Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 6, 2012

David Foster Wallace, _The Pale King_, interim notes i

I made a sort of resolution to read this, Peter Nadas's Book of Memories, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, and Roberto Bolaño's 2666 this month. My chances of actually pulling this off are vanishingly slender. But if I'm going to keep buying cinderblock-sized novels, I really ought to try to read some of them, no? This one, it turns out, is not even that long, under 600 pages, despite its considerable heft.

1) How do I feel about posthumous publications of this, or Hemingway's Garden of Eden, Ellison's Three Days before the Shooting, or Elizabeth Bishop's working drafts, or other work its author did not regard as finished?  I know it presents an ethical quandary--I've read Kundera's Testaments Betrayed. It might be a disservice to the author. But the Canterbury Tales weren't completed, either, nor Michelangelo's slaves, nor The Faerie Queene, nor Wives and Daughters, nor The Cantos, but does that amount to a case for keeping them out of circulation?  Obviously, no. I am confident Michael Pietsch did as conscientious job as anyone could have. Besides, The Pale King so far (I'm on page 103) is awfully, awfully good. Astonishingly good.

2) For one thing, there is Wallace's unsurpassed ear for American discourses. Besides his pitch-perfect evocation of American bureaucratese, seen in the IRS chapters, chapters 6 and 8 show how completely Wallace could inhabit the linguistic universe of the relatively inarticulate, and how the cadences of the King James Version are integral to the True American Gravity (Whitman, Melville, Lincoln, King) and the True American Weirdness (Joseph Smith, Bob Dylan, Howard Fenster); Lane Dean and Toni Ware  are perfectly suspended between those two poles. Quite a contrast to Franzen's Patty Berglund--every once in a while he has her deliver a clunker sentence, as a gesture to authenticity, but in the next paragraph her prose is swooping with the elegance and grace of an Olympic figure skater. Wallace can stay heartbreakingly close to the language his characters would know and use.

3) Did Wallace, as an undergraduate, really write papers for fellow students for extra income, did he really get caught and suspended, did he really spend 1984-85 working for the IRS? Apparently not, though chapter 9--the "Author's Foreword"--insists he did, even while insisting that "the very last thing this book is is some kind of metafictional titty-pincher." Oh? So then why are my titties sore?

4) Sylvanshine passes through Midway airport on his way to his new post in Peoria and sees "thirty-year-old men who had infants in high-tech papooselike packs on their backs, their wives with quilted infant supply bags at their sides, the wives in charge, the men appearing essentially soft or softened in some way, desperate in a resigned way, their stride not quite a trudge, their eyes empty and overmild with the weary stoicism of young fathers" (13). My God...in 1985, when the novel is set, I was thirty-one, living in Chicago, and often used Midway. Our older daughter was born that year, and we did have a papoose-like carrier and a quilted diaper bag. I probably did look pretty tired--we weren't getting much sleep, and so on. Soft or softened?  Well, yeah. Not a flattering snap of me at at time, true, but at this juncture it seems an inexpressibly cool thing that I am in The Pale King, something of an honor even though it is populated entirely by the anxious and desperate and hopeless.

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