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What Just Happened David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

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What Just Happened: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

Most reviews of The Pale King followed the same wary pattern: an acknowledgment of David Foster Wallace’s seemingly unstoppable posthumous ascent in the literary firmament, a list of traits commonly held against the author (sentence length, infinite spirals of neurotically involuted thought, a socioeconomic milieu and cast of characters mostly limited to the first-world problems of the white American middle-class), a carefully measured evaluation of the book as worthy yet flawed, a mention of his suicide, a cursory notice of his recently published modal philosophy thesis. No one wants to be the person declaring war on the recently, tragically dead (except for those who do; more in a second), yet these sympathetic-minded reviews seem flawed and unhelpful, leaving two questions unaddressed: what does it mean to be a DFW fan, and (how) does that affect The Pale King’s stand-alone literary value?

One of the quickest ways to voice doubts about DFW’s legacy and skill is to remind people that his work is long, demanding and—the most commonly trotted-out detail—contains sentences that can be three pages long. “Ah-ha!” cries the skeptic. “This may be all good for me, but a three-page long sentence? What gives? Is such indulgence really necessary” This is where DFW’s famously anal-retentive attitude towards grammar and syntax comes in handy: assuming you have the attention span to read three pages in one go, these famous behemoth sentences aren’t hard to read. Every clause logically follows the preceding one, everything clicks: you don’t look up after those three damnable three pages and wonder what just happened.

Yet because of such scored “indulgences,” there’s a vague tone in many reviews that assumes the writer’s gingerly fending off a cult not much different from a pack of rabid Smiths-loving teenagers, clinging maudlinly to an author they’ve prematurely sainted. But DFW fans are not undiscriminating or mindlessly worshipful. I’m one, and there’s stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men I never want to read again, along with large chunks of Girl With Curious Hair. Those stories, as it happens, don’t have sentences three pages long: some in the latter volume read to me like very close relatives of the touchy-feelier strain of ’90s short fiction. (The idea that DFW’s body of work is one endlessly unfolding stream-of-consciousness rant, stylistically homogeneous across the board, is pretty ridiculous.) There’s a troubling assumption underlying this skepticism: anyone who claims to enjoy this stuff is lying for unknown reasons.

So let me disagree: If you like DFW, that doesn’t mean that you think he’s “worthy”, or think you “should like him” and worry about your literary street cred. His work is highly enjoyable; Wallace was a big Wodehouse fan (his dogs were named Jeeves and Drone, after the butler and club respectively), and Infinite Jest’s guiding tone is comic, even (to use a word that sounds like the opposite of what it means) rambunctious. Few would deny Infinite Jest is The Big One, not just for its ambition and scope but because it’s a nakedly moral book; the reason people who like it really latch onto it has to do with the idea that it can make the reader a better person. This sounds heavy and potentially overwrought; one of the feats of Wallace’s prose is that it renders not only palatable but fresh potentially tired bromides. And if you don’t believe me, consider what happens when someone else tries to sum up his work’s appeal.

E.g.: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s well-meaning review/overview in GQ, where he writes about readers who “believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified.” It’s a feeling fans can identify, but the sentiment as expressed is a little florid in a way his work almost never was. His best prose renders worthy but worn-out sentiments freshly again, and it’s almost impossible to translate that back into a non-fictional appreciation without upsetting the balance he reached in his work.

It’s no secret that The Pale King is radically unfinished; editor Michael Pietsch explicitly warns of this up front, noting the prevalence of phrases like “titty-pinching” and “squeezing his shoes” that appear over and over, giving red meat to those who’d indict DFW for imposing one voice on all his characters. The Pale King is frequently artful, but it’s also (as it says!) “An Unfinished Novel.” Even as a draftsman, DFW was ahead of the game: all that raw intelligence and intuitive, well-honed ability to write ideas down in a vigorous form comes through even in embryo. But rather than picking apart all the redundancies, infelicities, etc., approaching The Pale King demands a different kind of question: separated from his fluid, rigorously reworked prose and allowed to grow occasionally didactic, how do DFW’s ideas and moral lessons hold up?

