Pale Winter

The great DFW Italian site Archivio DFW is hosting a group read of The Pale King called “Pale Winter” (aka #palewinter). I contributed a short essay (here: “Always Another Word“) that was translated into Italian by Roberto Natalini. Below is the English version of that post. Many thanks to Roberto and Andrea Firrincieli.

 

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Like any posthumous novel, order  The Pale King comes to us from the hands of an editor. All novels are edited, cost but those assembled by editors after an author’s death face the dual burdens of shaping a narrative and a legacy. At their core, clinic novels are sequences of words laid out end-to-end. The sequencing matters. Infinite Jest would be a different novel altogether if the first seventeen pages were moved to the end of the book—or if the end notes became footnotes. We have no way of knowing how David Foster Wallace wanted the various sections of The Pale King assembled. The version we have now was painstakingly assembled by his longtime editor, Michael Pietsch. Pietsch’s care and attention to detail are apparent—as are the challenges of his job.


The Pale King is made up of two long sections, several short-story-length sections, and dozens shorter fragments. There is basically no plot. There are scenarios and situations and parables and character-developing background stories, but The PaleKing defies any attempt at figuring out of what might be happening in this tax office in Peoria. In that sense, it feels unfinished. Yet, as a novel of characters and ideas, it feels full and rich.

In several notes to himself, Wallace referred to the novel as “tornadic” or having a “tornado feeling” with pieces flying at the reader from all angles, and I think, with Pietsch’s help, he achieves this. There are metafictional asides, voice exercises, fake news items, novellas, suspense, and civics lessons all swirling about. With a tornadic structure, the exact sequence matters less than the fact that the random pieces do fly at you, the reader, and feel random and real. The sections spin in and spin out, but ultimately move higher, deeper, building toward a more complete understanding. At the bottom of the tornado, in the smallest circles, there are backstory formulations of childhood naivete. The circle widens through adolescence and we follow the wider circles of life in the IRS. Then we spiral up to a wider circle of life outside of work and finally to the widest, most windblown, most adult territory: Truth. At the center of the cyclone is a calm hole of enduring boredom. Or maybe a better distillation of the idea of engaging with boredom is: what you give your attention to. Wallace talked about this in his Kenyon commencement address in 2005:
It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. . . .”Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. . . . . The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline.
Attention is the holy grail. Our lives are collections of how we choose to spend our attention. The constant choices we face can seem overwhelming, but so can the monotony of everyday life. What is the responsible, adult way of coping with the boring and monotonous parts of life?

The tornadic/thematic structure of The Pale King bears some resemblance to Infinite Jest insofar as we see the lines build and blur between adolescent struggles and concepts of maturity and adulthood and responsibility. Both novels are ultimately about a search for Truth: What matters to you? Why does it matter? Stay focused on what matters, even if it is boring–especially if it is boring.

I don’t believe there are any real clues to Wallace’s suicide within the text of The Pale King. The related questions that arise seem far-fetched: Would Wallace have been a different person if he’d finished The Pale King in, say 2001, and published several more subsequent novels? Of course. Does that mean Wallace would still be alive in 2012? Who knows? There are too many variables in trying to re-imagine history, and the sad questions are just that—hypotheticals.

Part of the truth is that DFW always struggled with how to end things. One of his earliest stories published in The Amherst Review ends in the middle of a sentence, as does his first novel, The Broom of the  System. The ending of Infinite Jest frustrated thousands of readers. The ending of The Pale King frustrates just as many, partly because it represents the ultimate frustration: the end of David Foster Wallace, the end of his novels. In his memorial tribute to Wallace, Don DeLillo said:
We see him now as a brave writer who struggled against the force that wanted him to shed himself. Years from now, we’ll still feel the chill that attended news of his death. One of his recent stories ends in the finality of this half sentence: Not another word.

But there is always another word. There is always another reader to regenerate these words. The words won’t stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.

I take comfort in that. There is always another word and another reader. And today that reader is you.

 

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