Friday, July 08, 2011

Some weary, stale, flat and unprofitable words on The Pale King

(Apologies for the length of this post--the "collapse post" function isn't working, for some reason.)

A picture from the April 28th performance of The Pale King: Monologues From The Unfinished Novel, hosted by the PEN Center in Beverly Hills. Image found here; "making of" video here.

(Earlier posts here)

I liked The Pale King; I'm glad we have it. That said, though, it's not the best introduction to Wallace's work; I strongly suspect that even some of Wallace's admirers will be puzzled by or even disappointed in it. I think many of its reviews are distorting the experience of reading it: I get the feeling that much of the praise it's receiving has more to do with the meteoric rise in David Foster Wallace's reputation in the time since his death than with the work in front of the reader. (Example: As Lee Konstantinou mentions in passing in his review, linked to below, it wasn't all that long ago--i.e., when Infinite Jest first appeared--that the verdict on Wallace was decidedly more mixed.) In other words, what's being reviewed is a too-short career rather than an unfinished novel that, in its published form, is both (almost certainly) waaay shorter than it would have ended up being and whose sections, in any case, are not in the order Wallace intended (he left behind no outline of that). In my humble opinion, that lionizing should have taken place long before, but that's neither here nor there now. In any case, there's something about unfinished work that leads the reader to look over past work for clues about how the unfinished work might have proceeded. In my earlier posts on this book and Wallace more generally, I've found it both unavoidable and essential to do so--at least initially.

[UPDATE: It may also be that the recent publications of Wallace's honors thesis arguing for the existence of free will, and his commencement address at Kenyon College (both reviewed here), have also re-focused attention on Wallace's prior work--which (speaking for myself) has been all to the good. To my mind, those other pieces lead the reader to note certain preoccupations present in Wallace's work--the non-fiction as well as the fiction--that provide a thematic coherency to it.]

What follows is already shorter than I had thought it would be before getting started on it. I was going to include a fair amount on the idea that The Pale King's real theme isn't boredom but the virtue, to the point of transcendence (even, in one character's case, literal levitation), of paying close attention to the things and people of the world. But Cornel Bonca, in his half of this excellent two-person review in the Los Angeles Review of Books (hat-tip: 3 Quarks Daily), says just about everything I was going to say about that, and says it better besides. Bonca's and Lee Konstantinou's reviews are lengthy reads, but each feels right on the nose, it seems to me.

But neither mentions, at all, Hamlet. A quick Googling of "The Pale King Hamlet" yields, on the first page, this piece by Lea Carpenter at The Big Think (she argues for an implicit link, at the level of the relationship between Art and the world, between Hamlet's concerns and those of Wallace), some re-postings elsewhere of that piece, and, um, my own posts as the only sustained readings of the two texts together. Make of that what you will. Meanwhile, I'll do what I can to broaden my market share in what may prove to be a bust of a critical angle.

Now that I've finished The Pale King, I can't honestly say just how much harder Wallace would have pushed its resonances with Shakespeare's play. Apart from "Sickiled Ore," Illinois, and "Rotting Flesh, La.," which I had mentioned in this post, no further such explicit use of Hamlet's language occurs in what we have. There is that matter of the ghost which haunts Peoria's IRS Regional Examination Center, though, about which more later.

Hamlet found "the uses of this world" boring, but he didn't have that word; "boring," in our modern sense of tedious or uninteresting, is, appropriately enough, a late-18th-century coinage and, thus, a by-product of the Industrial Revolution's machines' reducing most people's notion of work to the activity of watching and maintaining machines as they do stuff. It's difficult not to imagine "boring" as arising from people's describing the work of running a drill press. Hamlet's word for boring was "stale," whose history (thanks, OED) shows that "stale" once referred to the organic leavings from the distilling or brewing process. So, there's also the word's association with waste, offal. But, just to be clear, finding the uses of the world to be stale is not the same thing as saying that the world itself is boring; his image of the world as an unweeded garden suggests that Hamlet believes the world deserves better: "Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,/That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely" (I.ii.; this and later quotes are from here). Yet at this early point in the play, his father dead two months and his mother already remarried, Hamlet despairs, wishing that he could just disappear or that it were permitted to kill himself.

