April 24, 2011

The Theory of Obscurity


The publishing business has an unfortunate habit of plundering the files of dead authors. Few other creative types have to worry about this post-mortem thievery. Musicians, maybe, but not painters, or sculptors, or filmmakers. But if a publisher can find anything in a dead author’s files that can be packaged and marketed as a “lost” or “last, unfinished” novel, they’ll dust it off, clean it up, finish it in some cases, and foist it onto the public. The rubes eat up shit like that. And all the while I must imagine the author is screaming Nooooo! from the banks of the Styx. They’ve done it to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, John Kennedy Toole (though that was an odd case, given that he was dead before the first novel was published), and so many others. They dug up Henry Miller’s first two attempts at writing a novel, Moloch and Crazy Cock, even though Miller himself made it perfectly clear that he considered them miserable failures. Yet despite that, both are on my shelf today.

            The motivation behind this kind of grave robbing is simple to understand. The publicity blitz surrounding a dead author’s “last novel” will often generate sympathy-driven rave reviews and ten times the sales the same novel would have received had the author still been breathing.

            The most recent case, as I’m sure most of you have heard by now, involves David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

            I do not in any way mean to besmirch the brilliant Mr. Wallace or his work here. But to be honest, after the explosive publicity surrounding his first novel, Infinite Jest (during which he was hailed as a genius, a wunderkind, and a Pynchon for the next generation), nobody paid much attention to Mr. Wallace. He put out other books, but they were picked up mostly by literary types and nobody else. It’s not that the books weren’t good, but he’d already been hailed, the publicity machine wasn’t there, and those eight people in the country who still read, well, they’re a fickle lot.

            Then in 2008 Mr. Wallace hanged himself at age forty-six, and suddenly he was news again. It was the best career move he could’ve made, because as luck would have it, he’d left behind most of The Pale King—a big hunk of a complex, rambling, five hundred-plus page, postmodern novel just sitting there prime for the picking.

            Before you can say “wash that dirt off your hands,” his editor retrieved what there was of the manuscript and the accompanying notes, edited it all together, finished it as he thought Wallace would have finished it, and boom—suddenly he had a literary event on his hands, and the first bestseller Wallace had since Infinite Jest. People who had never read Wallace were suddenly buying the book. People who had never heard of Wallace before were buying the book. In an instant, it was necessary to be a David Foster Wallace fan. Better still, the novel was being hailed as a masterpiece, a work that will survive as a lasting testament to Wallace’s genius, and which will forever cement his position within the gloried ranks of American Literary Giants.

            All that may well be justified—the novel might really be that good—and if so I think it’s great. Maybe they’ll even give him a rare posthumous Nobel for it. But all the hubbub got me thinking.

            My very first thought upon hearing the news that The Pale King was about to be released went something like this:

            Gee whiz, if I was run down by a school bus tomorrow, I wonder if anyone would go to all that trouble to dig up, edit, and publish that book I wrote about Godzilla? And would it, too, be hailed s a work of unparalleled genius and a final testament to my towering literary stature?

            Well that was the gist of it anyway. I realize that suicides tend to be more effective when it comes to generating a buzz about a post-mortem novel—that added level of dark mystery and the hunt for potential answers in the work—but I’m not much interested in suicide. I’ll take the school bus accident, and just for added comedic value, I hope it’s a short bus.

            Then I got an even better idea. Instead of counting on someone dredging up that Godzilla book and running with it, I’d create a brand new manuscript for just such a purpose.

            It may be foolish to outline my diabolical scheme here for all the world to see, but what the hell? Here’s the plan. I’m going to start writing a massive, rambling, dense and complicated novel, it’ll have to run at least eight hundred pages or more, with lots of interweaving storylines and dozens of characters all named “Gerald.” It won’t really mean anything, but it’ll look like it does. Something deep and profound. Mysteries of the ages and the human soul and the like. I’m not sure if it’ll have jokes or not. The jokes seem to get in the way sometimes, but I just can’t help myself. At least I’ll try to keep the jokes obscure—the kind that make the New York Times/NPR types chortle and titter knowingly at their own cleverness for getting them. Then I’ll give the whole thing some kind of high-minded, ironically significant title, like The Unfathomable Leg or A Reach of Tungsten or The Impact Attenuator.

            The most important thing of all, however, is that I not finish it. I’ll write the whole damn thing except for the last five pages. Those will remain in the form of some sketchy, incoherent notes like “Gerald is wearing a football jersey—remember the number. Critical!” and “a bag of frozen shrimp” and “the Hand of the Devil is revealed near X’s boiler.” I’ll also dash off the final line—something like “the recipe, oh god, how could I have forgotten the recipe?” Then I’ll stuff it in a file, secrete it away someplace, and never tell anyone about it. After that school bus mows me down, we’ll see if anyone bothers to do any digging.

            That was the plan anyway. Then I remembered that, suicide or not, the dead author in question needs to have things like “respect” and “a career.”

            Well, there goes that idea. I wouldn’t be able to count on either until after the manuscript was discovered. And what a respectable career it would be, too!

            Well, it’s probably for the best I not put in the effort on a post-mortem joke. With my luck if any publishing types did go looking, they’d probably find that novel I wrote in college.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.