Now that it’s no longer the next David Foster Wallace book, The Pale King, the unfinished novel that was famously not awarded a Pulitzer in 2012, can settle into a sort of legacy within the author’s career. Published less than three years after Wallace’s death, The Pale King, for all its merits, is a rare glimpse into what it means to be a work in progress in a mind that many readers couldn’t help but idolize, and the timing probably couldn’t have been worse. For years we waited for the author’s next book, only more so after his death, but what we received was a ghost of a story, a reminder equally of Wallace’s tremendous gifts as a writer and the constant challenge of cultivating them over and over again, an artifact both satisfying and incredibly not. Suddenly the intensely weird and almost perfect late-career short stories and the wonder that is Infinite Jest were made to seem that much more worked-on, coming less from the heavens than from spiral notepads not unlike anyone else’s, just when the fervor of Wallace-saint and Wallace-genius had reached its pitch. Reading through the long, dreary hours of tax accounting and made-up IRS administrative history, you could never tell whether the way a certain section was structured pointed to the author’s growing views about the purpose of fiction or if that was just how the ideas happened to occur to him this time. I even found two punctuation errors. In the end it was an appropriate mess for an author who so enjoyed spotting paradoxes in everything he wrote about.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (#1–10 of 4)
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.
It’s easy to dislike an author. A lot of people think Charles Bukowski bit one hell of a hole in the literary scene back in the latter half of the 20th century, but watching his relationship antics on YouTube is just a little disgusting. Others say the same thing about Hunter S. Thompson: love the books, can’t stand the author’s carefully orchestrated über-gonzo ways. And David Foster Wallace’s inclination toward elitist sentiments have often been a cause for readers to eschew the author, though it’s more difficult to find something to hate in his work. Today, no matter how one feels about the man himself, it will be hard to ignore his impact on the book world with the release of his incomplete, posthumous novel.
The Pale King brings readers on a trip through the lives of those who clock in with the Internal Revenue Service. Wallace himself plays a role in the story, a fact that has led to unending attention in publishing circles and in the media. Throughout his writing, The Pale King included, one has to marvel at Wallace’s surgical ability to manhandle the thoughts of average folk. For most, those thoughts have never been so genuinely plotted as they are when filtered through the analytical fortune cookie found in Wallace’s soul. Even in the novel’s incomplete form, Wallace proves his ability to hijack rambling streams of vague, while-you-load-the-dishwasher realizations and chisel them into lettered works of art.
There’s a more adept portrayal of human suffering in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II than in all the lollygagging throughout John Krasinski’s timid adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Sally Potter’s iPhone-destined, fashion world monologue-a-thon Rage. Throughout Zombie’s slasher yarn, there’s inevitably a close-up, as the killer comes crashing down upon his prey, where the victims’ eyes drift heavenward and a brief, unspoken plea for mercy passes between them and monster. As they meet their doom, Zombie dwells on the mayhem in real time, each brutal pulverizing blow given resonance. You would think this example of pulpy shock cinema couldn’t hope to compare with the more supposedly contemplative American independent cinema, much less surpass the emotional, cinematic, and humanistic impact of a world where academic characters and fashion moguls gaze into the heart of darkness within their navels.