CRB: King of Pain

I’ve asked our friends at the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here — please) to extend our preview of the new (winter) to a fourth day with one more piece, and they have obliged. The magazine of course takes an interest in the culture, featuring outstanding essays by prominent critics with a heterodox point of view. One of the strongest pieces in the new issue is the review/essay “King of Pain,” by the brilliant essayist Algis Valiunas. Valiunas is the author of Churchill’s Military Histories and a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Valiunas’s review/essay opens with a gimlet-eyed recognition of the esteem in which Wallace is held by our literary authorities:

Just about everyone who pays any attention at all to contemporary fiction knows two things about David Foster Wallace (1962-2008): he wrote a thousand-page novel with hundreds of end-notes that launched him as a cult hero, and he killed himself while still quite a young man. The novel, Infinite Jest (1996), his second, and the last one he completed, has established Wallace as a supreme postmodernist master, revered like John Barth or Thomas Pynchon by those who take a passionate interest in that kind of thing. The suicide for its part enhanced the mystique, as suicides of distinguished artists almost invariably do.

Wallace may be dead but he is not finished, or rather the Wallace industry is not finished with him. His 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College has appeared posthumously in a book of postcard dimensions, with one sentence per page, a format more suited to the lucubrations of Khalil Gibran or Rod McKuen. Columbia University Press has issued Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis in a volume with his name above the title and his photograph on the cover, although his essay actually occupies 75 pages of a 262-page book, the rest filled with pieces by assorted other hands on similar topics. The torso of an unfinished novel, The Pale King, appeared last year. A volume of unpublished stories and another of uncollected journalism look to be on the horizon; two volumes of letters are in prospect as well.

Encomia soar ever higher with the passing of time; every admirer feels obliged to surpass every other admirer in the length, breadth, and depth of his admiration. James Ryerson, an elegant and judicious journalist, mourns the loss of contemporary American fiction’s “most intellectually ambitious writer.” Greg Carlisle, an actor and drama professor from Kentucky who spent five years producing a 500-page commentary on Infinite Jest, calls Wallace “the best and most important author of the late 20th and early 21st centuries”; one supposes Wallace had better be at least that important, if the professor is to justify devoting five years of work to criticism of a single novel. An even headier enthusiast, Jon Baskin, claims nothing less than world-historical significance for his hero…

This is a long essay that makes for rewarding weekend reading.


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