But I’ve seen what happens to the wicked and proud when they decide to try to take on the throne for the crown
When I heard that David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel about a cast of characters in a Midwestern IRS office was going to be released in 2011, I was excited for all the usual reasons that a fan would be excited, but also because it was a chance to be a small part of a genuine Literary Event. So when they announced that The Pale King was set to be released on April 15 (the exact type of marketing exec gimmick that Wallace would have rolled his eyes at but inevitably gone along with), I imagined I would be standing in some long line outside the bookstore at midnight, nose pressed against the window, waiting for some factotum to take a crowbar to the giant wooden crate filled with copies of the book. But what really happened is that there was a kind of soft release, and I walked into Brookline Booksmith this afternoon and bought it. The same mundane, banal transaction I’ve engaged in every other time I’ve bought a book. And from what I understand so far about The Pale King, that might be the point.
The reviews and commentary that I’ve read have been pretty breathless, but not completely so. In a rather unsentimental post, Slate’s Tom Scocca takes existential issue with the new “David Foster Wallace” “novel”:
It’s not so much a problem of Art—David Foster Wallace took himself out of the conversation about what David Foster Wallace wanted, after all—as a problem of craft. The Pale King is not a finished object. Reviewing it as a novel is like eating whatever was in a dead person’s fridge and calling it a dinner party and comparing it to the dinner parties the deceased gave in the past.
And as much as I love Tom Scocca and as much as I want him to adore Wallace as much as I do, he’s not wrong. So picking up my copy of The Pale King, the giddy enthusiasm I’d been feeling for the past few months was replaced with a peculiar sense of anticlimax. All this time, I thought I was going to read David Foster Wallace’s last novel. All it took was 600 words for me to realize that I’d already read David Foster Wallace’s last novel a year and a half ago.
Thinking back, though, there was always a little bit of anxiety in anticipating the book, an anxiety that GQ’s John Jeremiah Sullivan articulates in his review of The Pale King:
Rumors of posthumous work started almost immediately after [Wallace's] death, and it’s safe to say that loyal readers have been clinging to the promise of this new book over the last couple of years, almost as a means of fending off the reality and violence of what happened. Some of the collective grief for the man got sublimated into excitement for the book. I myself was surprised, on finishing the review copy, to have the wind sucked out of me by the thought—long delayed—that there would be no more Wallace books.
This is the same feeling that undergirds what I coined the Infinite Test. Remember that one?
I might be the only person who feels this way, but there are a few reactions that I get when I’m reading a bit of prose. A bad story, I’ll just let go, maybe without even finishing it, because meh. A good story, I’ll blow through as fast as I can, because I want to see how it ends! But a great story? Well, a great story, I’ll read a little slower, draw out a little longer. Partially to savor it, but moreso because I want to spend as much time as I can with more left to read.
Imagine the Infinite Test expanded to a whole oeuvre. This anxiety, the knowledge that a writer’s catalogue all of a sudden has a cap on it, is the reason why I leave A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again in the bathroom so I don’t just blow through it on a bus trip or something; why I jammed a bookmark into the middle of Everything and More and popped it back onto the shelf; why I kind of wish I hadn’t read “Tense Present. Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” if only so I could have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again. With the Franzens and Lahiris, and even the Roths and the DeLillos, of the world, there’s the potential for more material. With Wallace, this, for the most part, is it. I’m going to read The Pale King, because I love David Foster Wallace and I want to be part of the zeitgeist. But the book isn’t just sitting on my nightstand. It’s looming.
Scocca and Sullivan touch on something that presents a critical problem, too. Because The Pale King is an unfinished, posthumous work based on an incomplete manuscript and Wallace’s notes, when we come across an issue in the text, we get to second guess the editor (Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor on Infinite Jest) and not the lost, beloved genius Wallace. Or as Sullivan puts it:
Also, there’s something about the posthumous thing. It robs you of a certain pleasure that you take in reading, of being in dialogue with the author’s decisions, judging them and at the same time having the excitement of witnessing them, which is part of the drama of a book. Here you don’t know what they were. Every word you read and don’t like, you think, “Well, he would have changed that.” Whereas everything that does work, that’s the real Wallace.
It’s amusing, maybe even ironic, in its way. Wallace’s project can be seen as a rejection of navel-gazery and solipsism, and yet the unfinished nature of The Pale King, at least as Sullivan describes it, encourages us to indulge in our most comfortably held conceptions of the author and his abilities.
Or maybe not. I haven’t read it yet.
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