Literary Ventriloquism At Its Finest!

Robert Brenner

Robert Brenner
New York, New York, USA
March 30
Robert Brenner is a humorist, critic, and ventriloquist. His work has been published in New York Magazine, the Huffington Post, Grin & Tonic, and Happy. He has been interviewed on LeMorningShow, the first Twitter talk show. He is a proud graduate of André Aciman’s Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center at CUNY. He lives in New York City with his child bride and two (imaginary) cats. Email: rabrenner@prodigy.net


APRIL 5, 2011 9:01AM

Pale Kings: Thomas Pynchon On David Foster Wallace

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Author's Note: David Foster Wallace's final novel  The Pale King will be officially published April 15th, Tax Day. Copies are already available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

david foster wallace

I don’t normally do this sort of thing—write reviews, grant interviews, give readings, sign books, appear on talk shows, attend cocktail parties, accept awards, grant interviews, blurb covers—participate in the whole literary-industrial complex, the academic/critical circle jerk; I usually stay hunkered in my bunker, my own undisclosed location, typing away at my next telephone directory of a novel—J.D. Salinger makes fun of my social life—but in David’s case I must make an exception.  

Throughout his career, he was compared with me: his first novel, The Broom of The System, was juxtaposed favorably with my first, V.;  we were both lumped together under the rubric of “post-modern literature,” whatever that means (as the insightful critic Clive James once said, “post-anything is bullshit,” or words to that effect); even in his obituaries, my name was bandied about by lazy journalists eager to make a quick allusion, then get on to the sports pages (e.g., the New York Times called him a “heir to modern virtuosos like [me]” in the very first sentence).

Like most literary fathers and sons, our relationship was fraught (cf. Kingsley and Martin Amis): in one interview David called himself “the patricide to [my] patriarch”; in another he said “don’t mention the P-word to me.”  I understood and accepted, even approved of, his Oedipal impulse to murder his forebear and claim sweet Calliope for his own; I myself snuffed Papa Hemingway, taking a lead pipe in the study to his short, clean, well-lit sentences; but I was filled with admiration for David’s work, even if he did come to resemble Axl Rose towards the end, both in physical appearance and obsessive perfectionism (although not, mercifully, in egomania, and lord knows, The Pale King is worth a helluva lot more, wait-wise, than Chinese Democracy).

It’s true, we superficially resembled one another, in the way a father and son may be said to share a nose, chin, eyes, or other physical characteristics: we both liked long, digressive, doorstopper novels filled with myriad, silly-named characters —my  longest, Against The Day, is 1085 pages, his, Infinite Jest, is 1079 pages, including 96 pages of footnotes; we both liked long, complex, run-on sentences—like this one—I  haven’t identified my or David’s longest sentence, although I’m sure some doctoral candidate  has made it the topic of his dissertation (“Comparative Sentence Length in Post-Modern, Deconstructionist, Semiotic blahblahblah…”); but this is the literary equivalent of comparing penis size—as the old song goes,

It ain’t the meat

It’s the motion.

(I once wrote liner notes

for a band called Lotion)

We also coincided in certain biographical details: we were both jocks in our youth—I dropped out of college and joined the Navy for two years, David was an amateur tennis player of sufficient talent to consider turning pro; we both had a love of the elegant complexity of mathematics—I studied engineering at Cornell, David wrote Everything And More: A Compact History of Infinity; and neither one of us was comfortable with mass human contact and enforced frivolity—we  would both agree that, as David so eloquently described in the title piece to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (published in 1997, the same year as Mason & Dixon—coincidence?), that a celebrity cruise sounds like a particularly unpleasant circle in Dante’s Inferno (strangely enough, David’s friend and fellow writer, Jonathan Franzen, describes a similar hellish cruise in The Corrections—synchronicity, or were they cabin mates? About Franzen and the whole Oprah brouhaha: I totally understand his misgivings about mass-market commercial success and being crushed under the wheels of Harpo Productions’ cultural juggernaut; at the same time, I have some vain hope that my latest, Inherent Vice, will be made into a movie, something, perhaps, along the lines of Altman’s The Long Goodbye, a kind of meta-detective film, maybe directed by the Cohen brothers; there was some talk of Kubrick filming Gravity’s Rainbow back in the day, but that talk died with Stanley.)

But our themes—what could be considered the inner soul of the writer as opposed to his outer shell, his mortal coil—are fundamentally different.[1] How could they not be? I came of age in the Sixties—the era of  political assassinations, CIA-sponsored coups, illegal secret wars, COINPRO, CREEP, the Gulf of Tonkin non-Incident (we now know LBJ manufactured the event  to provide a casus belli—what is it about Presidents from Texas?). No wonder my novels are filled with conspiracies within conspiracies, a plot wrapped in a scheme surrounded by a secret cabal; something is rotten in the States of the United, and the only question is when did it all go horribly wrong—at the end of World War II? the beginning of World War I? the laying out of the boundaries of the nation? (Tricky Dick’s “Southern strategy” divided the country racially and politically and guaranteed Republican control of the White House—emphasis on the  “white”—for decades.)

