[7 June 2011]
When David Foster Wallace hanged himself in despair, mental illness and anger in 2008, a series of things were set in motion, almost all regrettable.
(1) He became frozen into the weird mythology that attaches to famous artists who kill themselves, which mythology rarely has anything to do with how sad and hostile and upsetting suicide really is.
(2) A whole lot of people who had never really read his toughest, most interesting work became enamored of his shorter, snappier work and turned him into a hip icon.
(3) His suicide became a lens for all his old work, meaning that when you read his already published work again, you (the reader) would want to look for clues about the suicide, thus rendering the work kind of one-dimensional.
And (4) There would probably be posthumous, unfinished work, which work—hoo-boy—would be seen as suicide-drenched in the worst possible way.
It’s a formula for misunderstanding.
Which brings us to The Pale King, the 560-page unfinished novel by Wallace, recently published and (mostly) hastily reviewed, that has brought Wallace’s death and (now, yup, mythologized) life back into focus. In the book’s introduction, the editor of Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996), tells the story of how the author’s wife (Karen Green) and agent (Bonnie Nadell) asked him to try to assemble the scrambled component parts of his last, unfinished novel, found in his office after the fact. Michael Pietsch did this work, and now here it is, in our hands, unfinished but partly polished. Incomplete but at least with us. Good luck to us all.
A bunch of magazine stories and reviews on The Pale King pretty much said, “This book killed David Wallace.” But of course that’s hooey. Wallace was a depressed person with a long history of taking medication and needing medical care. He was trying to get off his medication, and it wasn’t going well. Yes, friends have told reporters that he wanted off the meds so he could be more productive on this book. But his last book deserves to be read, not autopsied. Its themes and serious concerns aren’t new to Wallace’s writing. There is no need to arrest it on probable cause.
The Pale King, like all of Wallace’s work, is funny and dead serious at once—stylistically brilliant and formally difficult. It’s markedly unfinished, but clearly worth reading as the mature work of one of the finest writers of the last 30 years. It contains hundreds of pages of crystalline writing: sentences, paragraphs and then whole sections that are precious like platinum. A few sections are extremely polished and magical, and other parts are early drafts, destined for improvement or exile.
What you won’t find in The Pale King is an intricately woven novel as detailed and coordinated as Infinite Jest. At least as Wallace left it to us (and even with the righteous work of his editor) The Pale King is incomplete and occasionally frustrating. The threads don’t quite connect. For readers hoping to feel the power and thrill of a Great Author moving you through a carefully conceived narrative—symbols flying and linking, ideas resonating in genuine coordination—look elsewhere. The man hadn’t finished The Pale King. Whole sections seem plainly missing. Nevertheless, what is here is intriguing and worth your investment of time and care.
The Pale King tells the story of an Internal Revenue Service Regional Examination Center (“REC”) in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985. The REC is on cusp of change, with new employees arriving around the same time, converging in what seems to be a portentous moment. Several higher-ups are focusing attention on how the incredibly boring but really important work of collecting taxes is done and how it could be done better.
We meet low-level examiners and we meet mid-level managers, the latter seeming to be the advance men for the higher-ups (almost entirely hinted at as men of legendary insight or vision re: how people can be incentivized to do really boring accounting work). There are long chapters that get us deeply involved in internal IRS politics and human resource issues. If it sounds dull, then be assured that it is a mite dull. But, as several characters point out, when you push through the boredom a bit, what sits on the other side of your sustained concentration is a kind of bliss.
Conventional wisdom has it that this book is about boredom—as a malignant life condition, and as a kind of metaphor for facing the really scary stuff that we spend the rest of our lives entertaining ourselves into ignoring. Wallace certainly addresses boredom directly in many sections, even giving us the term’s etymology and a discussion of the odd absence of a proper word for the condition until relatively recent times. And given that this is a book about IRS tax agents in the ‘80s, well, sure: it’s boring.
It’s also fitfully funny, touching, confounding, and written with the beautiful and mesmerizing rhythms that fans of Wallace’s will immediately recognize and lap up the way a dog attacks a bowl of cold fresh water after a long session of retrieving a tennis ball in the park. Which is to say, quickly and with joyous relish. But there’s also a good amount of flat dullness in the book’s 550 or so pages, what with whole sections being devoted to things like training IRS agents or detailed REC shop talk.
Boredom, however, is just a link in this book’s chain.
What The Pale King is really about is something that Wallace has been writing about for the better part of his career: the way in which people can become prisoners inside their own heads, or more particularly the way in which our fears and doubts—not to mention our own intelligence and analytic ability—can become a ping-pong ball bouncing around a very tiny and self-contained space, ricocheting back and forth with incessant, unintentional and really soul-sucking power and precision. The Pale King is about self-consciousness as a disease, and therefore it is about the promise and hope there may be in reaching beyond the self.
Wallace manages to imagine and reimagine this problem in new ways. For example, one character suffers from flop-sweat of epic proportions, a sweating problem that comes to dominate nearly every waking moment. It’s a wondrous and excruciating literary experience to follow this character’s narration as he monitors the temperature and climate in a room, including the likelihood that he is being looked at by a woman sitting behind him, a woman who may or may not be extremely attractive and, therefore, raising his horror that she would be disgusted with his sweat. The higher his internal horror, the worse his impending sweat problem grows—but turning around to either verify the woman’s beauty pageant-level equisiteness (or debunk it) is untenable, because to do so would be to risk that much more completely the sudden onset of the feared perspiration.
