Some Thoughts Upon Finishing The Pale King

I got around to finishing David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King this week. Upon finishing it, I found myself about as ambivalent coming out of the reading as I was going into it. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not in the camp, assuming such a camp exists, that doesn’t shine on the whole posthumous publication business. On the contrary, I’m pretty certain that this book would, in some form or another, probably exist eventually, and find nothing lamentable about its existence as such. Just as some of the book was published in magazines and the like prior to the Little, Brown, & Co. edition, I would be surprised if other sections would not have also seen the light of day in some form or other anyway; whereupon, over time, somebody would have the bright idea to take all the published and unpublished bits and put them all together. It would almost assuredly have looked different had it taken this editorial path toward publication, possibly very different, but The Pale King we would have.

This would seem to me to call into question, on some level anyway, the extent to which one can rightfully review it as a novel. Now, clearly, Wallace was writing the novel as such. But given both its profoundly unfinished state (given the notes at the end, and assuming his editor didn’t do an absolute butchery to his extant notes, he still had quite ways to go if he wanted to achieve all to which he aspired) and that we have very little idea about the structure he had in mind, and must instead trust the artistic instincts of Wallace’s editor, the subtitular label “unfinished novel” isn’t fooling. When you’re not even totally sure what kind of novel Wallace was envisioning, let alone what he’d have ultimately finished up with, there’s a sense even that calling this “a novel,” while true, is a little inadequate. I realize this might come off as pedantic, but I think it is precisely this kind of thing that has to be reckoned with when reviewing a book like this; and, interestingly, is also precisely the kind of thing our review conventions & mechanisms aren’t equipped to deal with so well.

If the The Pale King is not necessarily a novel, though, what is it? Does it change things if we regard it as “fragments of a novel” rather than an “unfinished novel”? Surely it does our sense of what we’re doing when we review it—what we’re looking for, at, etc.—because would this not cast we readers all as possible editors rather than critics? Ugh. That sounds ghastly. The alternative, which has been the one I’ve seen pursued more often than not, is focusing on the ideas of the work versus the manner in which the ideas are expressed. But then, of course, this runs counter to Wallace’s modernist literary heritage and almost assuredly his intent. Even more ghastly still, no? Not that I’m going to blaze some new trail here or even that I’m saying that all the existing reviews of The Pale King are crap, but suffice it to say, they have typically felt as inadequate as the book is incomplete.

Interestingly, the one area in which this has not been the case relates to the recurring theme of boredom. Maybe it’s because boredom is so viscerally accessible when it comes to reading literature, but the vast majority of readers I’ve encountered have identified a harmony between DFW’s style, setting, and apparent message that the most interesting things are only so when we fully apprehend first how deeply uninteresting they are. Of course, we pat ourselves on the back, this explains not only the fact that Shane Drinion near the end of the book comes off as eerily akin to Data from Star Trek, the accounting jargon, etc. –it lulls us into and makes us participants in the boredom!

This is all well and good, I guess. In fact, it’s all probably pretty accurate, and something that Wallace would surely pursue further and express all the more subtly. Nevertheless, I’m a little suspicious of the apparent thematic transparency, and am reasonably confident that Wallace would ultimately aim to subvert as much as affirm our expectations on this score.

As I see it, boredom for Wallace has nothing essential to do with the “content” of what one does (i.e., the stuff that fills in the structure of our lives, jobs, etc.). Which is to say, the point of The Pale King, with respect to the theme of boredom, is not simply or primarily to examine what is potentially good and/or obviously bad about the tedium of contemporary life. There is an aspect of this at work, to be sure; but more interesting still is the sense that I get from Wallace that one is not truly bored until one’s being-bored is itself a state of attention—a mode of seeing-through boredom (i.e., by way of and beyond boredom—recall the brief discussion early in the novel about looking into eyes & windows [e.g., 51, 254]).

Simply being bored “by” the stuff of contemporary life, your job, or whatever, is not, strictly speaking, boredom, because it (the boredom) is only an effect and not a true state of being in/with respect to the world that, in turn, makes things happen in the world. In this “being-toward-boredom,” you are so trained on a task, like that of accounting, say, that all the things that make it interesting or uninteresting don’t so much disappear or fade away as they are recognized as themselves effects of something else, and in the process are, for a moment at least, evacuated of their immediate potency to affect us as something that is essentially interesting or uninteresting. We, as does Wallace, will of course continue to use the language of boredom in a lower-order sense to describe our disposition to something else, its effect on us. (Incidentally, this is what gives me pause to tag Drinion as unqualifiedly enlightened, as he too suggests that if you look at something long enough it becomes interesting – but, then again, he might just be speaking from the imagined perspective of the unenlightened. Though as I think about it further, perhaps he’s actually not that far removed from a boyhood Stecyk, the flipside that is almost identical.) But even in the fragmentary notes of a novel we have now, there is a sense that Wallace is saying that this is the most inadequate way to describe what we’re feeling when we claim boredom. For, indeed, most of us don’t work hard enough at being-bored ever actually to be as bored as we think we are.

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15 Responses to “Some Thoughts Upon Finishing The Pale King

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It is indeed strange how many reviewers are reading this book as a kind of “philosophy of boredom” and putting aside the style and plot, etc. The Pale King really does include some amazing set-pieces, but all anyone wants to talk about are things like the pseudo-Jesuit’s speech about being “called to account” (without much reference to its context, etc.).

