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Books  |  Reviews

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

[Little, Brown and Company]

April 15, 2011  |  11:15am
<em>The Pale King</em> by David Foster Wallace

The graying prince

In Chapter 6 of The Pale King, a character named Lane A. Dean Jr. sits on a picnic bench in the early morning, surveying visible evidence of a fierce storm from the previous night. He’s waiting for his 19-year-old girlfriend, whom he does not love. Like Lane, she is Christian. Their conversation will reveal whether the girl intends to keep an appointment scheduled later that afternoon to abort their child.

The chapter, one of the only excerpts of the novel-in-progress book Wallace deemed good enough to be published while he still lived, is emblematic of pivotal scenes in The Pale King. Wallace describes one specific moment as a catalyst that changes a character from a rootless or troubled adolescent to a responsible adult who, let’s say, ends up working for the IRS for the rest of his life.

Lane waits for the signal from his girlfriend that will set the course for the rest of his life. He hopes to hear her say she is going to have the abortion. He knows in his Christian heart that he shouldn’t hope for that — can’t hope for that — without being damned. He suddenly has a vision of what hell could actually be like:

“It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or never battle — the armies would stay there like that, motionless, looking across at each other and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, they could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their faces looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time. Two hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.”

The Pale King is, of course, Wallace’s long-awaited, wildly anticipated, posthumous novel. The author’s longtime friend and editor Michael Pietsch writes, “At the time of David’s death, in September 2008, I had not seen a word of this novel except for a couple stories he had published in magazines, stories with no connection to accountancy and taxation.”

In the two weeks since the book was prematurely ejaculated by Amazon before its official publication date of April 15th (Tax Day of course), much has been made of how The Pale King is about American ennui — taxes, IRS workers, boredom, and how important it is to choose to pay attention to the right things in order to simultaneously live with boredom and its opposite, overstimulation. Wallace described the latter at infinite length in Infinite Jest and later referred to overstimulation as the overwhelming “total noise” of our time, this in his introduction to the 2007 edition of Best American Essays.

I won’t disagree that Wallace set out to tackle boredom as a topic when he began this book, which he estimated was about one-third finished before his death. Assigning such a clear and focused mission statement to this disparate assemblage of unfinished excerpts, some much more highly polished and moving than others, is one thing. Calling the collage of fragments and fictional setpieces Pietsch has so lovingly taken the time to arrange a novel … that’s another.

Wallace had two pet peeves about the success of his last novel, Infinite Jest. These were a) talking to reporters who had not read the book — who were reporting not even on the book but on the hype around it — and b) reading work of reviewers Wallace felt had not read the book closely enough. Discussing the smash success of Infinite Jest with Charlie Rose in 1997, Wallace said:

Every writer dreams of attention, but the fact of the matter is that this is a long, difficult book, and a lot of the attention began coming at a time when — I mean I can do elementary arithmetic — a lot of people hadn’t had time to read the book yet. So, the stuff about me or interesting rumors that developed about the book and all that stuff getting attention, I didn’t like that very much just because I wanted people to read the book.

This reviewer feels more than a little of that attitude. Bombarded with reviews of The Pale King that came out so soon after I received my own review copy, each review with its unique spin on the same sound-bite (this final unfinished masterpiece was about transcendence through boredom or through attention, or both … and, oh yeah, taxes), and also the plethora of hype about the hype pieces following Amazon’s early release of the book, I wondered how many people writing about the book had actually read it … or really read it in a way Wallace would find adequate.

I made two difficult readings myself. Up for air, I don’t disagree that attempting to get to the bottom of boredom is a big part of this book, or that Wallace was really grappling with how to solve both boredom and distraction through a novel idea: If you just choose what to pay attention to, and stick with it, you can do anything and survive anything.

But let’s take the 538 pages before the more transparent notes and asides Pietsch adds as a kind of code-cracker at the book’s end … or the instructions for reading delivered by both a post-mortem Wallace and Pietsch in instructions-for-reading quotes from articles in major magazines preceding publication.

This big book of 2011 is about mostly the same thing as the two big books of 2010 — Freedom and A Visit From the Goon Squad. Yes, it’s about taxes … and taxing experience, but it’s also about how difficult it is for anyone who came of age after the 1960s to grow up and become a successful (happy, fulfilled) adult … not simply an overgrown child. Wallace was very honest about his own lifelong struggles with the issue. The Pale King is about aging, more specifically male aging, a subject certainly talked about less often in our culture (if ever) than female aging.

