David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published on April 15th this year. What follows is a conversation/essay hybrid that took place over the last five weeks between Tucker Stone and Joe "Jog" McCulloch regarding the book, the publication of unfinished work, and David Foster Wallace.
STONE: So, Joe: talk to me about you and David Foster Wallace. You’ve mentioned to me once before that you didn’t consider yourself “well-read”, which I always wanted you to extrapolate on, and yet you were on The Pale King mere days after the book dropped, whereas I’ve taken months to finally make good on your offer to participate in this joint discussion. That makes me wonder if I’m getting into the ring with a longtime fan here, and also brings to mind a having-nothing-to-do-with-you-criticism I’ve always had of Wallace's readers, which is that I think of him as the favorite author of people who don’t read very much. (Which is of course unfair, and so in keeping with Wallace’s notorious willingness to self-analyze in print, I will admit that’s a criticism designed to puff up the status of the individual making it, which in other words means I’m saying it in part so that others will assume that I read a lot and have therefore enough knowledge to put Wallace in his place as someone “not-that-special” despite the fact that I’ve spent so much time diving into his work and even imitating that work in my own feeble attempts at being a writer that it’s somewhat disingenuous and probably flat out dishonest to pretend that I don’t actually revere him and what he’s done for American fiction, to the point where the first angry response my brain formed to Tom Spurgeon’s now months old claim that he could do without the last fifty years of fiction was “What about David Foster Fucking Wallace, mister comics reporter”, which is not what I would’ve guessed would’ve been my response if you had asked me to guess at my response to that statement prior to that statement being made, but that was it, “no fooling” as the phrase goes.
In explaining all this, Earth-2 DFW seeks to ‘override’ all codes, the evident futility of which allows Earth-Prime DFW to spin deeper into explication of information - imagined, received, subconscious, political, societal, interpersonal, authorial. I’m glad you mentioned Wallace’s reputation as a favorite of people who don’t read all that much, because I think his unique quality among writers of his generation is his accessibility to people who maybe don’t have so extensive a grasp of the situation as might seem to be demanded by the strata of interests active in his writing - that’s because Wallace sets himself up as a denuded navigator of an overly rich media landscape, someone learned and trustworthy but hardly a know-it-all, prone in his essays to marshaling a profoundly intuitive-seeming outlay of history and observation and logical consideration with which to challenge (I always felt) the enormity of implications and potentials coating the center of his chosen/assigned topics like an atmospheric sheath, thereby affirming the reader’s own ability to identify and process reams of data without intimidation. An appealing persona, and undoubtedly it is a persona, pliable enough to adapt to a variety of forms -- among his three books of short stories, say, Wallace’s survey of his obsessions shifts in focus and intensity, and even basic structure -- while retaining the same crucial appeal to readers who maybe justifiably don’t feel they know even close to enough to keep up with the intellectual situation.
In this way, the theme of information processing is folded into Wallace’s work so that its very mode of delivery (fiction, essays, book reviews - whatever) might coax the reader into not just recognizing but thinking critically about the data swirl around them. This is not, obviously, an effect exclusive to Wallace -- some of his early works, like The Broom of the System and Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (a novella now presented as the concluding story in Girl With Curious Hair) directly grapple with predecessors and influences in fiction and theory -- but it’s his uniquely personalized style, formal inquiry married to ‘self-analysis’ (as you put it), that I think has attracted even casual readers. I admit I was susceptible to appreciating this kind of display when I discovered him, having spent four years doing policy debate in college -- an activity premised on the study of the myriad and alternative points of view surrounding a set resolution -- and god knows how much time already on the fucking internet; this would be the early ‘00s, so no, I don’t consider myself to be a longtime fan at all.
I did snap up The Pale King pretty early, though, and that’s because I’ll cop to having a special interest in seeing fragments of Wallace’s writing arranged in a manner outside his control, i.e. assembled from extant work product by an editor, Michael Pietsch, who sifted through about 150 segments’ worth of stuff -- some of it multiple versions of the same writings, if I understand it correctly -- to arrive at 50 chapters (designated as ‘sections’) of material. I figured the impact, character and ‘soul’ of Wallace’s writing, for the reasons mentioned above and all but outlined in the aforementioned Foreword gambit, could very well thrive as lively and interesting and as a relatively whole experience even as a literally scattered array of takes on a topic, with the connecting membrane left entirely to the reader’s supposition. In reality, this was maybe wishful thinking on my part; there’s still enough of a traditional A-to-B plotline through the novel-as-curated that it can’t help but come off as a preview of the (never-to-be-)finished work. What did you make of the book, as a book?
