The Writing Dead: Why We Should Welcome The Pale King Into the Light of Day
We tend to think of suicide as desperate and impulsive, but it’s often unsettlingly deliberate. In September 2008, David Foster Wallace walked out onto the patio behind his California house, stood up on a lawn chair, made a noose out of a belt, looped one end around his neck and nailed the other to a wooden rafter overhead, bound his wrists with duct tape and hanged himself.
Before he did, he wrote a note and left it somewhere it would be found. On his writing desk in the garage, neatly stacked, were 250 pages of The Pale King, the novel he’d been working on for 10 years.
As a writer, Wallace was similarly deliberate. He was a famous perfectionist, known to argue vigorously over unwanted edits. In interviews, he attributed his style (and success) to sweat equity rather than pure talent, choosing to revise his own words almost without end. He wasn’t the type to rush his work to print, or to release something he hadn’t first obsessively chiseled and sanded into shape.
And yet, there was The Pale King, incomplete but inviting, sitting on the desk. We couldn’t read it the way we would if it were whole. But we could still read it. “An unfinished novel is what we have,” Wallace’s longtime editor Michael Pietsch writes in the forward to The Pale King, finally published in April. “How can we not look?”
To look or not to look? Pietsch’s dilemma was not uncommon. When authors die, executors summon editors to handle the literary estate. In some cases — for example, Mark Twain — they follow explicit instructions: His autobiography — a massive collection of haphazardly arranged stories and fragments — was to be published, by direct order of its author, on the 100th anniversary of his death. Although pieces of The Autobiography of Mark Twain did surface before then, an unabridged version didn’t see the light of day until 2010, once the century mark had been reached.
While Twain’s wish was fulfilled, and readers ate it up — Autobiography was a surprise bestseller — some critics dismissed it as the untamed ramblings of an old, vain man. Author Garrison Keillor, writing for the New York Times Book Review, was particularly harsh, dismissing the book as “a ragbag of scraps” he wished he’d never read.
Keillor — himself a pale heir to Twain’s pop-folksy crown in print and on the radio — lobbed some of the blame at loathsome “academics” who chose quantity over quality. True, a sure-handed editor could’ve trimmed away some of the sprawl, but wouldn’t the author’s vision be compromised with each snip?
Sometimes, the editor’s dilemma is how soon he or she can safely disobey the wishes of the deceased. In his will, Vladimir Nabokov instructed his wife Vera and son Dmitri to burn the 138 index cards that comprised his unfinished novel, The Original of Laura. Instead, the cards sat in a safe deposit box in Switzerland for 30 years until Dmitri finally caved and the novel was published. To resounding disappointment.
As a literary cryptid, Laura was a thing of mystery and romance, the final work of a master writer, imprisoned and unread. Once the words were made flesh, however, the book Dimitri praised as an “embryonic masterpiece” was dismissed by the kinder critics as a “glorious mess.” When Nabokov’s off his game, as Martin Amis wrote in his review of Laura for the London Guardian, it was a disaster “on the scale of a nuclear accident.”
Compared to Franz Kafka’s pal Max Brod, however, Dmitri looks like the model of divine patience. Asked by his dying friend to burn all files and papers, Brod instead edited and published Kafka’s three major novels (The Trial, The Castle and Amerika) at a rate of one per year in the three years that followed his passing. Although the unburned manuscripts were later re-edited by busybody scholars, Brod is kind of a hero. Were it not for his sublime disloyalty, we’d have been robbed of a literary giant’s finest works.
Of course, for every writer who wills his or her unpublished works be deleted in a blaze of unrealized glory, there are untold thousands who make no provisions whatsoever. Take Kurt Vonnegut. It makes sense that the devout humanist wouldn’t presume a literary afterlife, and so the several posthumous volumes of Vonnegutiae stand no chance of insulting the author. However, the man had 84 years on this planet in which to publish the 14 stories in 2009′s Look at the Birdie, for instance, and the fact that he chose not to could be interpreted as a vote of no-confidence.
Like Wallace, Vonnegut was his own taskmaster. “He rewrote and rewrote,” his friend and colleague Sidney Offit recalls in the foreword to Birdie. “Although Kurt’s style may seem casual and spontaneous, he was a master craftsman demanding of himself perfection of the story, the sentence, the word.”
And that’s the thing we’re most likely to find missing when we tuck into the latest works of late authors: their version of perfection.
The Pale King as it currently exists started as a stack on Wallace’s writing desk, but Pietsch mined all available material: folders containing hundreds more pages — some typed, some handwritten — and computer files buried on hard drives and floppy disks.
The thing would have to be Frankensteined together, a task made more daunting by Wallace’s wily, counterintuitive storytelling style. The Pale King, it turned out, was intended to employ the same “tornadic,” multi-braided approach that made his masterwork, Infinite Jest, such an intimidating and acclaimed literary landmark. If anybody could tame this tornado of text it was Wallace’s longtime editor, but it was just as possible that nobody could.
To guide him, Pietsch had about a decade’s worth of notes and outlines, and his own sweat equity. Contradictions were identified and reconciled. Repetitions were excised judiciously. A final chapter “Notes and Asides” was added to compile clues as to where things might’ve been headed — little bits of prose, skeletal fragments of bigger ideas and plans, hints at the novel’s greater potential.
In short: Turning an incomplete work into something not merely publishable but also worthy of the author’s legacy is a tricky business.
So, too, is reading it.
That The Pale King — which concerns itself, partly, with the denizens of a painfully dull IRS office in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985 (including a new hire named David Wallace, an unexpected moment of Vonnegutian whimsy) — doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion is likely no big letdown to readers familiar with the author. Neither Infinite Jest nor Wallace’s only other novel, The Broom of the System, came close to tying up the many plot threads it had unspooled. The joy in reading Wallace is in the journey, losing oneself in the word-to-word moments, letting the serpentine sentences pull you out of this world and into another.
The Pale King succeeds on that point.
Still, this isn’t the book the author intended to write, and The Pale King will always have that pall hanging over it. Its shortfalls, while few, gain momentary prominence in the reader’s mind. Some characters could use more flesh on their bones. Some of the dialogue-heavy chapters might do with some tightening. Once in awhile a reverse oasis appears, a dry patch of dullness that springs up unnaturally in Wallace’s otherwise lush and liquid prose. (Granted: This is a book with some complicated things to say about boredom and bureaucracy.)
And then there’s the author, alive on the pages but gone nonetheless. The past-tense bio on the sleeve. No readings. No signings. No interviews. No more books forthcoming. Whether Pietsch had waited 30 years, or a hundred, Wallace’s absence is a tangible and sometimes inescapable part of the reading experience.
But, like Pietsch said: This is what we have. With Wallace and The Pale King — with Twain, with Nabokov, with Kafka, with all of them, it could be argued — the risk is worth the reward.
The secret to evaluating The Pale King, to enjoying it, is context. Before we can even contemplate cracking it open, we know what this book is not. We know that an author whose prose usually moved with painstaking deliberateness did not consider it complete, whole, or ready.
This is the rough and raw copy, the stuff the perfectionist hadn’t gotten around to perfecting. To find out what that means, like Pietsch, we have to look.
How can we not?