REVIEW: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

One of the central theses of The Pale King—an unfinished novel whose author need not even be named, so great is the extent of his immortality in contemporary American letters—is that society is poisoned by an emphasis on quantity over quality. Of course this is an age-old criticism of advanced capitalism, but it resonates differently beneath the pen of the deceased. It is a concept particularly pregnant with irony (possibly the DFW mode par excellence), because the very form of TPK (as well as his other two novels, his debut The Broom of the System and especially Infinite Jest—a candidate for the greatest American novel since Gravity’s Rainbow) is reliant on is the very characteristic he aims to problematize: quantity, accumulation, the raw mass of modernity.

There is so much information the narrative balances between the thick description of the transcendental high modernists (Beckett, Woolf) and the structure of a phone book. Without a doubt, TPK is unrivaled in its elucidation of the fabric of the post-’68 America (most of the narrative is pre-‘net, which is significant in that DFW locates the “fall” of some sort of American idealism in post-war industrialism, not in globalization or the rise of communications technologies), but beyond a certain coolness; there’s a certain grace in chaos (think Cy Twombly). It’s a cold hard world, bereft of authenticity, and it’s not surprising the man himself chose to bow out early. Infinite Jest might be the greatest American novel of the last quarter century, but there’s very little love in it. TPK suffers the same absence.

Ansel Adams said “there’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept.” Étienne Balibar speaks of an instance when the reader, becoming too theoretically sophisticated, ceases to be a good reader; she is unable to “not know” (à la Barthelme), unable to blur her eyes at ideas which require the singular lucidity of ambiguity or indeterminacy. DFW was the greatest postmodernist—the Zizek of fiction, a Zuckerberg of the word—but he could no longer (or maybe never could) “play” in the sense Derrida warned us we must never forget to do. The nation itself follows him, daily drawing closer to becoming the type of image that Adams disdained. For that reason, TPK is not only the best novel you will read this year, it’s also the most important.

I had a friend who once attended a DFW reading, and during Q&A he asked the man in the white bandana if he liked to work out, which is admittedly cheeky but at the same time pertinent to the author’s corpus as well as his personal life. DFW, however, was obviously annoyed by the question, and declined to answer. Why? Was my friend too ironic? Was there something about exercise he didn’t want to engage?

In David Lipsky’s DFW profile, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, we meet a literary genius with an almost religious love of culture, of that peculiar, textually invariable magic which occurs when a work of art attains perfection (think of Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken’s dialogue in True Romance). Said magic is not so much a product of content as it is of form; any content could potentially produce the glow, or as DFW called it in Fate, Time, and Language, the “click.” My friend believed exercise was a means by which to click more commonly and completely. Perhaps the very contextual invariability of this clicking was what got the writer down. If everything under the sun has the potential to be coached into brilliance, it is also all perpetually at risk.

For all its sprawl, it’s a fragile world. Tread lightly.

The Pale King
by David Foster Wallace
April 2011; Little, Brown and Company (548 pp.)

After growing up in Oakland, California and studying literature in Portland, Oregon, Joshua Willey flew to China and commenced working a perennial series of day jobs. He’s currently moving to Mexico City and writing If I’m Not Back By Morning, a novel about hitchhiking.