STONE: I had a really difficult time giving myself over to The Pale King, and while there’s a lot of reasons for that, the initial one was that I just couldn’t stop myself from thinking “this book is unfinished” over and over again. Chasing Wallace down the rabbit holes he goes into in Infinite Jest and his longer essays requires trust on my part, and that trust was hard won. The Pale King throws all that out the window--I know I’m going to have to do the work that his writing style requires (with its purposeful long-game repetition and those extravagantly tailored sentence-paragraphs), but I also know in advance that there’s no guarantee that the material is actually going somewhere or is even finished at all. And based off the ideal novel the notes in the back of the book describe, I don’t feel like The Pale King as it currently (and sadly, always will) exists is a very accurate representation of what Wallace was planning to publish. Some of the thematic stuff is intact, and the portion describing modern life as being a constant struggle to achieve supremacy over boredom hit me pretty hard, but I wish I could have read some of what those notes describe, and I wish that Wallace had been around to pare down or even outright delete that endless chapter about cutting.
I also just thought the book was incredibly sad, and I actually attribute a few of the breaks I took from reading it to that sadness. Suicide is something that upsets me a great deal, and I struggled quite a bit as the book went on, trying not to read into it for signs of the pain Wallace must have been in. By the time I got to the end, I just couldn’t fight it off anymore. It wasn’t a book that screamed of open raw sores, the way Heather Lewis posthumous Notice did, but I came away from this particular experience thinking I’d seen something I maybe wasn’t supposed to, something that didn’t belong to me and maybe wasn’t cleaned up enough to justly be called “art”. I don’t feel like I went through the man’s garbage, but I do feel like someone might have snuck a camera into his bedroom, if that makes any sense to you. Do you share any of that?
JOG: Ah ha ha, sneaking in Dale Peck, I see! This is why I’m not well-read; I hardly recognized anyone he mentioned.
STONE: Oh man, I didn’t even know that was him. “Hatchet Jobs”. “Designated Haters”. That’s a dark hole. That issue of N+1 has a Wallace review!
JOG: In that most of my above link is hidden behind a registration wall (which then becomes a paywall after 24 hours), I should mention that Peck’s criticism of Infinite Jest -- one of relatively few sharply negative reviews to greet the work in the year of its release -- is twofold, and perhaps instructive to understanding the makeup of Wallace’s work. First, his style of narrative is cumbersome and uselessly digressive: “junk,” surrounding a suite of rudimentary plots brazed with dubious social theory. Secondly and relatedly, while this junk is admittedly engaging on a stylistic level, and even potentially enlightening to the reader, given Wallace’s processing of a myriad of topics through a multifarious dialect (“more than a little infatuated with the jargon of various groups, like homosexuals or drug addicts or teenage white boys or inner-city black people or science nerds”), it ultimately betrays a type of cowardice, in that it allows Wallace to elide the specifics of topics over which he might not posses a great command -- while also, I presume, serving to obscure the paucity of his thematic content -- atop his exoticization of deviations from the predominantly white, male, heterosexual population of the text.
This all brings to mind that tangibly awkward sequence in Authority and the American Usage (collected in Consider the Lobster) where Wallace lays out a crazy-detailed rationale for insisting that “certain black students who were (a) bright and inquisitive as hell and (b) deficient in what US higher education considers written English facility” comport to what he deems Standard Written English in his classes - of course accompanied by many concessions as to the implications of such! It’s a struggle of his, I think, to cope with these very concerns that Peck raises, to say nothing of the very deliberate aspect of frustration Wallace tends to build into his storytelling, the efficacy of which can certainly be argued; if Amazon reader reactions to Wallace’s books are any indication, Peck’s criticisms as to wearying digression are hardly exclusive to himself, less so now than maybe ever before. I know some very sharp thinkers and keen writers who’ve rolled their eyes out of their skulls at the tedium of grappling with the bottomless, impossible indulgence of David Foster Fucking Wallace.
And yet -- as a roundabout way of answering your question -- I didn’t consider the incomplete nature of The Pale King to be quite so intrusive, because my interest was less in trusting the book would build toward completion than seeing how the arranged texts exist on the continuum of Wallace’s writing, the “struggle” I see evolving throughout his life in writing. That’s what I meant above as a “relatively whole experience” - I’d have preferred the ‘plot’ seem even less finished! Hell, they’re already going for the cutesy-yet-fitting “§” style of chapter numbering... and what is the tax code if not series of discreet sections, drafted and amended in distinct times, joined by intent and cross-reference? I could’ve used an index.
