After David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, it was pretty much inevitable that whenever his unfinished, ludicrously highly anticipated follow-up novel to Infinite Jest came out it would result in this immense intellectual orgasm that would shudder through the literary and publishing worlds. I mean, this is DFW we’re talking about, a guy who was probably one of the top seven or so constructers and manipulators of prose in the history of the English language. He was so hugely talented, and so dedicated and so notably a perfectionist that it seems sort of absurd – something out of one of his own books – that those qualities existed in a single person with the normal number of limbs, eyes, ears, etc.
So you have this towering figure of literary might, and he dies – kills himself, which is sort of the most literary and romantic death possible, if you didn’t know the person in question – before he can finish this massive novel he’s been working on for longer than a decade; you can see how easy it is to romanticise this whole thing. Seen from a certain angle, you might even imagine that the man killed himself because he was unable to finish the novel, that the book itself killed him, that it was so impossibly brilliant and complex that not even the Master himself could write it and so he died. The book then becomes this secret, dark artefact, imbued with the powers and properties of a famous death – which would not discourage sales, one imagines.
Little Brown, the publisher of The Pale King (that’s the book we’re talking about, obviously), sure played up the angle that this was a MOTHERFUCKING IMPORTANT PUBLISHING EVENT. To even get a review copy of the book, I had to agree to a non-disclosure agreement that said I couldn’t write or even tweet anything about it until today, like they were giving me the Pentagon Papers or something. Other media outlets agreed to these conditions as well, and then ignored them in a frenzy to throw a review or an essay or something up on the internet, which only served to reinforce the sense that The Pale King was basically the Second Coming that the true believers had been so patiently waiting for.
“The wait is over: THE PALE KING is here and is sure to exceed the expectations of even Wallace’s enthusiastic audience… A full and satisfying novel that is both hilarious and fearless.” That’s from the press release, which mostly glides over the fact of Wallace’s death and the process of turning a work-in-progress – a bunch of barely-connected pages and chapters and computer files – into a book. The editor’s note inside, written by Michael Pietsch, is more honest. “I believe David was still exploring the world he had made and had not given it a final form,” he writes, and notes that there wasn’t even a complete written outline, so it’s impossible to determine how unfinished this unfinished novel was.
It’s not done, that’s for fucking sure, no matter what the press release implies. Reading The Pale King is like walking around inside a half-constructed mansion, where the gold-plated toilet flushes and the dinner table is made of pure teak but the second story doesn’t have a roof and leaves keep blowing in through the holes where the windows should be. Parts of the book function like stand-alone novellas and short stories you could read without any kind of context, and there’s a slow sense of things building toward a larger plot – and then the book is over, because that’s all he wrote, literally.
Wallace’s notes, reproduced in the back of the book, give you a sense of what the finished product might have been about, but they also discuss entire plot lines that aren’t even alluded to in the text. There’s a lot of brilliant prose and ideas and stuff packed into the 500 pages of words, but it doesn’t add up to a whole novel. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who got to the end and was selfishly angry that the guy couldn’t have just waited until he was done with the book, for Christ’s sake, before ending his life.
The Pale King should have been published: 500 pages of Wallace that we didn’t have before is a gift for hardcore fans; academics will have something to debate; and no doubt Little Brown will make a bunch of money for putting it out. But I’m worried that all this carefully crafted publicity and posthumous hero worship will make this never-to-be-properly-finished work more popular than it should be. I can see it now: Just like with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, The Pale King will be more than a book, it’ll be an accessory and a conversation piece. Its cover will stick out of every smartly designed canvas bookbag from Bushwick to the Tenderloin. People will speak of it as “DFW’s last novel,” and reviews will be written by the boatload, as if you could “review” something that was never completed.
Strip away the PR and mythology and The Pale King is probably the least-essential DFW book, except for maybe that philosophy stuff he wrote that I can’t understand. Before he died he wrote two novels, three short story collections, and a bunch of really, really impressive non-fiction works, all totally finished. Go back and read that stuff – it’s funny, it’s insightful, and it will actually make you smarter, I promise. You’ll learn things from every single one of his books – the problem with The Pale King is that the main lesson you learn from it is just exactly how final a sudden death is.
(If you really want to know about the content of the book, it’s about a bunch of tax examiners in the American Midwest during the 1980s and the IRS politics of that time. But also, obviously, not about that at all. Go read Infinite Jest if you haven’t already.)