Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Pale King - David Foster Wallace (2011) (MM)

Seven months after I published my review, the person who requested that we start a book club sends his.  It is not a traditional review by any stretch, and he asked that I edit some of the more epistolary elements, but I prefer the off-the-cuff charm of informality.  I'm sure his review will be much more useful to you than mine.  I think I was a bit easier on the book than him.  Enjoy.  -JK

I have to tell you: like The Pale King, a couple of the cookbooks in our kitchen come from Little, Brown and Company. We like them and use them a lot. Simple, no-fuss recipes for long day office workers the likes of us. Loads of practical application. I read not long ago about a lifestyle book about cabins they put out and maybe it's okay, too, not really my thing, but I suspect there is an audience for it. It must have been hopeful news for the literature division there when David Foster Wallace (DFW) died and left this book unfinished because 1. Hello Sales Appeal of Posthumous Work!, and 2. The Last Tycoon all over again, Dead on the West Coast at a young age--quick, to the presses! A literary happening!

Finishing the book took a lot longer than I thought it would on account of it being so tedious. I wanted that experience to sink in before forming an opinion. Once I did, I had guilt over it, worrying I was being too harsh: Don't speak ill of the dead...just their art?

The Pale King should not be as difficult to read as it is. Did DFW intend it that way? Was that the point? Working as a federal tax analyst is terrible so reading about it should be, too?
Why am I so preoccupied with his motive, anyway? Usually I don't let biography cloud my impressions of a story, but DFW's celebrity ghost haunts any reading of The Pale King. I expect more from a dead contemporary author, especially one whose genius is so well advertised. 

The Pale King
 is a terrifically boring read, 547 pages of seldom-funny, excruciatingly detailed tax-memoir-fiction. I kept thinking, "Ah, put it down! Read ANYTHING ELSE!" But I pushed on, reminding myself this is one of the great writers of our time. Really, though, DFW is one of the great essayists of our time. As a novelist, to put it charitably, he is under-edited. For example, chapter 9 of this book would have made a great essay on free speech and government, how the law can stifle expression and creativity, even a massive intellect like DFW's. It reveals an interesting paradox in that DFW once worked for the IRS but legally may not publish the experience as non-fiction:
"For as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there's always a kind of unspoken contract between a book's author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what of book it is i.e. whether it's made up vs. true. And these codes are important because the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction." (Page 73)

The Pale King is a not-so-vivid melding of the legal, capital, and creative process of publication, a portrait of end-of-the millennium American artistic frustration. It could not exist as fiction or non-fiction, and so it succumbed to market force concerns and censorship mania that are linchpins of our present national reality. As a reader I hope for better, and am compelled to blame someone for this outcome, which is an attitude itself symptomatic of our age: art consumerism. Give me more and give me better! I'm in my chair with nothing to do! Entertain me or else. Still, I know selling books is no easy task these days, especially high-brow stuff like this. I root for publishers even when a book disappoints me.
A 100-page essay on censorship, something in the tone you find in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, some wit and cultural criticism blended with casual humor and sharp observational reporting, his true bread and butter, would have been more valuable in print than this entire book. Here we have 50 chapters of alternating points of view, unrealized characterization, minimal plot, lots of tax code narrative, and at times amusing though ultimately pointless speculation on the personality types drawn to tax work. Here again I question whether or not this book would've been published had DFW not died and left the decision to others. Couldn't have Little, Brown just held off until 2016 and issued a 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest
Once someone told me we've grown up when we realize we don't have time to do everything we thought we could do in our lifetime. I was thinking about that when I started reading The Pale King on a flight from Burbank to Las Vegas to celebrate my birthday. Nothing like a dead author and an aluminum tube 20,000 feet in the air to inspire mortality angst, right? An hour later as I was checking into the Golden Nugget, the concierge saw the king of clubs cover of The Pale King sticking out of my luggage and asked if it was about gambling. An apt question in Vegas, but I politely smiled and told her "No". A reader has to bet on gaining something from a book. In choosing to read this one I lost that bet.
When I got back to LA a gift had come in the mail, a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called How to Love. At 125 3x4-inch pages, including illustrations, I immediately bet it had more to offer than The Pale King. A reflection from that book titled "Opening the Door":

"Once you know how to come to yourself, then you can open your home to other people because you have something to offer. The other person has to do exactly the same thing if they are to have something to offer you. Otherwise, they will have nothing to share but their loneliness, sickness, and suffering. This can't help you heal at all. The other person has to heal themselves and get warm inside, so that they will feel better, at ease, and can share their home with you." (70) 
There is indescribable beauty in the experience of reading great literature, something approaching ecstasy and miracle. It is a simple truth. You only have so much time to gather it up in your heart; spend in on something other than The Pale King

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