Though he was hidden in plain sight (like so many fine authors ) having published a novel and a story collection, David Foster Wallace went unnoticed ( he didn’t make Granta’s 1996 “Best of the Young American Novelists”) until his 1000 page, 100 footnote novel Infinite Jest. I recall when I talked to Foster Wallace in 1995 ( a conversation I will try to unearth at some future date) he was serious, polite, edgy and seemingly uncomfortable. Not the least due to lame publicity like a New York Times Magazine article anointing him the “grunge” novelist. Oy veh!
Well, what could you expect? A pack of puerile cultural scavengers affixing themselves to a rising literary star is the way of the world is it not. Luckily, Dave Eggers arrived on the scene with a penchant for showmanship and an interesting book and a clear evidence that the kids were still reading (at least some were) You may not know anything about David Foster Wallace but you probably know he hung himself (the kind of thing TMZ would report) in 2008. Certainly in the intervening years since the publication of Infinite Jest Wallace secured a place for himself in American letters and no lesser authority than Time Magazine included Infinite Jestin its All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list.
Now comes the post-humous publication of Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (Little Brown). You can read about how Micheal Pietsch, Wallace’s editor and Little, Brown publisher,took on the prodigious task of reading the pages Wallace left behind which he lovingly brought The Pale Kinginto a publishable and readable form in Lev Grossman’s faithful recapitulation of Pietsch’s editor’s note.
Grossman does offer this thought though:
The Pale King is complete in one sense: it asks a question and posits an answer. Here and there throughout the book, Wallace alludes to a state of mind, or perhaps a way of being, in which a human being can set aside boredom, or pass through it, to experience reality calmly and openly, appreciating it for its richness without demanding from it anything as easy or satisfying or ready-made as meaning. There’s both a whiff of dorm-room, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance mysticism to this idea and a whiff of truth as well. Not everybody in The Pale King is able to find this state of mind, but everybody is looking for it.
Now, part of my motive for writing this notice is to suggest that you restrain yourself from reading the avalanche of chatter that the Pale King will surely loose—unless we are blessed with Charllie Sheen developing aphasia or some other next big thing. The NY Times has already had two reviews and one article on the faux embargo imposed by Little Brown (book was supposed to go on sale April 15 and reviewers were asked not to review or quote from it, or even mention they had copies in their possession). I say read the book. Or read something by Foster Wallace. Or listen to his Kenyon College commencement speech published as a wonderful little book This is Water.
Okay, you might read one piece on Wallace —which I found in an unlikely place—there being odd pockets of intelligence and insight in world of big commercial media. John Jeremiah Sullivan has some smart things to say about Wallace and his place in a fluid evaporating culture. I like this bit of acuity:
Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified. And Wallace was speaking to them; his native conscientiousness prevented him from shirking the role of sage altogether. It’s in this way that we can understand his frequent and uncharacteristically Pollyanna statements about the supposed power of fiction against solipsism, i.e., that only in literature do we know for sure we’re having “a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness.”
By the way, I have read about 100 pages of The Pale King. It is hilarious. It is dark. And it is dense.