Thoughts on Waiting for The Pale King

Tue Mar 29, 2011

I haven’t been writing much here for several reasons. The most important of them was that I was devastated to learn of the untimely death of a teacher, mentor, and friend of mine, Jim Paxson. This form of writing began to seem even more trivial, vain, and frivolous than I had usually thought.

At the same time, even the modest audience I have here is likely to be greater than that of the academic articles I have been working on (not exactly “instead of,” but rather than writing nothing). Not everyone finds the minor dramatic production of a well-known novelist or the three-hour digital video indulgence of a certain director as intrinsically fascinating as I do, of course, and these are fairly broadminded subjects as far as scholarship goes.

So, according to the bookseller, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King will arrive tomorrow. I have somehow managed to teach his last story collection, Oblivion, which may have had material intended for this posthumous book, several times now; and I am greatly anticipating this glimpse of where Wallace’s interests would have taken him. For me, “Mister Squishy,” the titular story from the collection, and even “The Suffering Channel” were the best things Wallace wrote. Some find them unreadable aberrations, though this opinion was more common before his death than it seems to be now. And I find myself growing increasingly detached from Infinite Jest in my middle age.

The announced theme, boredom, does not seem that plausible to me. I don’t find taxes and all that’s associated with them to be a boring subject, personally. I once taught a graduate-level “Writing for Accountants” class (around the time of Sarbanes-Oxley), and I probably learned much more from them about accounting than I taught them about writing. Of course I realize that pre-computerized rote checking of tax forms might not have been as diverting as Maria Wyeth and her rattlesnakes, but not everyone needs that level of stimulation. Maria Wyeth didn’t.

I’ve read the excerpts as they’ve appeared in various organs, but I’ve tried not to read any reviews. I don’t know much what to expect about the level of completion, though I have read of the circumstances of the manuscript’s discovery, which might suggest a relatively complete draft. Or it might mean nothing at all. I take it that there’s introductory material which addresses the editorial process. I doubt that there are many contemporaries of Wallace who have had the same relationship with editors, and whatever of this correspondence that is in the Ransom archive would doubtless be fascinating to read.