A final battle between talent and tedium

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David Foster Wallace’s last writings have been packaged into a novel — where nothing much happens, of course, says Sanjay Sipahimalani

The unlikely sage David Foster Wallace
Photos: Getty Images

TOWARDS THE middle of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished The Pale King, a character identified as ‘David Wallace’ pops up to assure the reader that he’s the author of the novel, asserting that it’s a true story, a “vocation-based memoir” about “negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes”. If his earlier Infinite Jest, then, was about the ways we distract ourselves with entertainment, this one was planned as a counterweight — the ability to deal with tedium.

It’s evident that this is a work in progress; Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, points out in his introduction that he sifted through a morass of material to assemble “the best version” he could find, despite there being no “outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters”. As such, fully realised pieces co-exist with fragments, repetitions and narrative strands that aren’t fleshed out.

Despite this, there is ample evidence of Wallace’s trademark, prodigious talent. That means plenty of hyperkinetic sentences, arcane knowledge, meditations on the changing shape of American culture, sly, occasionally bawdy humour, sections with footnotes and acute visual observations (a paperback has “a bookmark’s tongue”, car seat headrests possess “the dull shine of unwashed hair”, and the knot of a man’s tie is “as tight as a knuckle”).

The Pale King David Foster
Wallace Penguin 570 pp; Rs 599

The plot, such as it is, comprises the coming together of a disparate set of characters at the American revenue service’s Regional Examination Centre in Peoria, Illinois, and reactions to the monotony of life there. As such, there is much taxation jargon — surely intended to make the reader work though some of the boredom himself — such as “RA ’78 revised the expansionist tendencies of the ’76 provisions by removing both long-term capital gains deduction and excess itemised deductions from the index of relevant preferences”. Phew.

Of note are evocative set pieces, some of which have been published earlier. There’s an account of the growing years of David Wallace before he came to join “the Service”, for example, as well as the tale of a boy whose aim was “to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”.

OVERALL, THE novel works towards the merits of transcending boredom and Sisyphean tasks, “to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex”. As he mentions in one of his notes: “Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” That, intentionally or not, is what The Pale King in its current form lives up to.

Those new to David Foster Wallace may wonder what the fuss is all about. For the devotee, there’s much to mull over here. Yet the best way to remember the man would be to return to his earlier essays, short stories and novels — the ones he finished, that is.

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‘If Montgomery and McCarthy can be criticised, why not Sam Manekshaw?’

Lt General (retd) JFR Jacob was chief of staff at the Eastern Command in the 1971 war with Pakistan and is often credited as crucial in India’s victory and the creation of Bangladesh. Over some plum cake flown in from Kolkata for his 88th birthday, he spoke to Yamini Deenadayalan about his new autobiography, reading war poetry during battle and why it’s okay to criticise then-Army Chief Sam Manekshaw.

JFR Jacob
Lt General (retd) JFR Jacob
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

A recent news report says you question Manekshaw’s judgement in the 1971 war. What’s your quarrel with him?
Manekshaw had not initially mentioned Dhaka among the towns he wanted captured and a ceasefire had already been declared. Later, he sent orders asking for General Niazi’s [Pakistan’s lieutenant general] surrender. I landed up in Dhaka. I took Niazi aside and offered him and his family protection. I gave him 30 minutes to think, saying his failure to surrender would mean resumption of hostility and bombing. We had a few thousand troops, they had 26,400. Yet he agreed. When else in history has there been a public unconditional surrender after a ceasefire? It was mine, entirely mine. I was alone in Dhaka. Niazi himself says I blackmailed him.

You had a cordial relationship with Manekshaw till your first book Surrender atDacca. What happened?
The image I portrayed of him didn’t tally with his PR image. But I always had the greatest regard for him. He’d visit me in Calcutta. I saved him from court martial when an inquiry was proposed against him. I disagreed with his concept of war. If Montgomery and McCarthy can be criticised, why not Manekshaw?

An Odyssey In War And Peace Lt Gen JFR Jacob Roli 189 pp; Rs 350

You admired Indira Gandhi’s handling of the Naxal issue. What do you make of the situation today?
She had guts. She asked the army to move in. After the operation succeeded in Bengal, the core socio-economic issue wasn’t addressed. The CRPF is good but they’re not trained for this. They need to be pragmatic. You can’t solve this by going into the jungle in columns. Fix, find, surround, close in and apprehend.

Have you continued reading poetry?
I always carried a small, fist-sized collection of war poetry printed on rice paper in my back pocket. I remember reading it during battle. I like poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. [British Field Marshal] William Slim’s Defeat Into Victory is the best book I’ve read on war. I still readThe Oxford Book of Modern Verse every day [points to it on top of several books on the tea table, which includes an old issue of GQ that featured his watch collection].

Yamini Deendayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.
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