Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Pale King - David Foster Wallace (2011)

Wow.  At first I was guessing this was published in 2014, before I looked into the copyright page.  I thought this was going to be one of the more "up to date" reviews, but I guess I'm four years late.  Law school can do that to you.  Then again, would I have ever even read this book if it weren't for my friend that sent it and suggested we form a "book club" and read it together?

I mean, I own Infinite Jest, but only got through about 400 pages on my first attempt, and maybe 150 on my second.  I will finish that book the next time I try.  I considered picking it up this morning, needing a new book start on, before What I Talk about When I Talk about Running comes in from the CPL.  But I wanted a lighter messenger bag for a change.  This is the 3rd book out of the last 4 topping out over 500 pages.  I picked up Disgrace instead.

Imponderables aside, the thoughtfulness of the gift both impressed and imposed an urgency upon me.   The Pale King will not make the Best Books list of this blog, but it is up near that territory.  I'm not sure it would be there, for me, in its finished form either, just because of the lukewarm feeling I get about Infinite Jest.  It's something I feel I should respect and admire, but just can't really bring myself to enjoy reading.  This is getting to be a loaded topic, because it brings up criticisms of DFW like those of BEE, who said he was a "fraud" or "full of shit" or something, because he read a biography of DFW that discussed how he did not have much love for BEE, but still recognized him as an influence on his own writing.

This would probably be a much better book if DFW were able to complete it, mainly to see what he might do next.  As much as this seems unfinished, at almost 550 pages it seems pretty representative of what the overall quality might have been.  Parts of it seem lop-sided, but on the whole it seems about 80-85% finished to me.  I suppose it all depends on how long DFW intended it to be.

For sure, it is an audacious concept for a book, and a perfect one for him: a paean to boredom.  Make the boredom of the everyday lives of IRS examiners in Peoria, IL in the late 70's and early 80's into fine literature.  I was about to write 1985, but I don't believe this story necessarily takes place in 1985.  It's so impressionistic that the "plot" seems secondary to the background sketches of the other characters.

It's not even clear what the "plot" really consists of, but it may consist of Claude Sylvanshine and David Foster Wallace's orientation to their IRS posts in Peoria.  It's hot and they ride in a bus that is a repossessed and re-purposed ice cream truck.  One person sweats an egregious amount.  There is some idle chatter with two other employees.  They go, and DFW gets mixed up with another David F. Wallace (who is older and much more valuable in terms of skill set) and gets introduced by the "Iranian crisis," who gives him a blow job in a janitor's closet.  He also glimpses the face of Glendenning, who is basically in the highest post there, who looks at him sympathetically or some related way because DFW has a horrible skin condition that causes most people to look away.  And that's pretty much it, though there may be other characters on that bus ride near the beginning of the novel.

DFW is a character in this novel.  Ostensibly, it is a memoir:

"Plus there's the autobiographical fact that, like so many other nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an 'artist,' i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike.  My specific dream was of becoming an immortally great fiction writer a la Gaddis or Anderson, Balzac or Perec, &;c.; and many of the notebook entries on which parts of this memoir are based were themselves literarily jazzed up and fractured; it's just the way I saw myself at the time.  In some ways, you could say that my literary ambitions were the chief reason I was on hiatus from college and working at the Midwest REC at all, though most of that whole backstory is tangential and will be addressed only here in the Foreword, and very briefly, to wit:" (73-74)

Here, Wallace describes how he paid off his student loans by writing papers for his classmates, and how his school became aware of it.  This is the first part of the novel that feels truly "great."  It is classic DFW, by which I mean it includes footnotes and his trademark erudition.  So yes, certain sections of The Pale King, I would say, are as good as anything DFW has ever done.

This is a great chapter because Wallace could pretty easily convince a person (that didn't know what year he was really born and couldn't do math) that the story is, in fact, true.  One thing I like about his writing is that it captures the essence of reality.  A reader can identify with it on a different level than anything before.  The details--the minute details and almost paranoid insecurities that we all must worry about from time to time--are so readily evoked that DFW appears God-like.  This one of those books that takes you out of your head a bit, and oddly shapes your life around it.

One part, for me, was extremely touching.  One quick background detail, for exposition: from April 2008 through August 2008, I lived in a small bungalow-like studio in Silver Lake, on a hill just off of Sunset Boulevard.  Across Sunset Blvd. was a foot sign.  My friend (the same one who sent me this book) remarked upon it and I agreed it was strange, funny, cute and iconic in its own way.  It was certainly a landmark.  After I left L.A., he sent me an article once about how this sign had actually influenced several fiction writers, such as Jonathan Lethem and DFW.  I immediately thought, "I am chosen.  I was meant to live there, to know that."

