Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why I'm not reading The Pale King just yet

You may remember the period wherein I blogged regularly on the experience of reading Infinite Jest. While I can't honestly say it was the revelation for me that it was for many other readers -- Wallace had some habits that I think kept his fiction from being all that it could have been, particularly in terms of his moral and intellectual anxieties re: fiction as a form -- it was one of the most rich and engaging experiences I've had with a book in some time. It was consistently alive, always making decisions, taking risks, and surprising me. Its wild swerves from paragraph to paragraph became a minor obsession. Like probably a lot of people, I decided to write a book that would incorporate some of its style and form for my next novel; when I have any free time at all again, I'll put some more time in (I have, I think, about 8,000 words -- a drop in the projected bucket).

I am not however reading The Pale King, and I don't plan to do so any time soon. It's not that I have any moral compunctions. I don't care if Wallace would have rather had us read it or not, honestly: I would strip a dead man of his riches, and a dead novelist is no different. He can't use it anymore, so I feel that it's rightfully mine. I don't mind either that it isn't finished. Most writers' unfinished drafts would not be worth reading. Wallace is not most writers. Nor am I worried about the process by which the book was stitched together. All novels should be collaborations. The author is a part of a process. I don't care for purity.

The trouble is that everywhere I go right now I see commentary about The Pale King or Wallace himself, as a person. I will admit that knowledge of him as a person has never been good for me in my reading -- his ideas, about which he was perhaps too forthcoming at times, are often irritating to me personally. So I am mostly avoiding the biography, insofar as I can do that. But then the literary commentary is often quite interesting. And so I get sucked in. I have ideas and opinions about the book in spite of never having read it. I may have already assessed it, may have determined how I feel about the whole project, from a position of total ignorance about its actual text. This is not a comfortable position for me. The object of the book is becoming something for me to use. Something for me to position myself with, adjacent to, against, beneath, above, etc. It is becoming a way for me to talk about myself, as I am doing here in this post. And you see this in others, also: people tweet about having The Pale King, about their excitement for The Pale King, about how they are tired of reading about The Pale King, about how they will never read The Pale King, about how they are suspicious of the text of The Pale King. It's exhausting.

Reading is inherently social, and it derives a great deal of its richness from one's awareness of the larger community's engagement with a book. But there comes a point where I can barely even see the words on the page for all the conversations and arguments I am having with the secondary materials I've read. This is why I've mostly stopped reading reviews of films I plan to see: more and more often, I spend too much time fighting with the critics on one point while conceding another to actually perceive the film itself. I'm at this point with The Pale King, and I haven't even read a significant portion of the commentary it's already spawned. I have a feeling it's going to be years before I can read the book. But I don't mind waiting.


  1. Which of his ideas irritate you? Generally I think a lot of his moralizing comes off as forced, even when I think he's raising a decent point. And I don't really get his fascination with sentimentality/schmaltz, and I don't know why he thinks really good fiction is always secretly dancing around it, or something. I think maybe he felt he had to appeal to commercial-entertainment standards of "heart" in order to be as popular as he wanted, when in reality I think he was fine borrowing popular action-/spy-genre plot lines. I don't think he ever really bought his own definition of "heart," which may be part of why he struggled so with his later fiction. His fellow writer Vollmann (whom he felt intimidated by) has no hang-ups about appealing to this kind of "heart," and I think it shows both in his clarity and fecundity as a writer, and in his utter simplicity as a dude.

    Over the years I've found that the parodically cruel Wallace is the only manifestation of writer-Wallace I still get excited about--the Wallace capable of writing Fun With Teeeh and Cage III. Cheesy-humor Wallace and moralizing Wallace really bore me, I feel indifferent about him when he wears his postmodern-intellectual hat, and I only admire gonzo-Wallace for the sheer accumulated detail. I mostly still like his deep-throated "Tolstoy voice," or whatever the main narrative mode of IJ would be, but the infectiousness of it has worn off. My favorite writing of his is easily the Gately-wraith encounter, which still seems to me just incredible! It literally gets my heart pumping faster to read it, even still.

    I'm enjoying PK mostly as a look into the process of a writer I've always admired. It's nice because apparent his process is similar to mine, which eases the ambient anxiety I've had that I'm "doing it wrong." I can't really enjoy it as a novel because I looked forward to it for so long, wondering what direction his next polished novel would take. Just hurts too much to think it only ever became half-finished.

  2. I think your first paragraph covers my frustrations with him pretty well. It's not his fault people tend to throw his quotes around as if they were handed down to Moses on stone tablets, but at the same time you get the feeling he was trying to be worthy of that sort of treatment. It's not his fault people said he spoke for a generation, or whatever, but it is his fault he seemed to try actually live up to it. Making big statements about how the world is or how America is usually annoys me, especially when it comes from what seems like a pretty condescending place.

    I mean he's hardly alone in this stuff, it's mainly a reason to stay away from interviews with him.

    Someday I will read some Vollmann. So much to read.