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David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

Final words
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  April 13, 2011

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O SUPERMAN! The unfinished last novel is — like much of Wallace— funny, dark, gruesome, alienating, brilliant. 
All I can do is tell you how I read the book.

I felt nervous about opening it. I'm probably not the only one. What if it's awful? What if it's boring? What if it's too difficult? What if I don't know how to tell you about it? (I don't.) I told myself to forget who wrote it. Forget the books and stories and essays that came before, tennis, lobsters, drug addiction, cruise-ship banquets, halfway houses, burning diapers, diving boards, all the hints and echoes and suggestions of what was to come. Forget the suicide on September 12, 2008. Forget that it's unfinished. And most of all: forget the weight of anticipation that this incomplete novel by David Foster Wallace has carried with it since publisher Little, Brown announced its existence, a stack of pages left on the desk in the garage.

The truth is, you can't escape what this is. As you likely know, The Pale King spirals around a collection of IRS tax-examiner recruits in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985. If Infinite Jest, Wallace's massive, manic, fame-achieving 1996 novel, is about over-entertainment and lethal stimulation, The Pale King is about, at first look, the opposite. "Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling. . . ." It's about the "terror of silence." So in fact the two books are about different paths to the same state, Infinite Jest about escaping boredom, The Pale King about transcending it, moving beyond it, into a "second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive."

As with Wallace's other works, parts are funny — there's an exchange of stories involving shit. In one of them, a kid playing hide-and-seek trips: "Both hands first into a big new yellow steamer." And parts are gut-punch dark — people "selling one another insurance, drinking supermarket liquor, watching television, awaiting the formality of their first cardiac." There are gruesome scenes: an absurd subway accident, a daughter watching her truck-stop-whore mom get murdered. There are passages that are impenetrable and irritating and overdone. There's postmodern trickery and David Foster Wallace as character, inserting himself in as a faux memoir writer. I got tired of the footnotes.

What is it about Wallace that appeals? He can be offputting in his cleverness, alienating in his long, looping, rabbit-hole sentences. He's not one for "plot." But we fans placed him on a pedestal, piled on the superlatives: greatest, smartest, funniest, darkest, best. He was superhuman. "He describes what it's like in the world today!" But what it's like for who? For you, maybe — if you already love him, or are just curious to know what all the fuss is about. What appeals to me? The heart, the sincerity. Behind the cleverness and the meta-bullshit, here was a person trying to do what we're all trying to do, which is figure out how to be alive in the world today.

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Related: Review: On the road with David Foster Wallace, Interview: David Foster Wallace, Infinite pleasure, More more >
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