Shattercane & Lamb’s Quarter

I’ve written here about how I’m interested in dating the various sections of The Pale King–when they were written, what else DFW might have been working on concurrently, and how the other might have influenced The Pale King (or how The Pale King might have influenced what else he was working on at the time). I think some of that might be discernible from some of the small details that show up in other works (more on this), but of course we’re likely to know more when The Pale King materials make their way from Little, Brown down to the Ransom Center. The HRC tells me that the Pale King materials will arrive in Austin after the paperback is released. Typically the paperback comes out a year after the hardcover (so maybe April 2012), but perhaps Little, Brown will release the paperback in time for Christmas? Either way, I doubt the Pale King materials will be indexed and accessible to researches before Fall 2012.

In any case, there might not be any meaningful connection that shows Wallace was working on more than one thing at once, but just that, like most writers (and professors), he had a lot of things that continued to interest him, and in many cases he retold the same things multiple times. Some of the same motifs show up in all his work and many of the same details get recycled and slightly retold.

I mentioned in the recent contest here that I was surprised no one chose any of the words from The Pale King‘s opening section as the “best” word.

I was a little surprised that no one submitted any of the words from the opening page of the novel: shattercane, sawbrier, muscadine, vetch, invaginate, chert, corn-bound.

Honestly, I didn’t think much of this passage when it appeared in Tri-Quarterly under the title “Peoria (4).” And I thought it was a curious choice for Michael Pietsch to use as the opening of this particular novel. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder what inspired Wallace to write it in the first place. Is it just a paean to his “home” state of Illinois? Was he trying to do his best Cormac McCarthy impersonation? Did he really intend to use this passage in TPK or had he written it for some other purpose? Am I overthinking this?

And then the other day I was listening to the audiobook of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, read by The Man Himself (get it here:, specifically, I was listening to the long (55 minutes), closing chapter of the book: BI #20, The Granola Cruncher. Toward the end of the story, when the girl is driven to a remote location and is forced out of the car by the predator, and then forced to lay in the grass, face down, this passage suddenly sounded terribly familiar to me:

Lying there helpless and connected, she says her senses had take on the nearly unbearable acuity we associate with drugs or extreme meditative states. She could distinguish lilac and shattercane’s scents from phlox and lamb’s quarter, the watery mint of first-growth clover.

Compare that to the opening sentence of The Pale King:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb‘s quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.
So there is a basic similarity of using “shattercane” and “lamb’s quarter” and “mint” as floral descriptors, but does that mean the two pieces were composed anywhere near the same period of time? Who knows? Let’s look at the terms, though.
Shattercane (sometimes “shatter cane” or “wild cane”) is just another name (albeit more poetic) for an invasive variety of sorghum (sorghum bicolor). It is a weed.
Lamb’s Quarter (or lambsquarters) is a type of goosefoot or pigweed (also great names)–another weed.
Now listen, as good as The Pale King is, to me, there is nothing in it as powerful as Brief Interview #20. Nothing. Wallace always struggled with how to end a story–and a book. But I believe he mastered it with Infinite Jest (although many people hated that ending) and then got better with it by ending Brief Interviews with #20, and then even better by ending Oblivion with “The Suffering Channel.”
Go read BI #20 again. The whole thing is on The Paris Review‘s site:
The ending of the story is just devastating.

I displayed far more affect than she did. She learned more about love that day with the sex offender than at any other stage in her spiritual journey, she said. Let’s both have one last one and then that will be it. That her whole life had indeed led inexorably to that moment when the car stopped and she got in, that it was indeed a kind of a death, but not at all in the way she had feared as they entered the secluded area. That was the only commentary she indulged in, just at the anecdote’s end. I did not care whether it was quote true. It would depend what you mean by true. I simply didn’t care. I was moved, changed—believe what you will. My mind seemed to be moving at the quote speed of light. I was so sad. And that whether or not what she believed happened happened, it seemed true even if it wasn’t. That even if the whole focused-soul-connection theology, that even if it was just catachretic New Age goo, her belief in it had saved her life, so whether or not it’s goo becomes irrelevant, no? Can you see why this, realizing this, would make you feel conflicted in realizing that your entire sexuality and sexual history had less genuine connection or feeling than I felt simply lying there listening to her talk about lying there realizing how lucky she’d been that some angel had visited her in psychotic guise and shown her what she’d spent her whole life praying was true? You believe I’m contradicting myself. But can you imagine how any of it felt? Seeing her sandals across the room on the floor and remembering what I’d thought of them only hours before? I kept saying her name and she would ask What? and I’d say her name again. I’m not afraid of how this sounds to you. I’m not embarrassed now. But if you could understand, can you see why there’s no way I could let her just go away after this? Why I felt this apical sadness and fear of the thought of her getting her bag and sandals and New Age blanket and leaving and laughing when I clutched her hem and begged her not to leave and said I loved her and closing the door gently and going off barefoot down the hall and my never seeing her again? Why it didn’t matter whether she was fluffy or not terribly bright? Nothing else mattered. She had all my attention. I’d fallen in love with her. I believed she could save me. I know how this sounds, trust me. I know your type and I know what you’re bound to ask. Ask it now. I felt she could save me I said. Ask me now. Say it. I stand here naked before you. Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, cooze, slut, gash, cunt. Happy now? All judgments confirmed? Be happy. I do not care. I knew she could. I knew I loved her. End of story.