I suggested provisionally in that post I just linked to that The Pale King argues for "something like the inverse of Hamlet's despair, of finding and perhaps even insisting that there be meaning within the system within which one finds oneself and--and this is crucial--which one one finds to be bigger than oneself; that is, that while within it, one feels as though one is in service to something larger and more profound than one's self-gratification." That still feels right, but in a way that I hadn't expected before that it would be.

Plot device aside, one way to think about the function of Hamlet's father's ghost's conversation with his son in I.v. is to give Hamlet a purpose which transcends Hamlet's despair over the world's staleness by placing him in service not just to the memory of his father ("Thus was I/. . . ./sent to my account [note the noun]/With all my imperfections on my head") but also to all of Denmark ("If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;/Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/A couch for luxury and damned incest.") Hamlet is thus given the opportunity to begin to set things aright, as he understands that: to begin weeding the garden.

The rest of the play, then, becomes a matter of watching Hamlet vacillate between his pledges of fealty to these lofty causes and his self-condemnation for not yet having carried out his pledge. Stated in that way, that's nothing new; but if we say that Hamlet's famed inaction isn't due to overthinking what he has been called to do but, rather, distraction--a lack of attention to that which he's committed himself--that puts a rather different spin on things. Hamlet's tragedy is that, in losing that attention, in succumbing to fatalism, no matter how loftily characterized ("There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow" [V.ii]) lie the seeds of his damnation.

Consider: In I.v., the Ghost explicitly tells Hamlet, "[H]owsoever thou pursuest this act,/Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven/And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,/To prick and sting her." The matter of Gertrude's punishment is clearly not to be Hamlet's concern, but Heaven's. So, when does the Ghost next appear? In III.iv.--the encounter between Hamlet and Gertrude in her chamber. Hamlet sits in judgment on her actions ("Mother, you have my father much offended") and seeks to compel her to acknowledge what she has done by marrying Claudius, when the Ghost arrives to get Hamlet back on task. Hamlet knows exactly why he's there: "Do you not come your tardy son to chide,/That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by/The important acting of your dread command?" The Ghost confirms it: "Do not forget: this visitation/Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose." Hamlet speaks daggers into Gertrude's heart; but, recall, on his way to his mother's room he'd had a chance to put a real dagger into Claudius' heart; and, he's just killed Polonius, too ("I took thee for thy better").

So: Hamlet's great enemy is distraction from the task he has pledged himself to. In The Pale King, the great enemy is boredom with the task; and, sure enough, the Peoria office's Pale King puts in an appearance when one of the examiners, his methods for staving off boredom having failed, succumbs to it. In chapter 33, we meet Lane Dean, Jr., as he "bores" down on the pile of 1040 forms he's checking for errors, all the while using various relaxation techniques to ward off tedium, such as "imagin[ing] a warm pretty beach with mellow surf as instructed in orientation the previous month" (376). Alas, the beach turns, in his mind, to a winter scene, and after a while he begins to believe that Hell is "a fellow [locked] in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enoough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he'd ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and [left] there to his mind's own devices" (379). When Dean reaches the point that he imagining that the clock's second hand possesses the awareness that "its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow unvarying machinelike rate" (381) and the face of his baby boy (it's in a picture on his desk) morphing into an old man's face and senses that he's half-asleep, that's when it happens:

Getting a little taste, I see.

It was a big older fellow with a seamed face and picket teeth. He wasn't from any Tingle [the nickname for desks at the Center] that Lane Dean had ever observed from his own. The man had on a headlamp with a tan cotton band like some dentists wore and a type of thick black marker in his breast pocket. He smelled of hair oil and some kind of food. He had part of his bottom on the edge of Lane's desk and was cleaning under his thumbnail with a straightened-out paperclip and speaking softly. You could see an undershirt under his shirt; he wore no tie. He kept moving his upper body around in a slight kind of shape or circle, and the movements left a little bit of a vapor trail. None of the wigglers [Dean's fellow workers] in either adjoining row was paying attention to him. Dean checked the face in the photo to make sure he wasn't still dreaming.

