Monday, May 02, 2011

The Pale King is brilliant and annoying

An odd thing about The Pale King that I guess speaks well of it is the fact that, when I came to the end, I found the ending to be something of a letdown. But what else would it be? It's an unfinished novel -- "An Unfinished Novel" is the subtitle! Maybe I expected it to seem finished, or at least unfinished in a satisfying way. But it doesn't, so. Just so you know.

The Pale King, which is David Foster Wallace's final, unfinished novel, comprises a main narrative involving the IRS interspersed with smaller, semi-unrelated or totally unrelated short stories. One of these mini-stories quite near the beginning of the book, is sort of a perfect distillation of some major Wallace themes, about a middle-school boy who is so considerate and so well-adjusted and so good that everyone loathes him, and then feels guilty and confused about their loathing, which in turn drives them all even more insane around him. It is a perfect little piece. It is also something like 10 pages out of more than 500. If you are undecided about this book or about Wallace, I would advise you to go to Barnes & Noble and read that story, which is chapter 5, and maybe just leave it at that.

The thing about reading David Foster Wallace in general and certainly The Pale King in particular is that, not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of unnecessary words and pointless digressions. Part of the point of his prose style is to flatten consciousness out in this way that allows for endless recursive self-awareness. It is prose cubism, dramatizing the way we are all always experiencing a near-infinite number of things at once -- external stimuli like sights and smells, awareness of our bodies i.e. hunger or feeling warm, consciousness, consciousness-of-consciousness, memories, etc. etc. He's not wrong! But actually reading all of it can be, well, kind of annoying and tedious.

At times! Not all the time! Still, it is not a great situation when there are long sections of this book that you really don't actually need to read. And I don't think we can pin that on the unfinished manuscript's editor, Michael Pietsch, because the fact is that it is a problem in most of DFW's writing***.

This Slate write-up is a good one, and nails a) the quantum leap between Girl With Curious Hair and Infinite Jest and b) the reason Wallace is so appealing to lit nerds, which is that he is both totally native to the world of hyper-educated academia and also sort of impatient and dissatisfied with it. He's got the cred, and he also captures that feeling that there must be more than this. Not coincidentally, the fact that he's native to the world of graduate-school seminars is also why he inspires real hatred from some people, possibly/probably/obviously a function of intellectual status-anxiety. Luckily it is not necessary to be either a fanboy or a hater. You can be an admirer with reservations, which is what I advise.

But seriously. You try reading the first couple of pages of The Pale King and not having your knees buckle. Here is the way the novel opens:
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 ... all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek.
I mean, damn. (By the way, notice the echoes of the opening lines of Finnegan's Wake there. Pretty.) And that is just part of what you get with a work by Wallace: You argue with it and feel infuriated even as you also fall under its spell. It's writing that can repel you and then also make you feel very special and cared for. Undeniable and also kind of maddening.

Background: Here is me, soon after his death, on my relationship with David Foster Wallace. Here is a longish review of Consider the Lobster I wrote in 2006 for Stop Smiling.

*** This is kind of an aside, but I think there is a sly joke in the fact that, with only a couple of exceptions, the only sections of the book that have footnotes are those written in the voice of an author-stand-in character named David Wallace, who claims repeatedly to be speaking as the "real" Wallace, but isn't. Putting footnotes throughout these sections and only these sections is sort of a funny way to indirectly poke fun at his own reputation.


KT said...

Honestly, I read Infinite Jest and it did nothing for me, so I've never tried him again. It was actually the first book I ever read that I disliked enough to sell when I'd finished. But I read it the summer before I started college, so given what the linked Slate article said, maybe it wasn't targeted for me at that stage. It also sounds like, if the thesis behind that article is true, maybe I wouldn't be very receptive to his writing in other ways. The intellectual formalist trappings that are apparently credibility-building are something I have a hard time taking seriously and frequently get annoyed by instead.

KT said...

Oh yeah, so my reason for posting was, I always tend to feel like something is wrong with me for not "getting" DFW. Just wondering if you had thoughts on where the disconnect might be, considering I do tend to enjoy lots of other literature. Or if you think I should try again now that I'm older, or if there's a different book you'd recommend starting over with.

Rob said...

Oh well that is easy: You've got to read the title essay in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." It's a great piece. It's hilarious, makes good points, shows off his style. If you enjoy it, maybe it'll be a bit of a way in to other DFW stuff. If you don't like that one, then he's just not for you.

KT said...

Awesome, I'll add it to my list! Thanks.

MPP said...

I'm really not interested in Pale King, the excerpts I've seen have just been completely tedious. I get that that's kind of the point, an exploration of monotony and boredom, but I don't think I want to read 900 pages of that. The short story you highlighted was something I think I heard him read around 2001. If it's the one I'm thinking of it's pretty funny. Thanks for the review though, I'm not sure I could get through it.