I’m moved to answer the question, “What is this book about?” largely because it was the first question Wallace instructed all of us to ask of any work of fiction when I was a student in his first fiction workshop at Pomona College in 2002. Wallace was not nearly as interested in the question, “What is this book trying to do?” — another big workshop staple. He believed the author himself, despite all his successful or failed attempts to spell it out, could miss answering that question.

This reviewer, and every student of Wallace’s I still contact, unanimously agree he was more than a great writer — David Foster Wallace was the most exceptional teacher any of us ever had. What did he teach us? Writing is one of the more important things a person can do if he or she really does it well. Writing is difficult. Writing can take many drafts to get to the heart of what you are trying to say. The more time you spend on a piece of writing, the better it will be.

It’s easy to see how such maxims, though useful and simple as the AA slogans Wallace embraced later in his life, become double-edged swords. It’s a relief to know we shouldn’t settle for brain vomit, hurled onto the page in its most infant, unfinished state. Yet it is also a curse to be told that if we just keep working on a draft, it can always be better, even at 20 drafts, or 30 or 40 drafts. Where does it end? Wallace was a champion of even the triple-digit draft for work you really cared about.

Pietsch, who painstakingly assembled the final book from boxes and Trader Joes’ bags full of handwritten first drafts and floppy disks that Wallace left in disorganized piles in the center of the garage where he wrote — the heaps, along with some neatly stacked typewritten pages, illuminated by the collection of lamps Wallace kept on while writing — comments at the end of his Editor’s Note:

Everyone who knew David knows how well he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his extraordinary standard. But an unfinished manuscript is what we have. How can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.

Pietsch is not exaggerating about Wallace’s perfectionism, or how unfinished this manuscript is. In a decision I think wise, Pietsch made very few edits, in an effort to preserve as much of the original material as possible. He did put sections together and make other administrative changes, such as keeping character names consistent. (Ever the great reviser, Wallace would sometimes rename a character in a new draft in hopes of hitting on something that seemed to fit.) As you’d expect, then, The Pale King is effectively an extremely uneven mélange. Pieces Wallace had polished to his satisfaction for publication before his death, such as the aforementioned Chapter 6 (published in The New Yorker under the title “Good People”) and the first chapter (published in TriQuarterly as “Peoria (4)”) really shine in a sea of less revised tax-centric prose. The rougher chapters having to do with taxes — there are hundreds of pages of tax and accounting information — make other tax-free sections positively glimmer and spark when they crop up. You may as well know that the writing about forms and regulations and tired, middle-aged men filling out forms and following regulations threaten, page after page, to swallow up the entire narrative and lull a reader to sleep.

One working title before Wallace settled on The Pale King was Glitterer. That may have been bitter irony, or it might have been that Wallace planned to have memorable moments of the novel stand out brightly from the dross of everyday routine and paperwork filling these pages. Is that approach true to human experience? Wallace always said he was chasing a true story of what it is like to be human.

In a twist that has been loudly labeled “postmodern,” a character named David Wallace appears at the start of the tax-centric Chapter 9 — the only chapter in the entire book with a title, “Author’s Foreword.” Pietsch, for whatever reason, opted to make this “foreword” a chapter —Chapter 9 — and not an actual introduction to the book. Likely, that’s because the section is not nearly as beautifully revised as the two-page tornado of description Pietsch gives us for the actual first chapter, which dive-bombs the reader right smack into the center of the Midwest, flannel plains, electric sounds of insects at their business, ale-colored sunshine and all. Wallace begins the early draft of the “Author’s Foreword” by announcing himself thus, “Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona.”

Postmodern and self-conscious enough for you? Yeah, okay sure. But so is reading a book of fragments left by a dead author to be assembled by a third party without any instructions. A posthumous work like this is the most literal possible manifestation of Roland Barthes’s famous scenario about the plane being the author and the smoke it leaves behind as it crashes being the work. Barthes instructed that a postmodern interpretation looks at only the smoke, not the plane. We have, under this reading, no way to know what the author intended, only words on pages and our own interpretations of those.

As the fictional David Wallace asserts in the “Author’s Foreword,” there are indeed two David Wallaces. (There are perhaps more, forever unknown to us now — Wallace’s most cryptic unexplained footnote in The Pale King is: “There are secrets within secrets though — always.”) The two David Wallaces we meet in the foreword — the David Foster Wallace on the book cover and the character of David Wallace in Chapter 9 who goes to work for the IRS as a junior in college after being expelled from school for writing papers for other students for profit — are important outside of the construct of postmodernism.