But yeah, I was very aware that I was looking at unfinished business too (and obviously I’m not unaware of the unsavory, vouyeristic connotations of observing the final, shattered results of a “struggle” which the author has elected to irrevocably conclude). Even going back and forth between similar-seeming characters - like, I definitely felt Earth-2 DFW wasn’t entirely consistent, as if in most of the book he’s a blithe, asshole-ish kind of snobby knob, exactly self-conscious enough to be supremely terrible (indeed close to the very man Dale Peck describes) -- surely it’s no accident that the penultimate footnote of Sec. 24 has Wallace getting his dick sucked by a woman whose background in exchanging sexual favors for her family’s escape from the Iranian Revolution is plopped into the middle of the act’s description -- while in the Author’s Foreword he’s steadfast enough to lay out what strikes me as a pretty straight-on detail of the crucial political theme of the work: that the inclination to recoil from “dull” information presents a unique opportunity for devoted navigators of such information to affect the fabric of society. Provided the ‘end’ wasn’t just Pietsch clipping extra text off, which is always a possibility.
STONE: If we take Dale Peck as holy writ, there is a perfect something to be made regarding the publication of a Wallace book where the actual plot is only delivered in a brief series of “found” notes after the close of the actual text, which is essentially the case here.
I should clarify my earlier point, although you’ll have to forgive me for going deeper into personal disclosure than I’m nominally comfortable with. I didn’t come away from Pale King thinking I’d peeked at something I shouldn’t have been permitted to because of the Pietsch delivery system that brought me the book. My feelings of discomfort didn’t stem solely from the text itself, from my failure to overcome a personal struggle to not look for evidence of the depression described so vividly in this article by Maria Bustillos. (If you read it, I would advise you to skip the comments section at all costs.) Through no fault of its own, the article set me up to fail at the many tests reading The Pale King brought to the table. I walked into this book trying not to find moments where Wallace’s depression came in, to not come away from those heavily concentrated loops of awareness thinking “that’s a man evading something”, and eventually, somewhere around that horrible political chapter, I gave up the ghost. It’s totally unfair, bad critical reading on my part, and besides all that, it just made for a difficult reading experience. By the end of the book, I was thinking to myself all kinds of things that were just completely outside the text, like “of course, he killed himself. Having these kinds of conversations would’ve been a hellish existence.”
I don’t have a point to make with this little tangent, so I should probably leave it there and move on.
I did, after a fashion, enjoy portions of The Pale King. The religious awakening where Earth-2 DFW discovers accounting was a fascinating piece of writing, and it felt like Wallace was reaching from the grave to poke fun at the contemporary rediscovery of Ayn Rand’s more hysterical ideas in the way that the book’s “embrace boredom, be a hero” message was delivered by the nerd equivalent of John Galt. I also loved the exploration of oversweating, the “absolutely everyone hated the boy” punchline about the nicest kid in the world, and the story of the bandsaw savior pumped me up as much as I’m sure it was intended too. And while the chapter on the kid who wanted to kiss his whole body was thoroughly vivid, I found myself involuntarily shuddering as his machinations wore on.
I won’t ask you to respond with a short list of things you liked, although I won’t tell you not to. But I am curious about something else: how did you feel about it, on ye old enjoyment scale? If you were hitting this book up at the county fair, would it ring the bell?
JOG: I did not read the comments to the Bustillos piece, but, as luck would have it, I first came across it in the comments to a different post -- movie critic and occasional DFW editor Glenn Kenny’s initial reactions to The Pale King -- in which a commenter (not Kenny) noted “a frustrating sense throughout of someone trying to understand depression and despair without being particularly capable of empathizing with sufferers of either.” Which - yikes. Like, am I staring into the mirror, Tucker?
Kenny himself has an interesting take on the current perception of Wallace: less your suggestion of him as the choice of folks who don’t read very much -- which at minimum suggests that those folks remain readers, and presumably derive something of value and understanding from their experience -- than a preeminent reference for those looking to appear cultured, despite the unthinking application of signifiers being almost precisely what Wallace’s writing is ‘against,’ if I may sound a potentially inappropriate martial note. Not that this is necessarily a progression or anything, these ideas have run concurrently -- hell, to flip it around, I’ve heard some people insist that anyone who claims to have liked Infinite Jest is a bald-faced liar playing bookshelf identity games because it really is indisputably The Most Boring Thing (a phenomenon with origins, I suspect, dating to the first angry slam-shut of the first dazed ex-reader) -- but I do suspect the absence of Wallace as an active presence will poke things a bit further toward Kenny’s notion among scavengers of renown.
