Monday, April 18, 2011

This Too Shall Pass? Thoughts on The Pale King Release

I have to stop. I am driving myself utterly mad. In the last week or so, I've read approximately 244 articles, reviews and retrospectives about David Foster Wallace and The Pale King. As a result, I spent most of last Friday — the book's official release date — in something resembling the state of mind of the character in DFW's story "The Depressed Person."

And I still haven't been able to bring myself to actually buy the damn book. The reason, I think, is that there's something really final about that. It's something I'll never do again: Buy a new novel from my favorite writer of all time. It's that thought alone that brings about nearly soul-crippling sadness. Not helping matters is the fact that, in a somewhat cruel twist of fate — which isn't really fate, because I freely chose these books myself; it's more like an evil masochistic coincidence — I'm currently reading not one, but two, books about suicide (Anna Karenina and The History of History).

And but so, it's hard for me to account for why DFW's suicide has affected me so forcibly. After all, it's been two-and-a-half years now. But it might as well have been yesterday. I won't bore you by rehashing why I love his writing — you can read that here, in a post I did in Dec. 2009 celebrating my one-year anniversary of finishing Infinite Jest. It's not like his writing disappeared when he did. I don't know. To state the obvious, it's just overwhelmingly sad that such an awe-inspiringly brilliant writer offed himself in the midst of his prime.

Okay, time to sack up. The Pale King's in my cart ready for check out. Nothing left to do but click............


  1. Art is a finite source of pleasure, but you can always give second and third readings to his stories. Something of Infinite Jest length takes many meanings over time I'm sure.

  2. i'm interested to see how this pans out for you. is any of your mood due to a fear about the book versus your own inevitable expectations? i think that's what i'd be worried about.

  3. I just started it on Friday, and haven't made much progress yet. I have a different issue, though: I'm an accountant and there's too much darn accounting-speak! I feel like I'm reading about work!

  4. I'm halfway relieved that because I'm living abroad now I can't read Pale King. Or rather, I can, but it'd be on my kindle, and this book deserves to be read on paper. I can delay this final purchase a year longer. I'm still startled by how strongly I reacted to DFW's death (I don't cry at much - I cried at this, then walked around in a daze for weeks), and some part of me doesn't want to read PK because that'll be like repeating the whole thing. I guess I'm also scared, despite the positive reviews, that it'll be (like the cobbled together, if aesthetically interesting, pieces of Nabokov's Original of Laura) a disappointment.

    -- Ellen

  5. @Ben - You're right, and if there's any book ever that demanded multiple readings, it's Infinite Jest.

    @Ben - You know, expectations don't really have much to do with it, to be honest. The reality is that, despite the many positive reviews (though how many of those were only positive so as not to trample on the man's grave), I don't have much expectation for the book anyway. It's not the full book, it's not the meticulous DFW's approved edit, so it's his writing, but not totally his book.

    @Katie - Ha, I can see how that would be an issue. Any initial impressions?

    @fatbooks - Wow - you're a total kindred spirit. I'll unabashedly admit to balling my eyes out when I first heard the news, and then again while reading that Rolling Stone profile of him, and then again when I read the line in Infinite Jest about missing someone you've never really known. It really did hit me hard - it's been hard to come to terms with why. But again, as I say to Ben above, the expectations for the novel itself don't really enter into this sadness equation. The majority of it for me is really just that this is it.

  6. Stieg Larsson was gone before I knew anything about his work, but I kinda went into a funk when I read his third book. And when Stephen King got hit by the car, and everyone thought he might die? Total state of malaise, even though my SK peak was 20 years ago. I've not read DFW...he scared me in an intellectual way. But I can still appreciate your mood. Go forth, and celebrate his awesomeness.

  7. Disclaimer: I haven't read a lot of DFW, but I've read some, and I live with a DFW devotee. I think part of why his suicide has affected some people so deeply is that much of what he writes is completely relatable, feelings and ideas and experiences and impressions about society and life we've all had but have never managed to capture with the articulate precision of DFW. That someone with this gift of putting our collective thoughts on paper could just decide to die... Well. Where's the line, and what made him cross it, and how close are any of us? I think your hesitation makes sense. I, on the other hand, almost want to start with The Pale King (I've only read some of his shorter essays and stories) so that no one has much of a chance to tell me how much I'll love it (or not).

  8. I've been told I write like him... yet I've never read any of his work. I'll have to get into his books this year.
    The loss of any writer in his world is never a good thing... it means that there's always stories still in them that haven't been told and haven't gotten out yet.

  9. I've just started too, and while it's sometimes an easier read than Infinite Jest, I imagine that I'll take my time and savor it. While reading, I definitely get the feeling of loss and absence, and the finality of it. But it's also a beautifully empathic book; everything that he talked about fiction achieving or trying to achieve is in here. In that sense, I'm trying to read The Pale King as a celebration of DFW's personality, as an affirmation of the things that he believed in.

  10. @Sandy - Yeah, it's always sad when you know (or think) you won't be able to read anymore from a brilliant creative mind.

    @zeteticat - Nail on head. Very well said. I first realized DFW's amazing gift for empathy - his unparalleled ability to put himself in anyone's shoes - when I read his commencement address to Kenyon College, now published in book form called This Is Water. His shorter essays are some of my favorites of his writings. In fact, the first thing I ever read by him was Consider the Lobster. I was hooked. You're also right in that I often wonder what made him cross the line. How could someone who seemed so in touch with humanity, and could it express that so clearly, not be able to figure it out for himself? Depression is a motherfucker.

    @Mozette - Wow! That is a pretty high compliment. Congrats!

    @Stephen - Thanks for that - it's about as glowing an endorsement as could be put in words for the book. I finally did "click" and am going to start reading this weekend. Like you, I plan to take it slow. And savor.

  11. My son is a senior in High School and he and some of his friends are reading Infinite Jest and loving it. The first friend to read it can't wait to get his hands on The Pale King and my son wants to next read Consider the Lobster.

    I have to say it is refreshing to see young adults tackling and enjoying an author like Wallace.