Even better is a seemingly climactic chapter in which many of the REC “wigglers” go out for a happy hour and we witness a long conversation between a near-autistic and super-literal male examiner and an extremely beautiful female examiner who explains her psychiatric history as a “cutter”, perpetually unable to believe in the authenticity of other people’s honest reactions to her because of “the prettiness thing”. No matter how often certain people (such as therapists) assure her that they are aware of her prettiness and are ignoring it—and indeed that her self-consciousness about her prettiness is her “core problem” that they are devoted to helping her overcome—she can never get around the possibility that raising this “prettiness thing” as a problem is precisely the kind of thing someone would do in order to gain her confidence and, presto-change-o, to get closer to her because of the prettiness. The near-autistic partner in this conversation, who seems immune both to her prettiness and to any personal self-consciousness because his social awkwardness is so radically extreme, is both more trapped inside his condition than the woman and, whoa, way more free because the do-loop inside his head doesn’t really exist.
This is brilliant stuff, and it’s riveting to read. But it’s also frustrating. First, I have to confess that I’m not sure that the dilemma that so obsesses Wallace here— morbid, wheel-within-a-wheel self-consciousness run amok—is nearly as big a problem for the average US citizen as it was for Wallace himself. The problem with The Pale King, I am positing, is not that it killed a great writer but that a great writer’s own problems became the narrowing factor for what might have been his greatest work. While Infinite Jest is also obsessed with this theme of being stuck inside one’s own head, it’s range of associations was wider and more universal.
Second, it’s frustrating that Wallace chooses to demonstrate his thesis almost exclusively by trapping his readers inside his story-telling styles. Most of the chapters in The Pale King are narrated either first-person as stream-of-consciousness voices, a single point-of-view telling a story or expressing a feeling from a very narrow perspective, or straight-up dialogue that isolates a single conversation between very few people with a bare minimum of set-up or framing. Wallace traps you in the head of these speakers, with little to no air for a clear breath of perspective. It’s not about tedium as much as it’s about the way in which our own intelligence and awareness can become a prison. That each chapter plays that role for the reader to some extent is not without irritation. More than a few readers will find themselves banging on the locked door of various chapters, begging to be let out.
The frustration of reading The Pale King is heightened by Wallace’s decision to lead readers to the edge of looming events but never to narrate those events truly. (We can presume that this was intentional rather than a product of the novel being incomplete because Pietsch includes at the end of the book many of the notes that Wallace left regarding the larger purposes and methods of the book. Wallace writes pretty clearly that this was the method of this book.) It seems intentional, then, that one chapter consists of an interrogation of an REC employee taking place after a company picnic at which, it seems, the iced tea was spiked with a hallucinogen—yet we never learn why this might have happened or how it happened. It’s intentional that the long chapter about the “prettiness thing” clearly implies that something dramatic and upsetting occurred between the autistic character and the pretty character, yet we never learn what. It’s intentional that a first-person narrator named “David Wallace” and referring to himself as the “author” enters the book a hundred pages in, explains to us that the book is actually a memoir couched (for legal reasons) as a “novel”, and then essentially disappears after several odd recurrences.
But if these purposeful dead ends and do-loops make The Pale King more of a chore to read, then they also make clear that this project is precisely the kind of large, worthy, ambitious project that the author of Infinite Jest ought to have been working on. Though Wallace had famously eschewed jokey post-modern hi-jinks in an effort to write about important human emotions like profound sadness, this work makes clear that he was still willing to use all his tools—from post-modern self-awareness to humor to traditional realism to surrealistic juxtapositions—to reach further. Wallace risked alienating his readers with all this “play” because he intended The Pale King to involve readers, to swarm over them as an experience, rather than merely entertain. Just as in Infinite Jest entertainment, the easy path, is a dead end.
In one of the most involving threads in The Pale King, the reader meets a young girl who is riding with her unstable mother in a vehicle she has just stolen from her awful boyfriend, with the boyfriend coming toward them from behind in retributive anger. The mother rolls the vehicle on the side of a highway, and the boyfriend smashes through the windshield to determine if the mother and daughter are dead. He ends the mother’s whimpers by cutting her throat. The daughter, whose eyes are open, realizes that the only way to survive is to stare, unblinking, at the man, as if dead. And the key to not blinking for an extended period, we learn, is to push through the tedious and incredible discomfort of your eye drying out, resisting with total conscious control of all normal impulses, until the eye—viola!—lubricates itself. At the end of self-consciousness and deeply hard tedium, Wallace suggests, is something bigger.
In The Pale King, Wallace’s brilliance and singularity as a US novelist is made plain as the Midwest prairie.
He’s not as madcap as Pynchon, nope, but he’s also not as Plain Jane as his brilliant buddy Jonathan Franzen. The Pale King wipes away any doubt as to whether David Foster Wallace intended to be—and most certainly was—the most ambitious and daring American writer of our time. This baby, had it been completed, was likely to be a fully loaded cruise ship, set sail for your heart and brain with every possible supply on board.
For those inclined toward Wallace, or even just inclined toward large, ambitious literary novels generally, The Pale King is a sensation, an event, a happening—flaws and all. All aboard.