15 June 2011

David Foster Wallace: The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel (2011)

On the day of his suicide in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left lamps shining on a partial manuscript on his workdesk in his garage: he'd been working on his third novel for several years, and it was still unfinished. To his editor Michael Pietsch, Wallace had described his problem as 'like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind'. No doubt Pietsch recalled this phrase only too well when charged with the task of editing the chapters on the desk, and working them - along with much more work in progress - into something like a novel.

The above cover is of the American edition, which is not the same as the UK edition. The American edition shows the design created by Karen Green, David Foster Wallace's artist widow, in which she incorporates elements from one of Wallace's tax return forms after shredding. It is much more striking than the UK edition, which was designed by gray318, or Jon Gray:

The novel is considerably less than half the wordcount of Infinite Jest, and the major theme is boredom: it concerns the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) offices in Peoria, Illinois, and a number of its new recruits.  A few passages - intentionally, I think - are very tedious indeed, but by far the majority of the sections are brilliantly Wallacian: long rambling sentences exploring the minutiae of human consciousness, constantly qualifying, melding the esoteric with superfluities of everyday speech ('like'), laboring over the most detailed descriptions of physical objects, etc. Needless to say, there are many involved details about tax return processing arcaneness.

And, of course, there are unforgettable characters:

- David Cusk. David Foster Wallace had a sweat problem, which is why he is often (as in the photo on the back flap of the dust jacket of this novel) seen wearing a headscarf, although the reader assumes that Cusk's complaint is a gross exaggeration of Wallace's complaint: he's gets so soaked in sweat in the car taking him to the IRS that he also severely dampens the jacket of his fellow passenger David Wallace (of whom more below); in any class he's more comfortable away from a radiator and at the back where he can't be seen sweating; he tortures himself with fears of having another attack, etc. The hallmark digressions and/or qualifications are there, of course, both in the text itself and in the sparing footnotes (as opposed to the copious endnotes in Infinite Jest).

- Toni Ware comes from a trailer park background, where she was abused and from which she is irrevocably damaged.

- Claude Sylvanshine is 'fact psychic', meaning that unimportant details about a person - often a total stranger - just float into his consciousness, such as the details of an employee's 'mitochondrial DNA and the fact that it was ever so slightly substandard due to her mother's having taken thalidomide four days before it was abruptly yanked from the shelves'. 

- Meredith Rand is 'wrist-bitingly attractive', although she's painfully aware of this, and can talk and talk and talk about the problems this (the wrist-biting attractiveness, that is) causes her.

- Shane 'Mr. X' Drinion (whose nickname is an ironic reference to the fact that he's not perceived as 'exciting') certainly finds Rand interesting - perhaps even exciting- to the point that he concentrates so much on what she's saying that he actually levitates 1¾ inches from his seat.

- And there's a character called David Wallace, who authorially intervenes in the ninth section (page 66) with what he terms 'AUTHOR'S FOREWORD', which begins (as does section 22) with 'Author here', and he wants us to believe that he's the real author, and that the publisher's legal disclaimer, saying that all the characters in the book are fictitious, (and any resemblances to real characters is coincidental), is in fact a lie, as 'This book is really true'.  But then, some of what he says is irrefutably untrue about David Foster Wallace, the author.

David Wallace the character in the book is down as 'David F. Wallace' at the IRS, and as a GS-9 he's a pretty low-grade employee, although he's confused with another recruit - another David F. Wallace who will start the following day, although he's a much higher status GS-13. But although the GS-9 (David Foster Wallace) has a different second name to the GS-13 (David Francis Wallace), the IRS only recognizes the middle initial, leading to the GS-9 receiving a preferential greeting from Chahla Neti-Neti: a blowjob.

Not all of the parts of the book sparkle with wit, and under the circumstances it definitely can't be expected to hold together wonderfully. But all the same, there are moments in it equal to any other moment in DFW's previous work.  It was therefore a very good decision to publish this. It's just such a pity that there'll be no more to come.

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