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Home News by Category Critical Analysis Nature's Nightmare Interview - Part 3

Nature's Nightmare Interview - Part 3

If you missed the first two parts make sure you catch up before reading the 3rd and final piece of this interview:

Part 1 - Before Nature's Nightmare.

Part 2 - Elegant Complexity, Post Publication.


Part 3 - Writing Nature's Nightmare

THF: Nature's Nightmare, how did it all begin? Was SSMG on board from the beginning? I know it had been in the works for a long time...

Greg Carlisle: I truly thought I was done writing about Wallace when Elegant Complexity came out. (By the way, my wife secretly arranged for Matt to ship copies to a friend's house so she could throw a surprise launch party for me, complete with video congratulations from Matt.) But I had been writing obsessively for months, so I just kind of kept going. As Elegant Complexity was germinating in 2002, I was in a production of Hamlet, and I was just as obsessed with Hamlet as I was Infinite Jest, blocking in a notebook a production I want to direct someday and things like that. So with EC done, I spent the first half of 2008 writing a beat-by-beat explication of Hamlet from two points of view. Then I made tentative steps for what I thought was and what now is my next big project: a book outlining and briefly (no, I mean it) analyzing all the plays of Edward Albee.

Oblivion had given me a similar feeling to IJ in that it made me want to figure out what was going on, and I was sure there was some essential quality about Wallace's writing to be discovered there. I knew there was something profound going on in terms of Wallace's mission as an artist, but I couldn't articulate it specifically. In March 2009, in a panicky fit of brainstorming in a hotel lobby at a theatre conference in Birmingham AL, I just indicate to Matt and John via email that I'm sketching out ideas for a book on Oblivion in an effort to be able to articulate something meaningful in Liverpool, and their return emails are worded such that they consider it an actual book that they intend to publish!

The relevant part in my email to them is excerpted below:

> I was hoping to show you a plot (an excel sheet with Albee's plays
> down the side and recurring themes and methods across the top) and
> sample chapter of the Albee book I'm working on at the end of the
> summer, but now with a keynote speech to write and possible paper
> submission to New York I'm thinking of shelving the Albee book to
> start studying Wallace's work more closely again. I was toying with
> the idea of trying to write a book like EC (except really short! like
> 120 pages max, seriously! the Albee book would be short, too) with
> outlines and themes and methods for the stories in Oblivion. Trying to
> craft an introduction to that might help me with the keynote address
> and possible paper. Thoughts or advice or editorial preferences?

I clearly recall that their response treated the book as an actual thing that was happening and that they wanted to publish, not just an idea.

(Click 'Read more' below to continue)

Meanwhile, I couldn't fully articulate an introduction to a book in time, so I confer with David Hering about his goals and intentions for the conference and write from those impulses. Just before I go to Liverpool, Irish public radio also calls me to talk about Wallace thanks to the publication of EC and SSMG, of course, published the papers from the Liverpool conference (Consider David Foster Wallace), including papers by Claire Hayes-Brady (Her essay, "...": Language, Gender and Modes of Power in the Work of David Foster Wallace is excellent: Nick) and Adam Kelly and many more brilliant people. Meanwhile on plane rides and in airports to and from Tucson and Liverpool, given that I was apparently now writing another book for real, I had begun writing commentary on "Mr. Squishy". Slow but steady progress throughout late 2009 and 2010, and then my delightful twin daughters are born early in 2011! (Weren't all 3 of our eldest children born in the first half of 2007?)

THF: I believe they were :)

GC: The book did take a while: from summer 2009 to summer 2012 to get the first complete book draft to Matt, and then another 14 months to publication. In fact, I realized in May 2012 that if I didn't get my part to Matt by the end of June 2012, because of my work schedule he might not get it until 2013, so I hunkered down and worked for hours every day getting through the end of "The Suffering Channel" and putting the stories together into a whole book with introduction and conclusion.

I had to carve out a few hours at a time whenever I could. I tried to summarize as efficiently as possible and steer as much of the commentary as possible to the common theme of oblivion in the stories and on Wallace's continued exploration of themes I identified in EC. When Josh Roiland's article about oblivion in Wallace's journalism came out, I knew I could riff on that to articulate a definition of oblivion for the introduction. I knew I wanted to use concentric-circle figures to highlight the idea of nested storytelling, but I didn't know if that would play out across all the stories.


Good Old Neon Figure, G. Carlisle. (Click image to enlarge)

I believe the publication of The Pale King had been announced in 2009, and I knew that I wanted to explore Oblivion as a bridge between IJ andTPK. What I didn't know was that the most interesting thing (to me) about my book would be articulating how the form of Wallace's stories matched their content.

Matt Bucher: As a reader, I was eager for Greg to apply his straightforward, jargon-free style of literary criticism to more of DFW's work. And Oblivion felt like the perfect fit. Here's why:

1. The Broom of the System, while a really fun novel to read and think about, is still immature in the trajectory of DFW's fiction-writing career. There are some important themes there relating to the use of language and the role of storytelling, but there's also some showing off and humor and a basic love story. I'm sure there is plenty of scholarly work left to do on Broom, but I don't feel like the general reader needs a guide to make it through the novel.

