The Long Goodbye
Monday, April 18, 2011
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Arts & Books
David Foster Wallace - writer of fiction and non-fiction - is widely known for the novel "Infinite Jest" (which in and of itself is noted for its large size, extensive use of endnotes and discursive, hyper-literate and reflexive prose writing style), and for his 2008 suicide. "The Pale King" is his final - unfinished - novel.
The plot involves a group of IRS agents trying to stave off the boredom of processing tax returns before the backdrop of institutional change. The cast of characters includes IRS agent Chris Fogle, intimidating beauty Meredith Rand and metafictious device/IRS examiner David Wallace.
Now that I have fulfilled the obligations of the reviewer/review reader contract, I'd like to jump into a little refresher from English 45A. I wish to warn you, dear reader, of two pitfalls. Because the release of "The Pale King" has galvanized so much hype, readings of it are preternaturally vulnerable to the definitive no-nos of New Criticism: the Intentional and Affective Fallacy.
Literary criticism often suffers from the Intentional Fallacy: a bio-centric lens that makes understanding the text contingent on knowledge of the author. Witness, for example, the conflation of Phillip Roth with his licentious Nathan Zuckerman. However, the morbid and depressing circumstances surrounding this particular book's publication would have the aforementioned New Critics at Defcon 3. One needs only peruse the customer reviews of Amazon.com for these speculative types of reading: "A life lived is light too in contrast to the epochal march. What came before, the now and what is future days converged on Wallace and there was nothing but the noose, the fatalistic joining with absolutism. Death, a singular death, is a trifle."
Even a well-meaning reader could treat "The Pale King" as an overwritten, unfinished suicide note. Or the reader could make seemingly profound, terribly cliched pronouncements linking the death to the book, like those of novelist (and one of Wallace's best friends) Jonathan Franzen: "If he'd finished it, I think he'd be alive today."
Equally as tempting is the urge to testify to "The Pale King"'s emotional effect on the reader as a valid criticism - to invoke the aforementioned Affective Fallacy. There is a growing feeling among Wallace fanboys that he was a sort of secular saint, a writer who offers moral counsel through fiction. Of course, Wallace's writing fundamentally changed my view of the world, its people and the deep-seated and unspoken pain that afflicts so many of us; and moreover "The Pale King" made me laugh and weep over and over again. Yet the book's emotional effect on me is inconsequential to book's value and message. What readers of "The Pale King" must do is acknowledge the book's incompleteness - and implicitly, Wallace's humanity and the attendant shortcomings.
Yet this incompleteness is rather strange. The book lacks an ending, but that appears to be a conscious decision by Wallace. Instead, the truncated feel manifests itself in the roughness of a first draft in parts, and a desire for more flesh in others. Through the Notes and Asides at the end, it is apparent that Wallace sought to write more scenes and fill in a few characters. It is frustrating to be left in the lurch over these people, not because their fates are uncertain, but simply because Wallace is so adept at creating a connection and empathy between reader and character that the missing details feel especially acute. Chris Fogle and Meredith Rand are so wonderfully drawn that they leave you aching for more - bringing home the subtitle's warning of "an unfinished novel."
The second part of that subtitle, however, I do take issue with. "The Pale King" is not a novel, as it stretches too many narrative boundaries to fulfill those requirements (and the patience of the reader). At times the endless jargonized chatter and painful recitations of family misery invite boredom. However, Wallace is matching form to content: The theme of the book set in an IRS office is, of course, boredom itself. "The Pale King" asks its readers to pay as much attention to detail as these tax examiners. It's an imperative for paying attention, one that is elegantly performed and inscribed in Wallace's circling writing style.
Much fuss has been made about that style in that it is highly polarizing. Charges leveled at Wallace are the sins of pretense and of being "too clever." He's even been called an ironist and overly earnest in the same sentence (you can thank Bret Easton Ellis for that head-scratcher). It's a tragic irony in itself that Wallace's writing, so concerned with empathy and (especially in "The Pale King") tapping into the provincial insecurities of the human ego, is dismissed for causing people to feel insecure about their own intellect and seriousness. The truth is that David Foster Wallace and his seeming opposites, minimalists Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, have a lot in common. Chew on that one!
But I think the stylistic difficulties of "The Pale King" are the least damning, most rewarding aspect of the pain that comes attached to this particular book. There is something rewarding - and even redemptive - of trudging out the dictionary, re-reading passages and placing your faith in the author - even if he's dead.
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