The pale figure of Peter Merriman looms behind a stack of books that influenced “All That,” his new David Foster Wallace reading group.
With the ostensible exception of Thomas Pynchon, no contemporary American author has attracted as slavishly dedicated a following as the late David Foster Wallace. Sure, certain scribes (Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth) have amassed as much critical goodwill, as well as public and academic interest; but Foster Wallace’s work, like Pynchon’s, has fostered a kind of cult following.
Groups of strangers, for example, assemble online to take part in Infinite Summer, an annual attempt to plough through the thousand-plus pages of Foster Wallace’s 1996 tragicomic sci-fi tome Infinite Jest in the course of a few months. Fans collaborate on wikis dedicated to his work (or just Infinite Jest). And readers of all stripes pour over his novels, short stories, and non-fiction with the nerdy dedication of comic book or horror movie geeks.
Wallace’s is precisely the kind of body of work that is made richer through lively discussion with like-minded fans. And with the publication of the posthumous David Foster Wallace (DFW to devotees) novel The Pale King on the horizon, one Torontonian enthusiast thought it’d be the ideal time to start his own DFW book club.
Type Books on Queen West.
Peter Merriman, a bookseller who works at Nicholas Hoare on Front Street, conceived of a DFW reading group to commence late this month in the basement of Type Books on Queen West, in expectation of The Pale King’s publication in April. “I was thinking about The Pale King and anticipating it, and started to read things that related to it,” explains Merriman.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood talks about the struggle for realist novelists to adapt a voice that is authentic to contemporary America and not sound like idiots or not sound boring. George Saunders would be a good example of this. And [Wood] uses DeLillo and Foster Wallace as examples. He also talks about this Auden poem called “Novelist,” and says that poets can show off and show all their talents and describe stuff as a poem, whereas a realist novelist has to lose his gifts in a way. The phrase he uses is that they have to become “the whole of boredom.” Which seems to relate to this book coming out, which seems to be about transcendence through boredom.
A book club exploring the aesthetics and thematics of boredom may seem like a tough sell. But as anyone who’s read DFW knows, the vast pleasure of his writing emerges in the details. Infinite Jest dealt extensively with boredom—with the hours whiled away in a halfway house or teenage tennis academy—and likewise, The Pale King depicts the daily tedium of IRS agents working in a Midwestern branch office. But given that DFW can describe the rigmarole of a consumer focus group, or the particulars of a made-up schoolyard game involving tennis ball launchers and complex math in lively, hilarious, despairing detail, the dryness of The Pale King’s set-up is immaterial.
In order to approach DFW’s unfinished novel, Merriman has assembled a collection of related texts; in compiling his curriculum, he intended to cull material that provided “the best context for reading The Pale King.” So Merriman has put together a number of Wallace’s short stories, such as “Good Old Neon” from the Oblivion collection, as well as the early novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” from 1989’s Girl with Curious Hair. While Foster Wallace had often expressed dissatisfaction, even embarrassment, with what he perceived as the empurpled showiness of “Westward” (even going so far as to disavow it as a “horror show”), Merriman sees the story as serving an instructive function. “I’m sort of treating that as a statement of what he hopes to achieve as a fiction writer,” he says. “I don’t want to treat it as a successful work of his fiction. I want to treat it as a statement of his intention for later work.”
Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace, which Merriman describes as the “Coles Notes” companion to much of DFW’s work.
Merriman also feels that ever since Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, his work (or at least his name) has been made known to more people. “I think there will be a larger audience curious about this book than there was for his other books when they were published,” he says. “I wanted to create a book club where you can have context for reading him if you haven’t read him before.” What’s more, the density of Wallace’s work (especially his later writing) can prove an impediment to new readers eager to engage with it.
“I feel his fiction is difficult enough that a lot of people can benefit from doing it as a group. A book club would be a good way to read him because you get a lot of different opinions,” says Merriman. “I think the work after Infinite Jest requires more work than Infinite Jest. Maybe people think it’s difficult because of the size. It’s not a hard book to read, really. I mean, it’s long. But it’s very enjoyable. There’s nothing in it that’s challenging in the way that ‘Mr. Squishy’ or even ‘Good Old Neon’ in Oblivion [are]. From the excerpts [of The Pale King] I’ve read, it seems like they’re in this newer style he established with Oblivion. That’s the type of writing I could see people retreating from if they weren’t in a group. That’s the type of situation I wanted to create. Some of this is going to be work, but it’s going to be rewarding.”
And while reading DFW’s writing, and some of the other pieces that complement it (like John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, which Merriman has also selected), can be hard work, Merriman hopes that the reading group won’t be too serious. “Hopefully we won’t be speaking in hushed tones. I would definitely like for there to be alcohol involved and for it to be a casual environment. I want people to talk about the books, but without too much academia.”
It’s a good thing. Too much vacant academese can spoil any otherwise pleasant discussion. But while Merriman hopes to keep things manageable, anyone who enrols in his eight-week crash course stands to gain an unofficial degree in DFW Studies. (Which, by the time this is published, will probably be an actual academic program.)
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.
All That, the David Foster Wallace reading group, kick off February 27 at Type Books (883 Queen Street West). The group meets every second week at 4 p.m., for an hour and half each time. Cost to join is $100, which includes three books (Girl with Curious Hair, Oblivion, and a first edition hardcover of The Pale King), as well as an additional package of selected reading material.
We originally referred to Barth’s Welcome to the Funhouse; actually it is Lost in the Funhouse. Our apologies.