There’s no doubt that The Pale King, the new, posthumous novel by David Foster Wallace about the lives of workers at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, has generated more interest from reviewers than almost anything else of recent vintage. There are reviews in almost every publication that’s ever run a book review.
Foster Wallace’s publishers timed the publication to coincide with the American tax filing date of April 15th, and certainly it’s a good hook for many reviewers. In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review section there are three separate pieces devoted to the book, but the review that’s attracted the most attention from the media, if not necessarily with readers, is Jonathan Franzen’s for The New Yorker.
Of course I decided to “like” The New Yorker to gain access to Franzen’s essay (you can unlike it later). It’s a pretty good read, and not just about Wallace, but as you can see from the following sample, Franken does reveal something of the personal dynamic between the two of them:
David and I had a friendship of compare and contrast and (in a brotherly way) compete. A few years before he died, he signed my hardcover copies of his two most recent books. On the title page of one of them, I found the traced outline of his hand; on the title page of the other was an outline of an erection so huge that it ran off the page, annotated with a little arrow and the remark “scale 100%.” I once heard him enthusiastically describe, in the presence of a girl he was dating, someone else’s girlfriend as his “paragon of womanhood.” David’s girl did a wonderfully slow double take and said, “What?” Whereupon David, whose vocabulary was as large as anybody’s in the Western Hemisphere, took a deep breath and, letting it out, said, “I’m suddenly realizing that I’ve never actually known what the word ‘paragon’ means.”
He was lovable the way a child is lovable, and he was capable of returning love with a childlike purity. If love is nevertheless excluded from his work, it’s because he never quite felt that he deserved to receive it. He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself. What looked like gentle contours from a distance were in fact sheer cliffs. Sometimes only a little of him was crazy, sometimes nearly all of him, but, as an adult, he was never entirely not crazy. What he’d seen of his id while trying to escape his island prison by way of drugs and alcohol, only to find himself even more imprisoned by addiction, seems never to have ceased to be corrosive of his belief in his lovability. Even after he got clean, even decades after his late-adolescent suicide attempt, even after his slow and heroic construction of a life for himself, he felt undeserving. And this feeling was intertwined, ultimately to the point of indistinguishability, with the thought of suicide, which was the one sure way out of his imprisonment; surer than addiction, surer than fiction, and surer, finally, than love…
As someone who inhaled every one of the 1,100 pages or so of Infinite Jest, I fully expect to read and enjoy The Pale King, footnotes and all. It might take a while, but it’s only about half as long so it’ll seem like a breeze, even if it is about the Internal Revenue Service!