2. Girl With Curious Hair. This was DFW's MFA thesis project. Many of the stories in the book ("John Billy", "Lyndon", "My Appearance") are voice exercises where Wallace picks a unique character and lets us inhabit the story in that voice. He's consciously trying to extend his range as a writer. There are true gems in this book, but also some clunkers. Like all his collections, DFW anchors the book with a novella, and "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" is the most mature, complex piece in the book. It kills off the metafictional, postmodern gods who had dominated the literary scene up to that point, and it sets the stage for Wallace's next great project. 

3. Infinite Jest. Obviously this is the book where readers would be most likely to seek out a guide or some kind of assistance. Greg's work in Elegant Complexity deals a lot with the themes and thematic organization in IJ, and after The Pale King was announced, there was a lot of speculation about how Wallace's "project" would develop thematically.

4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Infinite Jest was published in February of 1996, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again came out in February of 1997, and DFW assembled this collection in 1998. I think he felt some pressure to keep publishing. There are several stories here left over from his Arizona days, some stories he could not place for publication in magazines, and even the Q. and A. interview stories are a format he developed while writing Infinite Jest. Again, there are a few clunkers, but some of the stories are his best. The anchor novella, "Brief Interview #20", is especially important in the development of Wallace's style. It's as good as anything in Infinite Jest or The Pale King.

5. But overall, I felt that Oblivion is a deeper, fuller collection than BIWHM, more thematically ripe for discussion. Again, The Pale King did not figure into this much because it was not published until April 2011, and even then, after Pietsch's assemblage, it was hard to say whether Wallace had completed his project or not. I do think TPK contains some of DFW's best writing, especially the novella-length Fogle section (Section 22) and the Drinion/Rand conversation in Section 46. No doubt there will be plenty more scholarship on TPK, and maybe even a reader's guide, but with Oblivion there is no doubt about what Wallace wanted to include in the collection and that they were complete, whole stories.

So, with Oblivion you have these eight stories and they are all tremendous--no clunkers. At least half of the stories ("Mr. Squishy", "Good Old Neon", "Oblivion", "The Suffering Channel") are so complex and have so much going on in them that, even for a medium-serious reader, they require some serious thought to unpack all the layers and narration issues. And the anchor novella, "The Suffering Channel", was one that did not appear in a journal or magazine previously and between 2004 and 2008 didn't receive much attention, scholarly or otherwise. So for me, Oblivion was the richest source, the most in need of consideration, and while Greg was writing we were imagining that The Pale King would be this even greater project, the full flower of Wallace's power and imagination and ability. But now that we've had a while to read it and think about it, I believe that it's intertwined with a lot of what is going on in Oblivion. There's no question in my mind that "The Soul is Not a Smithy" is either a chip off the block or part of the block of The Pale King.

THF: It has been seven months since release, and Nature's Nightmare is both an accessible and insightful analysis of Oblivion that meets the needs of casual and dedicated readers. We're now in this exciting period of Wallace criticism with increasingly frequent publications filled with essays dedicated to his writing and career. Where do Nature's Nightmare and Elegant Complexity fit in this maturing field of Wallace criticism?

GC: I hope both books will make Wallace less daunting for new readers and inspire new readers to keep reading Wallace. I also hope both books—by organizing information, asking questions, investigating Wallace’s craft and artistic mission, and identifying recurring themes—will serve as springboards for other critics of Wallace’s work.

MB: I think both of Greg's books show how rich the field of Wallace Studies already is. In addition to some of the more esoteric, academic studies, there is a place for general readers to think critically and deeper about Wallace's work. There are plenty of English professors who don't believe Wallace will be read in 10 years. Nature's Nightmare illustrates how Wallace was, in fact, producing some of the most sophisticated short stories of the past forty years--all of them packed with allusions, ambiguous narrators, and/or theories about Art.

THF: Anything else on the horizon from Greg Carlisle and/or SSMG?

GC: I am working on a book that explores the dramaturgy of Edward Albee play by play: common themes and techniques across his entire body of work. I’ve also made several pages of notes for a long essay or short book analyzing the 16-volume Cerebus comic-book and comparing it to a few select encyclopedic novels. You can probably guess one of my selections.

MB: We don't have another collaboration in the works (yet), but SSMG is always interested in proposals about Wallace's work - so send us some! As a press, we are developing our comics/graphic novel line this year and are working on several new exciting projects for 2015.

THF: Thanks both of you! Here's hoping Elegant Complexity and Nature's Nightmare continue to do well.


Part 1 - Before Nature's Nightmare.

Part 2 - Elegant Complexity, Post Publication.

For more on Nature's Nightmare check out my review from Oct 2013, Nature's Nightmare - Magnificent Diagrams.

Contact Sideshow Media Group here.

Last Updated on Friday, 06 June 2014 00:38  

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