The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown. 560 pp. $27.99.
Lonely & Hysterical: The Pale King and the Terrifying Demands Upon It
I’ll assume you’re like me: under 40, college-educated, an avid reader, mostly of literary fiction, raised on pop music and junk food, and living somewhere near an American city, or perhaps abroad. I’ll bet you grew up middle-class in a relatively stable family, whatever that means, and that sometime in mid-adolescence you started digging, culturally. Maybe you got in to indie rock or backpack rap, pulp sci-fi or comic books, movies by Cronenberg or Fellini. But even with all this fancy new stuff in your brain, I’ll bet you still remember the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song and full scenes from The Simpsons and Life of Brian. A bit older, you’re now disgusted by the American political process but still addicted to coverage of it. Furthermore, I’m nearly certain that this essay is only the most recent piece of Pale King coverage you’ve read over the last few months, and that this coverage constitutes only the most recent phase of David Foster Wallace think-pieces you’ve read since he hanged himself in September ’08. You probably even contributed to the Internet pile-on, as I inevitably did.
For people like you and me, and for many of the writers we admire, Wallace continues to be a kind of North Star, and the closest thing we have to a public spokesman. This relatability was his gift; surely he’s the most “difficult” writer to ever elicit so much intensely personal devotion. Pynchon has cultists, DeLillo has acolytes, Coover and Hawkes and Gass have proselytizers, but none have full-on disciples like Wallace. He alone had legions who wanted to befriend him, confess to him, or buy him a beer, because no other writer of our time quite expressed, with such wit and bombast, what it was like to be someone like us: to be disdainful of consumerism but incapable of truly rejecting it; to be smart but unconvinced that intelligence would grant us happiness or stability, or even a job; and of course, to be alive at a time when pharmaceutical breakthroughs made “happiness” or “stability” the expected—if still frustratingly elusive—mental state for functioning adults.
This last challenge was of particular consequence to Wallace, but the circumstances of his death naturally elicited widespread discussion of his work’s bleaker qualities, at the expense of its joy, humor, and moral intensity. In the years since his suicide, Wallace, who was described as an emotionally stunted “Tin Man” and proprietor of “hysterical realism” even by admirers like Walter Kirn and James Wood, has become the patron saint of Information-Age existential despair. “David Foster Wallace captured the essential loneliness of American life, but he couldn’t escape it,” read a characteristic obituary subhed, in Time. The Boston Phoenix eulogy reminded us that “DFW was oft lauded for being funny. But his great strength was not provoking laughs; it was provoking horror.” Bloggers everywhere, naturally devastated, seemed to agree. Through a combination of revisited interviews, targeted readings of his published work, and knowledge of his violent, tortured end, Wallace’s mourning cult repositioned him as the depressive genius who died for our collective overeducated emo-ness.
The Pale King follows a recent spate of Wallace-related publications, but if it has a purpose beyond the writer’s continued Tupacification, it must be to help us appreciate the impulses that drove him to write in the first place—and perhaps in doing so, we’ll let him off the cross. First of all, we should be honest about what The Pale King is, since Little, Brown has misleadingly labeled it “An Unfinished Novel.” It is not a novel, unfinished or otherwise, nor does it point the way towards a structure, plot, or coherent style that Wallace might have developed had he written more. The Pale King is a sketchbook, or perhaps more accurately, a third party’s distillation of thousands of sketches.
Editor Michael Pietsch is honest about his efforts in his introduction; in the wake of the tragedy, he was handed a stack of twelve chapters labeled “Advance for LB?” by Wallace before the suicide, along with various boxes, bags, and disks all filled with material for a potential novel called The Pale King. None of us, not even Pietsch, who edited Wallace since Infinite Jest, has any idea of what this stash of material was destined to be. Even the twelve chapters that might have elicited an advance are, at best, suspect. For one, there’s that question mark; had he lived another day, might Wallace have balked and not sent it at all? In any case, The Pale King is now a 548-page hardcover document, only a small portion of which was even considered by its author to be ready for outside eyes—and Pietsch doesn’t even bother to tell us which portions those are. We can guess; a number of these chapters are more finished-seeming than others, and a few even appeared in magazines or public readings before Wallace’s death. But Pietsch also informs us that he’s shuffled the deck, beginning the book with a lyrical natural sketch that Wallace never once intimated would be the opening of his novel, for example.
