Why I Won’t Be Finishing The Pale King


David Foster Wallace, 2006

Although, to be pedantic, I suppose no one will be finishing it. David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel is incomplete, after all. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t bother to read it. You most certainly should. Just be aware that it’s not the kind of book designed to be a blockbuster, to keep you turning pages late into the night. Which you’ll be doing a lot of, if you’re a fan of literature. But it won’t be because the plot is so engaging (it is indescribably tedious at times) but because DFW was so damned good at writing that you can’t really believe what you’re reading. If it renders you speechless it won’t be because the prose has taken your breath away, but because you suddenly feel unworthy to be speaking the same language as someone who has so obviously and completely mastered the art of bending it to his will. And if it makes you sad, it will have less to do with the book itself and more to do with the fact that The Pale King is the last you’re ever going to get from the greatest American writer of this generation. That’s it. That’s all. Show is over, folks. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

I never even heard of David Foster Wallace until a few days after his suicide in 2008. And I likely wouldn’t have heard of him until long after were it not for my desire to impress the cute, bookish librarian and the honest realization that Salvatore’s Icewind Dale trilogy wasn’t going to quite cut it. So I chose the weightiest, smartest-looking tome I could find, which turned out to be Infinite Jest. (Atlas Shruggedwas on the short list; I declined on the grounds that I was having a good day and didn’t feel like hating everyone.)

“For the kids,” I lied, seeing the smirk on my cute, bookish librarian’s face as she scanned my selection of fantasy novels.

“It’s so sad,” she said when she came upon Infinite Jest.

“I know, right?” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought she meant the book.

“I still can’t believe he could just kill himself like that.”

Oh. Oh.

I wish she hadn’t told me that. I wish I hadn’t found out about DFW’s death until I was well into the rest of his writings. Because now I’ve never been able to read any of his works without imagining them as one long cry for help. But mostly because I’m terrified of his suicide’s implication concerning the rest of humanity: If someone this unashamedly curious about life could choose to end his in such a manner, then what chance do the rest of us have?

And make no mistake: the world fascinated Wallace, and he explored that fascination with a gleeful, manic abandon. Whatever he may have been–brilliant, depressed, tortured–he was most definitely not bored. This was true even in the latter stages of his final depression, as evidenced late in The Pale King (a novel about centered around the most boring job imaginable in one of the most boring places imaginable–working an IRS office in 1985 Peoria, Illinois ), when one character states that “almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting”–a sentiment that almost unbearably describes the way Wallace looked at the world around him. There is something almost divinely lonely about the genius of a man who can explore the morality of US tax codes, and something beautiful in how he makes you want to explore it with him.

You might not necessarily enjoy The Pale King, though. Beautiful as most of it is, it’s astoundingly difficult to work through in places. It’s a fractured, potholed mess of intentionally dull descriptions of white collar government work and “Realism, monotony. Plot a series of setups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” While most of this can be ascribed to the book’s unfinished nature, it can also be due to the fact that DFW was ultimately too damn smart for his own good, and certainly too damn smart for most of us to follow. Which is sadly ironic, as he disdained writers who succumbed to the idea that audiences are too stupid, and preached that “the project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read.”

And maybe he failed there. Just as he failed to finish The Pale King. Which is fitting, as it can be said that it was a sense of failure–whether real or imagined–that dogged him the entirety of his life and finally caused him to end it all. Certainly there will be no shortage of the magniloquent literary and cultural elite toting this book as Holy Writ, ostentatiously proclaiming that “You simply don’t get it.” But there will be even more readers who, enraptured by the grace and skill of Wallace’s open and unpretentious way of making them look–really look–at themselves, will slog through the undeveloped fragments and narrative dead ends and see The Pale King for what it is: a wickedly smart and funny and honest work of genius that will forever remain tragically unfinished.

Not that I plan on ever completing the parts that are finished, though. For the longest time I had only read three-quarters of Infinite Jest. It was just too massive and I was perhaps just too dumb. I only got around to reading the whole thing a few weeks ago in preparation for his final work. This time I’m reading The Pale King in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. A few pages at a time, a few minutes at a time, and in no particular order. Like the last few cigarettes in the pack before another attempt to quit, I’m making the The Pale King last. And then I plan to give up when I get close to the end. Because right now I can’t conceive of living in a world where I’ve read the entire oeuvre of one of the greatest literary minds to ever exist–a human iceberg whose depths will never be fully charted–knowing that there will never be any more. Rather nonsensical, true, but I will at least have ensured myself that there is some measure of beauty and mystery left unexplored in my world at least, and I can tease myself with those final, unread pages for years to come, each time thinking the exact same thing I was thinking when I first found myself lost in his work:

God I wish he hadn’t killed himself.

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