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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Last night I had the pleasure of attending an event at Foyles bookstore in London featuring David Foster Wallace's Literary Agent Bonnie Nadell and Editor Michael Pietsch. The evening was in honour of the UK launch of Wallace's posthumous publication, The Pale King which is current receiving rather favourable reviews.

David Foster Wallace

The evening kicked off with Paul Murray reading the opening pages of the new novel -- which were later referred to as Pynchonian, a comparison that had struck me upon reading them, especially in regards to the opening of Mason & Dixon -- and then Catherine O'Flynn read the now well-known passage from Infinite Jest about video calling. This latter passage really warmed up the 100 or so audience members who were laughing heartily by the end of this.

Laughter was a recurrent theme throughout the evening, an apt tribute to Wallace whose own life was so marred by illness and unhappiness but who had that rare ability to fuse true humour with artistic integrity and seriousness. Bonnie Nadell recalled the first time she heard from Wallace in the Fall of 1984 when she had just begun a career as a literary agent. He used the word diachronic in his letter, which she had to look up but absolutely loved the work which was a chapter from The Broom of the System. Immediately acquiring the publishing rights, this led into a discussion of the massive task of editing Wallace's work. The Broom of the System was an interesting case in point, finishing, as it does, mid-sentence (again Nadell compared: "who does this guy think he is? Thomas Pynchon?") and Michael Pietsch recounted his experience of editing Infinite Jest. This was a process conducted in 150 page chunks, the idea being to strip every instance of repetition of an idea while still allowing the book to maintain its character; in short, to give it the bare minimum to exist as its own entity. It ended up at about 1,100 pages. Pietsch had to admit, at this point, that he had wanted to cut the very scene that was read at the beginning of the evening, but Wallace had insisted! Jonathan Derbyshire read several amusing extracts from their editorial correspondence which really brought out Wallace's good-natured side in the editing process ("p. 81 -- removed this section then re-inserted an hour later" / "p. 91 -- cut this and have deleted all backups to avoid temptation to put it back in an hour" [paraphrased]).

This then brought the discussion around to the editing process for The Pale King, which was an incredibly moving experience as Pietsch struggled to keep his emotions under control, frequently fixing his gaze on the ceiling. Wallace's death is a huge loss to the literary world, but the loss for the people who knew and loved him is in a different league. As this is not an aspect on which I wish to dwell, I will leave it at that, but I was incredibly impressed with the strength exhibited by the panelists in dealing with this still difficult topic. It took Pietsch about two years of solo editing work to bring the book to its current form and, as he states in his introductory passage, the full set of papers will be available to the public at the Harry Ransom archive at the University of Texas in Austin. One more side-note here: although Pietsch's introduction says that there was no specification of a passage which should start the book, he now says this is erroneous. The passage that he selected was, in one draft, marked "opening".

One of the questions from the audience I enjoyed most was on literary influences and lines which brought in Wallace's correspondence with Don DeLillo, his affinity with Jonathan Franzen but eventually rested, most of all, upon (and sorry for harping on a theme here, but it is my research specialism) Thomas Pynchon. Wallace was deeply affected by Pynchon's work, but also ambivalent: he wanted to move beyond postmodern play and trickery and, as Pietsch put it, speak directly to people.

Overall this was an incredible evening full of positive warmth and affection for a brilliant writer and, clearly, a much-missed friend. Foyles staff said there was a good chance that a recording of the evening could be available on the Penguin website at a later date.

Featured image by Steve Rhodes under a CC-BY license.