David Foster Wallace's The Pale King: Tupac's Back Bee-yatch!

on Wednesday, April 27, 2011
David Foster Wallace has been a constant lingering presence in my adult reading life. That isn't to say that I'm obsessed with him like so many other people I know, but he always seems to be there, particularly at the major junctures. I started reading Infinite Jest at the commencement of my honours year at university and, though I read many other books while dipping in and out of it, that behemoth kept me company until the day I handed in my thesis. Indeed, I ended up dedicating the bloody thing to Wallace's masterpiece, much to the chagrin of many more deserving loved ones and acquaintances. Now, quite a few years later, The Pale King pops up just as I get my marching orders from my apartment. I am forced to move in with my parents until the new house is ready, an unintended consequence of which is the luxury of a few days straight reading. Three days, to be precise. No need to dedicate a thesis to this one.

I don't intend to bang on too much about The Pale King. Enough has been written in the blogosphere to make Wallace's own prolific body of scribblings seem like mere pamphlets. Nor do I intend to harp on about how his suicide in 2009 robbed the world of one the greatest literary talents of his generation. Frankly, it angered me, though not as much as the subsequent idiotic rush to print anything he might have jotted down. His Amherst undergrad thesis, Fate, Time and Language is now a must-have for Arts students everywhere. Except it is rubbish and should have been left in his adviser's filing cabinet. There Is Some Water, his 2005 lecture at Kenyon College, is slight and hardly important. And don't even get me started on Everything and More. It's starting to look like Wallace is the Tupac of modern literature.

The Pale King is, and demands to be read as, an epitaph of sorts on his writing career. It is the novel he had been working on for years before depression got the better of him. A relatively slight 560 pages - well, slight for Wallace, probably less so for Camus - it is about the IRS. Yes, that's right. 560 pages about tax. Now, I've read the Australian Tax Act. It is of a similar length. And it is the most boring collection of consecutive verbiage that I have ever encountered. Which means I approached The Pale King with considerable trepidation. Thankfully, Wallace's lyrical gusto had me overlooking the subject matter for the most part. Sure, there are bits that drag and bits that needed a rewrite or a good edit. But there are also large sections that just sing. Like the first Author's Note, about four chapters in, in which Wallace 'the author' intrudes to comment upon Wallace the character and the nature of autobiography. Brilliant. And like the Chris Fogel novella, probably the longest riff in the book. Infuriatingly boring and engaging at the same time. Then there is the chapter that, in my opinion, far outshines anything else in the book. Or anything else Wallace ever wrote. It is a protracted conversation between Shane Drinion, the most boring man in the office, and Meredith Baxter, the most (only) beautiful woman and it is simply breathtaking. Nothing I can say here can possibly do it justice.

The Pale King is unfinished, though I suspect it is far closer to completion than we have been led to believe. You may therefore choose to read it as a work-in-progress or, like Infinite Jest, a complete novel that ends abruptly without resolution. Choose the former and you have an enlightening glimpse into the working brain of a genius and will be left to wonder what the finished product might have been. Choose the latter and you have a spirited, sometimes spectacular act of literary ventriloquism on one of the most boring topics imaginable. When all is said and done, The Pale King isn't quite as great as some will have you believe but it is still worth reading even if only for Wallace's stunning wordsmithery (which, ironically, I don't think is a word). In that regard The Pale King towers above all the pretenders. And at least you won't be a total poser lugging it around. You listening to me Arts students?


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