So, the furore has died down now. Almost. A search on Google News no longer brings up a tornadic swirl of new reviews of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King, as was the case almost daily for a month after its publication in April. For several weeks, the story of the book’s genesis was told and retold: that the first two hundred pages of the manuscript were found neatly typed on Wallace’s desk after his death; that his editor Michael Pietsch visited and took the rest of the ‘book’, which comprised hundreds of pages of notes and fragmentary text, and over two years assembled them painstakingly into something approximating a novel. The world’s most respected literary publications assigned their critical heavyweights – The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, Salon’s Laura Miller, as well as a fair few authors such as Tom McCarthy, David Baddiel and Alex Preston – to try to skewer this biggest of literary fish. For, make no mistake, the publication of The Pale King was A BIG DEAL, making the kerfuffle around Nabokov’s The Original of Laura and the anticipation around the publication of new novels by (the very much alive) Bret Easton Ellis and Martin Amis last year seem trifling in comparison. So how what is it about David Foster Wallace that gets everyone so excited, and what should we make of The Pale King?
In the run up to D Day (that is, Dave Day: the day of The Pale King’s publication) a legion of howling fantods (hardcore DFW fans, for the uninitiated) and I would regularly check the internet for quotes, excerpts and early reviews. One day in mid-March we were rewarded with a piece for US Esquire by Benjamin Alsup. The article was fine in itself – a shortish appreciation, which didn’t reveal much more about the book than was already known: that it concerned the IRS in mid-West America; that it was about morality and citizenship. That it didn’t contain a linear narrative. But what really struck me was the illustration that came with it, which I have since printed off and stuck up at my desk. It is a caricature of David Foster Wallace beatified and immortalised in stained glass. Looking every bit the saintly ‘writer dude’, in his red shirt and blue jeans beneath a shining halo, DFW holds a copy of The Pale King to his sternum with his left hand and grips a pencil, wand-like, with his right. This illustration seems to me affectionate while gently satirising the relentless canonisation of DFW’s work since his death by suicide in 2007. But above all it seems true. Saint Dave. Of all the tricky, too-clever-for-their-own-good postmodern writers – Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, Gas, Delillo et al – Wallace is the most human. You can admire Gravity’s Rainbow, but does it make you cry (apart from with frustration?) Most people I know who have read Infinite Jest in its entirety speak of it with glazed-over wonder, and strive to articulate with a kind of broken ardour the strange psychological shift that takes place as you live with that mighty novel for a month (or however long), while it takes you to the centre of the human spiritual condition in a way that other books can’t. For all his obfuscation and difficulty, his wilful obscurity and bloody-minded willingness to present the reader with stultifying levels of detail, Wallace is also a writer capable of passages of great beauty: shimmering, lucid and emotional. By the end of Infinite Jest, the seemingly entropic amassing of detail makes a strange kind of sense: in aggregate, it effects something akin to a spiritual connection between the reader and the characters, in particular Don Gately. As with Ulysses, the weight and density of the text is entirely necessary – it is the scaffolding required to carry its message. This may all sound hyperbolic, but it should serve as a measure of how affecting Wallace’s work is, and go some way to explaining his reputation.
Infinite Jest was always going to be a tough act to follow. Various commentators have suggested that it was Wallace’s failing attempt to do so with The Pale King (failing, that is, to reconcile the post-postmodern literary apparatus available to him with the very urgent need to write fiction about ‘what it is to be a fucking human being,’) that led to his death by suicide in 2007. To my mind this view is wrongheaded and offensive: Wallace suffered from a severe mental chemical imbalance, a condition for which he had been treated for many years. He came off the medication he had been prescribed, found that he couldn’t cope, and worse, that the meds themselves were no longer effective when he returned to them. To conflate physiological disaster with failed literary striving is a romantic oversimplification. Nevertheless, we know that Wallace had a lot of trouble writing this new ‘big thing’ he had told his agent Bonnie Nadell and his publisher that he was working on. The results, as assembled for us in novel-shaped form, are predictably patchy, but there are sections that will make you marvel at Wallace’s ability, his sheer talent, and make you wonder why anyone else even bothers to try to write.
