Why I Won’t Be Finishing The Pale King

David Foster Wallace, 2006

Although, to be pedantic, I suppose no one will be finishing it. David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel is incomplete, after all. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t bother to read it. You most certainly should. Just be aware that it’s not the kind of book designed to be a blockbuster, to keep you turning pages late into the night. Which you’ll be doing a lot of, if you’re a fan of literature. But it won’t be because the plot is so engaging (it is indescribably tedious at times) but because DFW was so damned good at writing that you can’t really believe what you’re reading. If it renders you speechless it won’t be because the prose has taken your breath away, but because you suddenly feel unworthy to be speaking the same language as someone who has so obviously and completely mastered the art of bending it to his will. And if it makes you sad, it will have less to do with the book itself and more to do with the fact that The Pale King is the last you’re ever going to get from the greatest American writer of this generation. That’s it. That’s all. Show is over, folks. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

I never even heard of David Foster Wallace until a few days after his suicide in 2008. And I likely wouldn’t have heard of him until long after were it not for my desire to impress the cute, bookish librarian and the honest realization that Salvatore’s Icewind Dale trilogy wasn’t going to quite cut it. So I chose the weightiest, smartest-looking tome I could find, which turned out to be Infinite Jest. (Atlas Shruggedwas on the short list; I declined on the grounds that I was having a good day and didn’t feel like hating everyone.)

“For the kids,” I lied, seeing the smirk on my cute, bookish librarian’s face as she scanned my selection of fantasy novels.

“It’s so sad,” she said when she came upon Infinite Jest.

“I know, right?” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought she meant the book.

“I still can’t believe he could just kill himself like that.”

Oh. Oh.

I wish she hadn’t told me that. I wish I hadn’t found out about DFW’s death until I was well into the rest of his writings. Because now I’ve never been able to read any of his works without imagining them as one long cry for help. But mostly because I’m terrified of his suicide’s implication concerning the rest of humanity: If someone this unashamedly curious about life could choose to end his in such a manner, then what chance do the rest of us have?

And make no mistake: the world fascinated Wallace, and he explored that fascination with a gleeful, manic abandon. Whatever he may have been–brilliant, depressed, tortured–he was most definitely not bored. This was true even in the latter stages of his final depression, as evidenced late in The Pale King (a novel about centered around the most boring job imaginable in one of the most boring places imaginable–working an IRS office in 1985 Peoria, Illinois ), when one character states that “almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting”–a sentiment that almost unbearably describes the way Wallace looked at the world around him. There is something almost divinely lonely about the genius of a man who can explore the morality of US tax codes, and something beautiful in how he makes you want to explore it with him.

You might not necessarily enjoy The Pale King, though. Beautiful as most of it is, it’s astoundingly difficult to work through in places. It’s a fractured, potholed mess of intentionally dull descriptions of white collar government work and “Realism, monotony. Plot a series of setups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” While most of this can be ascribed to the book’s unfinished nature, it can also be due to the fact that DFW was ultimately too damn smart for his own good, and certainly too damn smart for most of us to follow. Which is sadly ironic, as he disdained writers who succumbed to the idea that audiences are too stupid, and preached that “the project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read.”

And maybe he failed there. Just as he failed to finish The Pale King. Which is fitting, as it can be said that it was a sense of failure–whether real or imagined–that dogged him the entirety of his life and finally caused him to end it all. Certainly there will be no shortage of the magniloquent literary and cultural elite toting this book as Holy Writ, ostentatiously proclaiming that “You simply don’t get it.” But there will be even more readers who, enraptured by the grace and skill of Wallace’s open and unpretentious way of making them look–really look–at themselves, will slog through the undeveloped fragments and narrative dead ends and see The Pale King for what it is: a wickedly smart and funny and honest work of genius that will forever remain tragically unfinished.

