An appreciation of the Pale King, the novel left unfinished by David Foster Wallace.
You hold the beautiful cream-white volume in your hands and look at your co-passengers. Has anyone noticed that you are carrying the book around wrapped in a protective cardboard sheath? You touch the cover with its fragments of David Foster Wallace’s tax returns threaded by his widow’s hands through a King of Clubs. You look around. Where is the writer? It felt like he was near. Here is the book and here is the train. Here is the unchanging darkness beyond the safety glass windows and here is the false train riding next to yours, with identical passengers, although they are quite different: They do not exist. Sadly, the writer is unaccounted for. He has gone missing, probably forever. Now his books can roam free. No more interviews, no more profiles. Just criticism. Every word has been written and every sentence has been set into place. Every connection made and unmade, every page corrected and published. Everything about the books is now in the past. Only reading them lies in the future, and even that will fade, as fewer and fewer readers read him, until at some point the writer will get forgotten, the bones of his stories covered by the sediment of cultural upheaval, language evolution, and fickle fashion.
But for now, something of him remains. You open the book and read the first page.
Imagine a bare room somewhere in the labyrinthine basements of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
There are a few writers in every century who are said to capture perfectly their generation’s “voice”, whatever that is, to combine in the sentences they put together a total understanding of the era, the people, the politics, and the human climate which precipitates change at any given moment. This power, fortunately, is an illusion. No writer can capture a generation’s anything, much less its median “voice”, because a generation, a complete slice of life if ever there was one, is too diverse, fragmented and amorphous for any man or woman to come to grips with. Still, there are some writers that do a great job of imitating an authority on the matter. David Foster Wallace was one of them, so far the best there was regarding late 20th, early 21st cen. thirty- and forty-somethings. He wrote novel-sized fiction pretty narrowly and short-form pretty widely. His essays rank as some of the best writing ever to appear in magazines. Even if the Broom of the System (henceforth: Broom), his first novel, is wrongly thought of even by him as an apprentice piece, Infinite Jest (henceforth: IJ), his second and final novel, moved the ponderous stone gears of American letters a few teeth forward. By the way, I do not intend to support the notion that I remember what IJ was about, apart from in the vaguest of terms. Beyond the disorienting first chapter (which became only marginally less so after finishing the book), the rest lies under the encephalic equivalent of thick mist; a purely dazzled state. As I see it now, IJ is like a verdant valley you cross and come out the other side full and sated and if not calm, if not serene, then surely with some of your faculties incapacitated, and you shudder at turning back to look at it as you cross over the mountain range which divides it from the next valley, for fear it will turn out to be less that you thought at the time, even though you know it won’t. Now substitute valley with continent and you have a more accurate picture of the scale of the thing.
After IJ, he published a short story collection, Oblivion, even more experimental and twig-dry (don’t even get me started on “kind” and “aware”) than Girl with Curious Hair, his first collection published right after Broom, and little else. Most people who had read IJ wondered what the Long Thing, as he called it, would be about, or like, but he declined publishing anything, save for a few particularly dry stories in the New Yorker and elsewhere (e.g. Good People). It took nothing less than his death by suicide in 2008 to bring to light the fragments of his vast unfinished novel, The Pale King, artfully arranged by the understudy, Michael Pietch, his long-time editor at Little, Brown.
(the second part is scheduled to appear on Wednesday, 14 September 2011)