STONE: Kenny’s right that Wallace is a reference/signifier, although I’m kind of at a loss for what reading is supposed to represent anymore. Being cultured? Being an asshole? Being a nostalgist? I grew up in a household where everybody read, but I can distinctly remember the point where my reading took a turn towards personal gamesmanship and effectively separated me from my parents, who read for personal enjoyment and self-improvement, or as my mother rightly put it, I started reading stuff simply because I thought it would make me better at being an arrogant prick. When Kenny throws Wallace out there as the name that twenty something jerkoffs drop to prove they’re better than Palahniuk fans, I can tell you from personal experience that he’s talking about me, and even worse, that he’s right.
JOG: Ha, I think even by drawing distinctions between “cultured” and “asshole” and “nostalgist” you’re going a bit too deep - it’s just a way of indicating “I know stuff, I’ve read stuff, I’m trustworthy. You can believe me. If I was a chump, I wouldn’t know my DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, eh? EH?!”
STONE: I can’t argue with you on that one. Damn you, Kenny!
JOG: But anyway - yeah, I enjoyed the book! I hinted at this above, but I think it might be Wallace’s most specifically politicized work, in that it’s rather plainly addressing the political-rhetorical current of the ‘00s, albeit through some canny analogizing. The quick ‘n dirty reveal can be found in Sec. 19 -- the blind-item stalled elevator political conversation between, among various parties, the levitating, Vulcan-like co-semi-protagonist Shane “Mr. X” Drinion and IRS examinations center regional director DeWitt Glendenning, Jr., successor to the obscure, titular and not altogether agent-morale-oriented Pale King -- where there’s this slightly-too-cute little declarative fakeout:
“Look for us to elect someone who can cast himself as a Rebel, maybe even a cowboy, but who deep down we’ll know is a bureaucratic creature who’ll operate inside the government mechanism instead of naively bang his head against it the way we’ve watched poor Jimmy do for four years.”
It’s impossible to know when exactly Wallace wrote those words -- the separate and totally awesome section (36) concerning the boy attempting the full-body kiss dates at least as far back as the year 2000 in the form of a live reading, which raises its own question as to whether Pietsch, in assembling the work, felt a need to include everything in the room that was published or read or otherwise publicly presented, for the sake of completism -- but the post-’80s personage suggested by “cowboy” is pretty obvious, as is the contextual connection to Wallace’s Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate, his account of a week’s pursuit of John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid (collected in Consider the Lobster and subsequently republished in 2008 as a solo volume somewhat deceptively titled McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope), and the accordant ‘outsider’ maverick glamor cast thereupon.
(Related to my enjoyment, btw, is the utterly goddamn delightful formal play surrounding this early appearance by Drinion, who is referred to as simply “X,” using his nickname to play at the idea that Earth-2 DFW, the book’s ostensible ‘author,’ has opted to delete some particularly sensitive identity, or even, on the gross and awkward meta-level, that Pietsch has retained some preparatory blank in the pertinent manuscript -- which he actually does in exactly the same manner in the back-of-book notes -- while it subtly, almost subconsciously introduces Drinion via a screaming (hysterical?) literalization of his overriding character trait: his anonymous quality, rendering him virtually an avatar for the “dullness” of information, and thereby a most focused of navigators. On the other hand, maybe out of anyone in the ‘main’ cast, Drinion feels like he’s supposed to undergo a character arc DFW didn’t get around to finishing, and indeed seems slightly out of character enough in Sec. 19 that there’s a bit of doubt that’s it’s even really, intentionally him. I also freely admit the very idea of following Drinion’s faux-anonymous intro with the marathon Sec. 46 discussion with Meredith Rand -- and holy smokes is that Bustillos link pertinent here -- could be Pietsch’s own idea. This feels like it should have been a footnote, huh?)
And throughout The Pale King, there’s all these references to government functions trending toward corporate, profit-maximized operation, with citizens coming to interact with Government mainly as consumers, seeking a chain of individual best deals to the detriment of civic engagement - “We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.” I too loved ‘the John Galt speech’ -- by which we affectionately refer to Sec. 22’s marathon narrative of fellow co-semi-protagonist “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle, which is both almost exactly the same length as the notorious climax to/point of Atlas Shrugged if the intermittent in-chapter word count(!) is to be believed, while also serving as a comical reversal, in that it’s a guy searching for individual purpose in his life through the subjective effect of his relationship with the communities (familial, scholastic) he inhabits, ultimately witnessing a (terrific) in-speech speech(!!) that sets him on the path of Heroism: Effacement! Sacrifice! Service! - “today’s cowboys” (heh) “[r]iding herd on the unending torrent of financial data”; it is, of course, a speech that almost nobody hears, promptly denounced by Earth-2 DFW two sections later, ‘inadvertently’ forming one of the few instances in The Pale King where Part X clearly and intentionally preceding Part Y by Earth Prime DFW-the-real-author’s intent, WHILE ON TOP OF THAT serving as the beginning of the novel’s proper plot with disparate characters beginning to meet, thus making his Galt speech the conclusion to an overture rather than an ultimate philosophical takeaway, which is a criticism in and of itself -- yet I think it’s less a closed goof than a saturating element, in firm and sustained opposition to the cod-Randian Free!Market! individualism so much in play today... with much distaste directed at the collection of taxes, naturally! It can’t be an accident that the aforementioned Sec. 19 prominently sports references to the Founding Fathers’ interest in men “with at least as much concern for the common good as for personal advantage,” (common good? socialism!) or that Sec. 9 has the book’s fake author citing the sputtered economy of the ‘00s as part of his rationale for hopping aboard the Lucrative Personal Memoir train.
