Unfinished Business

Resurrecting David Foster Wallace's last novel

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Marion Ettlinger/Corbis Outline

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Which is, actually, all right. Nothing in Wallace's earlier work suggests we're missing much. He never had a great feel for the novel's percussion section, the plot and structure and rhythm. Whereas his ability to render the fine finials and fractals and flourishes of a mind acting upon itself, from moment to moment, using only the blunt, numb instruments of language, has few if any equals in American literature, and this we see him do at full extension. The second chapter of The Pale King gives us 13 pages (with exactly one paragraph break) of one Claude Sylvanshine sitting in an eighth-row seat of a small airplane on his way to take the CPA exam in Peoria. Wallace needs no external action to sustain his flow: we simply ride along inside Claude's head as he casts his mind forward to the impending test and back over the life that had led him here and sideways into the clouds around him. It's a bravura performance worthy of Woolf or Joyce, all business all the time. By the end you feel as if you could draw Claude's face from memory.

Of course there are things in The Pale King that don't work. One chapter, in which a clutch of IRS employees discuss 1980s-era political theory, goes on at such insupportable length, it's as if Wallace were exploring the idea that to write about boredom it is necessary to actually bore the reader, which is a form-content game that not even he can win. Elsewhere, when Wallace introduces us to a little boy who is so obsessed with the idea of kissing every part of his own skin that he engages in agonizing contortionist exercises, The Pale King approaches, and then achieves, inadvertent self-parody.

There's also a dearth of compelling women, and Wallace's distinctive voice overpowers several of his characters, giving their dialogue a suspicious sameness. (One also wonders how the book will be received by real-life wigglers — for all I know, they might love their work and resent its appropriation by a literary mandarin as an epitome of human suffering.) And, inevitably, a few passages lack Wallace's usual high stylistic polish, though there's something perversely pleasant about the rough patches. Much of Wallace's oeuvre is about the problem of loneliness, but the relentless, brutal virtuosity of his prose can sometimes leave readers feeling even lonelier than when they started. The Pale King is imperfect, but it feels more like the work of a human being than Infinite Jest does.

We're watching a rehearsal, not a performance. There is much throwing of things at walls, and not all of them stick. But the book's unfinished state gives us a lot of latitude for forgiveness, and there is never any question who is doing the throwing: The Pale King is full of Wallace's trademark no-look passes, as when he offhandedly pegs a large, pale woman as "the ghost of a draft horse" or describes the (heretofore indescribable) sunlight just before a storm as "the approximate color of a spent flashbulb." And when Wallace steers the tanker back to its theme — the struggle to extract meaning from each second that passes, no matter how empty or lonely or indistinguishable from the second that came before it — The Pale King achieves power levels that Wallace never reached in his first two novels. "Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is," a professor of accounting tells his students. "There is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested."

The Pale King is complete in one sense: it asks a question and posits an answer. Here and there throughout the book, Wallace alludes to a state of mind, or perhaps a way of being, in which a human being can set aside boredom, or pass through it, to experience reality calmly and openly, appreciating it for its richness without demanding from it anything as easy or satisfying or ready-made as meaning. There's both a whiff of dorm-room, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance mysticism to this idea and a whiff of truth as well. Not everybody in The Pale King is able to find this state of mind, but everybody is looking for it.

If Wallace was able to experience his own life that way, it was only fleetingly. He couldn't hold on to it long enough to make existence survivable. In this sense The Pale King has an emotionally raw quality that Wallace's other novels lack. Infinite Jest was about your pain, America's pain, humanity's pain, anybody's pain but the author's. The Pale King feels as if it's about Wallace's pain.

One of the characters in The Pale King pitches us an idea for a play: an IRS employee sits at a desk onstage, silently reading 1040s, occasionally turning pages and making notes. "He sits there longer and longer, until the audience gets more and more bored and restless, and finally they start leaving, first just a few and then the whole audience, whispering to each other how boring and terrible the play is. Then, once the audience have all left, the real action of the play can start."

This touching vignette is a miniature of The Pale King itself, and you can read it two ways, both of which are true. It tells us that all art is a travesty of real life, because real life happens in private, alone, before an empty house, without the gaze of an audience to ennoble or redeem it. But it would be just as true to say that the audience misunderstood what they were watching. They waited for the action to start without realizing that it was already happening, all around them, if they only knew how to see it. The play's the thing, but the waiting is the play. And the waiting is the hardest part.

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