Hamish Hamilton £20
The Pale King, By David Foster Wallace
In his last, unfinished novel, David Foster Wallace pays attention to the fine detail of everyday mental activity
Sunday 17 April 2011
Of all the myths that have spread about David Foster Wallace in the years since his death, the most frustratingly pervasive was that he was a difficult writer.
It came about mostly because he wrote a very long novel, Infinite Jest, that was exceptional for its intelligence and its vaulting ambition to summarise the meaning of life in an era of information overload. But those characteristics never made it punishing. More than anything else, it was fun to read: the size of the thing just meant you could relax in the knowledge that you still had plenty ahead of you.
The Pale King is pretty long, too, but you can never quite relax in the same way. This is all we have of the book that Wallace, maybe the most talented American writer of his generation, was working on when he killed himself in 2008. There will never be another one. Found by his widow, Karen Green, shortly after his death, the manuscript was miles from complete: it consisted of 200 pages of relatively settled material, and, in notebooks and ring binders, on floppy disks and hard drives, additional sketches in various stages of completion, mostly without any indication as to where they would slot into the whole. From these bare bones (and, those closest to him believe, with Wallace's implicit consent) his longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, assembled the near-novel that's now being published.
Unlike Infinite Jest, The Pale King really is difficult. To begin with, it's a book that complements its predecessor's interest in entertainment by paying forensic attention to boredom. With no real plot to speak of, the book's themes are manifested in a group of stultified and strange low-level tax workers – among them the heavy-sweating Cusk, the "fact psychic" Claude Sylvanshine and one acne-scarred David Wallace – at an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois, a place so featureless that the land merges with the sky and creates "the spectacular impression of being in the centre of some huge and stagnant body of water". An entire chapter consists of them turning pages. And whereas in Infinite Jest we were mostly accompanied by the agreeable, tumbling energy of Wallace's most regular narrative voice, here we flit from register to register: sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first; sometimes with that familiar exhaustive diction, sometimes with a strange, confident voice that is flinty and mythic and elusive, and in which we get some of the most beautiful passages that Wallace ever wrote.
If you want a plot, one is definitely gestating, about a battle for the soul of the IRS between those who view it as a money-making corporation and those who view it as a moral mechanism for making people pay their taxes. Equally, it's possible that Wallace might have preferred to leave the whole thing to accumulate as a Post-modern short-story cycle in which the poor souls in Peoria simply orbit each other in unacknowledged harmony. That might have been OK, too. Anything that seems not to work might have been resolved, after all, with another draft.
Wallace's brave idea is to use boredom as a way of getting at the almost unmentioned thing that, in fact, makes up real life more than politics or work or even our loved ones: the unattended business of thinking, what Don DeLillo called the "sub-microscopic moments", the "small, dull smears of meditative panic". "Maybe," the character named David Wallace posits, "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." I found myself thinking of the real Wallace's famous graduation-day speech, in which he argued that the value of an education was that it allowed you to choose how to relate to the world. If, as he put it, "you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options .... The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it."
That's the implicit work going on here. We get rapt descriptive passages, frequently very funny, that seem to be examples of how not to think about the world: minute, infuriated descriptions of the failures of the IRS's traffic management system; a three-page paragraph about the unforeseen consequences of a piece of tax policy in Illinois. But we also get proof that Wallace could still deploy his own attention to see things afresh, whether in a perfect diagnosis of a habit of mind that you had thought was yours alone, or in piercing, austere observations of that flat Midwestern landscape.
If, as well as that scattered brilliance, there are some sections that are too diffuse, and a sense that Wallace hadn't yet grasped how to make the whole thing hang together, it's hard to feel disappointed. This is our final communication from a voice that is as inescapable as it is irreplaceable. That it is fragmentary only makes the pieces we have seem more valuable.
To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Technology company Alibaba posts job advert asking for 'stunning' women with qualities of adult film actress Sora Aoi
- 2 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 3 'Fire at every person you see': Israeli soldiers reveal they were ordered to shoot to kill in Gaza – even if the targets may have been civilians
- 4 Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Jorge Luis Borges fan brings his infinite library to life online
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
In defence of liberal democracy
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils