Sunday 16 June 2013

The Pale King, By David Foster Wallace

The Pale King, By David Foster Wallace

(Hamish Hamilton, £20.00stg hardback)

As pretty much everyone who can be bothered even to start reading this review probably knows, David Foster Wallace died in September 2008, aged 46, by his own hand. Thus, The Pale King is a posthumous publication, and an unfinished work. As Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, explains in his Editor’s Note, it was assembled from ‘…a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages’, found on Wallace’s desk by his widow Karen Green and his agent Bonnie Nadell, two months after his death, plus ‘hundreds and hundreds of pages of his novel in progress’, discovered on further exploration of his office, on or in ‘Hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks’ which ‘contained printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes and more.’ In the absence of a detailed outline projecting scenes and stories yet to be written, it is impossible to know just how unfinished what we now have is, or how much more there might have been. Never has Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘The Death of the Author’ displacing authorial intentionality been more ably demonstrated, in the most literal of ways. 
   Publication in this format does give rise to a certain ethical queasiness. The sound of barrels being scraped has been loud since DFW’s demise, with 2009 seeing the publication of his 2005 Commencement Address to students at Kenyon College as This Is Water (one sentence per page, 137 pages, £10.99stg h/b thank you very much), followed last year by his undergraduate philosophy thesis ‘Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality’ as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. The pop cultural analogy (and Wallace was thoroughly immersed in pop culture) would be with the estate of Jimi Hendrix, whose early death at 27, intestate, paved the way for many years of substandard recordings, both live concerts and studio jams/album outtakes, often containing overdubs by the presiding new producer, being issued, until his family finally arrested this situation in the 1990s by taking much tighter control of how the guitarist’s remaining recordings were administered and presented. Well, if there’s an audience… More worrying is that Wallace was, as Pietsch acknowledges, ‘a perfectionist of the highest order’, and would probably have been excruciatingly embarrassed at something ‘not refined to his exacting standard’ hitting the shelves. Pietsch justifies the publication however, arguing, ‘Given the choice between working to make this less-than-final text available as a book and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn’t have a second’s hesitation’, adding, ‘David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.’
  Yet the irony is that, while the proper comparison should probably be with his previous novel Infinite Jest rather than, say, the short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, DFW’s short fiction can often be fragmented and impressionistic, and all of his work has a certain improvisatory, trial piece feel. You are at least a third of the way into the ‘finished’ Infinite Jest before starting to make the connections which hang disparate elements together. (‘A book is never finished. It is only abandoned.’ – Balzac. To which can be added: sometimes in the most irrevocable of ways.)
  So, what’s The Pale King about? To telescope drastically, its professed theme is boredom, allied to the notion that mortal tedium can be overcome by developing our quality of attention. Learn how to concentrate, even on dull stuff, and bliss will be achieved. As Josef Brodsky wrote in his essay ‘Less Than One’: ‘Boredom, after all, is the most frequent feature of existence, and one wonders why it fared so poorly in the nineteenth century prose that strives so much for realism.’ Or, closer to Wallace’s home, one is also reminded of John Berryman’s Dreamsong #14: ‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so./After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,/we ourselves flash and yearn,/and moreover my mother told me as a boy/(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no/Inner Resources.’’ It turns out that the punk rockers of the late ’70s were wrong: boredom was not caused by dinosaur prog rockers, out of touch with the kids; rather, it is an ever-present feature of life.