This, by the way, is an example of Wallace’s reading of the data swirl ‘predicting’ a result, as his 2008 death necessarily placed the composition of The Pale King before the really heavy, immediate, public aspects of what I’m describing - and what better illustration of the pernicious possibilities hiding in “dull” information than the factors behind the economic downturn of the late ‘00s, necessitating many detailed and sometimes Ira Glass-sponsored public explanations? It’s a bit like Wallace, with the title story of Girl With Curious Hair, ‘predicting’ American Psycho (a book he’d utterly loathe) a couple years before its publication by presenting an amoral patrician scumfuck as a straight-up violent madman accompanied by an ‘iconoclastic’ band of punk kids whose nihilism only better facilitates his activities, and so suggesting that the iconoclasm of Bret Easton Ellis’ generation of Brat Pack writers -- although it’s worth noting that Wallace had found Less Than Zero to be “very, very powerful,” as he mentioned to David Lipsky in a conversation later transcribed into Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace in 2010, not that an admission of power necessarily denotes philosophical agreement -- is merely an accompaniment to the shit of the present, rather than a viable or interesting or worthwhile or substantive artistic pursuit.
That brings us right back to Dale Peck’s criticisms, I think, in that, frankly, Girl With Curious Hair isn’t all that terrific a story, being a series of critical ideas with characters almost distractedly built around them, despite those ideas lacking in particularity; certainly the punk-as-hapless-backing-to-status-quo-abuse notion was done with considerably superior panache, verisimilitude, and contemporaneous political acuity by, say, Derek Jarman’s 1977 movie Jubilee. But it all still has some real impact, from Wallace’s willingness to build on ideas floating in the current of thought, admittedly something that rewards frequent Wallace readers for their willingness to follow the info-navigator. I mean, parts of The Pale King follow up almost directly on Wallace’s prior book of fiction, the 2004 story collection Oblivion, particularly The Soul Is Not a Smithy, another not-the-best piece climaxing in dream images of long desks and stacked files and death-like adult toil, proffered as a rather pat revelation of a child’s subconcious terror of American adulthood in the midst of a violent schoolroom incident set during the patriotic rush of 1960: it certainly does end with a class play in which boys helmets and aluminum bayonets and (eek!) in-one-case-a-real-gun charge a flimsy facade of Iwo Jima!
The Pale King refines these notions, pours over their nuance - improves them entirely. It also applies some of the finest flavor from another Oblivion story, and my personal favorite David Foster Wallace thing ever: the mighty Mister Squishy, a maximal détournement of the corporate conspiracy thriller, assiduously avoiding anything even potentially resembling white-knuckle thrills -- though such thrills are duly noted as present! -- to instead follow the tornadic psychological games played by ‘90s advertising research on the brink of the internet appropriating us all as walking spigots of buzz and hype, happily complicit in selling delicious nonsense to ourselves. It’s like a very short Michael Crichton book composed entirely of things Michael Crichton would have deleted from a longer novel, and the beauty of it is that the suspense-play of characters out-thinking and being out-thought can ‘work’ as predominant in either version. I am 100% convinced -- evidence be damned! -- that the unnamed narrator of the piece is, in fact, the David Wallace from The Pale King, venturing acidly and informedly into a new decade of society-shifting study, even though Sec. 7 makes certain to reference a different “Mr. Squishee,” signaling that Wallace knows he had the chance to rope both of the stories together in the same world and didn’t take it, though the structural similarities between works were doubtlessly clear to him.
(Naturally, this was also the very broad intent of Infinite Jest, “structured as an entertainment that doesn’t work.” Per Wallace to Lipsky, again.)