    I think it’s just as problematic to think of DFW as advocating “boredom” in this book as it would be to see Infinite Jest as a clearly pro-AA book. Throughout Infinite Jest, I saw DFW — as an amazingly smart and creative person — strenuously resisting and at times even perhaps resenting the fact that AA is seemingly the only thing that “works” for addiction.” It’s possible that the hypothetical complete version of The Pale King would have come to a similar kicking-and-screaming position.

    (This is not to contradict what Brad is saying about DFW’s approach to boredom, though, because I think he’s really right.)

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Right. I don’t see him as ‘advocating’ anything really specific. I’ve long considered him a moral author without a set morality at stake. Meaning, he’s keenly invested in life being worth living, but does not present this worthiness as somehow pre-packaged and ready to attain. It comes about being invested in the actual world, paying attention to it, etc., in all (in as much detail as you can stand) its distortion and beauty.

    I wrote this post late last night, and I only realized just now that I didn’t actually say what I thought about the book. Personally, I’m rarely inclined to think that kind of opinion mongering matters all that much, but if you’re interested: I enjoyed reading it for what it is. Some parts are exquisite (every chapter with Toni Ware, but esp. the last one about the bugger); some parts I found the absence of significant characterization a little distracting (specifically, the Data-like qualities of Drinion mentioned in the post); other parts perplexing in a “I’m not drawn into this weirdness, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt as to his ability to make it interesting if, you know, he was still alive to do so” sort of way. Oddly enough, I was never bored. I’ve seen this expressed before, to express exasperation as much as critical insight; but, I didn’t find some of the detailed stuff done here any more boring than some of the tedious footnotes of Infinite Jest. It’s your “thing,” or it’s not. I don’t think it was his intent to bore, though.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I found it absolutely absorbing — to the point where I read it in only three days. If he had kept up the quality ratio for the entire thing, I think The Pale King would’ve easily been better than Infinite Jest, and I really loved Infinite Jest.

  4. Andy Catsimanes Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. I’ve got TPK up next in my queue, and this discussion makes me want to read it even more.

  5. adswithoutproducts Says:

    I don’t think it was his intent to bore, though.

    Well, no me neither (and not to be egotistical about this but it does sound like you guys have my review – among others I’m sure – on your minds here). But I think what he wanted to do is attempt some sort of tour de force where he plunged into the most seemingly boring and then sort of epiphanize his reader into a realization of, well, something else other than the boringness of it. The beauty, the virtue, whatever… To flip the boredom as it were without (and yeah the notes complicate matters on this point) delving into what is usually considered not-boring in a novel.

    AK objects to the focus on the pseudo-jesuit. If you were reviewing it, which scenes or set-pieces would you focus on? I ask because I’m legitimately interested – it was incredibly hard to find “emblematic” scenes and in fact had the piece handed back to me by the ed. with the request to give more texture, be less abstract, which usually isn’t my problem as a book reviewer.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I do agree that that scene is unavoidable in a review. One of my personal favorites is the Drinion scene at the bar — but then, I’m not much of a book reviewer myself, particularly not of fiction.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Weirdly, one of the search engine hits is from an exact quote from this post — did someone suspect Brad of plagiarism?!

  8. Brad Johnson Says:

    Let me first make clear something: I wasn’t intending to be passively aggressive toward the reviewers in what I was writing here. When in the post I refer to many of the reviews as “inadequate,” I’m trying to flag how unenviable a task it would be actually to be commissioned to write a formal review on such a profoundly unfinished novel. It seems to me that the best one can do is as you did in yours, which you did quite well, and that is focus most closely on the ideas and less the language and maneuvers employed to express the ideas. What’s interesting about this to me is that this (rather than simply because the novel is posthumous) opens the door to far more positive reviews from some reviewers who were in times past less inclined to like his style, despite the fact his style had not changed that much between books. Even those reviews that express a dissatisfaction with the novel do so mostly, at least the ones I’ve dug into it, because the reviewer disagrees with the boredom idea, which fair enough, but its still mostly just a reaction to the idea expressed. (Having said that, I would be very surprised if there weren’t more than a couple of reviews unread by me that complain about the footnotes and the “self”-reference. If it turns out that these outnumber the ones that resemble my description, well, I stand corrected.)

    As to the Jesuit section . . . I have no problem with it getting front-and-center treatment. Though I do think it important that when emphasizing that chapter, a review has to be careful not to take the prof’s words as gospel. Not that you do this, but I can see the temptation to be as lured into what he says as much as Fogle was, and to impart on his ideas a kind of thesis-statement quality. But ultimately, this is to trust Fogle’s narration more than I think DFW wants us to.

  9. adswithoutproducts Says:

    not me!

  10. adswithoutproducts Says:

    But ultimately, this is to trust Fogle’s narration more than I think DFW wants us to.

    It’s really hard to say. I definitely know what you mean, and it probably has a lot to do with the book being unfinished (as you basically say above), but I tend to take them as a strange (and pretty unprecedented for DFW, at least in his fiction) moral centerpiece.

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    Re: the moral centerpiece.

    They are compelling, to be sure; and probably are the moral centerpiece of what we have in the novel as it is now. Though I do think §19 could be in the running as well.

  12. Brad Johnson Says:

    Re: plagiarism.

    How embarrassing would that be? Well, not by much. As a thoroughgoing modernist, I could just plead literary allusion. Though in the case of that quote, I don’t believe I was.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    §19 is the elevator conversation, right? That’s a good choice for a “philosophy of DFW”-centric review, plus it’s very compelling just in itself.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (By the way, it would’ve been nice if they’d either included a table of contents or else had a running indicator of what section you’re in at the top of the page.)

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