I’ve finally read the several excerpts of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s uncompleted and posthumously published novel, that have been published over the past several years and are available online. I’ve had them bookmarked for weeks but I’m so intimidated by all things DFW I’ve just avoided them. I shouldn’t have: they’re quite wonderful. The book is available now from the you-know-whos, though your Local Fiercely Independent and Struggling and In Need of Support Bookseller may not have it available until the official release date of April 15.
“Backbone” was published just this past March in The New Yorker and I discussed it here then, so I’ll skip over that quickly, only noting it was about a boy who wanted to kiss himself all over. His name was never given. The reading of “Three Fragments from a Longer Thing“ includes “Backbone” as fragments one and three. The second fragment concerns one Leonard Stesek, a boy so caring and generous he is universally hated by his peers, a boy who sends out 316 invitations to his birthday party and has nine attendees, “not counting parents and LPNs of the incapacitated.”
“All That” published in The New Yorker 12/14/2009:
“This is why it is that adults and even parents can, unwittingly, be cruel: they cannot imagine doubt’s complete absence….This was the year, at five or six, that I learned the meaning of ‘reverence,’ which, as I understand it, is the natural attitude to take toward magical, unverifiable phenomena, the same way that ‘respect’ and ‘obedience’ describe the attitude one takes toward observable physical phenomena, such as gravity or money.”
This refers to the magic the boy’s parents assured him was in his toy cement mixer: it would rotate only when he wasn’t looking. But it goes a lot deeper than that, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s what growing up means: it’s when you start to evaluate what your parents say, looking for truth. He devises many ways to catch the drum rotating, but none of them work. The magic was not the rotation, but that it knew it was being observed.
He describes Talk Time – a very organized fifteen minutes at bedtime, no stories or singing, just talking, three nights with Dad and four with Mom. Dad’s an academic, not tenured yet, they live in a rented house. Dad tells of trying to outsmart the tooth fairy or find the easter bunny. Dad’s an atheist. The boy admits he would’ve been disappointed to find the drum rotated; he would cry at talk time, but not because he couldn’t see the drum rotate; because he couldn’t ask the right questions. His parents felt bad, but so did he: he was in a different world. Thus he became interested in religion, to the point where he eventually went to seminary.
He heard voices until age 13. He never thought he was ill, because they always said good things. One voice argued that it didn’t matter if he thought the voices were real or were parts of himself. He didn’t care much. They were like parents, revered and trusted, not-equal, but also children, so they understood the world he lived in. He describes ecstasy (of a juicy apple or a summer day) as so intense it is almost painful.
His religious impulse was further intensified by multiple watching (with his head upon his father’s knees) a 1950’s WWI movie where a lieutenant ponders justification of war and killing and finally throws himself on a grenade in the enemy trench and thus dies, leaving the soldiers under his command to debate whether he was a hero or a traitor.
As I understand it from reading The Howling Fantods, a nearly encyclopedic site dedicated to all things DFW, this excerpt is not in The Pale King.
“Wiggle Room” published in The New Yorker 03/09/09.
This contains my first encounter with anything IRS related (I read these completely out of published order). What throws me here is the lingo. Chalks. Wigglers. Tinglers. Rotes. To wit: “…sat at his Tingle table in his chalk’s row in the rotes group’s wiggle room…” I’m not sure if these are people, places, things, actions, concepts. But they somehow fit into the stunningly boring job of verifying tax returns. As do exercises (clench the buttocks, think of a beach for ten seconds). By the end of the first page, I’m bored. Seriously bored. I can sympathize with Lane Dean Jr., who smells his pinky, covered by a rubber (yes, I know about those) and looks at a picture of his son. But since there are only three pages, I keep going. I pick up some clarity as I go. Wigglers are people. The tax employees. I suppose they’re called wigglers because they wiggle out of boredom. Or from buttock-clenching. And another person (sort of) appears, a strange person with some kind of eye problem. One eye is dilated. Did he say that out loud? Pause to consider etymology of… I’m not sure at first: Dilate? Bore? Hallucination? No, here it is, Bore. And then the hallucination is gone, and the story is over.
Good People published in The New Yorker 02/05/07
Lane Dean Jr., 19, before he went to work in the Wiggle Room, sits beside girlfriend Sherri, 20, and debates with himself over her impending abortion. They are students in junior college, he in Accounting and Business, she in Nursing. Lane’s grandfather was an insurance man. They are both religious, though he is beginning to have doubts. He is at war with himself. She has an appointment to have the abortion, and he is not sure it’s the right thing, but he isn’t sure he has the courage to tell her he isn’t sure.
The Compliance Branch published in Harpers, 02/08:
“There are some small children you can tell are going to grow up to be frightening adults; this infant was frightening now.”
The first person narrator is in the Audit Group; his manager, Gary Yeagle, has an infant son whom he brings to work sometimes. The narrator has an audit appeal, which requires he trade places temporarily with Mr. Yeager, and thus is in Mr. Yeagle’s office with the baby. He is startled to hear the baby clear his throat, twice, and then to demand, “Well?” At that point he realizes he is subordinate to this infant who is not yet walking.
Irrelevant Bob from The New Yorker, March 9 2009.
Online only, slides of 2 pages of a typed manuscript with notes, plus art by wife Karen Green. I found the text very difficult to read visually, but it seems to concern a man whose memory is malfunctioning, trapping him in the present – though he seems to recall quite a bit of his life in the 70’s in Chicago, including dropping out of college several times and his mother being supportive while his father was disappointed.
So those are the bits and pieces I’ve discovered so far. Perhaps they will diminish the intimidation factor to the point where I’ll be able to approach the book; however, knowing I’ve read, what, maybe 12 pages of a 600 page book isn’t going to do me much good. But they’ve all been good excerpts (ok, “Wiggle Room” wasn’t my cup of tea, and I’ve been given to understand from the PW review that there are stretches of boredom and tedium in this novel about, um, dealing with boredom and tedium); now that I have a running start, maybe I’ll give it a shot.