Uh, there’s some good characters too? Some weak ones as well, but... it’s funny, I kind of hated the initial nicest kid in the world chapter you described (Sec. 5), thinking it obvious and precious. But god - I really liked the Leonard Stecyk character the more he appeared, and I was totally onboard for his band saw hero turn (Sec. 39). This may be reaching, I admit, but I see him as the presence of Christ in the narrative; setting aside the obvious carpentry aspect surrounding his coming-of-age, there’s this really moving, slow-building notion of Stecyk as a ridiculous, impossible ideal worthy of little more than disinterest or near-irrational sneers, right up until he deeply and profoundly affects and comforts someone and lifts up their entire life. I wonder if Pietsch nurtured this aspect of the character - Wallace’s notes suggest some faint plan at one point of taking the character down a peg, but he doesn’t do that in the completed work.
Stecyk can even been taken as part of a religious aspect running through the book -- a rather distinctly Catholic aspect, appropriate to the focus on service and Works, although co-semi-protagonist Lane A. Dean Jr. is more of an undefined denominational Christian and the notion of Chris Fogle carrying a secret numerical code that unlocks Ultimate Concentration is more of a Jewish Bible Code thing, possibly dating from the popularization of such in the late ‘90s -- from the Jesuit speaker that inspires Chris Fogle to the stigmatic digressions in AWESOME AWESOME body kiss chapter (which is less an aborted/stillborn plotline in The Pale King than a helpful, if potentially accidental synecdoche) to the maybe supernatural, diabolical The Omen-like presence of the Manshardt child, apparently the secret power behind the book’s primary antagonist, accidental occultist and Company idea man Merrill Errol Lehrl, who wants to prompt all of the co-semi-protagonists into basically forming the Defenders via a giant IRS-off against his sinister ANADA audit-flagging algorithm so that their shellacking -- and it’s heavily implied by the text that they do eventually lose -- can prove the superiority of dehumanized, amoral information processing and all accordant profit increases over manual, judgment-call-based smelly farting humanoid rote examination: a battle for the very soul of America, Tucker.
So: does any of this resonate with you?
STONE: I haven’t held a copy of Atlas Shrugged in my hands for years on purpose, but I would bet the similarities between Galt’s speech and our-man-in-supercilious-smirks don’t stop at word count. Wallace wasn’t a mixtape writer of pastiche and homage, but he liked a good in-joke, and when you couple that speech with the way the elevator conversation predicts both the real world governmental direction of today AND the entirety of Apple’s last 26 years of advertising and brand maintenance, starting with this bad boy right here, I think those sections are heaven’s manna for what I’m guessing might be Wallace’s preferred reader, which is somebody who can laugh twice, at the same time.
(Can I just stop and say how much I love Wallace’s description of American Psycho and its ilk? You’ve led me down a few holes via your links throughout this experience, but that one in particular has to be my most favorite. Brilliant, I thank you.)
I’m curious about the Pale King’s boredom wars as a Catholic reference system--there’s no better American faith than Catholicism when it comes to arcane dogma and a steady schedule of disciplined actions--but I also wonder if that ease of comparison might undermine Wallace’s interest here, which really does seem to be boredom, and how it defines so much of modern humanity. Having a heaven at the end of the rainbow would kinda tarnish his character’s struggle, that idea of no-acclaim heroism where a hot death--no spectators at the funeral--is the only prize.
JOG: Oh, I don’t think the religious references at play function in a way to implicate an afterlife. If you look at Good Old Neon -- one of the ‘big’ Wallace stories right now, for obvious blunt-impact reasons -- it implicates organized religion as potentially a means for its boundlessly aware suicidal protagonist to enjoy an experience beyond the database of societal signals he’s mastered the manipulation of. Ironically, because of said protagonist’s unshakable certainty in his utterly boundless awareness, he eventually comes to believe that what he felt as genuine spiritual ecstasy was merely another manipulation on his part positioned just slightly outside his self-awareness, easily diagnosable on reflection; this is contrasted with the true in-story State of the Afterlife, which is pretty much exactly an Alan Moore comic with dead people existing apart from their locked perception in the frozen comic-book panels of sequential time, though Wallace eventually pulls the ‘camera’ back far enough, The Holy Mountain style, so that you can see that even this revelation is merely an authorial fancy.
(Incidentally, like several motifs in Oblivion, the notion of sequential comic-book-ish time recurs, specifically in The Soul Is Not a Smithy with its distracted narrator building an impossible, spiraling image narrative out of the gaps in a mesh window, which makes me wonder if Wallace, well-read soul that he was, hadn’t glanced at Chris Ware at some point.)
