Freedom Lovers— Try The Pale King

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 Kingor 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.


The Pale King Goes to D.C.

Choosing what to read for vacation travel is always a challenge. Mostly, I find myself feeling guilty if the reading material has nothing to do with the place I’m visiting. I mean, you can read anywhere – why have your nose in just any book when you’re off exploring someplace new? But you want something that will engage you while you wait around in airports, and for the seemingly endless hours of being sandwiched into your coach class seat on long flights.

These thoughts had me considering A Week at the Airport, which Richard reviewed recently, but the title alone is enough to give me the willies. Then I was remembering Ben Lerner’s astonishing, fractured poetry collection Mean Free Path, and his incorporation of ready-made phrases that will be familiar to anyone who has securely fastened a seatbelt upon command or otherwise spent time confined in “the cabin.” And I don’t think I’ll be able to catch a flight anytime soon without thinking of a character from The Imperfectionists who copes with air travel by slipping into what she calls her “travel coma.”

But I needed something different for my first trip to Washington, D.C. The Pulitzer-winning biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow came to mind, but then I began to wonder if something by Hunter S. Thompson might be a better fit for the D.C. political climate (or even Alice in Wonderland). I still had a week before traveling, so I let the question drop until an email announced one of my previous hold requests had come in: The Pale King – David Foster Wallace’s new novel about the lives of IRS form processors. A book about employees who suffer such extreme ennui that they receive training in boredom survival. What reading could be better aligned with the angst of air travel and a tax season trip to D.C.?

The book seemed an even more auspicious choice when, in the first few pages, I found myself deep in Leopold Bloom country, following the carefully detailed, cut-jump thoughts of an aspiring tax examiner who is on a flight to take his CPA exam. Among pre-test anxiety, queasiness at the claw-like hands of his elderly seatmate, and curiosity at the lack of facial expression on the illustrations in the seatback safety card, is this observation about clouds:

Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at all. It just got really foggy.

And then there’s this, as the plane begins its descent over an interstate highway:

…light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run underwater. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. Sylvanshine tried to envision the small plane as seen from the ground, a cruciform shape against the old-bathwater color of cloud cover, its lights blinking complexly in the rain.

Five hundred pages of this may or may not be the answer for the irritations of traveling by air to D.C. But what better place to patiently delve into a painstaking wordsmith’s unflinching account of boredom and taxes – and to contemplate, too, a little, that one other certainty in life?

Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, his influential, kaleidoscopic 1996 doorstop which acquired something of a cult following. The DFW mystique was further heightened when he took his own life in 2008. The Pale King is the big book he was working on when he killed himself, and it has now been published as an unfinished novel. It’s likely to be considered one of the big books of the year.