“Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”* –David Foster Wallace
Many readers in Everett have checked out Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom since it came out ten months ago. The book was extensively reviewed and promoted (even by Oprah, with whom Franzen once had a major falling-out), and Time magazine even crowned him “Great American Novelist” in a cover story – all of which helped bring the book a large audience.
But did you know there are many strong thematic parallels between Freedom and David Foster Wallace’s new book The Pale King—or that the authors were good friends?
In a recent piece in the New Yorker†, Franzen writes about taking an adventurous vacation that also involved reflecting on the death of his friend and the spreading of Wallace’s ashes. D.T. Max again touches on the friendship between Franzen and Wallace in his own long NewYorker article* published in 2009, a short time after Wallace’s death. Max’s essay offers fascinating background about Wallace’s unfinished novel (as it existed at that time) and the challenges he faced in changing his writing style. The book was only released this April.
Though friendship does not mean identical interests, the more I thought about it, the more an affinity between their recent books began to seem unavoidable. The Pale King, for example, has the young Leonard Steyck, who can be seen as an exaggerated version of Freedom’s self-sacrificing and conscientious Walter Berglund. And Wallace’s Chris Fogle and Franzen’s Patty Berglund both put themselves, quite mercilessly, through the wringer of self-analysis. Franzen even directly addresses boredom, one of The Pale King’s major themes, when Walter repeatedly endures the conversation of an ultra-boring friend of Patty’s.
The major characters in both of these books are doing their damnedest to improve their messy lives, to learn from their mistakes, and to overcome their bad habits. And Franzen and Wallace invest them with an uncommon sincerity while also steering clear of the swamp of sentimentality, the seduction of schadenfreude, and the pitfalls of the overt morality tale. They keep the focus tight on their characters as they wallow uncomfortably through dilemmas or crises of self-examination on their way toward a pale self-betterment, heightened awareness, or not-so-simple understanding.
Though the subject matter can be kind of heavy, the writing in both cases is frequently captivating and humorous. The weave of storytelling in Wallace’s book is distinctly different than Franzen’s, but no less thought-provoking or engaging. Both writers handle language with fluency and flair, but they feel that fiction must do something more, that it must attempt to find solutions to complex and intractable real-life problems.
As Wallace’s character Chris Fogle might say—I don’t think I’m explaining this very well. But if you are among the millions who enjoyed Freedom, you might want to take a look at its philosophical soulmate, The Pale King.
Articles referred to above:
* “The Unfinished” by D. T. Max, New Yorker piece on David Foster Wallace [full-text].
† “Farther Away” by Jonathan Franzen, New Yorker [abstract only; or full-text for a fee. You can also read the article in our print copy of the April 18th issue, or by logging in to our e-sources ProQuest or Ebsco].
For additional reading and commentary on The Pale King and Wallace, take a look at the symposium in issue 24 of The Quarterly Conversation, and check out the taped panel discussion from the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival.
See also my previous posts on Freedom and The Pale King.