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The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
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Aug 26, 11

Read from April 01 to 14, 2011

As good as all his other stuff. No less finished-seeming than anything else he ever did. No plot, but thematic balls are always in the air and bouncing around, plus the prose is always so readable -- often easier, more mature, steadier, less trying to impress than his earlier stuff? Only had to look up two or three vocab words. Awarded the fifth star to encourage the writer to one day finish it properly -- for now, this collection of 540+ bound pages of DFW's writing, whether it's an unfinished novel, linked collection of stories, fragments, dialogues -- whatever you call it -- like a massive Snickers bar offered to all those famished for Mr. Wallace's particular sort of caloric content, really satisfied on micro and macro levels.

Not really an office novel. More like a longer Brief Interviews with Hideous Men than a shorter Infinite Jest. A++ sequencing job by the editor -- seems like controlled pomo chaos instead of old-fashioned mess. Conflicts and thematic dealios are explicated by the author in the final "notes and asides" section: maturity/responsibility requires ability to pay attention, especially in the face of "boredom," which is really just an inability to pay sufficient attention -- and paying attention has a moral dimension. Apparently purposefully dull passsages come studded with easter eggs -- toward the end of a long dull footnote there's a "woodpeckerishly intensive round of fellatio" --- fellatio performed by an Iranian women who seems sort of like the Indian woman in "Freedom" -- wonder if Franzen cribbed her, or if he and DFW colluded to sexualize the long liquid hair of such women, or maybe as an inside joke re: their attraction to Jhumpa Lahiri?

Minor magic realism: a character just barely levitates when he's immersed, paying serious attention to work or listening to someone. Also a pair of minor phantoms. Four major writers mentioned in the book as major writers a writer might aspire to be like are echoed throughout: Gaddis (dialogue onslaughts of JR), Perec (Life: A User's Manual -- attention to detail, structure, the name Sylvanshine echoes the name Bartlebooth), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio -- portraits of an ensemble cast in the midwest), Balzac (ridiculous attention to detail? I haven't read enough to have much insight). LOLs a-plenty, often at revelation of a paradox (see essay on humor in Kafka, the bit about "A Little Fable"). Several dozen pages turned down, sometimes top and bottom corners turned in -- first time I've done that since Gilead.

A systems novel -- like most of DeLillo or Kafka -- focused on individual/very much individuated lives (thanks to author's observations) inside a major faceless institution. Structurally, the book would've been loosely organized to have something to do with a yaw system -- that is, attention, responsibility, maturity are the rotor that turns the propeller that cuts through the wind of boredom, loneliness, excessive thought, and, as Shane Drinion demonstrates, enables levitation/flight (temporary transcendence). As noted early on in the book, "yaw" backwards is "way," which is the English word for "tao."

For a 1200-word version of this impression, get the tenth edition of The Lifted Brow.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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Scott Gates Great review. I think you're spot-on about the Pale King reading like an extended Brief Interviews more than any other previous-Wallace-work comparison. In this, I think it's a regression from Oblivion, which is his very best work. Though, of course, who knows what this book would have become.


message 2: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Not sure about regression, personally. Oblivion was maybe an outer edge for him and Pale King is something more fundamental, essential, stylistically but also thematically?


Paul "Awarded the fifth star to encourage the writer to one day finish it properly." This statement makes it sound like you may not be aware that the novel is unfinished because Wallace died before he could complete it. It will never be finished.


message 4: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee I guess you 1) don't believe in the immortality of the spirit, 2) doubt that dead writers access this site and read reviews, and 3) don't dream of a day that technological advances enable some sort of FTP interface with the afterworld?


Jenn This is the first book of DFW I've read. Sometimes one sentence goes for one page. Does DFW really write like that? Or was that a sample of his freewriting which the editor didn't want to edit?


message 6: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee He really writes like that, unafraid of stretching out a sentence, same as Bernhard, Saramago, Faulkner, Proust, Joyce, Hrabal, Pynchon, Gaddis, on and on. In the Pale King, it's hard to say what's less or more edited. Longer sentences may be more worked than shorter ones. I'd recommend his non-fiction (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, and then Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, and also the lesser-read Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present) and, definitely, eventually, the massive masterpiece novel, Infinite Jest


Jenn Oh. I find it hard to follow what he's been saying in the long sentences. It's like my mind is being raped with words. haha.

Thanks for the tip. I'll look for those books when I finish The Pale King.


message 8: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Just think of the commas in the long sentences as periods, and try not to equate top-notch flights of prose with violent nonconsensual sex!


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio RE Iranian fellatio: there's some interview where DFW mentions dating a Sufi woman, who I'm pretty sure was from "the region" as it were. I thought about this during that scene.

One of the memoir-or-not? type thoughts I'm plagued by is whether or not DFW ever went through a one-sideburn phase in college. Either way, that part had me gigglin' somethin' fierce.

Just re-read the review. Great stuff. Glad to be ranked at the top of the GR heap alongside such a high quality take on a book that means a lot to me.


message 10: by KFed (new) - added it

KFed Really useful review, thanks. I'm trying to not do that thing where I read the pulitzer winners and come up with my own winner because I'm not so invested, but I'm reading 'Train Dreams' now and am feeling the urge to read Wallace next. Luckily, I don't see myself being in the mood for 'Swamplandia' anytime soon.


Mairead You know he's dead, right? Tragic but true...


message 12: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Klappenskoff There comes a time when you have to stop tampering with your book, even when you're dead. Nice review, too, assuming you're still alive.


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