The Pale King
by David Foster Wallace
Published by Little Brown
560 pages, 2011
Love Letter to an Icon
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Everything written about David Foster Wallace since his death by suicide in 2008 is tinged with tragedy. It can’t be helped. The enormity of his talent. Gone. And the thought of the books we’ll never get to read. The thought of it still just breaks our hearts.
That being the case, there’s no real surprise that every word breathed about his last book, the posthumously compiled, finished and published The Pale King, should evoke shudders of tragedy from readers and reviewers alike. We’re just so goddamned sad.
It doesn’t help that we can’t be sure if this is the book he would have wanted us to read. The core of what is being published this month as The Pale King was found in a pile on the author’s desk after he was dead. Michael Pietsch, the executive VP and publisher at Little Brown, was charged with the daunting task of making something worthy of the celebrated author out of sometimes disconnected-seeming material. From the New York Times:
“He would never have wanted it to be published in an imperfect form if he had lived to finish it, but he was not alive to finish it,” Mr. Pietsch said. He added that Wallace, normally a ruthless tosser of notes, correspondence and drafts that he didn’t want, had not only preserved the “Pale King” manuscript, but left an apparently finished 250-page section in the center of his desk. “To me, the fact that he left those pages on his work table is proof he wanted the book published,” Mr. Pietsch said.
Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s longtime agent said, “If there had been a spotlight on those pages it could not have been more obvious,” and added: “I felt in my heart and so did Karen Green, David’s widow, that he wanted people to see it, and ultimately the reasons to publish outweighed the reasons not to. You can go back to Kafka, when the friend ignored his instructions to burn everything, and to Lord Byron, when they did destroy his manuscripts. Unfortunately, when you’re dead, people make decisions for you.”
For Mr. Pietsch, making those decisions meant diving into folders and spiral-bound notebooks, including one with a Rugrats character on the cover and another called “Cuddly Cuties,” with a photograph of kittens. Inside were pages and pages of notes and drafts in Wallace’s tiny, spidery handwriting. A ledger contained some pasted-in notebook pages, several of them decorated with small smiley-face stickers, little signs of encouragement that the author had apparently awarded himself, impersonating a grammar-school teacher.
Though the book will not be officially published until April 15th, it is available now and has been extensively reviewed. Some of the reviews have been like love letters to Wallace himself.
“The final, beautiful act of an unwilling icon,” Benjamin Alsup wrote in Esquire. “Deeply sad, deeply philosophical … breathtakingly brilliant,” wrote Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times and Lev Grossman at TIME said that “The Pale King represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist.” I’ve sliced these reviews down to nothing: not even the essence of the love letters that they were. And they are love letters: make no mistake. But that doesn’t make things better. Hell, in some ways, it makes things worse.
The Pale King is impossible to review properly, and for so many reasons. One, of course, is the fact that it’s been pieced together -- by loving hands, sure. But still. We will never know exactly had Wallace had in mind. And it doesn’t matter what the reviews say in this case, does it? Those who loved Wallace will read The Pale King no matter what is said about it. And they should because, in this instance, reviews are really not the point. | April 2011
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several novels.