David, in contrast, was born in ‘62, one year before V. was published (happenstance?); by the time he took pen to paper, the cultural war was over, and our side had lost: all the youthful idealism of the Sixties had been crushed by the Powers That Be or collapsed from its own weighty over-expectations. He came of age in the Eighties—the era of Bonzo and the Iron Lady (sadly, not a TV sitcom), the Fall of the Evil Empire, the Rise of the Multinational Corporations (“meet the new boss, same as the old boss”). No wonder David’s novels are  focused inward, on the struggle for authenticity in an irony-saturated, entertainment-narcotized era, on how to maintain sati in a world deliberately filled with a million mindless distractions  (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—maybe things went wrong when Al Gore invented the Internet); external political action, comprehending, let alone changing, the destructive course of history, no longer seemed possible.  (David covered the 2000 McCain campaign for Rolling Stone, and came away grudgingly impressed;  I just hope the 2008 version  didn’t push him over the edge—although  the sorry spectacle of the once-likeable POW pandering to his party’s Know Nothings and horndogs by selecting the Barracuda as his swimming mate is enough to make anyone want to defenestrate himself (don’t count the Barracuda out; she has given the equivalent of Nixon’s Checkers speech, which means she’s going for it, you betcha, in 2012; at least David didn’t live to see that abomination)).

After Infinite Jest, David  seemed to lose his confidence in writing novels, switching to hilarious nonfiction—the aforementioned A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider The Lobster—and increasingly grim short story collections—Brief Encounters With Hideous Men (the cover of which depicted a man with a brown paper bag over his head; I appeared on an episode of the Simpsons with a brown paper bag on my head—dumb luck?), Oblivion; we now know he was locked in mortal combat with a Goliath of a follow-up, The Pale King, which will be published posthumously and incomplete  on April 15th—fittingly, tax day—by Little, Brown and Company, assuming there is still a publishing industry then. I wish he had spoken to me, or I to him: I could have offered him some fatherly  advice on the futility of competing with your younger self: every review of every novel I’ve written since Gravity’s Rainbow contains the phrase, either explicitly or implicitly, “not as good as.” It is clear that taking the Big Dirt Nap was already very much on his mind when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:  “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…[sic] the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” After the antidepressants and electroshock therapy had failed, I guess he assumed he had nowhere else to go, and succumbed to Entropy.  (The revelation that Eagleton had electroshock therapy cost McGovern the ’72 election, which set the stage for Watergate.) As publishing experiences its own Götterdämmerung, its Ragnarök, its end times, David went to that special Valhalla reserved for literary warriors who died in battle with a novel; may a bevy of busty Bavarian Valkyries bear him to his final reward.

Or did he? Think about it: he was writing a novel about the IRS, the Infernal Revenue Service, the ur-Evil Faceless Bureaucracy, Kafka’s worst nightmare, a far more dangerous adversary than even the US  Post Office (in 1966, when The Crying of Lot 49 was published, the Post Master General still had de facto control over what could be published in the United States, and thus made a suitable villain; today, nobody fears the PMG anymore, although postal workers going postal is still cause for concern); no doubt they had him under surveillance or even slated for termination with extreme prejudice; maybe they even planted the thought in his magnificent brain to extinguish himself, through their evil mutant ESPer corp. bred specifically for this purpose; or perhaps he faked his death—it’s been done before, by Elvis, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, and now, I hear, Michael Jackson—left a substitute corpse, a false suicide note, so he could escape the baleful, Sauron-esque gaze of the IRS; I certainly hope so—I hope he is in his own secret underground bunker somewhere, his own undisclosed location, unknown to Google Earth or Horatio’s philosophies, working on his next novel, and will emerge someday, pallid, perhaps, from heliodeficiency, but dressed in ermine and gold, his royal scepter in one hand, his completed manuscript in the other, the true Pale King of literature; this is a conspiracy I can wholeheartedly endorse, don’t mind being duped by, because the alternative—what some myopic souls call “reality” but I call a failure of imagination—leaves me with no hope at all, just a deep aching sense of loss, and the ineffable grief of a loving father whose only begotten son died much, much, much, much, much too soon.

thomas pynchon 




[1] I also don’t use footnotes, preferring the (parenthetical) aside. 

