Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Few Notes (and Footnotes) on "The Pale King"

1. David Foster Wallace wrote a bunch of books filled with an even bigger bunch of words.  Bunches and bunches of words.  I read one of those books--Infinite Jest--and loved it.

2.  I can't remember much about Infinite Jest now, more than a decade after reading it--except for these scattered fragments:  tennis, drugs, and a movie that completely consumes its viewers.  This is one of the hazards of:  a) growing old; b) being on anti-depressants; c) reading an average of 45 books per year, nearly all of which go by at a blur.  I'd re-read IJ...if only I could find the time.  An Internet acquaintance* compares the 1,079-page book to The Brothers Karamazov.  I've never read Dostoevsky's novel, but I nod across the Internet and act like I have.  And now he's reading this and knows I'm a sham.  What a shame.

3.  David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2008.  He was 46. 

3.5.  The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete.  Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target.  His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life.  “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said.  Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.”  ("David Foster Wallace's Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest" by D. T. Max, The New Yorker, March 9, 2009--highly-recommended for those who want intimate, painful details of DFW's life and death)

4.  At the time of his death (that should read: "on the day he robbed us of himself"), he was about one-third of the way through writing his third** novel.  It was alternately called "The Long Thing," "Gliterrer," SJF" ("Sir John Feelgood"), and "What is Peoria For?"  We now know it as The Pale King***.

5.  The Pale King will be published on April 15, 2011.  According to the publisher (Little, Brown), it's a novel set in “an IRS tax-return-processing center in Illinois in the mid-1980s,” and tells the story of “a crew of entry-level processors and their attempts to do their job in the face of soul-crushing tedium.”

6.  The partial manuscript [of The Pale King] expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration.  Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment[****], the book suggests.  As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”  (Max, D. T., "David Foster Wallace's Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest")

7.  DFW's widow, Karen Green, designed the cover for the U.S. edition which you see above.  I really, really like this cover design.  It speaks to the fragmentary-but-cohesive nature of Wallace's work and the implied cut-and-paste method of reconstructing a dead author's unfinished novel.

8.  There's also a UK cover, which is good in its own right.  If you click on that link, you will get The Howling Fantods.  Not "a case of the Howling Fantods," but the website which is a 24/7 mini-mart dedicated to DFW.

9.  Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.  Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you.  Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Instant bliss in every atom.  (A typed note DFW left with The Pale King manuscript)

10.  Wallace once compared writing The Pale King to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.”

11.  The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t....I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore.  Maybe the answer is simply that to do what I want to do would take more effort than I am willing to put in.  Which would be a bleak reality indeed, if that’s all it is.  (David Foster Wallace, in a 2005 e-mail to his best friend, Jonathan Franzen)

12.  I have high hopes that that's not all there is.  Oh sure, The Pale King is going to be a mind-bending, at times agonizing and frustrating, beast of a novel to read, and will probably leave us all with a sense of loss over what was left hanging, what was left unwritten and unfulfilled.  Then again, people, it's David Fucking Foster Wallace!  It cannot all be shit.

