I’d been wanting to read David Foster Wallace’s last book for ages, and this past weekend I finally dove in. References to suicide were omnipresent, which was distracting given that they often appeared seemingly arbitrarily within similes and metaphors, unrelated to plot or character (although always related to theme, because killing oneself is a plausible antidote to boredom…). Two sections stuck with me, both toward the back of the book where the writing got choppier and narrative threads started to come apart. The first was a stand-alone short-story about a boy who tries to touch his lips to every inch of the surface of his skin. The other was a long conversation between an affectless male accountant and a beautiful female accountant about the way beauty malforms social interactions and people. I read both as mini-grotesques skewering self-love.
I’ve been struggling with character lately, as a result of an absolutely dead-on personal rejection from Strange Horizons noting that my stories lack tension. Tension, to my mind, is most easily produced by putting distance between characters and their wants, a project about which I am deeply suspicious. Literary devices that produce sympathetic characters are often facile (“just make X your POV character” counts as a method for producing sympathy, ferfuckssakes), and the number one trick is to give your characters “strong wants.” Every writing advice book on the planet hammers this, and I got a heavy hit of it at both of the past two writing workshops I’ve attended. Because it works. It is a cheap trick, but it works. Which to me says something horrible about the futility of human existence, since any enjoyment I take in reading about characters who want things and fight for their goals derives precisely from the fact that I feel utterly inert and lack any strong desires myself. The ones I do have, I’m detached from, or are constrained in ways that make them difficult to fight for, especially in those recognizable ways that could power a plot.
Which is to say, the boy with the kissy-lips to me read as a send-up of this model of character sympathy I so dislike. I was fascinated by this boy with his stupid, irrational desire to kiss all of his skin; the trick played out flawlessly, even when the want in question (the boy’s achievements, including kissing his lower back and upper chest, are meaningful only to him) is patently, uselessly inane. This short piece, both in and out of context of the novel as a whole, comments on writing (especially memoir writing…there are many long digressions where DFW argues that Pale King is partly a memoir), which is itself an inane pursuit rooted in the close examination of oneself.
I wish I knew someone who’d read Pale King and might want to chat about it. I have so many damn thoughts, and I want someone with whom to ping-pong. I know serious critics have lost interest in Foster Wallace because of his suicide and resulting fame, and because he gets folded into the Eggers camp and its pursuit of an ethical sincerity/authenticity, but Pale King (to me at least) poked holes in the capacities of such a project. It was more about the failures of the work of art (while being itself an incomplete, and therefor intrinsically “failed,” work) than about any radical potential for success.