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The ‘Radically Condensed’ project

David Foster Wallace is primarily known as an author of novels, in particular his 1996 magnum opus, the 1,079 page long Infinite Jest. In terms of page count, that book alone accounts for a significant portion of Wallace’s published work – the total page counts for Wallace’s other two novels, his short story collections, and his essay collections each fail to match Infinite Jest. Conversely, Wallace’s three novels account for only a quarter of his published works (for more on this theme, see Marshall Boswell’s preface to his edited collection, David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing”: New Essays on the Novels (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp.vi-xii).

Boswell makes a strong case to justify this categorisation of Wallace, but this project posits that there is an equally strong case for considering Wallace as an author who operated primarily in short fiction, regardless of the foundation of his critical reception on the strength of his great novel. On average, Wallace published a book (including, as Boswell does, the posthumous publications of The Pale KingThis is Water, and Both Flesh and Not) once every two years – an impressive legacy considering the length of some of those books. However, this is not the complete story – between those ‘major’ works Wallace published well over 50 short stories in various journals and magazines, and many more journalistic articles, although these regrettably fall beyond the scope of this project.

Many of these stories received more ‘canonical’ publication in book form in the years following their initial publication. Some were collected into the three story collections – Girl with Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), and Oblivion: Stories (2004) – some became sections of the three novels – The Broom of the System (1987), Infinite Jest (1996), and The Pale King (2011) – and many remain uncollected.

In the five years leading up the publication of Infinite Jest, 11 sections of it were published in journals and magazines as stories. (Whether the story was presented simply as a standalone short story or explicitly as an excerpt of an upcoming longer work most likely varies between publications.) A twelfth, ‘Church Not Made With Hands’, was published in 1992 bearing the subtitle ‘excerpted from Infinite Jest‘, but was later published as a standalone story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. This last fact alone has potentially fascinating repercussions on our understanding of Infinite Jest and Wallace’s method, and raises many urgent questions: did Wallace submit any drafts to Michael Pietsch that included ‘Church Not Made With Hands’ as a chapter of the novel? Was the story depicted in the short story ever developed further, with the intention of including it in the novel? How would this impressionistic story fit into the world of the Organization of North American Nations and Subsidized Time? And how are the seemingly disparate characters of ‘Day’, the mononymous protagonist of ‘Church Not Made With Hands’, and Geoffrey Day, the precocious recovering drug addict in Infinite Jest, connected?

About 80% of Wallace’s short fiction published in journals and magazines corresponds to a story published in a collection book or to a section of a novel, a fact which challenges the notion – albeit one apparently encouraged by the author himself – of Wallace as a novelist foremost, and a short story writer secondarily. The Hegelian antithesis to this consensus view of Wallace is to consider – based on a knowledge of his bibliography that extends beyond the books – that Wallace was primarily a writer of short fiction, albeit one adept at reworking a significant percentage of his stories into novels.

This ‘reworking’ is the focus of this project, demonstrated in the post below with reference to Wallace’s shortest story, ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’, from which this site takes its name. (Perversely, the method of this task is not one of radical condensation but in fact on of opening up, expanding Wallace’s oeuvre beyond the six major works (i.e. books) of fiction and exposing the numerous minor works that precede them.) It is hoped that, by applying this forensic method to the stories that were revised from their original publication in journals for inclusion in Wallace’s novels or short story collections, a more accurate synthesis of Wallace-as-novelist and Wallace-as-short-story-writer may be achieved, and that insights into his writing method may be inferred.

A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life

‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’ was first published in 1998, a year before Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, in Ploughshares (a literary journal based at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts). The original version is publicly available to read on the Ploughshares website.

A mere five sentences long, the story likely didn’t cause either Wallace or Michael Pietsch, his editor at Little, Brown and Company, too much stress when editing it for inclusion in Brief Interviews. Nevertheless, some noteworthy changes were made between 1998 and 1999, as shown in the image below.

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This illustrative image was created by comparing digital copies of the two versions of the story in a computer programme that highlights differences between two uploaded texts. The original publication is presented in the red-shaded text on the left, and the Brief Interviews version in the green-shaded text on the right. Points of divergence between the text are highlighted in each. In a non-digital approach to the same task, one would have to painstakingly read two version of the same text – no great labour in this case, but for a longer story there is a greatly increased risk of human error.

In the first paragraph, the two highlighted words appear in the same place, and so we may correctly infer that the word in the original has been replaced by the word highlighted in the later version. In the second paragraph, the highlighted text in the later version does not have a counterpart in the original, which denotes that this is an addition to the original story rather than a like-for-like replacement. In the event that a word had been removed from the original without being replaced in the updated version, there would be highlighted text in the left text only.

The first change made to the story between 1998 and 1999 is that the word ‘very’ has been amended to ‘extremely’ in the first paragraph. The meagre plot of the story concerns an unsuccessful date between a man and a woman, both of whom ‘hop[e] to be liked’ but ‘each dr[i]ve home alone […] with the very same twist to their faces’, still single and (implicitly) lonely despite their mutual will for the date to succeed. Of course, the story implies that both persons’ primary concerns with ‘be[ing] liked’ might be the cause of their sustained loneliness. In the second published version of the story, the switch to the word ‘extremely’ suggests that the woman’s laugh exceeds what would be a normal level of mirth at the man’s ‘witticism’. In turn this emphasises that the laugh is an affected display designed to induce the man’s approval, rather than an unwilled reaction to the woman’s appreciation of the man’s comic talents.

The second change to the original text is perhaps the most telling. While the original version of the story maintains a conventional grammatical structure throughout, the Brief Interviews version ends with the last three words of the Ploughshares version repeated twice, calling to mind a malfunctioning audio recording – the figurate ‘broken record’. The lack of character names, in combination with the title of the story, suggests that this unproductive and depressing dating ritual is a common experience in ‘postindustrial’ society, and that the failure of the specific date depicted is not due to unique characteristics of the participants. The concluding repetition further implies that this social convention will not end any time soon, if at all; in turn, it is possible to infer that the ‘postindustrial life’ is the ‘end of history’ heralded by Francis Fukuyama in 1992.

This change is all the more noteworthy considering the placement of the story in Brief Interviews. As the very first story in Wallace’s first major work of fiction since Infinite Jest, the brevity of ‘Radically Condensed’ suggests that the story might be read as an attempt to discourage the reader of Brief Interviews from comparing the book to the previous novel. Placed on page ‘0’ instead of on page ‘1’ (the conventional ‘first page’ is given instead to ‘Death is Not the End’), ‘Radically Condensed’ is presented as both story and epigraph, establishing a broad historical context in which many of the collection’s stories (with the notable except of ‘Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko’) seem to take place. While the placement of the story on page 0 seemingly distances it from the rest of the collection, it also paradoxically transforms an originally-independent story into a fundamental aspect of the book that it has been collected into.