Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unfinished Works

Any scholar of unfinished works is advised to read the article on David Foster Wallace's last novel in yesterday's Guardian. "The Pale King", which is being published with agreement from his widow, Karen Green.

The first question about unfinished works she answers in her Observer interview:

"The notes that he took for the book and chapters that were complete, were left in a neat pile on his desk in the garage where he worked. And his lamps were on it, illuminating it. So I have no doubt in my mind this is what he wanted. It was in as organised a state as David ever left anything."

David Foster Wallace died in 2008, so in some ways, without the death, this would just be a normal publication process for a novel that an author had let go, sent to his publisher. As his editor Michael Pietsch makes clear in the Guardian piece, it is impossible to know how finished the novel was. Certainly some parts were complete, and even though the ending appears incomplete, this could also be part of his plan. Pietsch's job was to put together the novel in the best way that he could. Structure, in such a digressive writer as Wallace, proved one of the hardest things - and, also, the unknowable: what the writer would have changed as it went through the stages to publication.

The reason we have this novel, of course, is because Wallace matters. It is only his 3rd novel, but he wrote much more - essays and short stories that are amongst the best writing of the late 20th and early 21st century. Reading a Wallace essay or story can change your thoughts, even your thought processes. Suicide is always a tragedy, and Wallace's death is a reminder that it is not something that we have suddenly cured with all our modern pills and strategies.

That - and commercial imperative - are why "The Pale King" is being published. I think it should be. Yet, we are left, as ever with unfinished works, with more questions than answers. His was a thin, but substantial bibliography - and if anything, the logic of this publication must surely be because, of all contemporary writers, Wallace's work always feels - at the same time as its exemplary and measured - to some extent unfinished, a question, or series of questions rather than an answer.

We live in a world of "completion", where first albums appear fully formed, where debut novels are brimming with confidence, yet writing, as with all art, is a construction. Coincidentally, this week also saw a feature on the "director's cut" - and asks whether it is the holy grail of an auteurs vision or a marketing indulgence? As an individual, coming across a work of art for the first time, you accept it on those terms. I first heard "Diamond Dogs" on cassette, and the track listing was in a different order than the LP, even though it was a concept cassette! I will always have a softspot for the original "Blade Runner" with the voiceover, however many other versions Ridley Scott releases. I first bought the Pixies "Surfer Rosa" on CD where it was coupled with their previous mini album, "Come On Pilgrim", so for me, "Surfer Rosa" includes those tracks. Joy Division's posthumous "Still" is my favourite of their albums, as it was the first I heard and bought.

For writers, there is always some editing, but its rare, I think, that a "directors cut" has been published. (My friend Elizabeth Baines has done so with "The Birth Machine", and the reasons for it are fascinating. Partly I think this is because we encounter the work in its published form, and this gives it permanence, whatever the writer's intentions; but partly, its still the writers' words, the writers' version. The first time I saw "Hamlet" it was in a version based on the first published version of the play; which had been toured, then published without Shakespeare's permission. The play is shorter, simpler, less of Shakespeare's words, but still Shakespeare's words.

Wallace's death gives us an endpoint. He moves from being read, to being studied. There are these books and no more. Better, I think, that "The Pale King" is published as a book, so it can be enjoyed as that, rather than as an epitaph.


The Manchester poetry scene had sad news this week. Carcanet poet Linda Chase died on Friday after a short illness. She had run the dynamic "poets and players" series or readings, amongst other things, and never had any doubt that poetry could command a substantial audience. A new book of poems from Carcanet was completed before she passed away, and will be published later in the year.

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