Perhaps no American writer of the past 25 years has inspired more devotion, hope and resentment than David Foster Wallace. When his dense-prosed, block-paragraphed doorstopper, Infinite Jest, dropped in 1996, it felt to many of us that the book actually gave literature a chance to truly matter again—that a novel could actually still be an integral part of what it meant to exist here, now, as a shared culture rather than merely an aggregation of disjointed marketing categories.
Others were more interested in calling him out as a hoax, a hollow and banal stylist. People who had not read the book told people who had read the book that doing so made them foolish or pretentious. Still: It seemed important to have an opinion.
The root of why Wallace is so loved but also so infuriating is because he doesn’t always offer literature’s traditional comforts—economy, balance, absorption into character. Proust, Harold Brodkey, William Gaddis and also Wallace do not create perfect books or well-made stories but rather flabby-seeming repositories of language, unlikely observation and deeply human empathy; the world seems new because newly described, understandable because conscientiously articulated, but their books spill over as sloppily as the world.
The excerpts of his posthumous, unfinished The Pale King (Little Brown, 560 pages, $27.99) that were published in The New Yorker and Harper’s seemed, nonetheless, a little airless—devoid of entertainment or joy or possible redemption. This turns out to be no accident: The book’s stated goal is to escape the damaging need for entertainment altogether, to find the heroism in boredom and the bliss that lies in transcending it. But boring isn’t remotely what the book becomes, even though it mostly takes place in an IRS office.
It is a book of wildly disparate, hyperbolic set pieces, stunningly described small moments of doubled consciousness or examinations of character. Again and again, the capacity to withstand the mind-crushing boredom required to be an IRS examiner is shown to be a product of brutal damage or a denial of those qualities that make us human. One of the examiners, Stecyk, can only do right, is always polite and attentive. He is also the most hated man alive. Toni played dead while she watched her own mother murdered, and David Wallace (yes, that’s the author) is so disfigured by acne he can’t be looked at.
The effect on the reader is an absorption of sorts, but one without a climax, just a continuing, engaging engagement of a problem deep in the fabric of American bureaucratic life. It is also a deeply moving, deeply intelligent work, despite that neither the work nor its author was able to complete its project of transcending the boredom that’s just plain killing us, or the need for entertainment that’s doing the same.
READ IT: The Pale King is in bookstores now.