Modern Reformation was kind enough to publish my review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King in their recent issue. Some of the material will be familiar to those who read this site, but most of it is fresh and intentionally geared toward those who haven’t read Wallace. Needless to say, if you’re not subscribing to Mod Ref, do yourself a favor.
The temptation in reviewing The Pale King is not to review The Pale King. And can you blame a person? How do you review an unfinished work? The answer is that you comment on the book’s importance rather than its quality. You discuss its meaning rather than its merits. You weigh the legacy of its fascinating, at times confounding and gone-too-soon author. You may even adopt his self-consciously loquacious yet conversational tone in doing so.
If you’re the sort of person who reads book reviews you’ve probably already read one about The Pale King. You know that it was compiled by Wallace’s editor after his death, and consists of the motley assortment of genre experiments that Wallace was known for, evidence galore of his continued creative genius. You know that it deals with the Internal Revenue Service, and as such, boredom is one of its chief themes. You have probably also heard that it doesn’t really go anywhere, that it’s all set-up, and that that is intentional.
But why review The Pale King in Modern Reformation? Are we jumping on the “St. Dave bandwagon” that so many of his close friends have derided, most recently noted author Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker, as a fundamental misinterpretation and moralization of such an irreducible writer? I certainly hope not.
A few reasons upfront: 1. DFW was a self-described “WASP” – not necessarily in the social class connotation of that term but in the ethnic one. He saw himself as coming from a Protestant background, and there simply are not that many voices in the contemporary literary landscape that would self-identify that way. 2. His pedigree would be totally irrelevant were he not fundamentally preoccupied with religious questions, and prophetically so. In reference to his opus, Infinite Jest, he said,
“…the things that ended up for me being most distinctively American right now, around the millennium, had to do with both entertainment and about some kind of weird addictive, um… wanting to give yourself away to something. That I ended up thinking was kind of a distorted religious impulse. And a lot of the AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] stuff in the book was mostly an excuse, was to try to have – it’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoyevsky.” (pg. 82 “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road trip with David Foster Wallace” David Lipsky)
In The Pale King, he recasts the existential dilemma slightly, looking instead at what is driving the current culture of distraction. Or, to put it another way, he is just as interested in the religious impulse as ever; this time he is looking for its root rather than at the impulse itself:
“Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… I can’t think anyone really believes today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down. (pg 85)
Am I hearing him correctly? Is he describing a universal condition in almost disease-like terms, a deep wound that acts as a wellspring of compulsion and control? This sounds eerily like a reformulation of original sin. Indeed, one of David Foster Wallace’s great gifts, and one of the reasons his audience felt such a connection with him, was his extraordinary capacity for empathy. Not an empathy that denied or explained away human selfishness, but one that instead took as its starting point the immutability of inner-conflictedness a la Romans 7. Jonathan Franzen put it this way:
“At the level of content, [David Foster Wallace] gave us the worst of himself: he laid out, with an intensity of self-scrutiny worthy of comparison to Kafka and Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, the extremes of his own narcissism, misogyny, self-deception, dehumanizing moralism and theologizing, doubt in the possibility of love, and entrapment in footnotes-within-footnotes self-consciousness. At the level of form and intention, however, this very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it…” (J. Franzen, “Farther Away”, The New Yorker April 18, 2011)
The Pale King is the first and, as far as we know, only time Wallace turned this gaze on explicitly religious characters. Thankfully, he never resorts to caricature – that would be utterly un-Wallace-like. In fact, the chapter in which the Evangelical character, Lane Dean, describes his prayer life is at the top of the long list of must-read sections of the book. It is that rare portrait in modern fiction of a spiritual crisis as more than a glorified “identity crisis.” In this case, suffering actually functions for the character as a gateway to a deeper understanding of his faith, rather than an obstacle to it.
Not all of the allusions to Christianity are as positive. Later on, we get “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle’s characterization of his Campus Crusader roommate, which includes a zinger too priceless not to include here:
“The fact that members of this evangelical branch of Protestantism refer to themselves as just ‘Christians,’ as though there were only one real kind, is usually enough to characterize them, at least as far as I was concerned. (The Pale King, pg. 210).”
So we have human bondage and religion in the mix – but does God show up? Is there any good news? Putting aside the obvious objection that no novel can forgive our sins, there are elements beyond the purely thematic that we might embrace. For example, Wallace weaves in a tangible sense of providence throughout the book, “priming” being his word of choice for the way God prepares us for moments of insight/grace. But does Wallace point to anything specific? And does that even matter? Yes and no. The closest we get to any kind of prescription has to do with “waking up” by “paying attention,” which for those are unfamiliar, is the language of mindfulness, the somewhat fashionable school of psychotherapy which teaches that pain is not to be resisted but experienced. The way we tend to deal with suffering is to combat it, to cling to works of the Law, rather than give up – to repent in other words. Some might consider it a more cruciform approach to the internal life. Others, doubtlessly, will not.
Of course, to paraphrase what Christians are fond of saying in reference to Genesis, this is not a book of philosophy or theology. This is a work of fiction, and an unfinished one at that. It cannot be boiled down to a message or even a storyline. The Pale King is simply The Pale King, an opportunity to spend some valuable time with one of our greatest writers, one who had a particularly acute understanding of modern spiritual conditions, and one whose astonishingly comprehensive understanding of his own depravity, in its expression, exuded a kind of compassion to others – the permission to come clean about who we really are – that it couldn’t convey to itself. This is what some might call grace. And as David Foster Wallace knew better than anyone, it has to come from the outside.
A final note: If you’ve never read David Foster Wallace and want to find out what the fuss is all about, don’t start with The Pale King. Pick up the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or the short story volume Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and go from there.