on April 4, 2011
There are so many different reasons to love David Foster Wallace's work, and so many reasons to feel that his death ripped an irreparable hole in the fabric not just of literary culture in America, but also in our daily world. In everything he wrote, DFW was grappling with the hardest subject of all--what does it feel like to be alive, not generally, but specifically, in the here and now, with billions of details crashing through our fields of perception? For that reason, although always dark, his work shimmers with a kind of graceful light. He was a philosophical novelist in the way the great nineteenth century Russians were. He couldn't hide the fact that he loved people, and he loved teasing out the unique predicaments that people encounter by just being people who love things and hate things and want things and enjoy things and grow tired and jealous and bored.
These elements, and more, are abundantly available in The Pale King, DFW's unfinished novel. In terms of organization, it is understandably a huge mess, although neatened admirably by the editor. But who reads DFW for conventionally organized plots? And why should you read this novel? For starters:
1) The language. DFW is a masterful stylist, a brainiac who always could have sounded much more intellectual than he chose to, instead embracing an easy-going, colloquial tone because he wanted people to read his books. The opening lines of PK alone ring with the linguistic sensibility that sounds like him and him alone. His signature music courses through passage after passage. His verbal precision, so simple word-wise, gives a jolt by making you see things in a new, though until-now, overlooked, way.
2) The characters. Sure, they're a lot of them. Some will grab you, others won't. But at least one of them you'll probably recognize and glom on to and follow and love. The great thing about the juicy, rich, character-bound novels of DFW is that you really can (and must) skim through the sections that bore you. (Skimming, skipping, lingering, underlining and rereading are interactive engagements that mean the book is making you do things with it and to it over a long period of time.) This is another way DWF is like Tolstoy and Dosteovesky. Just read, they seem to say, don't try to think too hard as you read. And then read again and again. This isn't school, after all. This is LIFE.
3) The humor. The idea/hook is, let's face it, flat out funny. And poignant. A novel set in an IRS Center in Peoria. The po-mo stuff is also sardonic, even as it's instructive. If you don't like the "apparati" ignore them. And you'll see why they're not just snooty, but also funny ha ha. DFW was, tragically, too smart for his own good, but he tries not to be too smart for us, and that disjunction laces the novel with humor. I also suspect that he took it in stride that people would inevitably make fun of him too; that's how we work.
4) The love of mind. This book brims with it, not negatively, as in his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but more sloppily. DFW was not afraid to address the fact, and to delve into it for page after page, that we have minds, and that what we choose to do with our minds every day of our lives is what makes us finally who we precisely, irrefutably are. If this is a novel about the plague of boredom, it is also a revelation about the rippling power of imagination and play, flexibility and hope, as it copes with and escapes from that plague. This power lies within each individual. We may be amused, or tempted to mock, but really what makes anyone measurably any better than anyone else? If I'm really using my mind, I'll know the answer.
This mindful modesty is, of course, DFW's greatest legacy. He was a critically depressed man of prodigious talents who could have become simply a seething cultural critic, marked by a sense of superiority to the masses. But he wasn't superior--his depression made him see that--so he chose, and it was a choice he kept making from page to page, section to section, to be both kind and sardonic to all of us, as equals, at once. This is the combination that makes him wonderful to read. His hugeness, his too-muchness, may feel annoying at times, but this immensity also feels brimming with possibility. There's nothing neat about The Pale King, and that makes it unusually wonderful. It doesn't seem to be "over," because it is in no way "finished." It's raggedy and keeps going.
Such a novel-ish thing can teach you how to read with patience and generosity and a curious openness to lived experience. Another DFW trademark. He understood that writers have an obligation to make their readers work for their reward. The work needn't be grueling, but the truth is, reading through a novel should be a little like living through a life. You should feel that you've really done something big, been somewhere life-changing, by the time you're through.
If you like novels to be neat, pre-packaged, tied-up, not roiling and complicated and baggy, chances are you won't love anything by David Foster Wallace, but reading him will teach you something about yourself. He's that good.
If this will be the first DFW for you, I recommend starting not here but with his first published boyish novel The Broom of the System, and reading your way through them all. You'll find the same brilliance and snarkiness, tenderness and dark, precise humor, shot through with simple hope. Enjoy.