Miscellaneous, Week 1

The Author’s Forward and the truth in fiction

04.28.11 | | 1 Comment

What gets me about David Foster Wallace is how he gets into your head: “That’s what I was thinking! Only better. OK, that’s what I thought about thinking. Make that ‘had a thought that could have led to, given a very generous estimation of my intellectual horsepower.’ ” A concept that seems to be crying out for a word of its own, no? Partception, maybe? Dimtuition? Anyway.

My favorite part of The Pale King so far is the Author’s Forward. I’m a sucker for fiction that messes with your head about the relationships among authors, characters and readers — two of my favorite novels are Don Quixote and Pale Fire. If I were smarter, I probably could write a whole post about the fact that the author’s “forward” purports to starts on page 79 of the narrative but in fact appears on page 62. (#inyourfacemetafiction) (#Iknowyoudon’tblogwithhashtags #andbutwhynot)

But it’s Wallace, so, of course, nested in this thing that very pleasantly messes with your head is something that insists on very pleasantly messing with the thing that just messed with your head: his (or “David Wallace’s,” or his by means of the character “David Wallace,” or the author’s as “the author’s” — #stopme #fortheloveofGod) decision not only to tell you that what you’re reading is a “memoir,” but to discuss with you his motives for writing it as a “memoir,” and what that says about truth, fiction and you.

Take this passage:

“One disadvantage of addressing you here directly and in person in the cultural present of 2005 is the fact that as both you and I know, there is no longer any kind of clear line between personal and public, or rather between private vs. performative. Among obvious examples are web logs, reality television, cell-phone cameras, chat rooms … not to mention the dramatically increased popularity of the memoir as a literary genre.”

First things first: I enjoy reading people’s accounts of their lives as much as much as does the next person who hasn’t had the life of say, Malcolm X. I also understand the place of the lyrical, meditative little memoir that doesn’t change the course of world events but stays with you; as far as I can tell, it helps to be French if you want to write this sort of thing (#jenesaisquoi). And I totally get the democratic appeal of the idea that everyone has a story to tell, a life that deserves attention. The New York Times Book Review can declare that the fact “that you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir,” and I might want to put that on a T-shirt, but I can’t dismiss people feeling touched or helped by others’ experiences precisely because they aren’t extraordinary.

I can even appreciate the place _ a place I picture like the literary equivalent of a cunningly laid out studio apartment _ of “memoirs” in which the writer has the premise, and maybe even the advance, before the experience (#premoirs). I’ve got no inherent beef with people setting out to spend a year in Botswana/skydiving school/the lotos position/a basement listening to P-Funk so they can write about it. All I’d ask of them is the same question I’d ask of virtually any book: Is this an unusual, important or interesting story that tells a truth about life, and is this the best way to tell it?

Obviously, the idea that a memoir is guaranteeing you a truth about life has been exploded into a million little pieces. (There’s a litany of famous fudgers, dating back centuries, in this excellent New Yorker review of a history of the memoir genre.) It’s worth noting that James Frey has said he couldn’t get a publisher for “A Million Little Pieces” when he pitched it as fiction, so it was  recast as a memoir — a (#presumably) true story about the publishing game that is stranger than fiction, indeed. Frey would eventually say he plumped up his actual experiences because he “wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” Then there’s the intriguing, and tragic, theme that runs through the remarks of several memoirists caught faking: that the life story they made up was the one they wanted to believe or even convinced themselves was true.

So, for what it’s worth, I don’t think Wallace is really trying to get us to accept the Author’s Forward as an entirely “true” story. I think he’s trying to use the device of “truth” to make a point about the enduring ability of fiction to illuminate the truths that life doesn’t quite live up to. (A better way to put this, courtesy of rock singer-songwriter Stew: “Life is a mistake that only art can correct.”)

Consider that The Pale King is all about attention and making conscious choices about directing it. And that the Author’s Forward is certainly an attention-grabber, abruptly blurring the borders between “personal and public, personal and public, or rather between private vs. performative” even as it’s describing them. It seems to me he’s saying that even readers of a book about paying attention could stand to be conscious about where they’re paying it, on what terms and why.


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