Sometimes, after finishing a particularly impactful book, I experience a partial paralysis. It’s a sort of ecstatic exhaustion, I think; I’ve felt similarly after long, intense runs. If there is a window nearby, I’ll stare out it without really noticing anything in particular. If my chair is capable of rocking, I’ll do so steadily and rhythmically to the point where people sitting nearby will clear their throats in my general direction. I will occasionally mutter an expletive over and over under my breath. I don’t deny that all this is sort of dramatic. In my own defense, it doesn’t happen that often, and it requires a fairly momentous reading experience. Again, this happens usually after finishing a book. It seems significant, then, that I felt emotionally KO-ed after nearly every story in Jim Shepard’s new collection of short fiction, You Think That’s Bad. The equivalent would perhaps be getting picked up by the same girl eleven times in a row despite having your heart broken every single time. And being ready to be picked up again, if she ever comes back.
I saw David Foster Wallace read at Franklin and Marshall College in 2006. He was nervous and funny and an excellent reader. But, as with any writer whose writing I’ve loved, it was strange to hear the way Wallace’s reading of his work differed from my reading of his work. I was made aware that my relationship was primarily with his prose, not with him. More specifically, with prose that he’s done with, that’s been sent out into the world to have a life of its own. So, I will admit that I initially didn’t want to read The Pale King. I assumed it was being released only because publishers figured someone would buy it, not because it was a potentially important piece of literature. (And regardless of what I’m about to say in a few paragraphs about changing my mind, it’s worth noting that at the top of the inside front flap of The Pale King, above the summary blurb, is printed, “David Foster Wallace’s last and most ambitious undertaking,” a claim which, at the very least, should make fans of Infinite Jest clear their throats pointedly.)
In Teju Cole’s Open City, Julius, a young Nigerian-German psychiatrist living in New York, wanders the city. For Julius, “the walks [meet] a need: they [are] a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work….Every decision—where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought…—[is] inconsequential, and [is] for that reason a reminder of freedom.” For readers, Julius’ meandering serves as a platform for meditations on history, art, human suffering, race, and culture, and the cumulative effect is anything but inconsequential. To call Open City a novel is like calling the White House a house: although it’s structured around a protagonist, it is driven by perceptiveness, the agility with which it moves from one idea to another, and its humanity.