So… The Pale King

First off, is excellent, completely at the level of Infinite Jest, and just another testament to the endless brilliance of our late DFW.

The book has been written about endlessly, and I’m not even going to bother linking various reviews or career retrospectives, because they are legion and easily findable.

I will, however, link to Maria Bustillos’ excellent article about how DFW endured his own tragically brief life. It affords insights into the inner world of the greatest writer of the last fifty years that were previously unknown, or at least never so well stated.

The Pale King is about mind-numbing boredom. DMV boredom. World of Warcraft boredom. IRS boredom. I.E., doing something effortlessly and entirely mundane from which the new-car smell has long evaporated, but doing it and doing it well because that’s what, at the moment, you must do. You do it well because you expect nothing better of yourself. DFW called this true heroism. I don’t know that I agree with him. Maybe enough of the young (R)omantic remains that I believe in the association between heroism and transcendence. It is, however, noble.

What DFW does in The Pale King, as in all his work, is be human in a way so few of us allow ourselves to be. Face it, we live in the weirdest era in the history of humanity, where privacy has altogether and permanently disappeared, in which media in all forms is literally ubiquitous, in which more people have more rights and more access to the tools to demand those rights than ever before, and in which giant private interests have more money and more access than ever to restrict those rights. It’s a strange fucking world. Wallace, to a credit I think is entirely underappreciated, saw all of this coming in his seminal and just plain brilliant 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram” (collected in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,”) in which he argued that the pervasiveness of television — but by extension all visual media — did far more than just influence us all as consumers, voters, parents etc., but actually changed the way we experienced reality. Now, look at permeation (let’s call it) of visual media in 1993 versus that in 2011. There’s just no comparable scale.

The point about Wallace’s humanity is that he saw all of that, horrified no doubt, and made the most difficult artistic move: he swam against the tide. For all the critical talk about Infinite Jest’s “hyperactive surrealism,” the thrust of the book is in favor of sincerity. Hal decays because he can’t grasp that; Gately moves on because he can. The Pale King comes at the same problem from a different angle — for all the metafictional candy canes and psychics, the book is about acceptance, both of the inevitable flaws of others and of circumstances that… to use a corporate phrase, are what they are. Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” may seem trite, but what Wallace taught us, and what we all should know is that it’s more than likely a path to a good life. I suppose in that sense, the characters in The Pale King are heroic, in the sense that they accept their fate and try not to overcome it, but to make a good life from it.

~ by Benji on April 30, 2011.

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