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in some form or other anyway; whereupon, over time, somebody would have the bright idea to take all the published and unpublished bits and put them all together.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.