Eyes Wide Open: Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Aug 18, 2011 in Literature | 0 comments

Cover art for The Pale King

Clear statement of purpose: this is not exactly a review of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. So what is then? A few words, thoughts, reactions, sentiments, ruminations that taken together, I think, may give a taste of what the novel has to offer.

Strange way to start a review to point out that a quote mark might be missing at ‘To tell the truth…’ on page 500. A ridiculous observation, no? And yet I couldn’t help thinking when I noticed it that even this inconsequential moment hints at the sadness that lives at the edge of every sentence of The Pale King. David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008 has closed off the possibility that his novel will ever be finished, or that the minor typographical error on page 500 will ever be corrected by him. And knowing his legendary fussiness about all things grammatical, you know he would have.

The all-encompassing sadness mentioned above attaches to the novel’s beautiful sentences, of which there are more than can be counted, because each one harbors the loss of all that might have come after. That possibility gone for him of writing the sentence beyond the current one that is the hope of all writers; that tomorrow the combination of words that finds its way to the page will just destroy everything that went before it.

Sadness, sure, sure, sure. But the book is so funny, so often. The humor is at times slapstick and obvious, which is great and a DFW signature, but in other cases, it’s more subtle, jokes within jokes, or jokes about jokes. I’ll give one example that may contain a mix of these formats (though this is always risky because you won’t necessarily see the humor, especially out of context). This happens on page 241, when an important character, who has already been shown to be more than a little eccentric and maybe compulsively attentive, is going to an appointment after an epic Chicago snowstorm:

It was very quiet, and so bright that when you closed your eyes there was only a lit-up blood-red in there. There were a few harsh sounds of snow shovels, and a high distant snarling sound that I only later remembered as being one or more snowmobiles on Roosevelt Road. Some of the yards’ snowmen wore a father’s old or cast-off business hat. One very high, clotted drift had an open umbrella visible at its top, and I recall a frightening few minutes of digging and shouting downward into the hole, because it almost looked as if a person carrying an umbrella might have gotten abruptly buried in mid stride.

Now what I love about this is how the character rushes to the umbrella in the snowdrift and not only begins digging but actually shouts to see if its owner is buried in the snow. I love the deadpan. But I quoted more than was needed because I also love the lead-in: how his eyes are closed, the sounds he hears, the nice double hyphens: lit-up blood-red—there’s probably a term in rhetoric for that—the fathers’ old hats on the snowmen, and only then the umbrella, the crisis—that begins with the blood-red in there.

Adam Kirsch of The New Republic didn’t much care for the chapters in which a character named David Wallace shows up and becomes a part of the story. (I’ll link but it’s behind a paywall.) This David Wallace has just been suspended from his prestigious Eastern college for having written essays for pay for rich lazy students, returning in disgrace to his home in the Midwest to take a temporary job at an IRS processing center. DFW of course was never suspended from Amherst, where he wrote theses in both English and philosophy, both of which were published, and is remembered as one of the most extraordinary students in the school’s history. But I thought these fake memoir scenes were really funny. First of all, there’s the “Author’s Foreword,” inserted at Chapter 9, in which David Wallace advances an almost Kafkaesque set of elaborately flawed arguments to prove that the memoir really is a memoir and not fiction, including an account of Byzantine discussions that supposedly took place with the legal department of his publisher. The point of it all is to prove that the standard disclaimer on the book’s copyright page (‘The characters and events in this book are fictitious,’ etc.) was canceled out by the author’s foreword in Chapter 9, a logical impossibility—the disclaimer comes first, and so any effort to disclaim the disclaimer later must then be ‘fictitious’—but the absurdity only makes the ridiculous elaboration of the argument all the more enjoyable. Funnier still, for me, is the description of David Wallace’s bus trip to the town where the IRS processing center is located. Anyone who has ever taken a cross-country bus ride will recognize the lunacy barely held at bay within the bus compartment—perfectly and comically evoked.

Much of the novel takes place in the 1970s, a time in which I was present, though perhaps not fully accounted for. (I’m an older guy. Nice way of saying.) Anyway, I found myself thinking there might be a number of anachronisms in the novel regarding this period. For instance, on page 190 mention is made of everyone wearing Timberlands. Another sentence (I’ve lost where) speaks of Docksiders and Timberlands. Okay. Maybe so. I can only report that I don’t remember Timberlands being such a major force in that epoch. Docksiders yes. And something called Earth Shoes. Indeed I was the owner of (one) pair of Earth Shoes, which had a specially lowered heel supposedly conducive to happiness and peace. I am aware that having owned (even one pair of) Earth Shoes will expose me to ridicule among the young—if word ever gets out. So look, maybe everybody was wearing Timberlands, alright? Maybe I just missed the boat. It’s true—I missed many boats. But until I see some hard evidence to the contrary, I’m just not buying it.

