Where I come from, it’s common to speculate about what the abstract painter Peter Lanyon might have achieved, had he not died in a hang-gliding accident in 1964. Lanyon was forty-six, on his way to becoming the Turner of the twentieth century, but to imagine an alternative future takes for granted the one already guaranteed by his art. With this in mind, I don’t see how David Foster Wallace can be considered a great loss to American fiction. Before his suicide, also at the age of 46, Wallace published two novels, three collections of stories, two books of essays, a study of infinity and countless articles. Why ask what Wallace and Lanyon might have produced when they undoubtedly gave us so much? Same applies to The Pale King, which can be added to the list of great unfinished novels – Kafka’s The Trial, Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Denton Welch’s A Voice Through A Cloud – precisely because, if I hadn‘t known, I may not have realised it was unfinished until very late on.
“A plot summary,” writes Jonathan Raban, “is a plot summary.” Alas, no plot summary. The Pale King is about taxes the way Moby Dick – an overlooked antecedent – is about whale hunting. You work through the boredom to get to the bliss, similar to how, when he retreats to his estate to hack down crops and your imagination goes blurry with wheat, you fall in love with Levin in Anna Karenina. Or how in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s endless reckoning constructs a cathedral of power and profundity that makes for an extremely physical – in your gut, in your knees, in your heart – reading experience.
I fell asleep while reading The Pale King more times than I have while reading any other book. I woke to at least three floor-hitting thuds and passages are excruciating. But we beat on and there are many, many fine things. Not least the sentence structures, the way Wallace puts words at beginnings and endings of clauses they would ordinarily go in the middle of:
“Her second experience of the kind her books made seem sweet through indifferent speech had occurred in the abandoned car in the university MO at the hands of a man who knew how to dislodge one coat hanger with the straightened hook of another and told her face beneath his fingerless mitten there were two different ways this right here could go.”
This is a novel that rewards re-reading, so thread your eyes back and forth, enjoy the way words seem to have moved each time you read them and watch them dance to the music of their internal linguistic logic.
Line-by-line, The Pale King is less radical than Infinite Jest. The formal differences between Wallace and his friend Jonathan Franzen used to strike me as gargantuan but here that’s less so. The Pale King is Wallace’s most accessible fiction, openly political too, and I sense that, during long conversations Wallace and Franzen reportedly had about “what fiction is for”, unacknowledged legislation was a point of consensus. The Pale King charts processes set in motion under Ronald Reagan that reached their apotheosis in the America of Freedom. Jennifer Egan has alluded to this in these pages.
I love Irrelevant Chris Fogle; I love the first twenty-four pages which are as good and disorientating as the opening of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; I love lines like “Everybody hates the boy,” and “Insects all business all the time”; I love Diablo The Left-handed Surrealist and I love the bureaucratic symphony where, “Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page. ‘Groovy’ Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file. Ann Williams turns a page.” I especially love the long conversation between Shane Drinion and Meredith Rand where the latter recounts her depressive youth and the former levitates with the rare gift of total concentration.
Towards the end of their exchange, Rand asks, “Is this boring?” Drinion answers,
“Certain parts you tend to repeat, or say over again in a slightly different way… I wouldn’t call it boring, though. It’s more that attending to these parts requires work, although it wouldn’t be fair to call that effort unpleasant. It’s that listening to the parts that do add new information or insights, these parts compel attention in a way that doesn’t require effort.”
Indeed, and while pondering the old parts as they’re recast in new words, we absorb the new parts, which will become old parts in new words and so on; this is, you will have guessed, what’s going on in the novel but it would be lazy to simply label it ‘meta-fiction;’ the multi-valence of techniques and meanings that are working beneath the surface, amount to something unforgettable.
Wallace occasionally showboats with the kind of long, self-consciously looping details that he could probably riff on while standing on his head wearing Franzen’s blindfold. It’s entertaining but if we take W H Auden’s distinction between a minor artist – roughly, one who masters something and keeps doing it – and a major artist – roughly, one who masters something then breaks it down and tries to do something new – we demand more. Because Wallace is a major artist.
Two personal observations and one anecdote about reading The Pale King:
1. As the only person in Britain, apart from Zadie Smith, who recognised Wallace’s genius during his lifetime (as an undergraduate, I wore a bandana, a goddamn ban-dan-na), I was reminded of how huge a part of what and how I think and read and write he is.
2. At times, I felt a bit like I do when blowing the dust from a Yo La Tengo or Sparklehorse album: there just is a certain mid-nineties-ness about Wallace’s long fiction, which there isn‘t, curiously, about his essays and stories.
Anecdote: “Wow. I’m so envious,” I said when a celebrated rock critic told me about the time he saw Joy Division play. “You shouldn‘t be” he said, “because tonight, in a room somewhere in this city, something more exciting will be happening. You just have to find it.” Or be it.
Some readers dally with avant-garde fiction then slip back into the verities of realism like lovers returning to the missionary position. I feel the opposite way and I believe Wallace did too but I also believe that things have changed, even since his death in 2008. Today we’ve got David Shields, Jennifer Egan, Salvatore Scibona. No writer is bigger than writing and part of the deal with suicide is that life and art move on. Franzen writes superbly about the anger he feels towards Wallace in a recent New Yorker essay – ‘On Crusoe Island’ – which I urge everybody to read. I’m writing a book about suicide but I lack an answer to the question of cowardliness and/or selfishness.
Any Cop?: Let me say this: The Pale King’s emergence into a different world to the one its author knew is a stunning tribute to his bravery and influence as an artist.