In his fictional “Author’s Foreword,” Wallace the character insists, “All of this is true. This book is really true….The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made up story.” This is a shtick the author pulled for more than 20 years — he liked to casually tell people The Broom of the System was his autobiography way back in the actual (not fictional) 1980s.

But it is also true that there really are or were (even the tense gets tricky and loaded here because it is a reminder that he is truly gone) two David Wallaces — both in and outside of the book — as any of us who were lucky enough to have known him can attest.

We have the brand of David Foster Wallace. He refers to it as the “abstract narrative persona” in his “Author’s Foreword,” and felt it burden him as early as his mid-20s. He tried constantly to get out from under it, insisting that people who knew him refer to him as David or Dave Wallace, no authorial middle name in real life for him please. Dave wanted to be seen (and be able to behave) as a “living human” instead of a famous symbol of a kind of coolness.

The authorial persona Wallace felt burdened by is the very one we see pictured in so many of the photos printed with coverage of this final book. He’s forever captured as a symbol for a certain type of young, white, hip, clever male. Many of these posthumous pictures are more than a decade old. The last time I saw him, in 2007, his close-cropped hair was graying at the temples and he wore a nondescript cable-knit sweater and khaki pants. Even when I first met him in 2002, Wallace was doing everything he could to separate himself from the image of the young celebrity writer. He was trying to become a good person. In his forties, that more and more meant that he had to become a good adult. That was hard when the world wanted you to stay the smartest kid in class. It was even harder when the world wanted you to stay the smartest kid in class who also knows all about various “cool” things that maybe almost killed you but provided good material for your biggest book once you got yourself all cleaned up.

There was David Foster Wallace, the former junior tennis star who knew a lot about drugs and junk food and TV from a certain time period in his writing. Afterward, there was David Wallace the Professor, completely sober, a man with a spiritual advisor. He spent most of his free time with his wife and dogs, struggled with his weight, had a sensitive stomach, and couldn’t eat simple carbohydrates because he was functionally diabetic from consuming so much junk food when he was younger and probably high. Wallace’s widow Karen Green articulated the struggle between his famous authorial persona and real human self in a recent interview she did with The Guardian.

She said, “The writer’s voice took on a life of its own, which I think he found very constraining. I think part of what he was struggling with was how to change that voice. Cleverness, particularly for someone as clever as David, is the hardest thing to give up. It’s like being naked, or getting married as opposed to having one-night stands. People don’t want to be thought of as sentimental. Writers don’t anyway.”

This is the actual subject of The Pale King — what the book is about. Boredom, yes, but more specifically the particular kind of good old ordinary boredom a person must sink into and find comfortable to become a functional adult.

In the 1997 Charlie Rose interview (it is high-quality, 30 whole minutes of Wallace speaking really candidly and awkwardly and just seeming really alive — it’s free on Charlie Rose’s website), Wallace tells Rose of the crisis he had at 24 when his first book was published, and he got everything he had always wanted at such a young age — except happiness.

At Rose’s prompting, Wallace admits that he entered into a dark time with drugs, a suicide attempt, rehab — et cetera. He tells Rose that he doesn’t think this is any different than the 50-year-old everyman who finally makes partner of his accounting firm and then has a midlife crisis because he’s gotten everything he’s been working toward and also isn’t happy, then has to figure out what things he is supposed to chase now. “I haven’t found any new ones yet,” Wallace tells Rose. “But I’m also not getting ready to jump off a building or anything either.” And that is how the interview ends.

If Wallace had found the answer to what the IRS accountants in The Pale King should be searching for to alleviate their boredom with being morally good, ordinary, middle-aged men, he didn’t have time to get it into the book before his own death. It’s why all this speculation about how it is “a deeply complete and satisfying novel….it suggests a new idea of heroism” (I’m taking this from the flap copy, but it has appeared in lot of other reviews as well) is mostly crap. I don’t think we ever get to see these characters transcend boredom through the triumph of focused attention that Wallace eventually wanted us to see — perhaps this would have been in the uncompleted two-thirds of the book.

Ultimately though, it’s an exceptional book, novel or not. Between its covers is work satisfying enough to remind any reader what a real force as a writer Wallace was (is?), how even under extreme duress his writing, when it is good, can do almost anything and basically turn acrobatic tricks around most of his contemporaries.

Reading The Pale King, I was reminded how Wallace had this thing he did with consciousness, a way of inserting a reader into the specific consciousnesses of his characters so thoroughly that the reader then feels she not only knows all the characters intimately and cares about them, but that the author and characters must also know her intimately. Wallace created mind-melds, book after book. The intensity of this Wallacian consciousness is so overwhelming in The Pale King that I could not read the book in bed, or in the bathtub, or in the bathroom — all places where I read other books. Wallace’s huge, entirely unique, unlike-anyone-else-in-the-world consciousness spilled out from the pages and into whatever room I was in. It left this weird feeling — I couldn’t be completely sure he wasn’t in the room too. However strange it may seem, I felt I should read it in attire and settings appropriate to share with an older, official person whom you admire.

There are a lot of other Wallacian standards. He delivers dozens of new, impenetrable acronyms, far more bureaucratic and indecipherable than IRS, which is also an acronym. There are plenty of catchphrases, often printed on the clothing of characters. Blank faces become more terrifying than actual terrified faces. Smiles grow painful or put the face of the smiler into a rictus. We have claw hands, “titty pinching” and “shoe squeezing.” We find solipsism, fantasies and attempts to shut the brain off — either through violent means like suicide and lobotomy or more quiet means like meditation and embracing religion without fundamentalism.

It goes on. We enjoy explicit wordplay and etymology, inaudible screams and other references to people silently and completely freaking out while participating in normal activities like small talk on a non-smoke break. For Pomona College students, past and present, we get many repetitions of the number 47 and the word “mufti,” both of which are inside jokes aimed at his students and pointing to the fact that this project is not in any way the 10-year, 500-plus-page, premeditated suicide note that some people have sickly suggested it might have been.

We have a number of individuals that could either be described as being disabled or having special powers that they have not fully yet developed (at this early point in the work manifesting themselves as disabilities). There is drug use and condemnation of this drug use by characters who once used drugs. We get a fascinatingly absurd death through modern technology — a father in front of his son. Much information could actually be seen as autobiographical: characters who are “fact psychic,” chew tobacco, sweat profusely, feel like their work at the IRS is analogous to assembling a model in a high wind. There are gorgeous and stifling landscapes that the reader is propelled into with force and swirl.

Does it matter that The Pale King is very sad, that it is not hilarious or heroic or the engrossing fiction book-of-the-month so many people want it to be? Wallace told Charlie Rose he didn’t like these upbeat, grandiose words being projected onto his work because he actually just wanted it to be human and very sad. So we settle for a new, fully-realized world constructed by a consciousness like no other. That is more than enough.

The title, The Pale King, may come from the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The sonnet addresses a statue of the Egyptian king Ramesses II, a statue described as having just the lower half of the old Egyptian king, its head removed or fallen off with the passage of time. The poem speaks to the inevitability that all kings’ powers will decline as they and their empires age.

In Chapter 22 of The Pale King, the father of a character, ‘Irrelevant Chris Fogel,’ quotes from “Ozymandias” when he catches Chris smoking pot. He says, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” then walks upstairs to his room and shuts the door. A Google Image search for “Ozymandias” fills your screen with images of headless, pale kings — pale because picture an idea of a statue of a king, of an old, constructed image of an image of a king held up and eventually broken down. Only rarely do you see paintings or pictures of King Ramesses II himself.

Wallace, the human being, died seemingly trying to detach his own head from his body by hanging himself with a black belt from the rafters outside his house in Claremont, where I went to college. Even in death, the autopsy report would not allow him to be just a person who died of depression he had battled for years. The report lists the “Apparent Mode” of death as “Suicide.” The next box, “Special Circumstances,” is filled in with the words “Celebrity, Media Interest.”

The epigraph to The Pale King, from the poem “Borges and I,” by Frank Bidart is as follows:

We fill pre-existing forms and when we
Fill them we change and are changed.

No matter what I do, I can’t help thinking how this autopsy report is in some way the last form Wallace ever filled out. A celebrity corpse is one pretty obvious kind of pale king. A dead great writer is another. Pondering this, something switches off in my brain, and I am not able to think about The Pale King anymore, at least not today.

I guess that means I should finally get started on my taxes.

Sara Faye Lieber’s essays have been published or are forthcoming in Guernica, Gigantic, Pank, Porchlight, and Gloom Cupboard. She has also written for MTV Books, AOL, and Vice. She is currently at work on a biography of bedbugs.

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