A “review” of sorts that makes no pretence to politeness gets to the core of the problem for skeptics. In Geoff Dyer’s fastidiously now-I’m-rude-now-I’m-cheeky “My literary allergy”, Dyer—a very strong writer himself—complains about DFW’s “variously contrived sloppinesses,” which is a bit rich coming from a guy who once wrote an entire (terrific) book about D.H. Lawrence (Out Of Sheer Rage) which is about his “inability” to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, a third of which is about D.H. Lawrence. Suffice to say Dyer knows about contrivance, but he’s referring explicitly to the vocabulary, in which street profanity, academic throat-clearing, unexpectedly timed jokes and raw data dumps mingle, united by the false interjection of “all those ’sort ofs’ and ’kind ofs.’” That’s American vernacular, not contrivance, and it’s missing the point: most people have more than one kind of context-appropriate syntax to rely upon, and they can mingle all at once. Hence those famous paragraphs/pages where a character is simultaneously mulling over four or different things at a time, each train of thought mingling promiscuously with each other.

During a chapter where three men are trapped in an elevator, one theorizes Reagan will be elected as “someone who can cast himself as a Rebel, maybe even a cowboy, but who deep down we’ll know is a bureaucratic creature who’ll operate inside the government mechanism instead of naïvely bang his head against it the way we’ve watched poor Jimmy do for four years.” This is funny, concise and not uninsightful; it’s also not that far off from DFW’s thoughts in “Up, Simba,” his consideration of John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “Some people believe that President Ronald W. Reagan (1981-89) was our last real leader,” he writes. “But not many of them are Young Voters. Even in the ’80s, most younger Americans, who could smell a marketer a mile away, knew that what Reagan really was was a great salesman.” In the same chapter, a man in Pale King muses about how Americans now “think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie.” That’s a logical extension of DFW’s concerns in “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky”: “What is ’an American’? Do we have something important in common, as Americans, or is it just that we all happen to live inside the same boundaries and so have to obey the same laws? How exactly is America different from other countries? Is there really something unique about it? What does that uniqueness entail? We talk a lot about our special rights and freedoms, but are there also special responsibilities that come with being an American? If so, responsibilities to whom?”

These conversations are fundamentally idea- rather than character-based, without the high degree of dialogue rewriting that would present them as extensions of separate entities rather than the author dividing his higher aspirations and baser tugs into different lines of dialogue; instead of a welter of unsortable impulses raging inside one head, we get one idea hashed out among nominally separate entities. Sometimes the tone of moral urgency takes on a chiding crankiness, as when characterizing selfish, short-sighted citizens’ behavior as comparable to “the way adolescents make a big deal of rebelling against parental authority while they borrow the keys to Daddy’s car and use Daddy’s credit card to fill it with gas.” I’m hard-pressed to disagree, but if you’re not on-board, this can come across as so much cardboard, down-home philosophy: liberal compassion dashed with a strong streak of Midwestern flintiness towards those who shirk work and life’s grimmer responsibilities.

The Pale King’s dimensions are circumscribed by middle America’s topographical flatness, with the traffic problems of small towns adjusting to business hubs described in great detail, along with the post-work rush to drink or the tenseness of a new employee on a precious break overeagerly trying to ingratiate himself with veteran employees. Though set in 1985, none of the problems here—boredom, child abuse, corporate malfeasance, crippling self-consciousness—are dated. With the exception of particulars about the arcana of mid-’80s technology, it’s a contemporary work, which is part of the point: the mess we’re in now is an extension of ever-deepening trends.

If Infinite Jest is about overindulgence and oversatiation in all its forms (but mostly the images and drugs acting directly upon the brain), The Pale King is about mental deprivation, primarily the kind emerging from an economy demanding that millions of people perform mind-numbing, personality-effacing jobs for the greater economic good, mostly of those far richer than themselves. Much as J.D. Salinger increasingly felt his work should promote his belief in Vedantic and Buddhist beliefs, there’s something unnervingly zealous about the way the novel addresses the perennial DFW concern of how to be a good person in a world full of aggravation, solipsism and distractions. Well and good, but the people who achieve some of kind of meditative transcendence—adjusting themselves to concentrating on banality for hours on end—can be annoying, pedantic and nearly-Asperger’s in their inability to empathize.