Of course, The Pale King is practically review-proof. As has been pointed out elsewhere, this is not an unfinished book in the sense that Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood is, where six out of twelve instalments of a cogent, linear narrative had been published before the authors’ death. In the case of The Pale King, after the first two hundred pages, the rest was collated from ‘hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks.’ Who knows how Wallace might have chosen to arrange this material had he lived? And of course, Wallace is not Dickens – his work is by its nature fragmentary: Infinite Jest stops rather than ends, refusing to tie up any of the loose ends of the story. Similarly, The Broom of the System finishes mid-sentence. The novella-length short story ‘Mr Squishy’ in Oblivion also ends without payoff for any of the plot-points set up. So it is practically impossible – and counterproductive – for anyone to try to guess ‘what would have happened’ had he finished it. Perhaps the book would have been radically revised. Perhaps whole sections recreated here would have been scrapped. Any discussion of the work must come with the caveat that it is entirely speculative as far as Wallace’s intentions are concerned. That being said, against all odds, Pietsch’s arrangement of the material is, for the most part, remarkably satisfying. There is a musical quality to this book, not just in terms of the prose, but of the sequence in which the sections have been presented: as in all the best novels, there is a kind of symphonic unity, a constant building and then abating of power, right up to the grand intensity of the final sections.
As previously stated, The Pale King concerns itself with the IRS, ‘a system composed of many systems.’ This in itself is likely to make the hearts of all but the most committed Wallace fanatics sink, and, in places, this book about ‘crushing boredom’ doesn’t stint on communicating this feeling to its readers. Wallace famously studied accounting while researching the book, and there are long sections detailing arcane elements of tax law. Of course, we get what Wallace is doing here and there is precedent – most of us have seen The Office on TV; many of us have read Joshua Ferris’ And The We Came to the End. We are familiar, also, with Kafka (The Castle is referenced more than once) and Melville’s Bartleby. Texts which satirise the mind-numbing minutiae of administrative tasks are common. Of course, Wallace the arch-postmodernist pushes this conceit as far as it will go and then some; for example in the sections written by ‘David Wallace,’ where the writer meta-mirthfully allows his stand-in to describe his initiation into the IRS in eye-burning detail, presenting us with nearly fifty pages of terrifying acronyms and tax formulae. As a writer, Wallace is fascinated with closed systems: Alcoholics Anonymous and the ETA tennis academy in Infinite Jest; the world of market research in ‘Mr Squishy.’ As readers we accept that in order to make these authentic, it is necessary for Wallace to lay the details on thick. More importantly, we understand that is a different kind of realism, that in the twenty-first century our lives are filled with extraneous detail and technical jargon. By giving us a surfeit of these, Wallace is both chronicler and satirist. There is also much humour here – the boring and the convoluted are exploded to cartoonishly boring and convoluted heights. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable element of reader-baiting in DFW. His books, their weight, their ant-like type, their many, many pages of footnotes, present us with a challenge: come and have a go if you think you’re erudite enough. This would be unforgivable (and for some readers it may still be) were it not for the characters, and for Wallace’s almost superhuman powers of observation and his command of language.
The Pale King opens – unexpectedly perhaps – with a description of the bucolic Mid-West. There is likely not another piece of writing so beautiful in all Wallace’s canon:
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 shimmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s quarter
cutgrass, sawbrier, nut-grass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion
foxtail, muscadine, spine-cabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie
butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass,
invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning
breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings
fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where
it is and steams all day A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses
in the distance standing rigid and as still as toys. All nodding. Electric
sounds of insects at their business. Ale-coloured sunshine and pale sky
and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow.
I quote at length because it is hard not to: the writing is tender and gorgeous. It is Wallace doing Thomas Hardy karaoke. It is for these moments of transcendence that we cleave to Wallace’s work like an addict to his substance of choice.
After this we are introduced to the selection of Wallacian oddballs who populate the novel. The first of these is Claude Sylvanshine, a tax examiner flying down to Peoria to perform a recce on the IRS centre there for his bosses. Sylvanshine is a ‘fact psychic’ – one who intuits ‘ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting’ data. The section describing his flight is a bravura piece of writing: his fear of flying, his tension about his job and his memories of ‘what occurred at the Service’s Rome NY Northeast Regional Examination Center’ are brilliantly interwoven. Next up, after a brief conversational skit on masturbation (natch) we have Leonard Stecyk, a child so perfect that he is hated by everyone he comes into contact with: ‘the principal loathes the mere sight of the boy but does not quite know why . . . [he] fantasizes about sinking a meat hook into Leonard Stecyk’s bright-eyed little face and dragging the boy face-down behind his Volkswagen Beetle over the rough new streets of the suburban Grand Rapids.’ Then, in one of the more deeply moving sections, we meet Lane Dean, whose girlfriend Sheri Fisher has fallen pregnant, and who is contemplating an abortion. We also meet Tori Ware, a girl brought up in a trailer park by a promiscuous, alcoholic mother. She is seemingly intent on endless mischief, described in oddly antiquated language, perhaps best described as Southern Gothic: ‘in these the mother’s absences with men the girl sent for catalogues and Free Offers which daily did arrive by mail with samples of products that people with homes would buy to enjoy at their leisure . . .’ Finally, we get a boy who suffers from terrible attacks of ‘heavy, unstoppable sweat.’ These, it transpires, are the back stories of the adults we are to meet later on, the tax examiners who populate the centre at Peoria. There is a something perfunctory about the ordering of these scenes: one can’t help but wonder if Wallace would have included them in this linear fashion, or indeed at all. It is interesting also to note that Wallace is as reliant as Charles Dickens, Martin Amis, Seth McFarlane and the screenwriters of almost any mainstream comedy film on using absurd foibles as a basis for character (Not a criticism by any means). Thus far, in spite of reviews to the contrary, this is an accessible and compelling read which is certainly more inviting to the reader than the commencement of Infinite Jest.
