Image courtesy of Little, Brown & Company
The flap copy on the inside cover of The Pale King refers to the book that would have been a novel as "David Foster Wallace's last and most ambitious undertaking." This seems, from one angle, an unconditional truth. What else but finality could give rise to the dread I felt during the activity of every page's turn? How else to explain that final wallop to my gut, like a marine's boot, when I reached the last? And kudos to he or she who can devise a more ambitious pursuit than attempting to entertain by way of the very subject, boredom, defined by entertainment's absence.
But from a slightly different perspective, the flap's claim appears at least halfway dishonest. The "tornadic" shape of this project, with its many voices swirling in gracious nod to our region's meteorology, lacks the complex intricacy of the author's last novel, a gorgeous world that not only sprawled with more indulgence, but aimed for infinite divisibility and fractal self-similarity. Likewise, once we have read and marveled over what exists of The Pale King today, the assertion that this might be his "last undertaking" smacks of myopia. Lengthy incubation aside, the true wonder of this book is the many ways it works to map the author's sprawling intellectual and moral project—spanning three(ish) novels, three story collections, two books of essays, a history of infinity, and what's got to be the most widely circulated commencement address in the history of secondary education.
So, and appropriately, we're reminded of what Wallace considered the saving grace of this sometimes hopeless-seeming era of human existence: we, each of us, get to decide how we're gonna try to see it.
As you by now know, The Pale King is the book David Foster Wallace was writing at the time of his death in September of 2008. Much of the manuscript was discovered by his widow and his agent as they explored his garage office, 250 pages waiting on his desk, all but spotlighted from above. You've been informed that unlike Kafka, Nabokov, or Paul Auster's Hector Mann, Wallace wanted this project to exist after his death, and to be read. How Michael Pietsch, his editor, flew to LA and bundled these and many other pages, notebooks and hard drives and floppy disks (!!!) into a duffel bag and flew back to New York and set to work.
As you might also know, Wallace had been working on this "undertaking" (and one could rightly be suspicious of the grim sheen to this promotional claim, and wonder just what part of the consumer consciousness Little, Brown & Co. might be playing to capitalize on the author's own grim end—or one indeed can help, and not suspect, or wonder; some will be forced to choose) for a very long time. Ten years ago, I heard Wallace read fragments that would become pages 29–35 and 394–407 of this book's 547. Nor is it difficult to imagine certain stories from Oblivion, including "The Soul is Not A Smithy," perhaps "Mister Squishy," and even "Incarnations of Burned Children" fitting well into this "long thing," as Wallace would refer to the book as he worked.
You've heard that this is a book about boredom, and the potential for transcendence that exists beyond the featureless horizon of boredom's endless Midwestern field. That if we fight our instincts to distract ourselves from the reality of our adult lives, which are not by nature "fun," and instead pay complete and focused attention to that reality, boredom might reveal to the most focused of us a kind of heaven, a constant atomic bliss.
If you've read any Wallace at all, you'll rightly assume that sections of this book are very funny, while others find traction in the kinds of deep, stultifying sadness at which we shiver. He writes on happiness, adulthood and infantilism, embodiment, double binds, and our infinite gradients of human violence. As elsewhere, he addresses the rewards we feel during and after good behavior (fulfillment, pleasure, a fuzzy self-satisfaction), and the threats they pose to our concept of selflessness. How sustained pursuit of such self-reflection can land us in a kind of ethical prison, paralyzed.
Wallace trained readers to expect many voices, which we have here, and some will recognize the claim that "every love story is a ghost story," or the way a character levitates, a la Lyle in E.T.A's weight room (Infinite Jest), and the climax of "John Billy" (Girl With Curious Hair). We'll encounter an infuriating legal claim that is at once completely absurd and "difficult to refute," much like the fatalism Wallace sought to disprove as an undergrad. We watch in awe as he expands his long-running dissertation on prettiness, taking it, somehow, to terrain that feels both familiar and completely new.
Nor will you be surprised that The Pale King is about America and our hyper-advanced economic system. About the paradox of our nation, a unit proudly singular, united and indivisible, and yet premised on a religion of individual freedom. How our deification of independence has opened moral and legal gateways to acts of grotesque selfishness. Perhaps you've seen interviews like this one from 2003, in whose first five minutes the author distills his American challenge. (And note the smile he flashes at 1:34's "boring," knowing what the interviewer, truculent camera guy, and most everyone else could not.)
What you might not know is that The Pale King is also the most humanizing of Wallace's fiction, and that this is only somewhat due to the book's "memoir posing as a novel" narrative device. With Infinite Jest, so diverse are the challenges for a reader, and so prevalent are her struggles, that we forget, or deny, that it was constructed by a human, fallible mind working excruciatingly hard for our sake. Rarely has the novel-as-cathedral metaphor been more apt. But to read The Pale King is to see the author succeeding wildly, as we'd expect, as well as struggling. This, I believe, is important, and thanks in large part to one very inspired decision by publisher Michael Pietsch.
There's a smirkish irony to the role Pietsch played in this book's construction, given his famous battles with Wallace over revisions to the gargantuan manuscript of Infinite Jest. In the editor's note that prefaces TPK, Pietsch addresses his task. Assembling the fragments from the garage into some nature of whole, "was grievous at first," he told the BBC, "and then was exhilarating." (Does this sound a bit too similar to the book's theme? Should we question his intentions? Isn't it Pietsch, probably, who wrote the flap copy?) He shaped the book's sequence and made editorial changes for consistency. Throughout, his only sparring partner was the collection of notes left by Wallace, snips of a voice with which Pietsch, this time, could not argue. Much is left rough by design. "Working on it was the best act of loving remembrance I was capable of," he says.
