Literature

Beyond the Pale


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A meditation on the late David Foster Wallace

Given the overwhelming brevity of David Foster Wallace's work during his short time on this Earth, it would be a difficult case to make that there is not something poignant, indeed culturally significant about the author. "Genius" is not a word I throw around much, but it is applicable here. Admittedly, I am biased. Wallace's influence on me is immense'to the degree that his words have changed not only what I think about, but indeed how I think on the most fundamental level. Recently, with the release of The Pale King, Wallace's last, tragically unfinished novel, I've been trying to parse out what exactly is so unique about his collective works.

As best I articulate it, there is a fierce dedication to earnestness that remains consistent throughout everything Wallace has done. His prose is self-consciously precise, the threads of thought always clear and illuminating in some way. His approach is dissonant in such a way that certain intricate paradoxes and ironies read as deadpan, unavoidable parts of life, and yet simultaneously strange anomalies to behold. And yet, there is always a kind of painful existential tension. "The Depressed Person" shatters the typical romantic clich?s about mental illness while elucidating the real underlying tragedy thereof, i.e. that depression is ultimately a self-perpetuating, all-encompassing state. Wallace's magnum opus Infinite Jest showed me how literature can be something that mimics the weighty and complex nature of existence, and still be viscerally moving. "Incarnations of Burned Children" manages to be the most horrifying thing I've ever read, hands down, and yet it's only a couple of pages long. Wallace's body of work is a galaxy in and of itself just waiting to be explored and understood.

When I first heard that Wallace's unfinished novel (later announced as The Pale King) was to be published, I cringed a bit. Anyone familiar with Wallace's prose knows that he agonized over every single word. To release something that didn't have his personal seal of approval seemed unwise, maybe even a little opportunistic. Though, listening to interviews with Michael Pietsch, Wallace's long time editor, my anxieties were immediately quelled. Reportedly, Wallace left a neatly polished bit of manuscript on his desk, just waiting to be read. This manuscript, along with selected notes (of which Wallace took many), was more than worthy of his legacy. And it's no wonder. This novel is perhaps something that could've rivaled Infinite Jest, both in length and content. The potential is there.

The Incomplete Novel
Ultimately, The Pale King is a striking, albeit noticeably incomplete novel about choosing what to pay attention to in an increasingly complex world. Furthermore, it is a meditation on the mundane, mind-numbingly boring aspects of work in the vast ether of a brain dead American culture. And it's especially poignant now. With each passing moment, the very idea of work is becoming heavier and heavier. Wages are being cut, benefits curtailed. Hours are longer and vacations shorter. And we are in the middle of it all. If there is a message in The Pale King, it is not all that different from the thesis formed in Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, in which he states, "In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship." It's a surprisingly simple existential assertion'one that perhaps could've been more carefully unpacked in The Pale King, if only the writer had lived to see the task through.

Upon the news of Wallace's suicide, a thread of sentiment was common among those familiar with his work; e.g. if someone this intelligent and conscientious has given up, what hope do the rest of us poor souls have? Indeed, it's very difficult to reconcile Wallace's brilliant narrative voice with the sad fact of his self-induced demise. Though, in light of his life long struggle with depression, and having read through The Pale King a few times, one thing stands out to me as a warm consolation. It is the very argument Wallace made time and time again: We must be aware that every moment we are making a decision. It is the choice of whether or not we are going to give in to complacency and allow ourselves to be overcome and lost in the monotonous vacuum of life. In the face of sensory overload, every day is a constant struggle to determine what is meaningful. And it's a fight worth having. While ultimately Wallace himself could not live up to his own ideals, there is a warm, liberating sort of doctrine in The Pale King that can serve as a survival guide in the 21st century work-a-day world for those willing enough to pay attention.

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Updated May 6, 2017 6:01 AM EDT | More details

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