Good But Not Great

Book review of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Tibor Fischer

Virginia Woolf’s reputation has always baffled me. I have tried her books repeatedly over the years and I have (and this is no literary hyperbole) never been able to get through more than three pages before my eyes have glided off her sentences towards something more congenial, like wallpaper. I appreciate I stand almost alone against a considerable weight of readers and academic adulation, but I can’t shake off the suspicion that Woolf’s prominence has been chiefly propelled by her suicide.

The vision of the tortured or doomed artist is an appealing one, and there’s nothing like suicide to make you seem, well, really tortured, really serious, too sensitively artistic for this cruel world, instead of someone who is simply just very depressed or unemployable.

The life truly determines the afterlife. I can’t help wondering whether Rimbaud’s reputation would be quite so high if he had died in his sleep, fat and 80, after having run a butcher’s uneventfully in Lyon for 50 years, instead of dying messily at 37 as a gun-running slaver and former stoner.

The American writer David Foster Wallace’s stock was high before his death, but there’s no question that his suicide gave his sales and profile added buoyancy.  Wallace is (was?) a good writer, his journalism in particular is entertaining, but it’s not as if his prose towers majestically above all his contemporaries.

Infinite Jest, which is regarded by many as his magnum opus (and it certainly is magnum), was a well-written book, but not so exquisite and fascinatingly well-written that I didn’t stop around page 160 because I felt I was just getting more of the same. For many (or at least many in the literary business) David Foster Wallace had donned the mantle of The Great American Novelist, although I could name, without any undue effort, a dozen American novelists who novel as well as Wallace.

The Pale King is the bones of the novel Wallace was working on when he died (and gigantic bones they are too, some 550 pages). For a novel intended to be about boredom and tax returns, David Foster Wallace, the consummate professional, went all the way, taking an accountancy course as research.

The mission impossible aspect of The Pale King might be very alluring for a novelist who wants to show off: you set yourself almost insurmountable, lethal difficulties by locating the story in an IRS office in Peoria and you make the central character an auditor.

It’s like watching Houdini hog-tied in a tank full of water: can the novelist escape from conditions of terminal drudgery? With a triumphant bow to the crowd, bewildered and delighted by his magical powers?

Not on this evidence. I can understand that Wallace’s family and his editor might have sanctioned The Pale King out of affection and the best possible motives, and we are warned this is an “unfinished novel”, but to suggest this is in any way a novel is tantamount to fraud. There are some great lines and great paragraphs, but they are few and far between and bear little relation to each other. To garner any pleasure from this you either have to be a truly obsessive Wallace obsessive, writing a dissertation on him or someone who gets off on reading disjointed snippets of prose.

Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor, tells us in the introduction that “the entire mass of material” from which The Pale King is shaped will be available online, courtesy of the University of Texas. That’s what should have been done in the first place. Bouvard and Pécuchet this ain’t.  

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