The Peemster and the Littlest Hoax
Along with many other ISers, I’m a little thrown off by Michael Pemulis’s apparent expulsion from E.T.A. (n.#332, pp. 1073-76), especially since our increased sympathy for him (on the basis of his Dad’s abuse of brother Matty) makes the idea of his return to the rough side of Boston a bit disconcerting. The “Peemster” has been responsible, too, for some of the funniest incidents (and – wow! – none of them resulted in horrible deaths) throughout the book. Some readers have thought him the source of the single best one-liner: “I probably won’t even waste everybody’s time asking if I’m interrupting” (p. 553). But alas, he has occasionally become careless, and his final prank is poorly timed with the accidental Tenuation of John Wayne.
November 17, Y.D.A.U.: Posted up on various boards at E.T.A. as well as the communal e-board is a leaflet announcing “a joint John Wayne/Dr. Avril Incandenza arithmetic presentation to the pre-quadrivial 14-and-Unders on how 17 can actually go into 56 way more than 3.294 times” (n.#324, p. 1069). This is just awesome, a mix of subtlety and brutal if well-founded speculation. Unfortunately, the prank constitutes the last of some apparent misjudgments, the others being:
- dosing of his opponent at the Long Island competition (see. pp. 267, 281);
- failing to limit the Eschaton damage (he tried, but in my view not hard enough, see pp. 337-339);
- wiring Rusk’s office door with a battery, and the resultant permanent perm and crossed eyes of the cleaning woman who first touched the knob (see p. 512);
- and finally, failing to control his Tenuate stash in the first place, allowing Troeltsch to pilfer and hide them in his Seldane bottle (see p. 60), from which John Wayne accidentally ingested it.
But posting this notice perhaps made it clear to Ms. Inc that he would taunt her until she responded; rather than a good blackmailer, he could not be trusted to keep his end of the bargain.
Those pranks are all pretty great, in any case. And they bring to mind perhaps the greatest of all David Foster Wallace-related pranks, or what has come to be known as the “Littlest Hoax.” In 2004, the journal Modernism/modernity published a review by Jay Murray Suskind, Department of Popular Culture, Blacksmith College. Given a moment to reflect, many readers will recognize Murray as a character out of Don Delillo’s White Noise, and the review that has been written under his name is pretty spectacular. It begins rather prosaically, with a recall of DFW’s prior publications, reputation, and some general remarks on Oblivion, the text under review. But then it veers dramatically into a very Murray-like misdirection:
A quick check to the Footnotes (big surprise) brings the most wondrous and wonderful revelation: Hal has authored a book! Other references are to Jack Gladney, the protagonist of White Noise, whose failure to speak German while chairing the only Hitler Studies program in the U.S. is well known.
A few other humorous moments have followed the revelation of the “Littlest Hoax,” among them, first, the use of this review in actual student papers and/or theses, a use which eventually led Prof. Mark Sample to contact the M/m editors to query them about the sources of the hoax. Their response to him was one I appreciate very much, as they cagily respect the significance of a fictitious character writing a review of a work of fiction.
But research soon revealed that his change in academic affiliation was the result of a bitter tenure decision fight, in which Alfonse Stompanato had played an especially unsavoury role. Still, Murray’s homepage is available to anyone who wishes to imagine it. And his competence in popular culture is amply documented by his essays in publications such as the American Transvestite and Ufology, not to mention Brüno. Who were we to reject the offer of a review from a respected and even popular colleague? Who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review . . . well, new fiction?
Bravo! Finally, there is a short exchange between Sample and the student whose reference to the review caught his attention, and no little embarassment ensues.
By the way, some folks have apparently tried to blow this up into a commentary on academia, peer-review, or the lack of audience for existing publications. And while I think there is much to be said about all of these, I don’t think there is anything much to glean from this instance, except for the fact that some people do not lack imagination or a willingness to carry out a prank. Which takes us back to the Peemster, of course…