the pale king 02-05-2011

i was asked if i would like to give a short reading at the uk launch of david foster wallace's posthumous novel. i politely declined. the inviter from his publisher has heard me say, during an event at the royal festival hall, that i had had a longstanding obsession with dfw's work, but failed to hear my next sentence in which i said that i was in remission now (the acoustics were dire; there was a bustling bar at the back of the hall and a speed dating event going on nearby). i still think, as i suspect many admiring readers do, that he was a hugely influential writer of real genius whose work was often marred by passages of monumental tedium and self-indulgence, and that the latter was indirectly encouraged by the high-octane fandom his work incited. repeatedly i got the impression of a writer trying to claude van damme his way into the cannon with all guns blazing, writing at a greater intensity than anyone else and at greater length, in prose that was more complex, more inventive and  and more defiantly weird than anyone else's. there has, i think, never been a writer who could describe a scene in more detail or perform more variations on a single idea. and whilst this could sometimes be utterly hypnotic it was also at times unreadable (by me, at least, despite my unnatural hunger for experimental work, and certainly by that huge number of readers who should have been part of the wider readership he deserved).

what his writing sometimes lacked was the grace and lightness which comes from wearing simultaneously both the reader's shoes and the writer' hat, the ability to know when one should let go and move on, the ability to leave space for the reader to do some imagining and make some judgements of their own. he came nearest to this grace and lightness in his essays (consider the lobster & a supposedly fun thing) and lacked them most spectacularly in his book about the mathematics of infinity (everything and more), a ferociously complex book i gave up reading after 30 pp despite being pretty much the target market for book about maths for the non-specialist reader. whether he himself lacked this grace and lightness, this awareness of the reader, i don't know (in interviews and articles he seemed warm, anxious, modest, self-effacing and very self-aware). looking back and knowing what we know now about the recurring long-term depression which led to his eventual suicide, however, i wonder if his work's repeated stuck-ness, his preference for stasis over plot, his seeming fear that readers might not realise how brilliant he was, were symptomatic of his illness rather than his character.

everything above is evident once again in the pale king, which was collated and edited after his death by his long-term editor michael pietsch. it's a collection of loosely related chapters (which dfw might or might not have drawn together into a tighter structure) all of which centre upon the irs regional examination centre in peoria, illinois where 'david wallace' starts working c. 1980. it is, in parts, breathtakingly good and made me feel a pained envy. but it is also, in parts, impenetrable. michael pietsch, i presume, has tried to balance a duty to the reader with an equal duty to dfw's presumed intentions. what is peculiar, however, about this particular book is the seeming sharpness of the boundary between the inspired and the misjudged, and the abruptness with which my wrapt attention was lost. as i always do, i marked passages which seemed to have been touched by the hand of god,  but i also marked points, often between one line and the following, at which a section became suddenly bogged down.

i do hope the high-octane fandom begins to die down now. i think it probably did his writing no favours while he was alive and it certainly does his reputation no good after his death.