Jesse's Reviews > The Pale King

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
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Apr 23, 11

Read in April, 2011

So as you all know, Wallace’s writing style is highly contagious; thus, I will push back against the marriage of breezy witticism and Wikipedic knowledge that is Wallace’s distinctive style. I began “The Pale King” with an odd feeling of elation mixed with bittersweet bemoanment. I had waited for years for a new DFW novel. And while I love his non-fiction as much as the next guy, the non-fiction stuff seemed like buying a ticket to be inside Wallace’s brain as he did typically middle American activities; Or they seemed like listening in on Wallace unpacking (usually) highly complex ideas and coming to even-minded, well thought out results. These were all wonderfully and highly rewarding experiences but, they always felt like mute listenings, whereas Wallace’s fiction always felt like a shared task: and this was by design. About “Infinite Jest” he spoke of wanting to entice his readers with Knievelish pizzazz, in order that they would do the re-reading that serious works require to divulge their payload. Alas the “The Pale King” was a wondrous appearance in my life. But then came the buzz-kill realization that, um, obviously this was it – the last we would get (excluding of course the warm backwash of uncollected writings that is sure to come).
With this in mind I began reading and after finding the top of my head and reattaching it (I mean if that first chapter doesn’t fit Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry I don’t know what does), I started reading in an emotional lurching sort of way, not wanting to read it to fast, but also not wanting to lose a holistic sense of the novel’s raison d’etre. This all changed around Leonard Stecyk (whom I thought was just an extended gag turned into a character but, man was I wrong - what Wallace does with this character would be a career achievement for some novelists). After this section I read “The Pale King” with the same speed, glee, and ejaculatory laughter that drives my girlfriend, and really anyone within earshot, mad with a curious desire to know just what’s so damn funny. I really don’t need to rehash the overall plot of the novel because 1) that would spoil the book for those of you who haven’t read it, 2) if you have read it you know what it’s about, and 3) plot is a secondary, or even tertiary, concern of Wallace’s fiction. And this is one of the things I love most about it. While most novels of canonical status are tightly packed, ergonomically written gems, Wallace’s novels seem like rough uncut diamonds of immense caratage that would be felonious to try and cut and buff up and shine into something unrecognizably gaudy, and accessible. At a young age Wallace identified what was special about fiction, the communicative ability between two insular minds. He thus made that the goal of his fiction – over sublime structure, allusive symbol, realistic characters, & c. (my little homage). Sometimes critics dismissed this as it didn’t quite slot in with literary expectations. But Wallace wasn’t writing for critics he was writing for readers like me: the lost ones, the ones who fight problems with bigger problems (an Elliott homage). He was a leader that said DON’T follow me, I’ve walked down this road – or maybe slipped down this slope – and eventually all that’s there is yourself and the “biggest” problem.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; this wasn’t where Wallace started at all. When Wallace started writing fiction he was a “look ma, no hands” kinda writer (his words). “Broom of the System” had a faint yearning for true human connection, but his real fictional gift didn’t fully emerge until after McLean’s and Grananda house. I think it was here that Wallace saw that for all the problems he was given, he was given gifts to match them (he may have even heard these exact words as the have a Judeo-Christian helpspeak ring to them). He spoke of this time as transformational as a time of maturing and growing up. So it’s not surprising that his next work of fiction, “Infinite Jest” was also more mature, more giving. He still retained some of the literary gymnastics, and postmodern tomfoolery, yet he used these as bait, because underneath he had put a giant beating heart that was desperate for meaningful connection, that wanted to shine a little light upon the dark secrets that were slowly stripping away dignity and self-worth. As much as his fiction was a project to connect and share with his readers, it was also a therapeutic airing of things Wallace couldn’t say in interviews. Yet, in reading “Infinite Jest” anyone who has ever struggled with depression or substance abuse knew that Wallace’s book wasn’t completely fictional, but rather a construct he built to share his experience with mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, without having to come right out and say, “I went through this” – the candid, authenticity of the internal description of these things was enough to let the perspicacious know that Wallace wasn’t speaking of things vicariously experienced (as the copyright page of IJ would have you believe). This was the main message I took from IJ, Wallace saying, “hey man I’ve been there and I came out the other end and I can laugh about it and point out all the silly obvious dodges I was using, and if I can do it with my thermonuclear grade mental issues, then I know you can too.” Of course most critics totally missed this point. Maybe they only read it once, or maybe they just didn’t have the same problems that Wallace was trying to illuminate and ameliorate, or maybe the novel didn’t work the way traditional novels work and they had trouble getting a handle on what exactly the novel was doing: innovation is never seamlessly accepted. Whatever the reason the novel was received by a lot of critics as just a reason for Wallace to show off how smart and creative and witty he was – now this was the reason he wrote “Broom of the System” and IJ definitely has moments that have a scent of selfish writing, but the overall reason of IJ is to share, to compare and to give to the reader things that normal everyday relationships cannot.