In the climactic chapter, preternaturally focused Shane Drinion and excessively pretty Meredith Rand (a variant on “The Depressed Person” who has managed to stop cutting and hating herself) have a conversation in a bar. Later, Meredith “realized that large blocks of the tete-a-tete at Meibeyer’s seemed removed from any kind of environment at all […] as if a sort of insulated container had formed around their table and sometimes hardly anything else had penetrated through it.” (Perhaps it’s like floating in the middle of a tornado, per Pietsch’s reference to the novel’s intended “tornadic” structure, in which stories converge faster and faster as the narrative endpoint approaches; Meredith and Shane are above the ground, away from any distractions, and Shane’s literally levitating.)

This moment of perfect focus and communication has an intensity with “absolutely zero romantic or sexual attraction” involved, which sounds a little suffocating; if this is an example of perfect concentration and empathy, it’s not very enticing. Indeed, sometimes Shane’s unruffled composure pisses Meredith off: “It doesn’t occur to you that all that might strike somebody as a little condescending?” she asks of his demeanor. “That doesn’t occur to me,” Shane replies. “But I do notice that you’ve become angry or upset in response to something I’ve said. This I can tell.” Well, no kidding. Still, his methods work. This could be the point, or it could be inadvertant (Shane is still perfectly penetrating); whether creepiness and total attentiveness/caring go together or just happen to in this case is unclear.

In light of this, it’s worth noting that the DFW “persona” hits an all-time high of self-loathing and downright unlikeability, constantly finding ways to avoid taking the blame for or acknowleding complicity in anything. “An SOP memoir would probably linger on the details and the rank unfairnesses and hypocrisies involved” in how DFW got kicked out college. “I’m not going to do that,” he says—then whinges for a page about exactly what happened. There’s a sense of a disavowal of the infinitely patient/compassionate/bemused DFW persona of the essays, a repudiation of the saintly mantle already accruing in his lifetime. Still, the author’s the author (or “author” or whatever), and his novel is affecting. So’s the speech of the Jesuit tax instructor who inspires Chris Fogle (in the novel’s most fully developed section, a 98-page chapter that could work as a stand-alone novella) to stop being a wastrel and embrace work; even as Fogle’s listening to the man call the humble IRS worker heroic (“Gentlemen, you are called to account”) and realizes his life is changing, he’s also aware that “the substitute’s metaphors seemed to be getting a bit jumbled.” So perhaps the gap between the numerous examples of Doing The Right Thing and the often-off-putting manner of presentation isn’t unintentional; it’s a tension repeatedly riffed on through-out, explicitly or (in the case of DFW, “author”) implicitly, an attempt to make sure the draw of personality isn’t the sole reason anyone’s reading.

Is The Pale King a draw literary-value wise? I don’t think so: even when it’s being repetitive or cranky, it’s still argued with patience and verve. At least half of it needs no qualification (the aforementioned novella, the saga of Toni Ware, the comic dialogue snippets), and none of it requires outright apology. But perhaps this weirdness of tone comes from the fact that this is political fiction, more so than any other in DFW’s career. Consider the discussions of responsibility and generosity set against disparagement of Reagan, or the brief description of a truly heinous secretary, whose desk boasts “a small framed workplace cartoon […] which featured a crude caricature of an angry face and below it the caption ’I have got one nerve left…AND you’re GETTING ON IT!,’ which some of the administrative workers at Philo High had also displayed and expected people to applaud the wittiness of”—a quick bit of business, but a direct rewrite of essayist-DFW’s brief discursus on “Kmart people” in “Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” where he analyzes a subsection of a county fair’s attendees, whose shirts “presume a weird kind of aggressive relation between the shirt’s wearer and the reader—’We’d Get Along Better…If You Were A BEER’” and which are “supposed to endorse the wearer as a person of plucky or risque wit.” And their political beliefs? “Gov. Edgar’s a closet pinko; they heard it on Rush.”

This may strike you as unfair, needlessly judgmental or stereotyped (no comment), but that’s politics. The Pale King comes to us from the Reagan era, but its concerns are still Now, the symptoms of everything wrong with an increasingly selfish and confused American body politic whose cancerous ailments have been metastasizing ever since. For a man who spent so much constructing the illusion of even-handed, ever-patient analysis in his work, Pale King’s despair isn’t just chemical depression or work despair; it’s a political reaction that asks you to take a side; its success as as novel doesn’t depend on your agreement, but the stakes are clear and high. In 2011, it’s hardly an untimely message.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.