The Pale King – Section 1: Will it Play in Peoria?

The Pale King opens with a prose poem-y thing originally published in Triquarterly in 2002 under the title “Peoria (4)”. (I’m not sure why this previous publication is not credited on the copyright page of TPK. I guess TriQ is just not on the same level as the New Yorker.) Supposedly, one of the alternate titles of The Pale King was “What is Peoria For?” Maybe that “(4)” is Wallace’s sly way of getting us to ask What is Peoria (4)? Well, what is this thing? Has Wallace ever written anything like this before? It’s a curious opening to a novel about the IRS. It seemed like a weird thing for DFW to publish way back in 2002 (frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. When one is expecting a new DFW story in a literary magazine and is confronted with a short, but plentiful description of a field in Peoria, IL, a natural response might be What is this?). Really, though, the opening was Pietsch’s call:

“Ultimately there were chapters that could have gone anywhere,” he says. “Like the first chapter — that was not the first chapter. It was just a beautiful love letter to an Illinois cornfield in fallow time. I don’t know if he intended it as an opening, but it just felt like a beautiful way into this novel.”

Wallace mentions Peoria a lot in his writing. He mentions it in one of the first stories he ever wrote: “The Enema Bandit and the Cosmic Buzzer.” The story has never been published anywhere (yet) {he wrote it as an undergrad at Amherst}, but it resides in the Wallace archive at the Ransom Center (container 27.9). The enema bandit (probably a reference to Frank Zappa’s song “The Illinois Enema Bandit“) is called “The Purging Scourge of Peoria.” [Zappa’s bandit is supposedly from Bloomington, IL. Peoria and Bloomington (where Wallace lived for a long time) are only 60 miles apart.]

Peoria is somewhat well-known for being the standard-bearer of Midwestern values or at least middle-American demographics. The famous phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to the idea that for something to be mainstream in the U.S., it needs to succeed in somewhere as “average” or “common” as Peoria. So, in reality, Peoria is not home to an IRS Regional Examination Center—it is America’s Test Market. And I feel like that Harry Potter and Twilight and Dean Koonz play well in Peoria, but that The Pale King is not the sort of novel or book or entertainment that would  likely appeal to mainstream America. And yet. And yet… The Pale King is a bestseller. It reached up to #4 on Amazon’s list of the top 100 books and will likely debut high on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. It does appeal to many, many people who take reading seriously and that mysterious “general reader” who still, in fact, reads for pleasure. But the scale is way different and far fewer people will buy The Pale King than will see The Hangover 2 or watch American Idol or buy whatever Stephanie Meyer writes next, so therefore it is a little easier to get on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list than it is to win the weekend box office or set Nielsen ratings records (and it helps when the publisher keeps the ebook release date 4/15, driving folks to cancel their kindle orders and buy the hardcover two weeks early instead).

The local press in Peoria has acknowledged the book at least once: this blog entry by Dave Haney on

I actually did not know the book or name until I ended up in one of Wallace’s classes in 1998 or 1999 at Illinois State University. It was a grammar for writers class. You kind of suspect something is different about a professor who on the first day (and many after) arrives in sweatpants cut into shorts; who wears a well-fitted white T-shirt on a not-so-well fit torso; who wore a bandana and rarely seemed to shave; and who spit chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup he brought along.

He gave the class grammar handouts he said were the same his mother used for English classes she taught to prisoners.


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