It’s actually fairly easy to compose a review – be it for a book, concert, what have you – for something that didn’t meet expectations or just didn’t really click for you. You can clinically delineate the disappointing elements or ingredients, sum it up, be done with it. No joy in that – perhaps no point in that – but there you go.
It’s even fairly straightforward to compose a review for something that didn’t make the grade, at least for you, but in which you try, however painfully, to say something constructive or useful. There is maybe some grim satisfaction in at least offering suggestions for improving the experience next time out. Maybe the artist will see your review and take note, and/or someone else will take note, and/or you’ll adjust your expectations accordingly or just not make a return visit to that artist’s offerings, life being too short and all that.
And of course, light, happy, effusive reviews for the delightful … well, are clearly delightful, to revel in, to share with others, to be part of the collective joy.
What hurts and doesn’t work and won’t come out right is when you try to write something about a work that you love, when you know quite rightly that not everyone will love it or care … or should, because you know it isn’t for everyone …. and especially when you know it is the last thing you will hear from a beloved artist. So I’m just going to write what has been percolating for weeks and weeks since I rather unwillingly finished the last page of this book, and be done with it, however inadequate it’s likely to be.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace is the author’s most intimate and courageous work in a body of work characterized by much intimacy and courage, viewed both from what is within the book’s covers and viewed externally, in terms of its place in Wallace’s oeuvre and in the context of what happened while the work was in progress. When editor Michael Pietsch gathered and attempted to shape what his friend had left behind upon his death, one can only imagine the intimacy and courage attendant in that unanticipated and daunting mission. While a nascent bone structure of plot, theme and character is clearly evident, even the final product with which Pietsch leaves us is not and couldn’t possibly be fully formed. Interestingly, it doesn’t feel like it needed editing and paring, but likely as if it would have blossomed and grown even more complex, but would have had more elements come full circle, connect and resolve in what Wallace would have considered and delivered as the finished work.
The Pale King is ostensibly about the backgrounds and somewhat intertwined experiences of a cross section of employees of the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois. Through their experiences, the reader learns about and, if the reader can bear to stick with it, absorbs the intensity and seeming futility of boredom, especially boredom bred of layers and layers of unquestioned rules, regulations and process. Amazingly, that boredom somehow becomes transcendent, counterpointed by a sense of the nobility of contending with boredom for seemingly greater causes, personal, social and even spiritual.
I was astonished at how Wallace made dealing with boredom so heroic, poignant and spellbinding. The standout sequence featuring IRS co-workers Shane Drinion and Meredith Rand is hypnotic, because Drinion is so arrestingly zen, compassionate and invested, listening so attentively to the story of Rand’s troubles, even though it was tedious, repetitious and self-absorbed. But it was still an absorbing sequence. And it showed what compassion and incredible attention to detail Wallace had himself. Perhaps it was that same intense sympathy and empathy that – who knows – drove him to what he did. So, the whole reading experience was both gorgeous and immensely bittersweet on numerous levels.
This is by no means the book with which readers should try to introduce themselves to David Foster Wallace – that could be anything from This is Water (which you can digest in a relative blink online), Consider the Lobster, possibly even Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. However, it is a wrenching and essential, albeit sadly premature last installment for Wallace devotees.
THE PALE KING: Monologues From The Unfinished Novel By David Foster Wallace (a PEN benefit from April, 2011)