In this way, ‘religion’ is a readable aspect of Wallace’s data swirl, specifically designated as such in This Is Water (aka the Kenyon College commencement address, which in its exhortation that “[t]he really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day,” links up with the service-based data-crunching mission statement cried at the heart of The Pale King), though Wallace seems to have also been semi-practicing Catholic enough to receive the Eucharist in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and, at least as late as 2001, apparently frequented some Christian church -- “It’s not one of those churches where people throw Jesus’ name around a lot or talk about the End Times, but it’s fairly serious, and people in the congregation get to know each other well and to be pretty tight.” (- The View from Mrs. Thompson’s, collected in Consider the Lobster) -- though the exact proportions of his belief remained private.
Or, to use another instant example: certainly Lane Dean in Sec. 6 enjoys a glimpse into his pregnant potential future wife’s intent per: their relationship as a sort of divine intercession, as he believes it to be, but read in the David Foster Wallace context it’s plainly another instance of a character struggling to predict someone else’s reactions -- both their next move and the feint behind that move -- just like the narrator of Good Old Neon. The difference is that Dean finally embraces the idea of uncertainty, that the emotions he understands to be real inside him are perhaps but an alternative to an unknowable, uncategorizable Love. A ways up the page I called the ALL-BODY KISS section (36! 36!) a “synecdoche,” and that’s because the boy and his father refer to the larger idea of, respectively, mastering or becoming mastered by information; the father is barely able to see himself in the mirror from all the self-help slogans he’s pasted onto it -- another pat, maybe cheesy, banal, “hysterical realism” image I’ve chosen to enjoy -- gradually spreading out his dissatisfaction over increasing multitudes of lovers/options, like Two-Face in Arkham Asylum, while the boy vows to challenge the evident impossibility of his command of everything on his person, within his reach, and does not doubt. From this, Wallace acknowledges the limits of human processing, but insists on its virtue (per the book’s co-semi-protagonists) over the delegation of inquisition to automata and thoughtless reliance on such - civic obligation vs. consumptive ‘individualism.’
In other words, Wallace’s interest is indeed in “boredom,” but as a neutral value, capable of both facilitating some betterment of the lot of society or forcing a realization of “some other, deeper type of pain that is always there” (Earth-2 DFW, Sec. 9) or the terror of time’s sequence and death’s inevitability and opacity (Sec. 19) - there is no known heaven, only the flicker of candles, you know?
Speaking of politics and living, here’s yet another powerful revelation the kissy boy bestowed upon me: his specialist was somehow the most vividly-drawn female character in the book, despite barely appearing at all. In contrast: Toni Ware! Kind of a refugee from a grindhouse shocker, what with her talents for mayhem and brutal survival instincts. I’m interested in what you made of this fairly prominent character - she struck me as an attempt on Wallace’s part to explore unique threats facing women, something of an off-and-on concern in the book (as I’ve mentioned), and probably its overall least successful aspect. (Query, then, ALL OF YOU, whether Wallace’s thematic fascinations in fact encourage a decorative solipsism, and thus a difficulty in negotiating character terrain outside of his white, male, heterosexual, economically well-off-enough-for-the-most-part experience that, by its interority, dilutes or forecloses on an empathetic or visceral or inquisitive or understanding-minded aesthetic of value to literature. DO IT.)
STONE: Toni didn’t really register with me as a complete character the first time through, and when I go back into the text to manage an explanation why that is, I end up thinking the reason might be that Toni was more in need of editing than some of the other recurring characters. The girl who shoplifts, plus the woman with the eyelock, who then becomes the bodily discharge terrorist...it just doesn’t flow for me the way Steyck and Wallace do, and I wonder what might have been done with (and to) the character if her creator had been able to.
JOG: Sure. I mean, I wonder how much anything I’ve liked about The Pale King would have changed with more work; maybe the whole thing would have transformed into the Naoki Urasawa serial it’s oh so primed to be. Certainly it doesn’t quite cohere in the way I’ve found something like Mister Squishy does, where by design there’s no resolution whatsoever, yet I understood that the psychic terrain of the situation had been mapped in enough detail that the story seemed to live, to breathe in to one man’s head before exhaling over how believably absurd the implications of situation and its space-time position could be. With The Pale King, we barely seem to have started, even as its modular, assembled nature accommodates reflections on Wallace’s evolving interests.
How about this: what do you really value about David Foster Wallace’s work? Like, what’s your favorite stuff of his? What was the inkling of hope of what you wanted to find that drove you to The Pale King?
