Hey, let’s play a game. For the next ten minutes, let’s pretend that David Foster Wallace didn’t kill himself. Let’s pretend that he never wrote Infinite Jest or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or any of it. Let’s pretend he finished this book and released it just as intended. Let’s pretend that you just picked up this new novel The Pale King sight unseen, and read it through. What do you think of it now?
It’s tough to get all that stuff out of your mind; it surrounds the book like a fog, distorting and obfuscating everything inside. But hey, it’s not like he’s ever going to come back and finish it. What we’ve got is all we’re ever going to get, so there’s no point calling it “an unfinished novel” or packing the thing with disclaimers and addendum. This is it. It’s up to us to decide if it’s any good or not, whether the author could have improved upon it is, in the end, irrelevant. We must approach this as if it were a finished novel if we are to get anything out of it, otherwise it’s just a curio, a scrap of waste paper. It’s nothing.
Fortunately, The Pale King has the feeling of being not just a complete work, but a masterful one. Foster Wallace’s wit and intelligence and deep sense of humanity shine through all that fog. It’s easy to forget, while reading, that any of what I was talking about up there actually happened. When you’re reading, there is nothing but the book, and the book works. In my mind, that qualifies this as complete.
The story does feel scattered and chronologically uncertain, but that’s pretty much par for the course as far as David Foster Wallace goes. This is a book that not only lacks any central narrative, but actively defies the concept of a central narrative. There is no protagonist, there is no hero’s journey or rising action or climax. There are only people and the things they do, the struggles they face, and the uncertainty of their existences. There are just lives. That’s not to say that the stakes aren’t high. It’s a book about the fight for dignity, for survival in the face of spirit-crushing mind-numbing tedium. Which is not at all to say that it’s a boring book, one of Foster Wallace’s particular gifts is his ability insert the reader so deeply into the psyche of his characters that we are able to feel with absolute clarity the intensity and importance of their lives. He is able to make a discussion about a company picnic feel extraordinarily exciting and bold.
The chapters are somewhat haphazardly constructed. Some go on for more than a hundred pages, while others last only a few lines. The long ones often feel as though they go on too long, and the short ones often feel too short. Some of them are strange and awkward, others transcendent and beautiful. The bulky cast of characters shifts and fades, none of them remaining in the spotlight for long, though many of their stories linger in the mind long after the telling.
It’s a magnificent book, a flawed masterpiece. Whether or not those flaws could have been smoothed over isn’t for me to say. We’ll never really know. But what we do have is special and very much worth experiencing.