Then came page 163, which will from hereon in be christened the "LSAT test," not unlike the "420 test," except that instead of requiring mention because of some relatively direct reference to pot (and while there is a fair amount of "drug material" in this book, it does not pass that test--though page 420 does detail one of the more sensorily-powerful scenes in the novel), it will need to evoke feelings of my life that might be different if I hadn't taken the LSAT and scored a 163:

"I remember rooming in a high-rise UIC dorm with a very mod, with-it sophomore from Naperville who also wore sideburns and a leather thong and played the guitar.  He saw himself as a nonconformist, and also very unfocused and nihilistic, and deeply into the school's wastoid drug scene, and drove what I have to admit was a very cool-looking 1972 Firebird that it eventually turned out his parents paid the insurance on.  I cannot remember his name, try as I might.  UIC stood for the University of Illinois, Chicago campus, a gigantic urban university.  The dorm we roomed in was right on Roosevelt, and our main windows faced a large downtown podiatric clinic--I can't remember its name, either--which had a huge raised electrified neon sign that rotated on its pole every weekday from 8:00 to 8:00 with the name and mnemonic phone number ending in 3668 on one side and on the other a huge colored outline of a human foot--our best guess was a female foot, from the proportions--and I remember that this roommate and I formulated a kind of ritual in which we'd make sure to try to be at the right spot at our windows at 8:00 each night to watch the foot sign go dark and stop rotating when the clinic closed.  It always went dark at the same time the clinic's windows did and we theorized that everything was on one main breaker.  The sign's rotation didn't stop all at once.  It was more like slowly wound down, with almost a wheel-of-fortune quality about it where it would finally stop.  The ritual was that if the sign stopped with the foot facing away, we would go to the UIC library and study, but if it stopped with the foot or any significant part of it facing our windows, we would take it as a 'sign' (with the incredibly obvious double entendre) and immediately blow off any homework or supposed responsibility we had and go instead to the Hat, which at the time was the currently hip UIC pub and place to hear bands, and would drink beers and play quarters and tell all the other kids whose parents were paying their tuition about the ritual of the rotating foot in a way that we all appeared nihilistically wastoid and hip.  I'm seriously embarrassed to remember things like this...." (163)

This turns out to be a videotaped interview with "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle, and it is one of the standout portions of the text.  His father is employed by the City of Chicago as a "cost Systems supervisor," and dies in a horrific CTA accident.  The description of the ensuing litigation with CTA is very accurately rendered.  He grows up in Libertyville, IL and references a number of other towns on the north shore, including Winnetka (a clothing store--Jack Fagman--which his family had patronized since 1964, and which may or may not have existed).  It is basically about the moment that he discovered his calling in life--to serve the IRS.  It details a chance encounter with an Accounting professor at DePaul, and how it took him off the path of serial college enrollments, drugs, and the "wastoid" lifestyle.  In short, this is classic DFW.

Another notable section near the end focuses on a conversation between Shane Drinion and Meredith Rand, two other IRS employees, at a bar's happy hour on a Friday.  Drinion is cyborg-like in his communications, but Rand is relentlessly confessional.  The subject matter of this scene is also touching and personal to me, as I wrote my second novel in between 2007 and 2008, finishing most of its rough draft shortly before DFW committed suicide.  It is heartening to think that we might have been compelled to write about the same topic for similar reasons:

"'I didn't know why I did it.  I'm still not sure, except he taught me that trying to analyze it or understand all the whys was bullshit--the only important thing was knocking it off, because if I didn't it would land me right back in the psych ward, that the idea I could hide it with bandages or sleeves and keep it a totally private thing that didn't affect anybody else was arrogant bullshit.  And he's right.  No matter where you do it or how carefully you do it, there's always a time when somebody sees something and says something, or when somebody is funking around in the hall and pretending to beg you to cut algebra and go to the park and get stoned and climb on the statue of Lincoln and grabs your arm too hard and some of the cuts open up and you bleed through your long sleeves, even if you've got two shirts on, and somebody sends for the nurse even if you tell them to fuck off and it was an accident and you'll just go home and get it seen to at home.  There always comes a day when somebody sees something in your face that tells them you're lying and then the next thing you know there you are, in a lit room with your arms and legs uncovered, trying to explain yourself to somebody with zero sense of humor, actually a little bit like talking to you right now.' With a quick tight smile." (468-469)

While these chapters--DFW's delayed "foreword," the story of "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle's revelation, and the conversation between Meredith Rand and Shane Drinion--are my personal favorites from this book, I hasten to add the caveat that they also go on too long.  Another similarly great chapter is about a young man (who later rides next to DFW on the way to the Midwest REC) who sweats profusely during periods of anxiety.  It is tremendously entertaining and profound in its sensitivity to human nature, but the situations are truly mined to the depths for details.  This may or may not have been a casualty of the incompleteness of this novel.

This sort of seems to be characteristic of his work in general, though, with another one of his chapters ending in the middle of a sentence.  I am not sure how you could provide appropriate closure for Infinite Jest, though I believe Joyce achieved it with Ulysses, which one really must mention in the same breath.  Because if you subscribe to the belief that Ulysses is the greatest English language novel, then I think you will also enjoy DFW to the max.  I don't always, but I think I can appreciate the generic expectations of a reader that sort of begs for a little bit of "guidance" from the author.  DFW definitely provides that "guidance" at certain points, and it is refreshing.  But other parts of this book are about as difficult as Infinite Jest.

My opinions on this book have been adequately dispatched, I believe, but please feel free to comment below, as this truly is the first post on Flying Houses spurred by participation in a book club.