Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why I can't read The Pale King right now

This story goes back a month and a half and it also goes back six years. The different time-spans will become apparent in just a moment. This story is about David Foster Wallace and his posthumously published but incomplete novel The Pale King. Kat bought me a copy of this last novel for my birthday when we were in Louisville and it has sat on my shelf since then. Had this been a completed novel, I would have begun reading it almost immediately, but there is something about attempting to read this incomplete novel that has been bothering me.
This part goes back six years when a friend of mine suggested that I read Wallace. Not knowing where to begin, I picked up a copy of Oblivion, his most recent collection of short stories at the time. The first story, "Mr. Squishy," put me off completely and I couldn't even get through the whole thing. The story includes, in part, an intensely detailed description of a focus group and the products under review. The density of detail threw me because I had not read anything like it before. I didn't realize until much later when I reread the story that the alienation I felt was purposeful -- the obsessive attention to detail in the story parallels the narrator's unhealthy obsession with retail snack-cakes and presages his eventual hostile actions. It was more than a year before I picked up Infinite Jest and I found more of the same in that novel. I found it dense beyond belief and a little knowing -- precious, in a word.
The thing rubbed me the wrong way from start to finish from its incredible depth of irony to the extensive use of end notes, but I stuck it out and read the whole thing. I was alternately bored and frustrated by it, but I kept thinking about it. In fact, I kept thinking about it for more than a year, much longer than I would expect to think about a book I thought I didn't like. Then I reread it and changed my thinking completely about it. The characters I had found so annoying the first time around became vivid and struck me as true representations of flawed individuals this time around. The timeline, built so heavily upon what I thought were dull, scatological jokes struck me as trenchant social criticisms. In short, I fell in love with the work. To this day -- after rereading the novel another half-dozen times -- Infinite Jest has become one of my favorite novels of all time.
This contributes to the trepidation I feel about reading The Pale King. Even DFW's other works, which I hadn't particularly liked, have resonated with me more since reading Infinite Jest. It is because that novel means so much that I can't read The Pale King right now. My fear is that, because it is a partial novel, it will be mediocre -- it won't live up to the other works. This, of course, would be disappointing. The greater fear I have is that it will be brilliant, even in its incomplete state. I fear reading this fragment and recognizing in it the greatness of his previous work, knowing that it will never be complete.
The last novel by David Foster Wallace will have to sit on my shelf a while longer, until I'm ready to see it. Or at least until my curiosity outweighs my trepidation. It has more value for me as a metaphor for the cut-off life of its author -- I'm content to leave it at that for now.

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