If nothing else, this hodgepodge offers a rare sense of Wallace’s experience at the desk. And I’m neither pleased nor excited to say that I got little else out of reading The Pale King. There are of course beautiful passages, some gracefully executed grammatical contortions, and moments of observation that truly sting and sing. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that Wallace was struggling mightily with this book, and the published version very often shows how. Much of it is didactic and thematically redundant, and if you ever felt that even Wallace’s polished work could have been cut down, you’ll be unsurprised at how long-winded he could be before outside editing really began. The Pale King lurches and grunts over thematic territory that Wallace had already traversed with relative grace—in Oblivion, in his cheaply repackaged Kenyon commencement address, and in his more prognostic essays and interviews. He was obviously keen to make a major statement about our era’s psychological terror, and I suspect it was the “major” that doomed this whole project, if not its author. David Foster Wallace was always his own harshest critic, and The Pale King marks the first time we’ve seen him crack under that pressure rather than transcend it.
So far as I can tell, Wallace’s reputation as the bard of grad-schooled, post-Boomer isolation can be traced to an interview he gave to Larry McCaffery in the Summer 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction. Here’s where we first see the sentiment that informed much of the post-suicide coverage:
I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.
He repeated this sentiment many times throughout the years, telling Salon’s Laura Miller in 1996, for example, “I feel unalone—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.” This has always struck me as too suspiciously Hallmark-y to stand as Wallace’s last word on the subject, and I say that as a person who indeed felt nourished and conversed-with when reading Infinite Jest. Later in the McCaffery interview, he acknowledges,
I have a grossly sentimental affection for gags, for stuff that’s nothing but funny, and which I sometimes stick in for no other reason than funniness. [And] I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself . . . Seems to me that both of these problems are traceable to this schizogenic experience I had growing up, being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other… Because, of course, TV’s “real” agenda is to be “liked,” because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison. I’ll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it’s serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader “Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!”
Even in this relatively adolescent period of his career, he had a more complex sense of his own artistic purpose than any one quote could convey. Tragic suicides tend to shut the door on reputations for complexity, however, at least the kind where the deceased is allowed to be both tortured and genial in hindsight. And so we get, for example, D.T. Max in The New Yorker following the death, quoting a list of brand-name medications from “The Depressed Person” to assert flatly, “Depression often figured in his work.” It certainly did, but almost never to forgive Wallace’s own bleak feelings. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I found “The Depressed Person” unreadably sad when I first tried it, but I revisited it in light of my own first genuine depressive episodes, and discovered that it’s one of Wallace’s funniest stories. Not funny like the “gags” of Infinite Jest (the cheap pun of “O.N.A.N.,” the terrifying squeaks of the oncoming wheelchair army), but funny in the way that Wallace himself described Kafka’s humor in Consider the Lobster: “The really central Kafka joke,” he wrote, is “that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that struggle.” And thus: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating that pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”
Like any purported “voice of a generation,” Wallace was attuned to the ways in which we’d gone astray, but if he merely articulated the sensation of depression, I doubt we’d revere him in the way we do. But “The Depressed Person” isn’t just about sadness; it’s about the fear that one’s sadness is all there is to one’s personality. It’s about sadness mixed with self-consciousness, and we recoil at the protagonist for the same reason we relate to her: she might be suffering, but she’s also a horrific narcissist, enough so that she can’t be sure of the source of her own torment. She’s the perfect embodiment of the DSM age: a person with potentially unlimited knowledge of her possible mental problems, but who knows this knowledge won’t help relieve the pain at all. Wallace understood this cruel circumstance, and addressed it more consistently than any writer before or since. This is ultimately why we read him so voraciously, and with such gratitude. And it’s why he continually expressed skepticism of his own literarily “intellectual” impulses. In 1999 he talked to Amherst magazine about the limits of brainy fiction:
There’s some top-shelf literary fiction I find moving—David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is one, and Power’s Operation Wandering Soul—but it’s more a more complicated kind of ‘moving’ because this stuff involves cerebration and aesthetic apprehension and so on. Cerebration may produce a richer and more sophisticated kind of “moving” but it’s not the kind of stomach-punching emotion I guess I associate with ‘move.’ The truth is I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as purely ‘moving’ as the end of The Velveteen Rabbit when I first read it.
