Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Riddle Of The Pale King

The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external fore, the climatic battle whose outcome resolves all- all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience… Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth-actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.
-The Pale King-
I never read unfinished novels as a rule. The Mystery Of Edmund Drood, Answered Prayers and The Last Tycoon are all unread by me and will remain so. When I’m feeling particularly bitchy I’ve been known to observe that Hemingway shooting himself rather than finishing The Garden Of Eden was perhaps the most honest review of all time.

Yet The Pale King proved irresistible. Wallace’s life ended with so little resolution. His death was a question mark, not the exclamation point of Hemingway’s or the sad ellipse of Thompson’s. How could The Pale King seem like anything but the answer to the question mark? The response to his call. Add to this the mysterious nature of the work itself; just what was The Pale King? What hid behind the haunting elegiac title? A complete work? A smaller self contained part of a larger one? A first draft? A partial one? The main character was a self insert. It was a period piece. There were thousands of pages. Top this off with the unseemly fact that Wallace’s death has become as much a part of his work as any of his books. His self-inflicted martyrdom indeed threatens to obscure the whole of it.

(Muffy made a big deal of crying when David Foster Wallace died. But she's never even read Infinite Jest.)
Picture and Caption taken from Hipster Pets

It should be noted that this reflection became decidedly different after reading Johnathon Franzen’s New Yorker Article.

People who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul. A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure.

Ouch. OK Mea Culpa. I was one of those who had never read Wallace until after his death. I can remember reading those obits and wondering sinkingly if I had just not missed out on The Kurt Vonnegut of my time. When Adult Swim interrupts its programming to broadcast your name for a solid minute you've reached ubiquity. Of course I went right out and bought Consider The Lobster (A command not an invitation) and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Yet I cannot help but think that Franzen would take this as me proving his point more than anything else. (Though as footnotes are illserved in blogs I must take this parenthetical to wonder why or when knocking the Kenyon College Address became a prerequisite in proving one’s “cred” when writing about Wallace? Zadie Smith also goes out of the way to give the famous essay a swift kick in Changing My Mind. Well screw that. I don’t care how many posers it gives a gateway to I love the essay.) But it gets better-

Adulatory public narratives of David, which take his suicide as proof that (as Don McLean sang of van Gogh) “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you,” require that there have been a unitary David, a beautiful and supremely gifted human being.

Again ouch. Had to play the “V Card” didn’t you? The article that was shaping up in my notes, prior to reading Franzen’s piece, wasn’t that. I may occasionally be guilty of fannish forgiveness but seldom out and out Hagiography. But it wasn’t not that either. At the end of the day it wasn’t Cobain who I was thinking of when it came to Wallace, as so many have drawn a line between the two nineties icons an easy and rather dumb looking choice as Cobain looks more and more with each passing year like some dumb kid whose money killed him. Rather it was Dennis Hopper’s weary voice that came through “Acute Perception can drive you crazy.” It said, and as Wallace was in possession of arguably the acutest perception in modern literature well it’s tough to make that not seem quasi mystical.

So what is The Pale King, when one tries the impossible task of reading it in and of itself. Without the knowledge of its making and of the artist who made it. The answer is actually pretty simple. It’s a David Foster Wallace book. Written with that same inimitable blend of dexterity and compassion. The dance between merciless precision and the forgiveness that such understanding brings.

Like the best of Wallace’s work it contains the adrenaline rush of a high wire act. It’s the feeling one got from his work time and again and it’s almost shamefully heightened her with the foreknowledge that this time Wallace did not make it to the other end of the line.

