Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

 I have been cultivating this finish-the-book vibe after years of starting books and never finishing them. I have been very successful. But I had to pull the plug on this 547 page book at about page 275. Reading this book was like reading the “begats”
in the Bible. My life is too short to suffer through this when so many other vastly superior books are calling my name.

David Foster Wallace, author of several works, most notably “Infinite Jest” (1996) committed suicide in 2008. His editor discovered hundreds of pages of unfinished work, which he compiled into this book. A tremendously difficult task because Wallace left no outline or notes on how the novel should be put together, and left only scattered bits of unfinished writing.

But this “novel,” never should have been published. I understand the editor’s grief at the loss of a dear friend through suicide. It has happened to me, and you never get over it. I understand his desire to show the world what Wallace was working on at the time.  But maybe that’s what should have been published. Just say “here it is, just like he left it.” Sort of a historical document. Or maybe it should have been put in a library where it could be looked at, and made available online. But it never should have been published as a novel.

It is not a novel, based on my understanding of what a novel should be. The main problem is that it is crushingly tedious and boring, and does not have a coherent story. To the extent the novel is about anything, it is about some guys who go to work for the IRS in Peoria Illinois in or around 1985 (there was some confusion as to dates in the story). It describes in excruciating detail their arrival at their assignment, and indoctrination.

I know the book is supposed to be about the oppressively boring and mundane existence of everyday people in America. The real heroes, as they are described. Sitting at their desks plowing through whatever mind-numbing task they are being paid to perform, day in and day out, for ever and ever. Suffering through traffic, heat, bad parking, offensive others, and their own maladies and shortcomings.  One guy sweats profusely all the time. One guy has horrible skin problems, described as “disfuguring.” Another guy has some sort of ESP that provides only very mundane information. These are all interesting characters, or would have been if Wallace had finished the book.

Was it Wallace’s goal to make a book about our soul crushing boring society, itself a soul crushing bore? If so, he succeeded. Or, more accurately, his editor succeeded.

The book is not totally without redemption. The characters were on their way to being interesting and developed. The premise is interesting. The best part of the book is probably the very beginning where Wallace is describing a field. Wonderful writing. As a matter of fact, this is what convinced me to buy the book. The introduction of the character Sylvanshine is interesting. But things start to go dry after that. Mirage-seeing, dying of thirst in hell, dry. Here and there are glimmers of hope, but they are dashed by the unfinished and unpolished writing.

I hand it to the editor for wanting to honor his friend, and a great writer. I have great respect for David Foster Wallace. I have no doubt that the book, from the standpoint of the editor, was a labor of love for his friend. But as to the publisher, I see it as a last-ditch effort to make a buck. It’s a con. Read something else.

1 comment:

  1. I always worry my novel will make my readers feel like that and give up, but if I'm worrying about it now, maybe I shall never write a book like it.

    Let's hope the next one isn't like it because you wouldn't want to give up reading all together :-)