Monday, 18 April 2011

Review - The Pale King

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s last novel – the unfinished manuscript he left when he committed suicide in 2008. Considering Wallace’s works’ postmodernism, inaccessibility, and defiance of any kind of analysis, the cliché among reviewers has not been to prune the novel for clues as to the ‘why’ of his death but rather to clichédly refer to the amorphous ‘some’ who will ‘doubtless look through the novel for clues’. All we can really say is that, like Infinite Jest before it, The Pale King is the product of an incredible mind (which deference to the indefinable classification ‘genius’, Wallace himself would probably have hated but is true nonetheless: as Wallace [the author and the character] says in the book, Telling the truth is, of course, a great deal trickier than most regular people understand).

The novel ostensibly tells the story of an IRS tax office in Peoria, Illinois: the core appears to be the story of David Wallace entering this strange bureaucratic environment but considerably more pages are given to introducing the various individuals who work in the office, many of whom exhibit strange paranormal behaviour (a strange bit of supernaturalism like the scene with the ghost in Infinite Jest). But the ‘story’, as it were, doesn’t matter: partly because it’s left unfinished and partly because you don’t read a David Foster Wallace novel for the narrative – you read it for his writing: his beautiful, complex, penetrating, revealing writing. 

So the novel as it stands involves the creation of a world: maybe there was a story to be told in this world but either deliberately or because of the author's death, that story is left untold. The notes and asides at the end of the book provide hints that Wallace plotted grand themes or narratives to appear in what would probably have been the second half of the book: the convergence of supernatural IRS examiners, the replacement of humans with machines, and escaping the cage of boredom through simple awareness of life in its beautiful minutiae (see his This is Water speech).

The book is about boredom but it’s not boring. At least it’s not boring to me and I feel the need to say that because Wallace’s writing feels intensely personal: as if he’s describing some feeling utterly unique to me that no-one – including myself – has ever articulated before – or even could articulate as clearly as he does. There are long stretches that should, by rights, be mind-numbingly tedious and dull to read but that instead drift by hypnotically (see §25 which describes tax-return examiners turning pages). In §46, examiner Meredith Rand tells another examiner Shane Drinion how she met her husband: this section is kind of a microcosm of the book with Rand talking about how her husband (ie. Wallace) told her (ie. the reader) such intensely personal things and seemed to know her so well that she couldn’t help but be attracted. There’s a passage that seems to describe The Pale King’s (and to some extent, Infinite Jest’s) style perfectly:
‘Boring isn’t a very good term. Certain parts you tend to repeat, or say over again only in a slightly different way. These parts add no new information, so these parts require more work to pay attention to, alth-’

‘Like what parts? What is it that you think I keep telling over and over?’

‘I wouldn’t call it boring, though. It’s more that attending to these parts requires work, although it wouldn’t be fair to call that effort unpleasant. It’s that listening to these parts that do add new information or insights, these parts compel attention in a way that doesn’t require effort.’

Eventually, like the novel, Rand’s story drops off somewhere in the middle with no narrative resolution. 

Ultimately, the novel ends up feeling like a series of separate but interlinked vignettes: wonderful short pieces with an underlying set of themes but no narrative as such. Some of my personal favourite sections included the 100 page-long §22 where ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle gives his life-story and the intensely personal, life-changing event that turned him into an IRS worker; §19 which is a high-level discussion about civics and changing attitudes to individualism and citizenship (We don’t think of ourselves as citizens – parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.); §37 which includes this exchange:
‘Do you suppose it’s so much easier to make conversation with someone you already know well than with someone you don’t know at all primarily because of all the previously exchanged information and shared experiences between two people who know each other well, or because maybe it’s only with people we already know well and know know us well that we don’t go through the awkward mental process of subjecting everything we think of saying or bringing up as a topic of light conversation to a self-conscious critical analysis and evaluation that manages to make anything we think of proposing to say to the other person seem dull or stupid or banal or on the other hand maybe overly intimate or tension-producing?’



‘What did you say your name was again?’

Unlike The Guardian’s reviewer, I also enjoyed the sections where David Wallace apparently talked directly to the reader. These are metafictional vignettes where the line between author and character is blurred as the author/character David Wallace enters the Peoria IRS office. In an interview with Wallace's widow, Tim Adams writes that Wallace’s work was “writing for young men too clever for their own good, by a youngish man way, way too clever for his.” Maybe (actually yes, definitely. Just look at this review with its brackets within brackets and its semicolons all over the place: pretentious, stylistic bullshit [And then consider the added pretentiousness of this faux self-analysis {And this one}]). But during these brief metafictional portions of the book, it felt as if Wallace – the writer too clever for himself – was talking directly to this young man one last time. 
The memoir-relevant point here is that I learned, in my time with the Service, something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes. Learned about it extensively, exquisitely, in my interrupted year. And now ever since that time have noticed, at work and in recreation and time with friends and even the intimacies of family life, that living people do not speak much of the dull. Of those parts of life that are and must be dull. Why this silence? Maybe it’s because the subject is, in and of itself, dull… only then we’re again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome. There may, though, I opine, be more to it… as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Felix Frankfurter and the world in which we live

In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to appoint the poet Achibald MacLeish to the position of Librarian of Congress, head of the United State's national library. There was opposition to this appointment from the ALA largely because MacLeish was not a professional librarian. Roosevelt sought advice from his friend Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. As part of his advisory reply, Frankfurter wrote words that still resonate today. They are well worth reading (these words and this story come from Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas A. Basbanes):

In the world in which we live it is no longer agreed that the common culture is a common treasure. In the world in which we live it is no longer agreed that the greatest glory and final justification of human history is the life of the human mind.

To many men and many governments the life of the human mind is a danger to be feared more than any other danger, and the Word which cannot be purchased, cannot be falsified, and cannot be killed is the enemy most hunted for and hated. It is not necessary to speak of the burning of the books in Germany, or of the victorious lie in Spain, or of the terror of the creative spirit in Russia, or of the hunting and hounding of those in this country who insist that certain truths be told and who will not be silent. These things are commonplaces. They are commonplaces to such a point that they no longer shock us into anger. Indeed it is the essential character of our time that the triumph of the lie, the mutilation of culture, and the persecution of the Word no longer shock us into anger.
The Library of Congress reading room