STONE: Wallace represents the contemporary voice in fiction to me, for good or ill. I think there’s better structural writers--to give you an example, people like Westlake, Roth, Oe come to mind--but that messy capture of the way our non-stop information deluge actually might sound coupled with the predominant self-worship and individualism that stems from a bred-in-Westernized-safety is best represented, as far as I’ve read, in Wallace. His closest peers, for my money, are Vollman, Delillo and Eggers--but Vollman cares too much about other people, Delillo cares too much about structural games, and Eggers doesn’t seem to like writing that much. I don’t know if Wallace will last for me personally--I’ve only felt the desire and need to re-read his non-fiction stuff, of which the titlular A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never Do Again is my ultimate favorite--but I haven’t felt like there was somebody as capital letters Contemporary as Wallace before.
I don’t think I can do this justice, this argument, by the way. I think Cormac McCarthy is a better writer than Wallace, and I think what McCarthy is doing wouldn’t have been possible in an earlier time period, and yet I can’t bring myself to label Blood Meridian as contemporary fiction, even though it technically is. And yet: I don’t think there’s a book as good, or important as Blood Meridian in the last fifty years. That’s only my first contradictory hole-poker, and I could probably wrangle one out for Roth’s 90’s work, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Robert Stone and Toni Morrison, for starters.
I think Wallace will matter, though. After we get past the part where Infinite Jest is praised just because it’s unwieldy and criticized because it’s cyclical, I believe there will be some acknowledgement for that novel and his work. He gave permission to people in a way that schools never had and never will, and it doesn’t matter how much bad writing that might have produced, because it’s still writing, and if I drop my full-of-shit stance long enough even I can freely admit that more people writing, in this day and age, is a good and unusual thing. This book--his personality as well--are the most accurate approximation for today’s writer that I think you’ll find. He’s no more obnoxious than I’m sure Rimbaud and Keroauc must have been.
JOG: Ah-ha! I wonder if the very interior, individualist nature of Wallace’s storytelling is what encourages Wallace devotees to appear in the absence of wider literary engagement? That to plug in to Wallace’s point of view -- so full of explanations, so double-thought and reflective, even in the form of assorted fictional personae -- is to feel that he can be understood, on a personal level, apart from the current of literature, more so than readers typically enjoy some sense of connection with an author? I can’t help but feel we’ve been like characters in a play, fulfilling our assigned roles: you processing The Pale King as Wallace-as-literature, as an author among others, as a man who killed himself; and me processing it as Wallace qua Wallace, a terminus of evolving ideas in a system that might as well be closed under flesh.
Even as you mentioned liking A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I remembered how its image of blinding white artifice -- challenging the decompositions hastened by saltwater -- recurred in a very non-comedic, fictional context at the climax of The Suffering Channel, with a limousine arriving to pick some characters up, “white the way cruise ships... are white” - a ride to hell, guaranteed! Or when you mentioned enjoying the parts about sweating in The Pale King, I was thinking about how that pings off references to his own faculty for perspiration in his essays, rolling that character into a demonstrable conjuring of anxieties, transparent in a way other authors’ usage of their personal qualities in characters might sink into fiction - yet The Pale King is unfinished, so maybe Wallace can’t help but be more of a character, no alternate worlds necessary.
Yet I need to stress that it’s not just some calling-it-as-Wallace-sees-it parade of observations that fascinates me; that way lies the dread mimesis of American Psycho and its kin. Or displays of skill as extension of a narcissistic desire on the author’s part to be liked and admired, detailed at that link you mentioned enjoying:
“Now, to an extent there’s no way to escape this altogether, because an author needs to demonstrate some sort of skill or merit so that the reader will trust her. There’s some weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to fuck-up-on-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it. But there’s an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art. I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being ‘liked,’ so that her true end isn’t in the work but in a certain audience’s good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them.”
It’s an ironic effect, because elsewhere in that same interview Wallace posits that a big portion of “serious” fiction’s purpose is to give the reader “imaginative access to other selves,” to identify with the suffering of others; the grand Other accessed, then, might have been him. Still, Wallace had no time for the idea that the only duty of an artist is to create art:
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still "are" human beings, now. Or can be.”
And so, The Pale King is sectioned, as it had to be, into what’s really mostly a series of conversations and interactions and funny anecdotes and stories told in groups, sandwiched between a Sec. 1 of pure obscure landscape and a Sec. 50 of final man-made hypnosis, all observations fading into a void filled with just you and your facilitating narrator. More so than ever, Wallace seemed to be chasing something very specific about Right Now, and offering perspectives on a philosophical solution, which might have intensified and become immediate through a building plot and growing characters. It got away from him, and so it only crackles across nodes placed out of order from dispassionate Earth Itself to the serene lonely connection of being told a story. I guess it makes sense that it’d have to pretense to cover everything like that while so emphatically hitting its mortal limit.