In Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, I’ve got a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. This novel isn’t exactly hurting for attention, but I do try to make a couple of fresh points: first, that Wallace has always been a novelist of ideas; second, and contrary to what most reviewers have been claiming, The Pale King isn’t really “about boredom,” though the idea of boredom does let Wallace get at a lot of his bigger concerns.
One thing every reviewer can agree on is that The Pale King reveals a softer, more reader-friendly side of Wallace. But that was to be expected. Back in 1993, Wallace told an interviewer that he wanted to stop writing sentences that were
a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them.
I’m not sure Infinite Jest lived up to those goals, despite its many pleasures and successes. In that novel’s aftermath, though, Wallace promised to try harder. “For somebody who comes out of a more theoretical avant-garde tradition,” he told another interviewer, “I think the aging process is a thawing process.” Wallace clearly fits in that tradition; when The Pale King‘s “Author’s Foreword” cheekily started on page 65, I thought of Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, which starts its dedication to Cervantes on page 76. More to the point, Wallace clearly went through that “thawing process,” which means The Pale King now stands as the best introduction to his work and worldview. Think of it as a novel-in-short stories — one of those books where characters and narratives and ideas interact and intensify without building into a larger whole.
Two points about Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System. Several reviewers, along with Michael Pietsch in his “Editor’s Note,” have pointed out that this book ends mid-plot and even mid-sentence — and thus reinforces the idea that The Pale King‘s unfinished state shouldn’t hold anyone back. I agree with the sentiment, but want to note that Wallace later regretted The Broom of the System‘s cutesy non-ending. His agent, Bonnie Nadell, then his editor, Gerald Howard, had begged him to come up with a new ending to satisfy the readers who finished this demanding book. But Wallace refused. “It was written very quickly, rewritten sloppily,” he admitted in a later interview. “Sound editorial suggestions were met with a seventeen-page letter about literary theory that was really a not-very interesting way — really a way for me to avoid doing hard work.”
The other thing to say about The Broom of the System is that, already, Wallace was working on his idea-driven method. In another early interview — one that’s rarely mentioned, but available here as a .pdf — he said that “I didn’t start writing fiction until I was twenty-one, and at the beginning we all have to write our requisite amounts of shit, and my shit was basically disguised essays. They were like really bad Ayn Rand or something.” The transition from these two points to The Pale King — that’s why the Dostoevsky quotation at the end of my review felt so autobiographical.
I’ll end with a Franzen / Wallace comparison, in honor of the former’s New Yorker essay on the latter. (You might say that Franzen did some thawing between The Corrections and Freedom — too much thawing, in fact.) I think it’s well worth rereading Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech alongside The Pale King in the same way people read Franzen’s famous “Perchance to Dream” essay alongside The Corrections. In both cases, you’ve got a nonfiction manifesto that correlates to the ideas behind the fiction. Wallace’s ideas may seem more social, and Franzen’s more aesthetic, but there’s a ton of both in both. The friendly rivalry between those two fascinates me. I can never decide if Wallace is Hemingway or Fitzgerald.