The triumph of The Pale King is that the text does survive as itself despite this. If it does not quite cohere as Wallace’s other novels do, it is because that would be impossible. It’s filled with moments, an early chapter of in which a Saintly child provokes an unmitigated fury in everyone who meets him, is composed with such comic pathos that it hurts the soul (“The principle loathes the mere sight of the boy but does not quite know why. He sees the boy in his sleep, at nightmare’s ragged edges- the pressed checked shirt and hair’s hard little part, the freckles and ready generous smile.: anything he can do. The principla fantasizes about sinking a meat hook into Leonard Stecyk’s bright-eyed little face and dragging the boy facedown behind his Volkswagen Beetle over the rought new streets of suburban Grand Rapids. The fantasies come out of nowhere and horrify the principal, who is a devout Mennonite.”) There’s a spiritual awakening that quickly follows that is one of the moving depictions of grace I’ve encountered. But the core of the book comes in the one hundred page (nearly paragraph break free) novella at its center. Which includes all the absurdity and humanity that made Wallace’s work a wonder. Including the encounter with the eponymous King. A substitute maybe Jesuit, a stern God Figure who charges one of the principles to make order from chaos, whom I quoted at the beginning and now will quote again.

“-this is effacement, perdurance, sacrifice, honor, doughtiness, valor. Hear this or not, as you will. Learn it now, or later- the world has time. Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephermeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui- these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”

That Wallace lost his own battle with these enemies cheapens the work no one whit. Because when you clear away all the smoke and mirrors Wallace’s death was not a riddle or a clue, but a tragedy. The Pale King is not an answer it is a novel.

And as it is a novel it is, as all novels are, a gift. One that I humbly accept and will seek to make good use of.


Marcus said...

Okay, I know you're most likely going to hate me for saying this, but after having read Infinite Jest, I was very pissed off at Mr. Wallace. Now, I am all for writers twisting the genre and adding different stuff, but I personally believe once you intend to sell a book that people might want to read, you owe it to that reader to finish your book with some kind of conclusion. Doesn't have to make sense, just finish it off in some manner.

I spent over a month reading it, and when I saw that it simply ended in the middle like that, I wanted to throw it against the wall.

Anonymous said...

I did try to read Infinite Jest back in college in the '90s. Maybe it was distraction, or simply the fact that it wasn't my kind of literature, but the book ended up making a nice support under my uneven end table.

As someone who's been compelled by artistic impulses and tormented by mental illness for most of four decades, I can't help but be moved by Wallace's life story, and yet I hate with a passion the way his illness and suicide are seen by so many as being romantically bound up with one another. Whatever he achieved in life, Wallace did despite his illness, not because of it, and that is what's REALLY impressive.

Even if it's true that "acute perception" can drive you crazy, most people, especially the ones who romanticize that idea, have no understanding of how utterly unromantic mental illness is, how ugly and completely tedious it is to live with, for the person who suffers it and for anyone who cares for him or her.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Marcus: Well I'd argue that Infinite Jest was very complete even if it wasn't finished.

@ Anon: Oh I very much agree. (Aside From The Infinite Jest as coffee table thing)

What I was trying to do with the article (Deadly words always) was convey the way I went from being swept up in the "This man was a brilliant truth teller too pure for this world." which became the dominant narrative after his death to, "This was a talented, flawed man and his work is all the more fascinating for it." Like you said what he did despite, not because.

I've been up close and personal with mental illness myself and know it's nothing to romanticize. I suppose I could have made this clearer.

Rob said...

I may be wrong, but I don't think the gray-suited substitute professor is the Pale King. I'm in the process of re-reading the book, but the impression from the first read was that "the pale king" was used in dialogue to refer to a character who never really appears - I think it's Merrill Lehrl.

Bryce Wilson said...

That's certainly a valid interpretation, here are the passages, along with the regal air and sense of God like proclamation he makes, that made me take the professor for The King..

"He was slender, and in the room's bright lighting he looked pale in a way that seemed luminous instead of sickly." [217]

"and when he put on the first transparency on the overhead projector his face was lit from below like a cabaret performer's." [218]

"The Whites of his eyes were extremely white the way usually only a dark complexion can make eye's whites look. I've forgotten the irises' color. His complexion though was that of someone who had rarely been out in the sun. He seemed at home in thrifty institutional fluorescent light." [226]

There was also a passage that I can't seem to find which describes him having no shadow. Given the way Irrelevant Chris intersperses his details it could be anywhere in the novella. Like I said, it's possible I'm just falling for Wallace's feint here, but given that the faux Jesuit is the only authority figure who does make a corporeal appearance, and given that he is described that way, I'm sticking to my interpretation of him as The King.