This brings us to “The Pale King”. We all know why this novel is unfinished, and when Wallace killed himself, it really affected me because I felt he had come out of the other side (see supra) and that he found a way to stare into the face of existential absurdity and smile back at it and say, “I will be compassionate”, at least on a literary level. When he died I felt, like “the problem” won, and the “good person” lost. But I know that depression is an illness and that Wallace died of a disease, not of selfishness. And this is what bothered me so mightily about Franzen’s New Yorker essay. He seems to think that Wallace died from selfishness and that hanging himself at home was a way of slighting his wife. To this I say, a man in desperation is not thinking of things in this way, his very thought process is diseased and thus anything that comes out of it is a result of the disease and not Wallace himself. This is by no means an apotheosis of Wallace - I know he was just a man with faults: but major depression and its attendant suicidal impulses is not a fault, it’s a mental disease. Franzen would seem to also discount my view on Wallace as he seems to think all his readers were somehow duped by Wallace, the “hideous man”. Another reason, which Franzen implies, that Wallace’s readers are confused as to Wallace and his real reason for suicide, is that Franzen was personally closer to Wallace and thus was privy to things his readers weren’t. And while I’m sure there were numerous things which we never got wind of, we also were not as emotionally attached to Wallace as a friend or family member. This gives readers the opportunity to be less emotionally involved in Wallace’s work and/or death than Franzen could ever be. And because Wallace was such a personal writer, readers did know a lot about Wallace’s interior life. Now I know his work was just a “representation” of what his true internal life was, but I don’t see how that is any different than the way we are always marooned in our skull and must use “representations” (usually linguistic and sometimes false) to convey our internal life. I guess my argument is that Wallace’s fiction is a better example of where his true humanity lies. As a man, especially in the last years, his mental illness took over and all the hurtful things which Franzen demonizes him for, were a result of illness, not sadistic tendencies. And this is why TPK made me so happy, and even proud. Wallace found a way to use all his gargantuan skill to compassionately portray humans as they are and as they should be (esp. the Fogle section). He even takes an odd shot at himself, by making David Wallace a character who derides Chris Fogle. And yet Chris Fogle is Wallace’s (the actual author’s) best character and the one who best represents the change that Wallace was attempting as he matured. I think the fictional Wallace was the actual author’s way of showing the shallowness of people who condescend to true maturity. I must say that the whole Fogle section is a beautiful culmination of Wallace’s career from the moment in “E Unibas Pluram” when he urged for a new type of fiction writer who leaves the safety of irony for the heroism of true human compassion, until he finally silenced his inner-snark and wrote of Chris Fogle’s maturation. In reading this section I was finally able to forgive Wallace for killing himself, because for all my brain knew of mental illness, my heart still felt let down, like Wallace couldn’t pull through and finish this book. But the Fogle section was enough for me - enough to let me know that Wallace wanted to make the world a better place, wanted people to silence their inner-cynic, and embrace responsibility even if it is boring and banal, because it is this embrace which represents true love.
Wallace’s first novel ended in the middle of a sentence because he wanted to show-off his knowledge of literary theory; his second novel ended in the middle of the plot’s climax because he wanted us to go back and re-read in order to find the heart that beat just beneath the surface; his third novel ends just – well – in the middle, because Wallace’s disease finally got the best of him. But in truth Wallace’s disease lost. One hundred years from now Wallace’s work will still inspire, will still speak to the addicted Mensa member, the self-loathing gifted, the terrified talented - and because of the courage he had to bury the genius and grow the giving, Wallace’s work will stand as a call to responsibility, to country, to family, to your brother, and most of all: to yourself. The disease only killed David Foster Wallace in a dark moment of despair, when he saw no way out. The week he died, I was contemplating writing a letter to him, I had just finished “Infinite Jest” again and wanted to let him know how much his novel meant to me and how I didn’t really get it until after a couple times through. I had never written a public persona before and was hesitant. I wish I would have written him to tell him all these things, but most of all I wish I could have given him a message from all his readers: ‘You are loved’. After all, we are all of us brothers, right?
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Ian (last edited Mar 18, 2012 02:56AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Klappenskoff There's a hell of a lot of insight and wisdom in your review.
I'm going to try to read the book and review it without remembering and mentioning the fact that DFW is dead.