While most of Pietsch's work will go unnoticed if not unappreciated, the final section of the book makes his role overt. These eight pages of "Notes and Asides" operate with a dramatic retroactive effect. The result is something like the way "Adult World (II)," from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, sucker punches a reader with its stripped schematics and barren language.
So accustomed are we to seeing Wallace's ideas spun like cotton candy, wrapped within layers of architectural syntax and specialized diction, that these exposed thoughts are nothing short of a revelation. Taking “Adult World (II)”'s creative outline one step further, these eight pages offer genuine notations meant for no eyes but the author's own, a monologue of possibility and meaning. Is this an invasion of privacy? Depends, once more, on how we choose to look at it.
There is precedence for such revelation in Wallace's work. The story "Octet," whose final, revealing segment professes to have been born from frustration with other pieces that "just plain didn't work," circles around the fundamental paradox of fiction writing—the pursuit of truth, or at least something that feels true, by way of lies. But so dense are the story's tiers of metatextual performance, so elastic is any "truth" we encounter, it's less a case of discerning what to take at face value as confronting a parade of faces, all the author's and each with head tilted and eyebrows raised, as if to say, come on.
And ditto for The Pale King's faux-memoir conceit, wherein "David Foster Wallace," the alleged author of what he claims is "basically a nonfiction memoir" despite his "specific dream…of becoming an immortally great fiction writer a la Gaddis," who nonetheless promises that "any features or semions that might appear to undercut (the book's) veracity are in fact protective legal devices." He goes on to claim that, "In some ways, you could say that my literary ambitions were the chief reason I was on hiatus from college." While as a matter of fact, those who "know" Wallace (the human being) best know that the true cause of his hiatus from his actual sophomore year of college was for his first serious confrontation with depression. We also "know" how terribly he sweats; because we've read of the towel he carried with him to hide the attacks (we'll see this, too, in a character, but not "David Foster Wallace"). Here's an author not only flying in the face of biographical fact, but managing to play with the rather strange (for him) reality that readers know these details at all. It all gets, as he says in the video above, complicated.
Which is why Pietsch's decision to include the "Notes and Asides" proves so monumental. Here is material we can treat without reservation as honesty, unvarnished and private. After 538 pages of stunning but inconsistent writing that creates a partially formed world cut by deep ravines and gaping holes, we walk tightrope-style across plotlines that do not exist, and in fact might never have. We at once extend storylines beyond the "novel" and see how easily they might have been abandoned. Themes are coalesced into single sentences. We turn back to the chapter noted and re-read with new eyes.
One likely result of these notes' inclusion is that discussions of this book will end up focusing more on craft than literature. Among the many ways The Pale King proves worthy of posthumous release is by granting readers permission to discuss Wallace's artistic strategies. The holes in this book, its "flaws," serve as doorways behind which churned the empathy machine itself. So when we encounter a narrative double-bind or paradox, we're more likely to consider how it functions to the author's professed goals, creating a kind of trap or prison that the reader feels mimetically, a binding we experience along with the character so bound, but only in concept. A reader feels this trap without the narrative claustrophobia of true confinement, as with a very young narrator, say, or a narrator of severely limited brain functioning. The Wallace of The Pale King is less interested than ever in torturing his readers. And it's clearer than ever that the true artistic value of the double bind is the chance it provided Wallace to expose for a reader the ways that reader is him or herself trapped, planting spotlights on our cell's many bars, but keeping them on a dimmer.
Could we have seen this already? Perhaps. But like the smile in the video above, now we both see and know. Previously, to have this sort of procedural conversation apropos of Infinite Jest would be something akin to discussing techniques of chisel sharpening while staring at Bernini's The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Here we're given access to the "last and most ambitious" novel of an American genius, though not as an iconic object to be admired, but a work of attempted and fallible art.
Limitations, or at least challenges, abound in the form of the book we have here. "How unfinished is this novel?" Pietsch asks in his introduction. "How much more might there have been?" It is a formidable readerly challenge connecting to characters without a final sense of why. As we're told, "Information per se is just a measure of disorder." Take the boy who endeavors to bypass all natural physical limitations to himself, and goes to grotesque and torturous lengths to press his lips to every inch of his own body—is this the ultimate act of dedication and discipline? Or the ultimate act of self-love? What to make of the Christ-like gaps in these characters' stories? How does the cool, affected boredom of earlier stories—"Look bored," we're told in "Forever Overhead"—stand in relation the crushing boredom of American labor? And how, knowing what we know, are we supposed to be adults, fully formed people, when everything we see is fragmented and how…
But I have gone on longer than planned. I hope I haven't spoiled anything, though I also don't believe this book is even remotely spoilable. I began this review wanting badly to tell you how the genius of The Pale King is less literary than personal. I wanted to explain the experience of reading it, which I understand now is very hard, like trying to describe the color green. I have used far too many words to make a simple point: this book marks an extremely important moment in American literature, when David Foster Wallace—who we know was Dave to students and friends and everyone but the vast majority of us who could only love his writing, not the man, though some claimed to—published a book that moves, as he had always hoped, beyond metafiction, into an artistic mode transcendent and truly shared, call it what you will. Because you, of course, could have a totally different perspective on all of this. If so, I will try very hard to understand.
Kyle Beachy can be found on the web—where else?—at kylebeachy.com.