I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, this weekend.
For those of you that don’t know, DFW is my favorite author and I had the paperback release date circled (digitally) on my calendar. When the book came out last year, I bought the e-book version, and tried to get through it that way. It was a total failure. His writing can be difficult as it is and I thought that the e-book format amplified those problems. Somethings, however, were great – the dictionary function is absolutely necessary for DFW’s writing as is the ability to go back and search for certain names. His writing is sprawling and can be quite dense – so those features come in handy.
Ultimately, though, for this book, this author, and this writing, I wanted to have the feel of a book in my hand.
I’m still putting my thoughts together on the work. It’s incredibly hard to judge given that he was working on it at the time he committed suicide. He kept his “completed” chapters aside for his wife to find and his editor used those along with copious notes and other fragments of writing to piece together a novel. But what this feels like is raw, unfinished data.
There are brilliant pages in this novel and there are pages that go nowhere. I’ve decided to love the ones that I love and not be so hard on the ones that I don’t because I believe that had he had the time, he would have gotten them right. There are some absolutely beautifully written and thought out vignettes – complete pictures of human beings that break your heart. Like Infinite Jest, there’s a strong undercurrent of sadness running through these pages. And, one of the more difficult parts of reading the novel is wondering if having the sheer power and concentration to tackle the subject matter of the book fed into the problems that DFW was dealing with.
I do believe that reading The Pale King and Infinite Jest give someone the best idea of what it is to be human in today’s day and age. Infinite Jest dealt with the issues of addiction and entertainment – the things we do to numb our senses and deal with the difficulties of life. The Pale King deals with the issue of boredom – the daily ins and out of life that everyone faces – in essence, the difficulties of life that can turn someone to addiction. The book deals with the lives of IRS employees. There’s no real plot. Nothing moves in any direction. It’s beautiful description but not much more. Everything is build up to something that never happens. Perhaps, DFW’s idea was that the act of reading a book is a metaphor for living – the point isn’t to bide our time waiting for the big moments to happen; it’s to enjoy all the time between those moments.
DFW’s writing has that unique quality where the words infiltrate your brain and elucidate ideas that you’ve had all along – a reviewer said the the writing has a way of “flattening consciousness”. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it. I always felt that he wrote the way people think – bombarded my thoughts and tangents that you can’t control, filled with circular thinking and repetition.
I can’t recommend his writing enough, but I would read everything else before attempting The Pale King.
Probably the best way to end this post is with one of the (many) quotes that I flagged as I was reading.
To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly…but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
Ok, now go read something on Twitter.