The Cult of The Pale King

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David Foster Wallace is a difficult genius. Starting with the publication of his debut novel The Broom of the System in 1987, the postmodern author’s dense, grandly-footnoted, ontological examinations of mundane subjects–cruise ships, high-school tennis, the IRS–have beguiled, daunted, and delighted readers. The Pale King, Wallace’s almost-finished novel chronicling the life of a tax auditor, was posthumously published (Wallace committed suicide in 2008) on April 15. In the weeks leading up to The Pale King’s publication, Wallace’s last work was met with both ebullient praise and sharp criticism.

Jonathan Franzen is probably Wallace’s most high-profile fanboy. Now that Franzen’s has some freedom from Freedom, he penned a piece for New Yorker about his travels to the remote Pacific Island of Masafuera to catch up on some Robinson Crusoe and mourn Wallace’s death. (Subscription required).

Authors David Lipsky (also Wallace’s biographer) and Rick Moody praised The Pale King on KCRW’s Bookworm. Moody reads the novel’s opening lines as well. You can listen to the podcast here.

If you want to dig deeper into Wallace’s personal life, consider joining up with his cultish fanclub, The Howling Fantods. Or, for that matter, you can follow the path of The Awl’s Maria Bustillos and visit the Wallace archives at University of Texas at Austin’s Ransom Center. Make what you will out of his obsession with self-help books.

As Kottke points out, even Wallace’s classics aren’t universally loved. A prankster posted the opening page of Wallace’s epic tome Infinite Jest on Yahoo! Answers under the subject line “First page of my book. what do you think?” Although the expertise of the commenters shouldn’t be forgotten, the experiment elicited some interesting responses. “Honestly, my first thought was, ‘There are so dang many HYPHENS!’ and I couldn’t concentrate until I didn’t see any more,” wrote one; “No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words,” wrote another.

Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin is no fan of Wallace herself (“I expect my current obsession with Henry James is met with bafflement by quite a few who feel the same way about him”) points to a sharp piece of criticism from Prospect’s Geoff Dyer, who suffers from a severe literary allergy. “I liked the idea of someone swimming in big modernist and postmodern theory and still making room for human feeling,” writes Dyer, “but a page–sometimes even a sentence, or an essay title–brings me out in hives.”

Sources: Bookslut, Bookworm, Kottke, New Yorker (subscription required), Prospect, The Awl

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