They don't ever say it, though. Have you noticed? They talk around it. It's too manifest. As if talking about the air you're breathing, yes? It would be as if saying, I see so-and-so with my eye. What would be the point? (382)

[Aside: Perhaps significant, perhaps not: In III.iv. of Hamlet, Gertrude doesn't see the Ghost; Dean's fellow workers vary between not paying attention to the visitor or pretending not to have seen him.]

"It," of course, is not that bore which begins the chapter (that's the past tense of that sense of bear that means "knuckle down") but something like its opposite: that other bore and its variants, which Dean's visitor discourses on the history of for most of the next three pages, concluding with a quote from Kierkegaard: "Strange that boredom, in itself so staid and solid, should have such power to set in motion." Dean's attention shifts, he notes that the old man's smell is Chinese food and Vitalis. It's, perhaps, hearing the Kierkegaard quote that prompts Dean to consider praying; as if in response, his visitor says, "Note too that interesting first appears just two years after bore. 1768. Mark this, two years after. Can this be so? [. . . .] Invents itself, yes? Not all it invents" (385).

Then he leaves, with no one asking the obvious question, let alone providing the answer to it. But then again, the action in this novel (not to mention the novel itself) is the beginning of that answer.

On down the road: some speculation on how thinking about Hamlet might give us some insight into The Pale King's structure.


R. Sherman said...

Of course, when I finally do get the novel, (which is in the "to be read" stack next to my bed), my reading will be tainted by your interpretation/criticism, which, given it is the first I've read, has now become canon.

Well done.


John B. said...


I'm just spitballing here, you know. I hope you (and whoever else happens onto this post, for that matter) will feel welcome to tell me if I'm just full of hot air . . . or some less-pleasant substance.

Nick said...

Unfinished, that's what I keep thinking.

It’s trite, too obvious by a third (which is how far in I am), and probably pompous, but what I've read is unfinished. I keep thinking that had Wallace actually completed the work half of what I'm reading would not have made 'the cut'; that he would have pared this, added that...the whole of it feels 'loose'.

Underlying this is my irritation with the fact I’m not reading the novel DFW intended to write, if indeed he ever meant to write this novel and not scrap it for something else. Wallace wrote tomes. Pale King is a mere 500-odd pages, many of which (imo) would not have seen publication: what was in store for the last 600-odd sheets of blank paper? A completely different denouement?

Like I say, irritating. "I have of late,--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone
all custom of exercises..."

John B. said...

Hey, Nick.

I don't disagree with your assessment as to its lack of finish (in every sense of that phrase). It's been too much for me to read some of the praise it's receiving because, as I said, it's like these reviewers are eulogizing more than they are looking at the text in front of them. I'm persuaded, for precisely the reasons you give, that PK, had Wallace stuck it out, would look very different: MUCH longer; a different order of sections (some of them discarded); and, yes, MUCH better writing in places. Again: It's not the book I'd recommend that the Wallace-curious start with.

That said, I do think that what's here--its overall form--is something like what DFW was after: a structure that, I read somewhere, he described as "tornadic." Speaking only for myself, when I have my narrative-theory hat on (as opposed to my reader hat), I find its structure--the possibilities of it--really intriguing, especially given the setting and themes he's working with. But, no: those reasons aren't going to compel me to add this novel to my or anyone else's list of essential reading.

But hey: One reason I like Hamlet so much is that, structurally, it's a real mess, too. I'm intrigued by narratological messiness.

Nick said...

Yeah, John - I also find it intriguing (damn it), mostly because of the last 20 years I've spent with the Feds; there is so much tone and sheer bureaucratic insanity driving the personalities that he absolutely nails, that I'm interested in where he might have been headed.

Plus now and again, without meaning to I’m sure, he'll write something so stark it reminds me of ol’ Ernie.

I suppose that last is sacrilege, but there you have it.