The promotion of posthumous work is a time-honored tradition in commercial media. We have seen it from musical artists such as Johnny Cash and Tupac Shakur, and we have seen it likewise from the estates of dozens of prematurely deceased authors, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath. Now, David Foster Wallace gets the posthumous treatment.
And why not cash in? Nothing animates the marketing of a novel like an untimely death. Would we care as much about “The Bell Jar” if Plath hadn’t met the end she did? If Plath lived to be 60, the book’s enduring commercial viability and critical reputation would have been on its merits and not the irresistibly tragic subtext of her life. The “suicide solution” validates the experience for many readers, especially the more callow ones, who must live vicariously through their fallen idols and, in their ends, see a confirmation of their own chain-store fatalism. The pain that a Hemingway or Kurt Cobain feltmirrors their own angst, they seem to feel.
It should be emphasized that not all posthumous work should be released or is released for the right motives. After Shakur was slain, his mother instantly crowed about having more than 150 unreleased songs of her son’s and signaled her intention to release them. However, there was a good reason most of them weren’t made available; they weren’t up to the artist’s personal standards. He knew there was something amiss about the products.
Wallace killed himself in 2008 for reasons only he knows and about which the rest of us can only speculate. He died without bringing this book to market.
Why did he opt not to release this book? We can speculate why about that also, and the answer is because the book was unfinished. It didn’t meet Wallace’s personal standards. Yet, as history teaches us, estates and heirs and publishing houses are often keen to release such material. They think it’s good enough and know it will sell. But the problem is that the injustice foisted on both writer and audience by marketplace pressures often does more harm than good. Such is the case with “The Pale King.”
The jacket copy, in retrospect, should have been a tip-off. The second paragraph on the inside left flap of the jacket calls it “a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook.” The implication? That this unfinished novel is somehow better and more important than “Infinite Jest,” his signature work, a totem of a lapsed era. That would be a tall order and, sadly, it isn’t true here. Not Mr. Wallace’s fault; he didn’t release this work. The cash-in artists did.
To that end, the most obnoxious editor’s note in the history of Western prose can be found in this novel. The editor, Michael Pietsch, opens the novel with a so-called note that is thousands of words long, thus ineluctably imposing his own interpretative framework on the book for the reader. “Words and images” and “repetitions and draft sloppinesses recur through these chapters that I am sure he would have revised,” Mr. Pietsch says.
It always concerns me when an editor is “sure” of a writer’s original intent, like the odious Charles Kinbote character was in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” Mr. Pietsch’s note also informs the reader that Wallace had “discussed” sending a 250-page manuscript to Little, Brown and Co. with the intention of “securing an advance” and “negotiating a new contract.” That said, he didn’t do that. Why not?
This discussion of money foreshadows a remark the author made, toward the center of the book, that he had set out to write a memoir because, these days, memoirs sell better than novels, and “I would be a rank hypocrite if I pretended that I was less attuned and receptive to market forces than anyone else.”
So the book was composed, and released, with the aforementioned market forces in mind. And we can’t resist. As the editor tells us, “An unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David isn’t here to stop us from reading.” Indeed, he isn’t. So, just as we go to war with the army we have, we go to press with the book we have - even though we know the product is substandard and the author was far from ready to release it.
Nevertheless, a subpar David Foster Wallace novel is better than the work of many of his contemporaries, so many of whom bear the marks of his influence that I lost count when Bill Clinton was president. Mr. Pietsch does a credible job of cobbling together the finished draft material with rougher work into a novel that, alas, does not have the power of “Infinite Jest,” even as it approximates its length and circuitous, sprawling narrative structure - gimmicks that did not age all that well, leaving the impression that the author’s best work would have been behind him even if he hadn’t taken his own life.
Flaws abound in this work, flourishing like mold on week-old bread. Shifts from third to first person, paragraphs that span pages, a discontinuous narrative style in which the characters often aren’t given names until hundreds of pages into the book, and jarring gaps in perspective and linear logic will all frustrate the casual reader. One also has to wonder why the author’s foreword is not found until Chapter 9 - Page 129 in the large print edition. Is the idea to baffle the reader? To call attention to form for form’s sake? The author’s foreword belongs in the front of the book for self- evident reasons. Instead, we are deprived of it, but treated to that logorrheic editor’s note.
The book has just enough of such precious metafictional horseplay to distract, even as the author explicitly writes that he finds “cute, semi-metafictional paradoxes irksome.” As he should. They distract from the narrative, calling attention to a notion of craft for craft’s sake that, however unwittingly, is as captive to trends as any fashionista.
Despite these significant qualms, the book is not a total loss. Wallace is at his best here when writing in the first person, crafting an honest and compelling narrative free of literary gimmickry. His obsessively detailed descriptions of the Internal Revenue Service are written as no one else in America could. There are many genuinely comic and tragic moments in the book. It’s not a bad book. Not at all. But it wasn’t ready to be released, and so its existence unavoidably raises rather than answers questions about Wallace’s mental state while writing his last “big” work.