Another example (though not necessarily of an anachronism, per se, so much as an interesting assertion about colloquial usage): on page 426, in a chapter in which two characters discuss the ’60s and its cultural referents, one character uses the word ‘groovy,’ and the other responds, “That’s just it. Nobody really said groovy. People who said groovy, or called you man were just playing out some fantasy they’d seen on CBS reports.” I don’t believe this to be quite accurate. Though it’s true groovy was not frequently used in the ’60s and early ’70s, certainly not so much as ‘far out,’ which for a time threatened the language development of an entire generation (and yet how odd it’s died out so utterly and completely), people did say groovy from time to time, and perhaps because there was a certain danger in using it, a certain approach to something inauthentic or even kitschy, its use was reserved for occasions of, one might even say, moment, or at least the word developed a special power as a result.

I’ll report a single use of it in this sense. At the end of my freshman year of college I was in love with a girl (and you can imagine what this means for a 19-year-old, a combination of sexual brio and confused overlapping incoherent longings acting together as a kind of meteor set loose in the naïve body over which no control, propulsive, almost insensate, a nearer approach to unconsciousness, etc.) who had been the girlfriend of my roommate for much of my freshman year. They had recently broken up, but I had been in love with her (see qualification above) for months. On a particular night we somehow ended up together, hanging out with two other friends. I think a trip to a drive-in might’ve occurred (more innocent times, perhaps—but an ironic activity, even then); perhaps we sat by a riverside later in the evening. At any rate, the memories are confused. I’m very certain, however, that when I dropped her off at her parents’ house that night, she turned to me, and said what she had never or only rarely said before, deploying a word whose power had lain collapsed until then inside the unspoken vocable as mere potentiality, had said: “It was groovy!” Then jumped out of the car and ran up the steps. I sat in the car and felt the gravity of the world rearrange itself. It had nothing to do with CBS reports. (We went out together for the rest college, broke up, tried again, broke up again, a tragic romance. She afterward married, had a child, and then a few years ago woke up one morning and suffered a respiratory attack that took her life in a few minutes time, still genuinely young, leaving behind her husband and young child. I have visited her unmarked grave in a cemetery in the town where she lived, a few miles from where she said, “It was groovy,” and ran up the steps to her mom’s house, so that when I write the word, and tell the story of its use after all these years, it’s laced with loss and sadness, and the word itself one whose hollow depths I never expected to plumb.)

Which leads back to sadness, to inescapable sadness. DFW suffered from devastating depression by all accounts, leading finally to his taking his own life. As I read The Pale King there were moments when the disease he suffered seemed to me to haunt the text. I felt this at times (and again I’m speaking of a personal reaction; no one in the world may agree with these thoughts) as an oppressive atmosphere. I felt it first in Chapter 2, when Claude Sylvanshine travels by plane to the Midwestern IRS center that is the book’s primary stage. By the time I had finished reading this chapter I felt as though I’d been locked in a closet. And though the chapter is something of a tour de force, in truth, to spend twenty pages under the low clouds of this character’s mind with its pressurized continuous attention to accreted detail awoke the sensation of a space from which no exit—and I couldn’t help feeling, though perhaps I’m reading in way too much here, that the enclosed no-exit mind of Claude S. reflected (though that suggests too close a resemblance), or instantiated some sort of tangential vector sliced away from, like a splinter chipped off of, the locked-down consciousness that DFW himself may have faced in the midst of his illness. Perhaps it’s not even right to speculate this way. Yet I felt this as I read. (And hasten to add: the cloudy weather of this chapter is not continuous; TPK is not an oppressive book by any means. Nota bene.)