For two decades, Wallace alternated between essays and interviews that decried obliquity and smart-assery in fiction, and fiction that was considered, not always unfairly, to be oblique and smart-ass. And in this tug-of-war, we see a kind of creative analogue to the Depressed Person’s struggle: He claimed to value honesty and reader-writer connection above all other literary virtues, yet he regularly interrogated his own inability to achieve those things because of writerly narcissism (defined to McCaffery as “sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them,” all of which could be used to describe certain of Wallace’s fictions throughout the years).
Wallace’s critical, argumentative essays (“Authority and American Usage,” “E Unibus Plurum,” “Some Remarks on Kafka…” “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”) and explicative interviews allow us to read his more “hostile” fictions in a sympathetic light; we can forgive the endless, taxing build-ups of Oblivion, for example since we’re aware that these stories come from a noble place. The Pale King is less immediately challenging than that book, and so the goodwill assumption is that Wallace was trying to communicate even more directly in this new novel. But while The Pale King isn’t superficially difficult to read, it’s very clear that Wallace was struggling primarily with his book’s thematic and philosophical crux, not with its characters or setting or other more reader-friendly components. Yet again, he found himself consumed by a sense of what fiction should do, to the detriment of more incidental concerns.
The Pale King often feels like a grab bag of Wallace styles, as if he was trying to hit his thematic target using every weapon in his arsenal. The most successful sections all concern individual characters—a woman who grew up in a trailer park, a young boy whose unflagging niceness makes him the bane of his small town, a Christian teenager confronting his girlfriend’s pregnancy, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to her one-time psychological counselor—and in these chapters one senses Wallace making good on his purported commitment to directness and showoff-free fiction. (He’d achieved this directness before, of course, most recently in “The Suffering Channel” and “Good Old Neon,” but never for an entire book.) He was never greatly concerned with plot per se, but Wallace was always a hyper-alert reporter and an obsessive cataloguer, not to mention a reader and teacher of poetry. In the trailer park, on a park bench, in the fields of central Illinois, Wallace writes paragraphs that I never wanted to end, and descriptions so syllabically diverse that I marveled at the mundane: “She could fingerpaint in the soot on the kitchenette’s rangetop. In incendiary orange to the deepening twilight in the smell of creosote burning in the sharp hills upwind.”
But then: pages, literally hundreds of them, picking apart minute details of fictional bureaucratic maneuvers; long didactic essays, framed as dialogue, on the American social contract and contemporary perversions thereof; endless footnoted chapters wherein “the author,” David Wallace, explains how this book is actually a fictionalized memoir of a summer spent working at the Peoria IRS office (it’s not; so much for directness). In these moments, the sheer joy of words is secondary to Wallace’s neurotic, unsure attempt to convey a rather pedestrian theme. The Pale King has something to say about boredom, and how obsessive attention to seemingly unimportant details is a useful, even “heroic” means of transcending the unceasing din in our own lives and heads. It’s a version of the pro-AA, pro-”cliché” argument he advanced in Infinite Jest and at Kenyon. I’m not sure this notion is true to begin with, but Wallace is most convincing when actually imbuing the mundane with some level of vibrancy, rather than mimicking the dull hum of office culture and federal documents.
Wallace’s best work thrived on a fundamental contradiction: he sought complex, intellectually challenging forms that might express basic truths. And he wasn’t always able to strike that balance, at least not in his fiction. The Pale King is essentially Wallace’s final, unsuccessful attempt to define an almost Protestant, reactionary value system for our irony-besieged, largely atheist cohort, in our own syntax. I was aware on nearly every page of the work that Wallace must have done—studying tax law, developing his characters’ inner lives, and foremost, thinking about boredom with a seemingly monastic devotion. It’s as if he were once more trying to atone for his occasional flippancy and stylistic extravagance, and once more echoing his own Depressed Person:
The depressed person therefore urged her terminally ill friend to go on, to not hold back, to let her have it: What terms might be used to describe and assess such a solipsistic, self-consumed, bottomless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared to herself to be? How was she to decide and describe—even to herself, facing herself—what all she had learned said about her?
We can rightfully guess that Wallace, like his friend and foil Jonathan Franzen, was further emboldened to create fiction by the constant accusations of its irrelevance that have appeared over the last couple decades. Wallace’s work and public statements read like a 20-year argument that fiction could and should speak directly to the problems facing its readers—it should be “about what it is to be a fucking human being,” as he told McCaffery.