  Wallace grounds his abstract speculations in a story about practitioners of the most boring profession (accountancy), who work for the most feared and loathed federal agency (no, not the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but the Internal Revenue Service), set in the Mid-West, during the Reagan era. There are sub-plots about the old guard in the IRS, who see tax payment and collection as civic virtue, versus the new guard, who want to run the service like any private business, maximizing profits; and also about the efficiency of computers versus employees in processing tax returns. It’s a bit like a reality TV show where no contestants get voted out, or an episode of The Office with fewer cringable laughs. But, as Pietsch opines in his Editor’s Note: ‘I had had the enormous honor of working with David as his editor on Infinite Jest, and had seen the worlds he’d conjured out of a tennis academy and a rehab center. If anyone could make taxes interesting, I figured, it was him.’ So, while such a truncated synopsis may make The Pale King seem like the flip side to Infinite Jest’s expansive exuberance, just because it’s about boredom doesn’t mean it’s boring. Because, perhaps rather than boredom, it would be more accurate to say that Wallace’s themes here are what Benjamin Franklin called the only certainties in life: death and taxes. Or, more humanly, how we move money around, supposedly to help each other. As unlikely hero Mr. DeWitt Glendenning Jr., the Director of the Midwest Regional Examination Center, puts it: ‘If you know the position a person takes on taxes, you can determine [his] whole philosophy. The tax code, once you get to know it, embodies all the essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, charity.’ To which ‘David Wallace’/David Wallace respectfully adds one more quality: ‘boredom’.
  That ‘David Wallace’/David Wallace flourish is the result of a neat trick ‘Wallace’/Wallace performs in Chapter 9 here, titled Author’s Foreword, in which he introduces the character of David Wallace, who claims The Pale King ‘is basically a nonfiction memoir’, in a tongue-in-cheek effort to bolster its authenticity. It seems this Dave Wallace got thrown out of an Ivy League college for writing term papers for privileged but lazy fellow students, in order to finance his studies, and so wound up taking an entry level IRS job back in his home town of Peoria, Illinois, which provided him with his material. (Meanwhile, the ‘real’ David Wallace apparently took advanced tax accounting classes to further his research.) Thus, Wallace gets to both parody and satirise the popularity of the misery memoir genre, ‘popularity’ in this context ultimately being ‘…a synonym for profitability…in 2003, the average author’s advance for a memoir was almost 2.5 times that paid for a work of fiction.’ Those purveyors of ‘reality hunger’, loudly trumpeting the death of the novel, are simultaneously placated in their erroneous theories and exposed as deluded frauds.
  This author-as-character-in-his-own-fiction device affords Wallace (let’s drop that pesky ‘Wallace’) the opportunity to put the reader right regarding certain structural and stylistic quirks: ‘The idea…is that you will regard features like shifting p.o.v.s, structural fragmentation, willed incongruities, & c. as simply the modern literary analogs of ‘Once upon a time…’ or ‘Far, far away, there once dwelt…’ or any of the other traditional devices that signaled the reader that what was under way was fiction and should be processed accordingly.’ It also gives him the chance to lay bare his thematic concerns: ‘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 believers that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.’
  While on the subject of attention and dullness, Wallace often expressed (in interviews) misgivings about how familiar interviewers and reviewers were with his work, or how closely they had read it. Considering The Pale King was strictly embargoed until its publication on April 15th (American tax returns deadline day, of course) – even if there was a much publicised leak on Amazon – the plethora of reviews which appeared so soon after I received my own review copy made me wonder how many people writing about the book had actually had time to read it.
  Regarding continuity, there are other recognizably Wallacian metaphysical/metaliterary conceits. His penchant for moral dilemmas concerning motivation (cf. ‘The Devil is a Busy Man’ sequence from Brief Interviews) is still very much in evidence. See the above reality/fiction caper; or Born Again Christians Lane Dean Jr. and his pregnant girlfriend Sheri agonising about abortion; or the character of Leonard Stecyk, whose childhood Niceness ‘was actually sadistic, pathological, selfish’. Similarly, stylistically Chapter 14 here reads like Brief Interviews With Disgruntled Tax Return Processors. 
   David Foster Wallace battled depression for most of his adult life, but he will be remembered as a/the writer of, if not quite a fellow of, infinite jest/Infinite Jest. Did writing The Pale King kill him? Or was it just plain old tedium vitae? It’s hard to separate the two, or to judge. But boring it definitely ain’t – unless it’s intentionally so.

First published in The Sunday Independent.

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