Another area of interest. No one would deny that a motif in the novel involves supranatural events that occur in what might be described as ultra-realistic settings. Thus Sylvanshine has an ability to know private details about other people’s lives; thus a baby is able to talk and is essentially an adult in terms of consciousness; thus the character Drinion begins to physically levitate when he becomes immersed in what someone else is saying; and thus a badly damaged character named Toni is able to keep her eyes open without blinking for insanely long periods of time (more on this later). Most of these occurrences serve comic purposes—successfully. And yet here’s what I found myself thinking: they are also in the text because they suggest a) how the “realistic” world is a limited one (from which no escape), and b) how someone with preternatural powers might be ‘out of sorts’ with that inadequate reality. It seems to me no small matter that in most of these instances, the supranatural abilities of characters are compulsive skills over which the characters have no control—and are often as much hindrance as help. It’s pretty obvious how this might reflect DFW’s own relationship to the world around him. Depression often drains the world of meaning, makes it empty and unsatisfactory; high intelligence has famously been portrayed in literature as a kind of compulsively excoriating power that damns the world even as it tragically damns its possessor (think Hamlet, think Ivan Karamazov—more on this later).

Which brings me to the complications involving the character who’s able to keep her eyes open endlessly. She uses this skill when her mother’s boyfriend, who has just killed her mother, stares at her as he tries to decide whether she too is already dead. He’s eventually convinced she is, and so he leaves her alone, and she thus survives—her ‘skill’ saves her; yet it also leaves her damaged for life. DFW readers will recognize this eyes-wide-open trope from his vast and wondrous masterwork Infinite Jest. In a wincingly (apt word choice) painful scene in the novel’s final pages, the recovering addict Gately remembers a drug deal gone bad in which the drug kingpin has the eyelids of the petty hood who tried to rip him off sewn open, after which he forces this individual to gaze at himself in a mirror. Infinite Jest is a monumental, astounding novel on multiple levels, but this ending bothered me when I read it. The eyes-wide-open metaphor seems to imply that no greater punishment can be delivered to a human being than to be forced to see himself without the ability to blink or turn away. Consciousness, or at least self-consciousness, seen here as a punishment or perhaps a kind of torture. If this interpretation is roughly on track, then the novel diverges, even somewhat wildly, from the tradition that runs from Plato through Freud. On the other hand it seems to have some connection to a tradition about the burden of consciousness that runs backwards to Ivan Karamazov and Hamlet (see above). I don’t know that there’s any straight lines here—nor am I trying to make a case or to show some mysterious set of heretofore undiscovered connections. This is not a monograph on the subject of the eyes-wide-open trope in DFW’s work, and I’m aware that these perfunctory thoughts leave out entire ontologies about selfhood in consumer society, post Derridean ideas about self, etc., etc., etc. (these are not ironic etceteras)—ideas that are thematically essential in IJ. Yet I still remain puzzled at the way the novel shifts away from the apparent affirmation of Gately’s struggle in his hospital room to the apparent negation of the final scene, which seems (operative word here) to connect less with those ideas advanced throughout the book about the empty self in post modern consumerist society and more with a really radical critique of consciousness itself. Again, disclaimer: these are thoughts sketched out hesitantly.

Yet what can be stated with some certainty: this trope involving eyes that cannot close is important in both IJ and TPK (by way of damaging admission: I haven’t read DFW’s short fiction, for some reason, as of yet, just unable to get rolling in it, my bad). The eyes-wide-open trope plays out on many levels. But the one that leads me back to the sadness that hovers around TPK is my suspicion that for David Foster Wallace himself, for the person who suffered that crushing ongoing depression, consciousness did indeed have qualities of unbearableness that are reflected in the eyelid metaphors in his work. When I was seventeen and had just read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time, I felt a tremendous affinity for Ivan K., and I moved about my life mentally telling myself that I was ready to give back my ticket in the face of the world’s needless suffering, recasting the novel’s dilemmas as bad melodrama (and later finding out, as I suspect so many others have found out, that Dmitri was more my lodestone all along). If I had read IJ at a young age, I might have felt the same urge to engage in self-dramatizing posturing about the torture of consciousness that I soaked up out of Dostoyevsky. But I won’t do that now. Because when I was young and pretending to be Ivan K., the great animal upsurge of well-being that is youth shielded me and dimmed my experience of sorrow. I know more about actual human suffering now, and I no longer unconsciously romanticize it. And so I am deeply, deeply sorry for the terrible illness that David Foster Wallace suffered (and it was an illness, not a brilliant perception of the truth, for the world is neither as dark nor as terrible as it must have seemed to him in the throes of his disease). As for the hints of how he suffered that are filtered into his novels, they too sadden me infinitely. They make me want to close my eyes, and see what I see there lit-up blood-red.

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