On Reading The Pale King

This was a strange experience for me, having recently spent a lot of time thinking about Wallace for a chapter of my dissertation. Somehow reading this unfinished novel brought the sad fact of his death to life unavoidably to mind in a way that my other DFW research never did.

The novel itself is really enjoyable–I could really see Wallace extending himself into the new style that he was struggling to develop. The various chapters are full of life and intelligence, and seemed in a sense less guarded and cerebral than his previous fiction. I found the whole setting of the novel (an IRS center in the 1980s) to be hilarious and was really drawn into the book in a way that this kind of postmodern fiction usually doesn’t (though I love it anyway). That quality was particularly surprising because it doesn’t really cohere as a novel and clearly was part of something larger that will never be.

At the end of the text, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor, chose to include a collection of notes drawn from the author’s working files on characters, potential plot twists and various endings for the book. (Unless, of course, this was also some kind of postmodern DFW gag, but it didn’t read that way.) This closing chapter was what really brought Wallace’s death home for me. I felt as if I’d been let in behind the curtain and seen the magician preparing his next trick, and he’d seen me see him, and there we both were, feeling upset and depressed and unable to think of a way to correct the situation. With most authors I would find this kind of glimpse into the voyaging writerly mind intriguing. In a different context I would probably enjoy this kind of thing with Wallace, too–I hope to check out his archives at the Ransom Center in Austin one day. But here, at the end of The Pale King, it just made me wish he’d been able to finish the book.