DFW’s Horror Avant-Garde

August 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

Finished long ago: The Pale King.

A long-belated short note on The Pale King, and DFW’s oeuvre more generally.  To wit:

Is DFW secretly a horror author?  Or a literary author most deeply interested in horror?

Mixing and reappropriating genre conventions has been de rigueur for the belletrist since at least Burroughs, and DFW does some of that, especially with the science-fiction elements of Broom of the System and Infinite Jest (and the great Incandenza filmography, which is itself a parody of avant-garde genre-play).  But Wallace consistently writes in the horror tradition — both using the tropes of the genre (film and fiction) and using unusual techniques to evoke the responses with which it is typically associated — beyond a postmodernist’s appraisal.

Section 48 of The Pale King, which is a brilliant little chunk of discrete horror-comedy, brought this up.  That section, written entirely in dialogue, utilizes the central trope of horror going way back to its Gothic roots — the careful withholding of information to heighten fear of the unknown and let reader’s imagination do the dirty work itself.  But there are ghosts here.  And Toni Ware’s harrowing tale.  And IRS paranormals.  The title is a perfect horror title, with its allusion to the Grim Reaper or other mythic figures of inhuman power.  (Aside: By my count there are at least three characters in the book who could be argued to be the titular king, but I’m not sure any of them were really intended as such.)  (Aside 2: I’m deeply curious about the placement of section 48, which really seems like the kind of thing DFW might’ve placed near the beginning.  Though it strikes me as akin to the first chapter of Infinite Jest, in its cryptic description of a traumatic event integral to the action of the work, perhaps it was be more like the herd of feral hamsters or other asides in that book, and wasn’t actually going to lead anywhere.)

Once you start looking for it, it’s just about everywhere.  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has horror throughout, in the interviews and elsewhere.  Oblivion has the nightmarish title story, elucidated by my lovely wife here.  Countless anecdotes and incidents in IJ beyond the “wraith” and the grave-digging; the mysterious events at Enfield, for instance.  The Broom of the System is a kind of Wittgensteinian horror tale: The Word Terror.

Beyond all of that, there’s something in horror that seems central to DFW’s worldview and its expression.  Being trapped in a web or spiral, being unable to express one’s self adequately or at all, being out of one’s own control as the unthinkable happens, having heightened consciousness in some ways but a sense of being buried in others: central motifs in DFW’s work, and in nightmares, and consequently in horror.  Almost all of DFW’s fiction is horror fiction at some level: work dealing with the uncanny, awful, and broken in human beings and their societies, the things that we try to keep submerged and the things that are nevertheless surfaced.

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§ 3 Responses to DFW’s Horror Avant-Garde

  • jaime says:

    You probably knew I would say this, but:

    This post could almost be about David Lynch, no? A critically adored artist who makes at-times difficult to understand narratives; an artist who uses horror conventions in such a way that people very rarely recognize them as such.

    I have never read anything where DFW mentioned that he read horror (of course it’s very possible he did). But knowing that a) he was very drawn to DL’s films and b) he was concerned about writing things that would really take ahold of a reader and compel them to go through some difficult pieces, I think it makes complete sense that he would (on a practical level) work with the horror tradition to achieve some of that effect.

    And, outside of such nuts-and-bolts concerns, I agree it jives with his worldview. In that Lipsky book DFW says something along the lines of “I have a hard time enjoying things because my mind always turns it into something scary.” I think he was someone who naturally thought of the dark side of a situation, and that comes out in his fiction alot alot alot.

  • willhansen2 says:

    I’m late in responding to this. I’ll just say that DFW definitely read and even taught horror fiction. You can even find a page of his annotated copy of Carrie from his papers on the Ransom Center website and other places. He also put The Stand at no. 2 and two of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector books on that infamous “Top Ten” list he made. Though it will forever remain an open question whether that list was a joke, a pseudo-joke, an act of rebellion, a perverse parsing of the meaning of the concept of “favorite book,” or completely serious, I think it’s clear that he had read all of the books on the list.

  • […] 3. The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.  By no means a finished work, but I’ll remember reading it more than almost everything else I read in 2011.  See here, here, and here. […]

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