Not that I plan on ever completing the parts that are finished, though. For the longest time I had only read three-quarters of Infinite Jest. It was just too massive and I was perhaps just too dumb. I only got around to reading the whole thing a few weeks ago in preparation for his final work. This time I’m reading The Pale King in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. A few pages at a time, a few minutes at a time, and in no particular order. Like the last few cigarettes in the pack before another attempt to quit, I’m making the The Pale King last. And then I plan to give up when I get close to the end. Because right now I can’t conceive of living in a world where I’ve read the entire oeuvre of one of the greatest literary minds to ever exist–a human iceberg whose depths will never be fully charted–knowing that there will never be any more. Rather nonsensical, true, but I will at least have ensured myself that there is some measure of beauty and mystery left unexplored in my world at least, and I can tease myself with those final, unread pages for years to come, each time thinking the exact same thing I was thinking when I first found myself lost in his work:

God I wish he hadn’t killed himself. TC mark


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  • http://twitter.com/mungofrench kdub

    this is exactly how i feel. thanks.

  • lauren

    I'm currently about 150 pages from finishing Infinite Jest, the first DFW work that I've read. You very accurately capture my feelings about his death and his literary genius. IJ as a novel has been a heartbreaking labor of love, partly because of his death and partly because the themes of the novel are emotionally taxing themselves. I almost don't want to finish it because of how amazing it is, how well-written it is, because I will miss the awe I feel when I read something he's written that is just so perfect, so astute, and that communicates how much of a genius he was (though it seemed that it was a concept with which he was uncomfortable, his own superior intelligence). This article/essay/piece is well thought out and it's good to know that someone else feels the same way about Wallace as I do.

    Here is an article from The Awl that I really enjoyed that you might find interesting as well:

  • http://twitter.com/adamhump adamhump

    The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Mid-Western faux-sentimentality and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching…

    • Jlfurgurson

      The point of quoting word-for-word the significantly less talented Bret Easton Ellis is?

      He's probably just burned that Wallace had his facilely nihilistic number when he said in an interview “I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

      And it seems anybody who would agree with BEE that Infinite Jest is unreadable is intellectually lazy enough to post something he said verbatim, sans quotation marks or attribution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

    dfw just displays that deep, intrapersonal kind of melancholy that you can only really know specifically within yourself. if you've gone through any sort of long term depression (shit, even if you haven't), it's extremely easy to relate to his works. also, i think that the broom of the system is his best book (ALT_rep)

    does that make any sense to anyone?

  • http://staugustine2.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    “If someone this unashamedly curious about life could choose to end his in such a manner, then what chance do the rest of us have?”

    Don't amplify and spread this uninformed meme . DFW hung himself because his bad chemicals told him to… not because he took a long, clear-eyed look into the maelstrom-mess of existence and made a rational decision to opt out. He died from a terminal disease.

    “Because right now I can’t conceive of living in a world where I’ve read the entire oeuvre of one of the greatest literary minds to ever exist…”

    This is touching but it's hyperbolic: there are too many great writers (some for you, others not) to get to the bottom of even the thinnest slice, of the paper Alps of Literary Genius, in one lifetime (even a long one).

    • mblues

      in memory of DFW: it’s hanged, not hung

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        Good on you for eulogizing DFW’s most trivial compulsion. I also sometimes say “snuck” instead of “sneaked” and the world trembles.

        “The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one (although a few commentators claim otherwise). It is, however, a simple one and easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.”
        (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)


    Come back to us when you've finished it. I mean you Phil, not DFW.

    • http://twitter.com/JosephErnest Joseph Ernest Harper

      Yr commenting skills are going from strength to strength mate.

      • http://kumquatparadise.tumblr.com aaron nicholas

        you guys are my heroes

  • CS

    As someone who has/will suffer from depression and anxiety, it is very difficult for me to read how much people retroactively attribute certain aspects of his writing to depression or as a “cry for help.” As far as I can tell from interviews, he was actually in a good place when he started writing The Pale King, and while yes, personal experience will make it easier to write about/emphatize/remember depression and its darkness, I cannot and will not believe he wrote from a place of such darkness all the time, the entire time he wrote his works. Depressed people have great moments of joy, happiness, empathy, etc. just like everyone else. He eventually slipped down after going off a long-dependence on antidepressants, and the he couldn't stand staying in the burning building, so he jumped. I can completely understand, though it is no less tragic. And I too wish he didn't have to go through that, selfishly, so he could give us more words.

  • Martyr13

    “centered around”? blech

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