A standout scene, and one much-referenced both in pre-publication articles and in the subsequent reviews is the one in which an instructor referred to only as ‘the substitute’, on the ‘final regular class day of the term’, closes proceedings with an address which is distinguished as much by its seeming truth as by its bathetic, high-style rhetoric. This speech is – or at least is connected with – the moral centre of the novel. The substitute locates accountancy, with its extreme tedium, as an heroic profession: ‘Gentlemen . . . enduring tedium over real time in a combined space is what real courage is;’ and later, ‘True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer . . . to retain care and scrupulosity about each detail from within the teeming wormball of data and rule and exception and contingency which attends real-world accounting – this is heroism.’ There is of course great humour in the mock-heroic tone of this speech, but what makes it of particular interest is the way in which it is carefully cast in religious terms: the narrator (David Wallace) refers to a quote (‘the moral equivalent of war’) used in the presentation as ‘biblical’ – this is the first time he has ‘considered the term moral in any context other than a term paper’. Also, the substitute is continually referred to as ‘the Jesuit’. Even his appearance approaches the divine, ‘his face’s planes unshadowed in the white light.’ But accountants are also outlaws: ‘you have wondered, perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats. They are today’s cowboys.’ Jesus, too, was an outlaw, of course, and in this way the arcane rituals of tax accountancy are elevated to a level of devotion consistent with Christianity.
If one were to level criticism here it would be at the vast number of pages it takes Wallace – replete with comically pedantic clarifications from ‘Wallace’ – to make what is actually a fairly straightforward analogy between the mindless and repetitive nature of the modern workplace and religious observances of the past. Of course, Wallace’s project – and the project of postmodernism generally – is concerned with, amongst other things, the exploding of the moment – time made expansive, second by second. Were Wallace’s aim merely satirical, then this would get irksome after a while, but a section later on – perhaps the most fascinating and skillfully executed section in the entire book – persuades us that this is not the case.
Meredith Rand, with her ‘bottomless green eyes and exquisite facial bone structure and a creamy poreless complexion with almost no lines or signs of wear,’ is ‘totally, wrist-bitingly attractive,’ enough that she sends the majority of the men at the centre into a state of extreme nervousness. Shane Drinion, meanwhile, is thought of as ‘a very solid F and S corp examiner but a total lump in terms of personality, possibly the dullest human being currently alive.’ On a night out with colleagues, Meredith, intrigued by his apparent unaffectedness by her beauty, is moved to recount her life story to him. Apparently she spent several weeks in a psych ward as a result of her tendency to self-harm. Here she met the man who would become her husband – a counsellor who took a particular interest in her case. Soon, ‘Drinion appears considerably taller than he had when the tete-a-tete started.’ Concentrating so hard on what Rand is saying, he has begun to levitate from his chair. There is something oddly moving about this (although DFW undercuts this by ending the scene flippantly), not least because Rand, with her extraordinary attractiveness, is unused to inspiring such deep interest in others. There is, of course, an association between levitation and the divine: we think of the religious ecstasies of the saints, or Yogic masters. There is also a parallel to be drawn with Wallace’s description, in Infinite Jest, of the degrees of concentration afforded to the AA speakers at Boston meetings, with members sitting at the front covered in sweat from their efforts to take in every word and to really ‘identify with’ ‘the experience, strength and hope’ of the speaker.
In both texts, I would argue, this association between extreme concentration and something approaching a mystical state – the divine – is made explicit. This is linked with the substitute’s suggestion that submitting to the crushingly banal intricacies of accountancy is, in some way, a higher calling. Of course, Wallace’s fiction itself demands immersive concentration on the part of the reader. If one affords it this, then the dividends are similarly transcendental. His ability to detail human foibles with love and compassion can be extraordinary. The stained-glass portrait of Wallace in Esquire indicates that a growing number of people are coming to realise this.