Wallace was so well-suited to his era precisely because, during the ’90s and ’00s, a good part of being fucking human involved sifting through seemingly endless information. And unlike a lot of fiction writers, he tried to find the proper response to that overload. In Infinite Jest, written pre-Internet and pre-iPod, the threat was entertainment. Like a lot of morally attuned speculative fiction, Jest seems simultaneously more dated and more prescient every year, but the argument that we Americans might amuse ourselves to death is as relevant now as it was when Neil Postman published a book with that title seven years before Wallace’s novel. If anything, we now have more resources for individual entertainment, and more discussion about the kind of culture-wide existential lonelyache that Wallace describes.
So why, then, did Wallace turn to boredom? And why, in his search to confront this purportedly fundamental contemporary nemesis, did he return to the all-too-recognizable past? The Pale King‘s actiontakes place in 1985, pre-cellphone, pre-PC, and ruthlessly analog. Its characters’ gruesome fate is to sit at their desks, double-checking deductions and pushing paper all day—and without even a break to check Google Reader or sports scores online.
Is this struggle more or less relevant to 2011 than Hal Incandenza’s struggle with weed and family pressure? Is it more or less relevant than the struggle for authenticity and understanding that haunts the narrator(s) of “Good Old Neon”? I try to imagine the future readers of David Foster Wallace, who will surely be sent back to his work with the promise that he was not only the most accomplished prose stylist of his time but also a serious moral voice during a technologically vertiginous moment. Perhaps, like us, they’ll recognize that the prose style—breathless, over-informative, self-incriminating—is in fact a function of the morality, and that the essays in particular display a commitment to understanding the complexity of people and things that folks like us were constantly invited to disparage or dismiss: television, political campaigns, flyover country, Christianity, pornography.
I have a feeling that these readers will come away from his work with a deeper understanding of who you and I were, much as we gained similar insights from The Sun Also Rises, Howl, or White Noise. They’ll know the particular reasons why it was difficult to feel truly fulfilled and genuine during the turn of the century, and the different coping mechanisms we employed, including Wallace’s books. And they’ll see the arc of those books, from the author’s initial recognition that all was chaos, to his assertion that we needed to reclaim awe and honesty to combat the chaos, to his subsequent hobbyhorse that we really just needed to think harder about all the tiny bits of the chaos, and on to his final pronouncement that if we focused on one of those boring tiny bits for long enough, we could achieve some kind of happiness or grace. I suspect that, in this context, the author’s suicide might not seem as mystifying as it did for us. But it did very much mystify us, because Wallace’s understanding of our culture was so great that he made even dead end solutions to its ills look brave and worthwhile—at least on the page.
John Lingan is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Who Was David Foster Wallace? — All its horror and unbound power: David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men David Foster Wallace's writing has often and rightfully been lauded for its absolutely precise prose, its devices, and its footnotes and forms and aggressions. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the first collection of stories to follow the massive and career-defining Infinite Jest, he uses all just these skills to...
- Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Wallace’s Masterpiece Infinite Jest is clearly and without any doubt David Foster Wallace's masterpiece. More than that: it is the book—fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise—that will be looked back to when future generations want to understand millennial America. Like all books that reach this stature, it has gotten here through a mixture of...
- Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Better Left Unfed: Consider the Lobster and the Late Nonfiction Part of me believes that it is his nonfiction that will be predominantly read in the years ahead. Oh, everyone will talk a big game about Infinite Jest, but the primary means though which readers will actually encounter Wallace's actual language will be through his nonfiction. In part, this is...
- Who Was David Foster Wallace? — Beautiful Oblivion: Eighteen Notes In a YouTube interview, a lawyer and author of several books about English usage asks David Foster Wallace what he thinks of genteelisms—those multisyllablic, latinate, important-sounding words like “prior to” and “subsequent to” that substitute for shorter, often Anglo-Saxon, down-to-earth-sounding ones like “before.” Revealingly, the guy who majored in English...
- Who Was David Foster Wallace? — (An Homage to) the Difficult Birth and Endless Death of Attention A complex editor at a certain swanky standard-bearing New York magazine had this to exclaim when she heard I was writing some sort of long-view esteem piece on the enigma known familiarly as Dave, in the mid-tiers as DFW, and to those in the nosebleed sections as David Foster Wallace....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by John Lingan