A Tornadic Discussion of The Pale King

Michael H. Miller | April 21st, 2011

“You might have noticed there’s four of us and there’s no moderator,” said Lev Grossman, sitting at a slightly elevated table with Charles Bock, Laura Miller and Glenn Kenny at the Strand last Friday. The writers were present for a panel on David Foster Wallace’s post-humous The Pale King, which was pieced together by Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch following the author’s death in 2008. “We had a discussion earlier about how we should go, and I think we decided we should just go. We will go through a tornadic structure,” Grossman said, employing a word Wallace used to describe his own novel, which he was working on when he hanged himself in his garage.

When writers talk about Wallace, they seem to become more protective than with other novelists. The reviews of The Pale King (four in the New York Times alone over the span of two weeks) — which have been mostly very positive — have also expressed a certain amount of betrayal, as if by a close friend. “Part of my reaction to The Pale King is an echo of the reaction I had when I learned of D.F.W.’s suicide,” Benjamin Alsup wrote in Esquire, as one example. “Something along the lines of: Oh, come on! Why’d he do that? Really? I wish he hadn’t done that. Why’d he do that? I’m not including this here because I think this is some kind of profound reaction. I’m including it because if you read The Pale King, this is a reaction you can expect to have often.” The uncomfortable subtext is, “How could you leave us before finishing your novel?” This notion is frequently followed by ceding to the idea that the book is the ultimate meta-commentary, the author’s premature death itself a kind of interpretive act making sense of the massive plot holes and deliberate structural endlessness of his previous work, Infinite Jest, that makes an accidentally unfinished novel the culmination of Wallace’s considerable oeuvre.

To say what the novel is about, beyond that it comprehensively follows the suffering of the agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Il, would be impossible. It is filled less with an advancing narrative than a mountain of words arranged in a loop with no progression but a beautiful shape. There are painfully simple, dream-like portraits of landscape (“the angle of the sun made the water of the shallows look dark”), a bafflingly descriptive command of simile (“men whose faces fit their jobs like sausage in its meaty casing”), and trickster postmodern devices, such as a character named David Wallace, who, in a paratextual author’s preface interrupts — more like “jumps into” as “interruption” implies development — the narrative to say, “Author here…All of this is true.” (The validity of which is complicated by the fact that the particular chapter in question marks the first appearance of Wallace’s characteristic footnotes.)

“I want to know what people think about the presence of David Wallace in this book,” Grossman said at the panel. “I felt frustrated. I really thought to myself, is this a game you’re playing? And do you really think this is a game? I didn’t have the patience for it.”

“It’s an interesting question,” said Bock, talking slow and rubbing his face in contemplation. “The first time he breaks in as ‘authorial voice guy’ comes after an ungodly good piece of writing that deals with a character of a young girl and her and her mom are on the run. And it’s vivid and it’s one of those original voices where he has this very earthy landscape and it’s just breathtaking. That’s the shit.”

“It’s amazing!” Grossman interrupted. “And it could be an accident of Pietschian ordering, but coming right after this moment where you really care about these characters and then he comes out and says you know this is all a game. It’s fiction.”

“Well that was what I was trying to say,” Bock said through an exhale. “The next section after that we get ‘OK here’s a metafictional moment.’ Here’s the author popping the balloon of Wallace. And we don’t know what it will come to. There seems to be a reason for it to be in there. But it doesn’t seem to justify itself.”

“But it’s right there!” said Kenny, who published Wallace’s essay on the porn industry, “Big Red Sun,” in Premiere.  “It’s there on page 73: ‘Plus there’s the autobiographical fact that, like so many other very 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 à la Gaddis or Andersen, Balzac or Perec.’

Bock took off his glasses and rubbed his face harder this time. “I, uh, I, uh hear,” he said through his teeth, “And I was gonna try to, uh, get to the idea Wallace was coming from — when he grew up, the idea of him being influenced by the kind of first generation of postmodernism. But you don’t know how the theme would have played out in this book for different reasons.”

“But it’s also Balzac and Andersen in there!” Kenny said.

“Well, yes. Here’s one of the things I was gonna try to look for in my own discursive way: We now have reached a point where Infinite Jest was a big deal. It went against notions of popular entertainment. There is an idea to Wallace’s work that’s like, look I’m gonna throw the whole fucking sink at you. I’m gonna give you the best language because I know more words than everyone else. It’s gonna be the longest sentences that are gonna be so good that when you get done with one three page sentence it’s gonna be like the best cake you’ve ever eaten and as you start the next bite you’re gonna be hungry all over again. And the reader has to be involved. That’s so at odds with the way that people live now, and the amount of work that people are willing to do — that most of us are willing to do in just about anything, let alone a book, a fiction book, a novel, a fantasy. You know just tell me how he gets the fucking golden goblet and move on. Give me a dragon. When 900 writers adopt this metafictional idea our patience for it changes. In this book, there’s a very intense 70-page section that is as turgid as that fucking pillar that also probably wasn’t working. I don’t know how it would have worked out.”

The conversations about the novel are, naturally, as fractured as the book itself. No one can know how it would have worked out, but that frustration is part of the pleasure of reading The Pale King, a book that endlessly speculates on its author’s intentions, the frustratingly final word on a singularly brilliant mind, cut-off in the middle of a sentence with no beginning or end.