Jesse thanks, i appreciate it. and that's an interesting way to read the book, maybe it will yield a new view on the book. i'll look foward to checking that out.


message 3: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Klappenskoff Jesse wrote: "thanks, i appreciate it. and that's an interesting way to read the book, maybe it will yield a new view on the book. i'll look foward to checking that out."

Thanks, Jesse.
I don't think it will yield anything new, but hopefully it will help persuade people that DFW might be dead, but the book is alive.


message 4: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell anyone who has ever struggled with depression or substance abuse knew that Wallace’s book wasn’t completely fictional, but rather a construct he built to share his experience with mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, without having to come right out and say, “I went through this” – the candid, authenticity of the internal description of these things was enough

God, yes.

But I know that depression is an illness and that Wallace died of a disease, not of selfishness. And this is what bothered me so mightily about Franzen’s New Yorker essay. He seems to think that Wallace died from selfishness and that hanging himself at home was a way of slighting his wife. To this I say, a man in desperation is not thinking of things in this way, his very thought process is diseased and thus anything that comes out of it is a result of the disease and not Wallace himself. This is by no means an apotheosis of Wallace - I know he was just a man with faults: but major depression and its attendant suicidal impulses is not a fault, it’s a mental disease.

OH MY GOD LET ME BUY YOU A BEER. Hated, hated, hated that Franzen essay, because it seemed to display an utter smug hateful ignorance of mental illness as much as anything else. I mean, I know it was written out of pain and he was missing his friend terribly and all that, but Jesus, what a thing to do.

Fantastic review.


Jesse why thank you you and i'll take a sam smith organic anytime you please...yeah franzens essay reminds me of the classic stages of greiving and i don't blame franzen for thinking and feeling those things, i blame him for publishing them in the new yorker as a way to get publicity for the paperback release of freedom. i know they had a friendship and a competitive literary deal going on, but keep your personal friendship personal and if you do decide to vent don't do it in such attack the man's fans while attacking the man himself.

but then franzen has a history of walking around with a foot in his mouth, so i've kinda come to accept it.


message 6: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jesse wrote: "i don't blame franzen for thinking and feeling those things, i blame him for publishing them in the new yorker as a way to get publicity for the paperback release of freedom"

Yes, EXACTLY. I think my reaction at the time was something like 'keep it to your therapist' - I mean, all the things he was feeling are what a lot of people feel after suicides, but to publish it in a big glossy magazine as Insights (and to insult DFW's readers and writing in the process) was just really awful.


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