About three-fourths through The Pale King now (which itself was only one-third complete before DFW’s suicide) and actually reading the book is becoming harder and harder. In fact, this might be a more difficult book to read than Infinite Jest. When I first started reading The Pale King, I thought the major challenge would be the morbid nature of its publication — a natural reaction when you’re reading a book that was unfinished because its author committed suicide and that contains numerous references to suicide — but instead, the major difficulty that I am having is the actual content of the book.
The Pale King is boring, and it’s all DFW’s fault. He intentionally selected a setting (Midwestern IRS office) and characters (low-level IRS staffers) that are guaranteed to bore anyone. His use of boredom is very deliberate; clearly, he’s trying to get the reader to confront their fear of boredom and force them to understand why we as humans even have this fear in the first place. It’s not an easy thing to face, and that’s why the last 100 pages of this book are such a struggle for me. I’ve had to confront a lot of issues about my life — mostly about my job — that would be much easier to just ignore. I’d certainly feel happier, but it’d be a shallow happiness; I think with The Pale King, DFW was trying to get the reader to move past this shallow happiness, by painfully making us consider what it really means “to be a fucking human being.”
Infinite Jest is difficult because of its structure; The Pale King is difficult because of the ideas it forces the reader to think about. If he had finished it, I think that The Pale King would have been DFW’s best work, certainly his most important. I’m grateful to have what little of this novel that we do, and fully intend to make myself finish it, no matter how uncomfortable or bored it makes me.
This year has been all about DFW. What started as an innocent decision to finally buckle down and read Infinite Jest, has become something larger, more meaningful. I read Infinite Jest and something just clicked. That connection to what I was reading, the ‘click,’ is why I keep returning to the well of DFW’s work. This year I have read four books by DFW and two books about him. That tight focus on a single author’s life and career is something I have only ever experienced one other time, when I took a class on Dostoevsky in college. It’s fitting that I would rank both of those men as my two favorite authors.
My pursuit of DFW has led me to this final stage: reading The Pale King. I’ve never read a post-humous publication before—and I’ve certainly never cared about an author in the same way that I now care about DFW—so reading a book this is interesting effects on my psyche. I know from reading his biography, that DFW started writing The Pale King almost at the same time he started writing Infinite Jest, but even though the book’s existence spans decades, The Pale King feels like it solely belongs in the present day. How can you read a passage where people are arguing about corporations being counted as “citizens,” and not immediately think of this most recent election. Or read the bits about how America is heading for some kind of economic collapse because of our lackadaisical approach to tax law, and not think of what the last four years have been like. Infinite Jest is praised for its prescient depiction of how the Internet would eventually shape society, but I think The Pale King is even more impressive in how it so accurately and devastatingly predicted what the new American reality would become.
It’s sad to read a book you know will never be finished; it’s even sadder when you realize how important the unfinished book could have been. To read The Pale King is to be constantly reminded of exactly what we lost.
Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.
I wish he was still alive to write about how social media has become our answer to avoiding boredom.
DT Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace is this week’s big literary item and everyone seems to have an opinion on it. Most of the people on the wallace-l email listserv (which yes, I do subscribe to, and yes, I am a dork), are less than impressed, citing the book’s short length and its unwarranted focus on DFW’s various relationships. For hardcore fans, everything that the bio brings up is probably all a retread and reveals nothing new about the complicated author. I think my status as a DFW neophyte really helped me to better enjoy the bio. However, there were a few times where I felt uncomfortable with what I was reading. I’ve never read other author biographies, so I’m not accustomed to wading through the personal hangups of authors that I admire. Obviously, I was aware of DFW’s life-long battle with depression, but I had never read any concrete details on that struggle. Max’s bio lays that all out in the open, in such a painfully personal manner that I felt like an unwelcome guest into someone else’s life.
DFW is the first author that I have cared enough about to read a biography on. Reading Infinite Jest has had a huge impact on me; the book actually makes me want to become a better person. I’m trying so hard not to elevate DFW to some literary saint status, but even reading about his flaws makes me respect and admire him.
I’m a quarter of a way through Infinite Jest, and have finally reached a point where I no longer feel like I am forcing myself to keep reading. There’s no denying that DFW was a great writer and his ability to pack in such a level of detail is astounding. Even though I am enjoying myself while reading, I still occasionally have these moments of self-doubt: Why am I taking the time to read such a long book; what am I getting out of it? Fortunately, right after that sense of doubt starts creeping up, something astounding occurs in the book that reinforces why exactly I’m taking the time to read it. The most recent example was last night, when I read the section where Hal tells his brother how he discovered the body of their father, post-suicide. The writing in this section is on another level, especially the ‘something smells good’ moment. Probably one of the most horrifying scenes that I’ve ever read.
300 pages down, 700 to go.