13.  No, it can't.  Not according to the opening of this excerpt which was published in The New Yorker, under the title "Wiggle Room," on March 9, 2009.  These sentences bode well for the rest of The Pale King (note, for instance, the many ways he uses the word "bore"):
Lane Dean, Jr., with his green rubber pinkie finger, sat at his Tingle table in his chalk’s row in the rotes group’s wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month.  Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once, except to put the completed files and memos in the two Out trays side by side up in the top tier of trays, where the cart boys could get them when they came by.  After just an hour the beach was a winter beach, cold and gray and the dead kelp like the hair of the drowned, and it stayed that way despite all attempts.  Then three more, including one 1040A, where the deductions for A.G.I. were added wrong and the Martinsburg printout hadn’t caught it and had to be amended on one of the Form 020-Cs in the lower left tray, and then a lot of the same information filled out on the regular 20, which you still had to do even if it was just a correspondence audit and the file going to Joliet instead of the District, each code for which had to be looked up on the pullout thing he had to scoot the chair awkwardly over to pull out all the way.  Then another one, then a plummeting inside of him as the wall clock showed that what he’d thought was another hour had not been.  Not even close. May 17, 1985. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Cross-checking W-2s for the return’s line 8 off the place in the Martinsburg printout where the perforation, if you wanted to separate the thing’s sheets, went right through the data and you had to hold it up against the light and almost sometimes guess, which his chalk leader said was a chronic bug with Systems but the wiggler was still accountable.  The joke this week was: How was an I.R.S. rote examiner like a mushroom?  Both kept in the dark and fed horseshit.  He didn’t know how mushrooms even worked, if it was true that you scooped waste on them.  Sheri’s cooking wasn’t what you would call at the level of adding mushrooms.  Then another return.  The rule was, the more you looked at the clock the slower the time went.  None of the wigglers wore a watch, except he saw that some kept them in their pockets for breaks.  Clocks on Tingles were not allowed, nor coffee or pop.  Try as he might, he could not this last week help envisioning the inward lives of the older men to either side of him, doing this day after day.  Getting up on a Monday and chewing their toast and putting their hats and coats on knowing what they were going out the door to come back to for eight hours.  This was boredom beyond any boredom he’d ever felt.  This made the routing desk at UPS look like a day at Six Flags.  It was May 17th, early morning, or early midmorning you could maybe almost call it now.  He could hear the squeak of the cart boys’ carts someplace off at a distance, where the vinyl panels between his chalk’s Tingles and the blond Oriental fellow’s chalk one row up blocked the sight of them, the kids with the carts.  One of the carts had a crazy wheel that chattered when the boy pushed it; Lane Dean always knew when that cart was coming down the rows.  He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and I.D. number that some part of him still refused to quite get memorized so he had to unclip his badge and check it each time and then stapled the 402 to the return and put the file in the top tier’s rightmost tray for 402s Out and refused to let himself count the number in the trays yet, and then unbidden came the thought that “boring” also meant something that drilled in and made a hole.  His buttocks already ached from flexing, and the mere thought of envisioning the desolate beach unmanned him.  He shut his eyes but, instead of praying for inward strength now, he found he was just looking at the strange reddish dark and the little flashes and floaters in there that got almost hypnotic when you really looked at them.  Then, when he opened his eyes, the In tray’s stack of files looked to be still mainly the height it had been at 7:14, when he’d logged in in the chalk leader’s notebook and there weren’t enough files in his Out trays for Form 20s and 402s so that he could see any over the side of the trays, and he refused once more to stand up to check how many of them there were, for he knew that would make it worse.  He had the sensation of a great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor.  Never before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide*****.  He was doing a return at the same time he fought with his mind, with the sin and affront of even the passing thought.  The room was silent, except for the adding machines and the chattering sound of that one kid’s cart that had a crazy wheel as the cart boy brought it down a certain row with more files, but also he kept hearing in his head the sound a piece of paper makes when you tear it in half over and over.
14.  Are you still with me?

15.  Posthumous, unfinished novels are a tricky thing.  On the one hand, I was left feel all empty and unfizzed inside after reading Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  On the other hand, I consider Larry Brown's A Miracle of Catfish to be one of his best novels (if not the best).  The Pale King could go either way.

16.  In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents....It remains to be seen whether The Pale King will break through to the ecstasy beyond boredom, or just put readers to sleep.  (Or perhaps cause serial brain injury, like the unreadably dense experimental novel that keeps laying waste to readers in The Information by Martin Amis.)  But if Wallace’s last work turns out to be unbearably dull, perhaps we should be grateful.  After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more ­interesting ones?  ("Our Boredom, Ourselves," Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2010)

17.  For most of us, April 15, 2011 will be the best day ("Yay!  Yippee!  The Pale King has arrived!") or the worst ("Pass me another bottle of Excedrin, honey.  And tell me again, how many deductions we can take for installing solar panels on the garage?").

18.  Green returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband.  In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages.  He had made some changes in the months since he considered sending them to Little, Brown....In his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it.  Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel.  This was his effort to show the world what it was to be “a fucking human being.”  He had not completed it to his satisfaction.  This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.  (Max, D. T., "David Foster Wallace's Struggle to Surpass Infinite Jest")

19.  I originally intended this blog post to be a short announcement telling you about the pub date and cover design for The Pale King, but it got a little out of control.  Deal with it.

*Something like Stanley Kowalski saying, "I have a lawyer acquaintance."
**Three is a number imbued with religious significance.  What could all this mean?
***For what it's worth, if you click on that link and pre-order The Pale King, I'll get a couple of pennies through the Amazon Associates program (the same holds true for any Amazon link you find scattered throughout the entire blog).  Of course, I would much rather see you buy books at your local independent bookstore.  But if you really must buy books through Amazon, please do so here.
****e.g., People reading literary blogs
*****A word which, unfortunately, will from here on out cause people to find Extra Meaning in everything DFW wrote.  I could type the words "I just can't go on" on this blog and if (IF, I said) I were to tie a plastic bag over my head this afternoon, tonight's local news would have this blog enlarged on the screen with one of those ragged-edge-paper excerpt-looking things shooting diagonal across your TV.