Just one hundred twenty pages into David Foster Wallace’s final, unfinished novel The Pale King I feel: tired, confused, lost, elated, amazed, awestruck, irritated, enlightened and, ah… well, a little tipsy, but I guess that’s the Sammy Smith Tadcaster, not the novel.
Tipsy aside, this first section of the book has been one hell of a ride and I’m loving it.
When I try and tell people about that ride, about The Pale King and its shifting perspectives, the editor’s foreward that warns of Wallace’s self-proclaimed ‘tornadic’ ambition for the narrative; the reviews that ponder whether the gruelingly boring bits are, in fact, on purpose (the novel is after all about the IRS, and it is soooo like Wallace to paint the room the color of the drapes); the sentence that is almost a page long or the near-blinding neurosis that cascades down almost every page, when I try to tell most people about this they, well, most people just wonder why I would read something like this. And my only answer is… I like it.
Let me digress by way of attempting an explanation. Have you seen the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie? If you have then you know that the first ten minutes of the movie are amazing and then it devolves into an hour-and-a-half long version of the show. An hour-and-a-half version of a show that is non sequitur and random, dadist and, occasionally… painful. But the show is ten minutes long (approximately), so it works. I can only imagine that when the creators were approached by studio execs who wanted them to do what they do in those ten minutes for ten-times as long they scratched their heads, shrugged their shoulders and said, “ah, alright. If you’re sure…” then they stood up, left the meeting room, closed the door behind them and gave each other a wry, evil smile knowing full well that while the studio would be no doubt be expecting a different narrative path, one that would at least attempt to step up to and utilize the opportunity of a full-length feature, they would in fact give everyone exactly what they asked for, i.e. an hour-and-a-half long ATHF episode. This made the film extremely hard to sit through at times. But, and here’s the thing: totally worth it!!! The mistake would have been to succumb to something they were not to begin with. I’ve always been a fan of the more… dadist approach to things and to be a fan of things like that you have to occasionally put your money where your mouth is and sit through some stuff that is good on principal alone (not that there weren’t moments of the movie that were funny, but what was really, really funny, as it occurred and re-occurred to me off and on for the entire run time, was that they actually did what they did. To watch it was to experience that and again, it was worth it).
Now, The Pale King is not about sentient teenage food that solves crimes or has hair-brained schemes that end in their neighbor’s continued discomfort/death. Well… it’s about the IRS, so that’s similar, I guess. But what The Pale King is about taking the reader’s hand and helping them down a tight and winding contemplation/inoculation of the somewhat tangible but also somewhat abstract ideas of tedium, boredom, neurosis and, thus far, some pretty fucked up life experiences. The first chapter, two pages long, sets a scene that makes no sense in relation to the beginning of the book (and again, the editor, Michael Pietsch, warns that as he culled through 250 pages Wallace ‘polished’ for the purposes of receiving an advance from the publisher as well as near-endless amounts of other pages, notes, notebooks, drafts, etc., to try and estimate the order in which Wallace had foreseen the novel’s chronology, he found scratchings and scrawlings as to the ‘tornadic’ structure he was slowly assembling). From here we get a long chapter of page-eating single paragraphs that flit through the mind of a very neurotic new recruit to the IRS’ Midwest Regional Examination Center (REC), trailing often within the same sentence from concerns about his travel, fallout from a professional fiasco in the past, the talon-like hands of the elderly woman next to him on the plane and on and on and on. Wallace himself breaks the fourth wall starting on page 66 with chapter nine, The Author’s Foreward where he addresses the reader, in no false pretenses, as himself, David Wallace, and even proceeds to divulge his social security number, home address and a myriad of personal historical facts in sprawling but also lovely conversational asides and ‘in cases’, returning to that wonderful style that showcases the man’s uncanny and unrestrainable genius that won many of us over in his magnum opus, Infinite Jest*. And yes, the footnotes are here too! In this foreward Wallace says that The Pale King is not a work of fiction, but a memoir of his thirteen months spent working at the IRS in the mid-80’s. I don’t know if any of this personal information is true or if he did indeed work for the IRS at one point – and I don’t want to know until after I finish the book. Why would I want to? These ‘facts’ are, by the author’s own admission, presented to bolster the reader’s enjoyment of the story, and thus far, it’s working.
On September 12th, 2008 David Foster Wallace left this strange and hazy world we inhabit. Like some choose to, Mr. Wallace left early, by his own hand. He left behind a wife, friends, students and fans. He also left behind an unfinished novel that, even in its imperfect form, so far, once again showcases the man’s genius. The problem with genius is, as I’ve lamented, studied and pondered for years, it is the noisy upstairs neighbor to insanity. Van Gogh knew it. Artaud knew it. William S. Burroughs may have known it. And Wallace knew it. So when you take that into consideration, and think, “What might this man who had and understood so much, what might he have known that tipped the scale?” you enter a dark and slippery slope. A frightening path to tread, but one that no doubt will be with me the entire time I plod sometimes quickly and in delight, other times perhaps cumbersomely through The Pale King, looking for answers that may not be inherently easy to access but will be damn enjoyable pondering. I like to think Mr. Wallace would want it that way.
* Which I blogged about here: Read Infinite Jest