Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My introduction to David Foster Wallace: Thoughts on "The Pale King"

Why I read this book:

After a heavy dose of biographies and dry non-fiction books about boring stuff, I was ready for an injection of human creativity, drama, and passion; I was ready to re-discover the world of fiction. Then I read this article, and my decision was made for me. You see, if you browse through enough random news articles and magazines, you will hear the name of David Foster Wallace sprinkled with some implicit reverence here and there, and you will, without knowing anything about the man, subconsciously associate that name with an aura of mystical importance.

"The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace - a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. What a perfect way to re-introduce myself to fiction.

My rating for this book:
1. I lost my ability to love after reading this book
2. I cut off my pinkie after reading this book
3. I am exactly as I was before as a human being, but older and a little sadder
4. That was different. Like, I-just-saw-an-elephant-paint-and-I-somehow-feel-enriched different.
5. This book unlocked the secrets of the universe for me

The aftershocks:

There must be something to the fact that my friend told me that David Foster Wallace committed suicide one day before I finished reading this book on my Kindle - a brilliant writer, dead at 46, before he ever finished "The Pale King". The day after, I finished the book, or more precisely, the collection of thoughts, characters, and outlines of story lines that constitute this unfinished work.
Without that explanation, I might have tossed my Kindle into the trash, sat in the corner of my apartment, window shades drawn, a Snuggie covering my listless body, my face unshaven, and dishes piling up slowly in the sink, and declared a moratorium on reading for a year. Note to the publisher - please add a preface to explain that David Foster was a talent of rare proportions; that he took his own life at such a young age, and that he was in the middle of writing "The Pale King"; that this book, while giving us a glimpse into expressions of a brilliant mind and a remarkable writer, is an unfinished work. Don't just assume that everyone who reads "The Pale King" knows the background; and man, is the background ever important before you commit to these pages. This book is not exactly like flipping through the pages of "People" magazine.

David Foster Wallace never wrote for "People" magazine, but that does not diminish its relevance - how else would you learn about the Kirsten Stewart scandal?

 Had I not discovered that this is an unfinished book, my reaction might have been similar to what I witnessed at the premier of the first installment of "Lord of the Rings" where the audience was clearly not familiar with Tolkien's trilogy. When the movie abruptly ended, the audience, clearly unaware that there were two more glorious movies upcoming with dragons, the guy who played Rudy, and New Zealand scenery, went wild with pain, anger, and confusion. The scene was one of utter chaos: there was laughter, lots of profanity, and tears. Strangers were united in a feeling of indignation, confusion, and disbelief. It is the feeling that can only arise when you make an investment of emotion into a familiar setting, a safe investment, like depositing a paycheck into the bank account, knowing full well that the money will be there tomorrow, only to find out that the money is suddenly gone the next day. Such was the feeling in that theater - an investment of amusement, the expectation of safe entertainment you expect when you settle into the seat in a theater and let go of your daily concerns, was made upfront; now, people discovered that they had been robbed of the entertainment. More importantly, they were robbed of the investment of expectations they deposited by walking into the theater. The feeling that some basic societal contract was broken hung heavy in the air; people's glances darted from face to face of the other members audience seeking to find comfort and understanding over the events that had just wrecked havoc on their lives. Strangers held each other tight. Some men looked around and laughed uneasily with a slight shrug, a defensive gesture meant to reassert some control over the situation. No one was fooled. Surely, this must be some sort of a joke, people thought. There must be a reason, some sort of explanation; movies cannot just end like that. They just can't. Because if this happens - if we allow ourselves to sit in a theater for three long hours; if we let it stand - only to see a boat of little hobgoblin elves, or whatever the hell they are, float down a river to end the movie, then what happens next? Will Hugh Grant not get the girl in the next movie? Will we be forced to accept Tatum Channing as a serious actor?

This scene in the movie theater, of course, could have been avoided if only there had been an explanation in the credits about the fact that Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, and that Peter Jackson and company were not going to disappoint the masses, slay the next two release, and consequently win a whole bunch of Academy awards. Instead, people slowly filed out of the theater, filled with a dreadful, anxious feeling that things were never going to be the same. Ten years later, the financial crisis happened.

Tatum Channing - oh, so handsome. Nothing else matters.

Where were we? Oh right, The Pale King. While overall the book is kind of heavy - really, just a random assortment of thoughts and disjointed paragraphs with no plot to speak of, there are moments where David Foster Wallace shows how he earned his reputation. His ability to describe the innermost thoughts and put into words the intimate dynamics and the smallest details of everyday encounters is unparalleled. There are moments in The Pale King where you find yourself completely enthralled in the words in the page, in that precious moment of discovery and complete understanding that is the greatest reward that reading can offer: a chance to connect to the thoughts of a complete stranger through the written word, a connection that slices through time and space like a physics equation. The Pale King certainly makes you labor for those precious passages, but that effort makes the reward of discovery that much more special. This is the same feeling that, I imagine, the scout who first witnessed Lionel Messi play in a neighborhood game experienced - the instant knowledge that you have just witnessed greatness.

As far as I know, Messi does not read David Foster Wallace. 

David Foster Wallace is gone, but his work continues to have an impact on his readers. I am always amazed by how our most inconsequential actions can have a lasting effect on others. Just think how many people have played a positive role in your life without even knowing it, and you probably never had a chance to tell them. There is something comforting and powerful in the knowledge that, even if you are not a genius or a celebrity, you can make impact on other people's lives, and, in essence, be a part of something bigger than yourself.

Now, of course, that also works in the opposition direction: if you just generally suck, you are going to decrease the quality of life for others around you. Even indirectly - like, if you are siphoning off gas from a random vehicle or something crappy like that, and a child sees you, that child could become a recluse or a dictator instead of a promising anesthesiologist.

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