January 10, 2011

Will The Pale King be any good?


David Foster Wallace‘s posthumous novel, The Pale King, is the most anticipated work of fiction in 2011. In a recent MobyLives post I worried that the book will not live up to its expectations. (John Self, of the stellar literary blog The Asylum also wrote in to express his “skepticism.”) I’m curious what you think.

Poll to come. First, the facts. Here’s the initial press release about the book from Little, Brown:

At the time of his death in September 2008, Wallace left behind a substantial portion of a novel he had been working on for many years. Set at an IRS tax-return processing center in Illinois in the mid 1980s, THE PALE KING is the story of a crew of entry-level processors, “wigglers” in IRS jargon (for their similarity to newly hatched tadpoles), and their attempts to do their job in the face of soul-crushing tedium and bureaucratic malevolence. The novel’s main character, David Wallace, is newly arrived at this job and learning from all around him amid epic institutional confusion. The partial novel runs several hundred thousand words and will include notes, outlines, and other material to help readers understand this great unfinished work.

Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor, said, “The Pale King is an astonishment. It is David  Wallace’s effort to weave a novel out of life’s dark matter: boredom, banality, the ‘irrelevant complexity’ of everyday life, all the maddening stuff that stands between us and the rest of the world and through which we have to travel to arrive at joy. This was as ambitious as anything he ever did, a novel that attempts to move readers deeply and help them live their lives.” Pietsch will work with Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, and his agent and literary executor, Bonnie Nadell, in editing this work for posthumous publication.

Also, two sections that are presumedly from the novel have been previously published as New Yorker fiction: “Good People” and “Wiggle Room.” In both sections, the main character is called Lane Dean Jr. not David Wallace. In the first Dean worries about the ramifications of a girl’s upcoming abortion, and the other consists of Dean’s musings and anxieties while working at the IRS.

(Tangential topic: does anyone else find it annoying that The New Yorker never announces when its fictions are actually excerpts? I feel like it does a disservice both to the fiction and to the reader since, without the proper context, the “stories” tend to be confusingly incomplete.)

The hope is that Wallace’s hundreds of pages, properly edited, will transform into an incomplete but nevertheless powerful work that shows an artist skillfully tackling a nearly impossible topic, the philosophic challenges of boredom. An auxiliary hope is that, even if the novel itself is flawed, the combination of text and notes will merge into a portrait of Wallace as a struggling author–in other words, that we will be reading a great memoir disguised as a novel. Finally, the great fear: that Wallace never properly figured out how to deal with the vast challenge he had given himself (as poignantly described in D.T. Max‘s fantastic New Yorker profile, “The Unfinished.”) and that the manuscript will prove to be a patchwork, unsatisfying mess. That The Pale King will serve only as an artifact of failure, confusion, and limitation.

Well, what do you think?

What are your expectations for David Foster Wallace’s THE PALE KING?
This will be a great work, the most mature and powerful book he wrote.
Though unfinished, it will show flashes of brilliance.
It will serve as an interesting literary document, but will not work as a novel.
It probably should not have been published… It wasn’t done.
For diehard Wallace fans only.
Sadly, it’s going to be half-baked and bad.
It won’t work as a novel, but will act as a moving portrait of Wallace as an artist and person.