Brief Thoughts on The Pale King

by vinnyhaddad

It seems to me that we have two ways of approaching The Pale King. 1.) That this is a book like any other that we happen upon and read 2.) That David Foster Wallace’s suicide left a certain number of us melancholic, unable to break our attachment to the author figure, and so we have this one last chance to connect with the person who made us feel less alone with, most notably, Infinite Jest and A Girl With Curious Hair. I am, here, facing my thoughts with the determination to locate a difference between the two.

David Foster Wallace is different. Such is the thesis of Ed Finn’s “Becoming Yourself: David Foster Wallace and the After Life of Reception.” What Ed Finn discovers by a Bourdieuian examination of Wallace’s Amazon marketplace is that readers, more than any other contemporary readership formation, identify with Wallace himself (i.e., those that buy a book by Wallace tend to buy another book by Wallace, rather than merely another work of contemporary fiction, postmodern fiction, encyclopedic novel, etc.). What this information says to me is that around David Foster Wallace there grew a hoard of readers that bought in to his notions of “what fiction does,” or “what fiction ought to do.” I can safely count myself among these buyers. The most palpable element of this “manifesto for fiction” was that the art novel, the serious novel, gave us a unique opportunity to “feel less alone” by having “an intimate conversation between two consciences” in a way completely unavailable to us through other forms of media and entertainment.

These strong characterizations of serious fiction set Wallace up for criticism of whether or not he was ever able to deliver on his promise. As the story goes (D.T. Max’s biography would seem to support this claim), the anxiety Wallace faced in living up to these promises made to his readers (through these claims in interviews and the success of Infinite Jest) paralyzed his ability to deliver (if such a deliverance is possible). I’m not as interested so much in proving this claim, which seems inevitably unprovable. What I am interested in, however, is the ways in which you can understand readers as being invested in this narrative. The Pale King, as it turns out, seems to be the piece of fiction Wallace was “willing to die for.” Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Yet, what seems to go unnoticed in this rationale is the paradox created by the very existence of this edited, published and bestselling unfinished novel: what we loved was “the intimate conversation between two consciences,” what we committed was a violent eavesdropping that made the contract of serious fiction  (one that sustained and made it viable in a contemporary moment when there is little to no justification for actually reading Infinite Jest, a terribly long, difficult, and time-consuming novel [all ways of putting it mildly]) now null and void. Editor Michael Pietsch, whose great efforts in the development of The Pale King merit recognition side by side with Wallace on the front cover, divulges, “Everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exacting standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.” [1]  Yet, it seems to me that “David being here,” being present at least in the sense that we as readers have accepted in signing the said contract of Wallace’s serious fiction. What have we learned about ourselves as readers, through the very existence of The Pale King is that we were more interested in consuming, in taking from the authorial subject, than in the contract that made the authorial subject interesting to so many of us in the first place. In 2008, Wallace passed on. In 2009, a worldwide reading project called “Infinite Summer” saw thousands of people worldwide signing up to read undoubtedly our generation’s most confoundingly difficult, yet popular read. These online-readers devoured, discussed, and engaged with Infinite Jest in a way that called into question where we might project the niche market of art novels in the future. In 2011, this fervor was turned into, not nothing, but something else with the publication of The Pale King and its push for the Pulitzer Prize: a spectacle. Except, this spectacle says so much more about us as readers than it does about the sustainability of serious fiction in an Entertainment 3.0 culture. Or maybe it says we cannot be the readers we need to be in order to have a sustainable national marketplace for serious fiction. What is the difference between the first and second group I started this diatribe classifying? I would tell you, but I’m a man of my

If you made it this far, you are entitled to my seemingly contradictory comments on The Pale King : it is brilliant, stunningly so. I wish more than anything Wallace did not succumb to his illness and could have finished it. We will never have another. And I mean that so sincerely it makes me weep.

[1] Pg. x. Michael Pietsch, “Editor’s Note.” Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.