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.

Trying to Eat All the Boat’s Food

July 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Pale King.

Reading next: The Third Book of Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais.

This month in national politics has seemed like a nightmare, no?  Or one of those terrible anxiety dreams where you know what needs to get done, you want to do it, but you cannot make yourself move or do the necessary thing, and all the while terror builds and builds of some unknown disaster or monster awaiting you, as you continue to try to do or remember this very simple thing that keeps escaping you…

So yes: the debt ceiling crisis has played out, at least from my perspective, like some horrible emanation from the unconscious mind of the country.  (That description fits the hardline Tea Partiers pretty well, actually.)  And Obama is the avatar in the dream who cannot seem to do or remember the simple-but-impossible thing.  I suspect and kind of hope that he must feel like this at some level himself.  But it’s also felt like a personal nightmare.  There is in the citizen within me (and many others) a wish to wake up and take the government supposedly doing my/our bidding by the lapels and shaking, hard, and slapping forehand and backhand across the cheeks.  And knowing that the hardliners holding up the whole show do not care about my wishes; do not care about any of our wishes, if we do not agree with their ideology.  That’s a kind of nightmare, too.

Economics, government, civics, and nightmares have all been on my mind thanks to The Pale King.  I’ll say more about nightmares in another post.  For now, just let me say that it’s very worthwhile to read and reread section 19 and think about the discussion and/or debate therein, driven by a thoughtful, cogent, apparently conservative high-ranking IRS official, about the role of government, of taxation, and of civic responsibility.  And now I’ll shut up and just let a few excerpts do the talking.  (Except for saying that it’s somewhat useful to keep in mind that the excerpts take place in the very late 1970s, as a Reagan presidency is becoming a possibility.)

Americans are in a way crazy.  We infantilize ourselves.  We don’t think of ourselves as citizens — parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities.  We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.  We abdicate our civic responsibility to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality.  I’m talking mostly about economics and business…

Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them.  Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think — of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality.  Cleverness as opposed to wisdom.  Wanting and having instead of thinking and making.  We cannot stop it.  I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster — depression, hyperinflation — and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly.  Like Rome — conqueror of its own people….

Of course you want it all, of course you want to keep every dime you make.  But you don’t, you ante up, because it’s how things have to be for the whole lifeboat.  You sort of have a duty to the others in the boat.  A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food….

I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty….

There’s something very curious, though, about the hatred.  The government is the people, leaving aside various complications, but we split it off and pretend it’s not us; we pretend it’s some threatening Other bent on taking our freedoms, taking our money and redistributing it, legislating our morality in drugs, driving, abortion, the environment — Big Brother, the Establishment… With the curious thing being that we hate it for appearing to usurp the very civic functions we’ve ceded to it….

We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie.  So who makes the pie?

Corporations make the pie.  They make it and we eat it….

What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude.  That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves.

The [Internal Revenue] Service’s more aggressive treatment of TPs [taxpayers], especially if it’s high-profile, would seem to keep in the electorate’s mind a fresh and eminently disposable image of Big Government that the Rebel Outsider President could continue to define himself against and decry as just the sort of government intrusion into the private lives and wallets of hardworking Americans he ran for the office to fight against….

The new leader won’t lie to the people: he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves.

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