passages about Don Gately’s addiction. One read hers so quietly it sounded like a post-cry sniffle. The other girl, a pretty blonde, may have actually cried up there. Her eyes looked shimmery as she described Gately’s strategy of overcoming pain, breaking down the endless seconds into micro-moments and fractions of a heartbeat in order to make it seem less insurmountable. Maybe it was a projection on my own part from being on the verge of tears, but the room felt even quieter. Everyone looked captivated, like sympathetic members of some support group lending their attentive ears.
Then came the most visible über-fan, wearing spherical-framed glasses that resembled the pair worn by DFW, as well as a T-shirt jersey for Pemulis, one of the characters at the Enfield Tennis Academy. He picked a footnote to read, a darkly funny scene where Orin Incandenza forgets to untie the dog’s leash from his car’s bumper before heading on a drug-fueled joy ride. The guy had a rapid, assured delivery and could even pause to mark the footnotes within the footnotes. “Do I have enough time for one more David Foster Wallace-sized paragraph?” he asked Jenn. She nodded and chuckled.
The last guy literally limped to the stage. He was dressed in all black, with the exception of a striped tie that was partially black. Before diving in, he mentioned something about how this was his form of therapy. Some nervous laughs. He also used the index finger approach while reading, which seemed appropriate for the multi-paged, one-sentence passage he had selected. He was another over-articulating reader, except he had a lisp that trailed each sibilant sound. It looked like it pained him to read. When he finished, he slammed his book shut and the audience applauded as if he had exorcised his demons.
Jenn read from The Pale King, reminding us why we gathered there in the first place. It deflated some of the intensity conjured by the previous reader (the black-dressed lisper), but it adequately capped off the night. Until one shaggy-haired hipster raised his hand, half nervous and half peeved. As one of the chosen 10, Jenn had accidentally skipped him. Unfortunately half of the crowd already left, and those that were about to leave looked inconvenienced. He slid out from his row with a Xeroxed copy of his selection, an edited version of “Forever Overhead.”
“I wanted to thank WORD for putting on this event,” he said. He noted how the night itself was much like DFW’s fiction: strange, funny, powerful. This self-conscious admission initially irked me; why compromise the emotion of this event by archly dissecting it? But I had to believe it was a genuine response, that his compulsion to share this thought was motivated more by enthusiasm than braggadocio. The truth is that it was an astute observation. He may have tripped up over the sentences, but it didn’t matter as much. At least he read it with heart — a poignant endnote for the event.