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Welcome to Open Salon, Mr. Pynchon!
I looked to see if this was fiction, a parody of Pynchon by you. Seeing it is evidently real, I intend to wolf it down eagerly, but a tad later as it is pretty long and, as with everything else I've read by Mr. P, undoubtedly rather complex. Thank you Robert, for give us this.
I've just read through your tags again, and it now appears this is a parody. I'll still read it, but I wish you wouldn't have made me work so hard for the reveal.
Brilliant, exceptional work of genius, but, of course, not as good as Rainbow.
Also, fat chance I'll ever again appear for you at the awards. Mainly because I'm too damned old.
I've read just about every word that Thomas Pynchon has ever written. So whether you are or not, we're all waiting for further confirmation of your reality.
Bonnie, you should definitely read Wallace AND Pynchon. They're geniuses. I'm just a humble hack.
Grace, thanks, but I don't know how many more pieces I'm going to attempt to write in Pynchon's voice--it's too damn hard!
Matt, as you might gather, I'm a big fan of both Pynchon and Wallace. I knew Wallace was uncomfortable with constantly being compared with Pynchon, but I always wondered what Pynchon thought of Wallace. Since it seemed unlikely that Pynchon would write on the subject, I thought I would do it for him. Glad you liked the piece.
old new left, if you've read almost every word by Pynchon, you know that reality is at best a dubious proposition.
This might be my favorite one of yours yet. You really go deep here. And who wouldn't love this summary of Pynchon: " I usually stay hunkered in my bunker, my own undisclosed location, typing away at my next telephone directory of a novel" ?
Caroline, I once saw a cartoon--in the New Yorker?--of Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger writing in adjoining cubicles, each totally unaware of the other's existence. Glad you liked the piece.
I thought the gravitas with which this was written a little off, but I am not sure how else this could have been accomplished otherwise. Interesting and well done.
Rita, I tried to stay true to Pynchon's tone, but I'm afraid some of my own grief may have leaked in. Glad you liked the piece anyway.
Padraig, I consider that the highest praise. Although Pynchon and Wallace are considered "serious" writers, they are both extremely funny when they want to be.
Mary, thanks. What you said.
This is a lovely, generous bit of imposture, one one feels the original of Tom would graciously salute, and Mr. Wallace may have suffered more at the hands of his friends than from those who have watched his life and art at a distance.

Many a perspicuous young writer a half-generous older than David spent deeply depressed years making multiple circuits of Gravity's Rainbow looking for a way out of the spiral (there is, there are), before recognizing their own work done, and moving on to other endeavors...

That was not a course for a more talented, ambitious literary questor. Yet a sad unspoken truth that goes unuttered even from behind the mask of ventriloquism is that DFW, unlike Mr. Pynchon, who, if he took a hammer to Hemingway (really?), made his obeisance to father Joyce in naming his recirculating baby not MINDLESS PLEASURES (hear a whisper of the infinite jest?) but an echo of that great unread towering babel Finnegan's Wake, Mr. W, it appears, could not for all his exertions seem to escape the g-force of the planet he called home.

There is, unhappily, evidence for this -- two books maguffined by identical uber-metaphors each a grail for the precise moment human culture ran off the rails, became inhuman -- a sierpinski's gasket, the Stackman initiative. And two books, one (perhaps both) unfinished, that for all their smarts, also seem a shadow, a stutter for an entire generation that has to a large degree (musically, cinematically) been unable to fully climb clear of their inheritance. (A culture war that was not lost, but in many ways waged and won -- though apparently at staggering cost to its children)

It may be that the mark of unsuccessful Oedipal struggle is the inability to accept, to fully incorporate and reject the modeled parent, to become fixated around a seemingly irresolvable conflict.

But these are fugitive public notions. More evident in much of Mr. Wallace's writing and the testimony of those he touched was a human being of enormous empathy and compassion and gentleness and complexity whose inner struggles are irreducible to the relative trivia of literary reputation. Wallace did, indeed, speak for his generation, and it beggars his entire corpus of work to make this comparison the omega point of his regard. It merely needs to be given voice.
Wow, Tepper (or should I call you C?), you said a mouthful! I'm going to have to digest for awhile and get back to you.
Thomas Pynchon uttering the name "Sarah Palin?" Nope.
Bob, my Thomas Pynchon never actually refers to Sarah Palin by name; he uses her nickname, the Barracuda. And although most of Pynchon's work is historical, his allusions make it clear he's familiar with contemporary American politics.
Franzen on Wallace, and Robinson Crusoe: "The New Yorker," 18 April 2011, p. 80.

I enjoyed this immensely.
Your essay here, I meant . . .well, both of them.
Brassawe, thanks for bringing the Jonathan Franzen piece in the New Yorker to my attention. I actually just started reading it. I'm a fan of Franzen as well as Pynchon and Wallace, as you might guess.