June 01, 2011

Wallace's Last Words

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
reviewed by Courtney

David Foster Wallace, though also the author of notable short fiction and essays, was most famous for his ambitious 1,000-plus-page opus, Infinite Jest. The novel was included on Time Magazine's 2005 list of the 100 Best English Language Novels since 1923, and sparked comparisons with James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, but was almost immediately branded as a "difficult book," in part due to its hefty length, and as a result has unfortunately joined the ranks of many classic novels whose readership is almost entirely academics. With a background in metafiction, mathematics, and philosophy, Wallace emerged in 1987 with his debut novel, The Broom of the System, as a part of the postmodernist movement, but was always interested in a kind of moralistic fiction that combined accessibility with technical expertise. His writing got inside the characters, peeling back their neuroses and life stories in intricate, non-linear narratives that evoked the chaotic nature of modern American life.

Fans of Wallace's writing have been waiting for his next novel since the 1996 publication of Infinite Jest, reading the several short story and essay collections published in the interim with mixed feelings; where was the promised novel, the "long thing," as he called it, that would surpass even the accomplishment of Infinite Jest? The unfortunate event of his 2008 suicide brought a shockingly intense reaction. We felt that he knew us, that he understood something about what it means to be alive in the modern world; what could it mean that he had given up? Like many somewhat deified figures who have died prematurely, in the past three years Wallace has had his share of borderline-exploitative posthumous publications, from David Lipsky's interview transcript Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, to This Is Water, a transcript of a 2005 commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College. Regardless of the unavoidable element of cynicism implicit in posthumous publication, I, like many Wallace fans, found it impossible not to anticipate The Pale King, his long awaited, and now tragically permanently unfinished novel.

Anyone reading The Pale King as an answer to Infinite Jest or looking for a traditionally complete novel will inevitably be disappointed. The Pale King is an unfinished book by any standards. But it is also strikingly complete. The novel has no conventional plot structure; set in an IRS center in the Midwest in 1985, it hints at a possible revolt or revolution that never actually occurs, and it is unclear whether this is intentional or not. As with any unfinished novel, it is impossible not to wonder how different the published book is from the novel the author intended. Unfortunately we will never know, but Wallace's writing style makes such questions almost irrelevant. After all, Infinite Jest didn't have a neat plot structure or ending either, its strength was the characters, and on this count The Pale King does not disappoint. Like Infinite Jest, the novel switches between seemingly unrelated character back-stories, from which the underlying narrative context emerges only gradually. The breathtaking lyricism and sincerity of some of the prose is interwoven with various instances of metafictional tongue-in-cheek humor (see for example the insertion into the narrative of a fictionalized version of Wallace himself in a hilarious author's foreword several chapters in, in which the character claims the novel as entirely non-fiction, a confusion that is further compounded by the similarity of the character's back-story to Wallace's own, as well as repeated references to another, unseen character also named David Wallace).

All of which is to say that, what ifs aside, this novel is uniquely, reassuringly, heartbreakingly David Foster Wallace. As an unfinished novel it could never have lived up to reader's hopes, or the expectations set by Infinite Jest, but it is an opportunity to experience once more Wallace's distinctive and impossibly ambitious take on modern life, written in his unmistakable, perfectly imperfect style. He will be missed.

Posted by at June 1, 2011 12:32 PM
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