Sometimes, the Penny Press is just plain depressing. This season that feeling is occasioned by the requisite avalanche of hipster posing and screeching lies accompanying the publication of a posthumous novel-fragment by David Foster Wallace. I knew months ago that this fragment was coming, and its approach has all this time felt like the dread of hay fever. There were the first faint trickles in Vanity Fair and Men’s Journal (“Could it be … the greatest unfinished novel of all time? I don’t know, dude … I just don’t know”), then shooting buds all over the place in literary journals that ought to know better, and now it’s reached full bloom, with Tom McCarthy’s 150,000 word review in the New York Times Book Review.
By far the most depressing thing about all this – more depressing than its sadness (the author killed himself, after all), more depressing than its fraud (it’s a fragment of a novel – it doesn’t warrant reviewing at all), and more depressing than its misdirection (its author was never, even at his most productively controlled, all that talented) – is its lumbering inevitability, like a Zeffirelli production at the Met. I’ve seen it happen many times before; I watched it with Hemingway, I saw the talentless Sylvia Plath become venerated, I cringed as the execrable Kurt Vonnegut got the process started himself. It’s always unpleasant, and I always hope it’s only the craze of a single season (Henry Green, for instance, and, I sure as Hell hope, Elizabeth Bishop), not the zeitgeist taking hold.
I read Wallace’s posthumous novel-fragment, The Pale King, months ago. There was no way for me to either like or dislike it, since it’s a fragment rather than a completed whole. All I could do was notice things about it, and I did – negative things, such as the continuation of the author’s apparently endless willingness to masturbate intellectually in public, but also positive things, the slow accretion of the habits of craft, the possibility – now heartbreaking – that this writer might very slowly be learning the disciplines he should have had in place before he started his career. I doubt there was ever any danger of him returning to his old vomit ala Scott Turow or Bret Easton Ellis, but in this fragment there were hints that he was dreaming of finally leaving the narrow estuary of himself and venturing out into the wider world (not many hints, I grant you – there are something like six characters in this fragment who have the author’s name and are loving reflections of him – but some). I would have applauded that, because I never doubted his intelligence.
That’s never going to happen, of course – David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, thereby both preventing The Pale King from getting finished and virtually guaranteeing this hay fever season. In his New Yorker piece last week, Jonathan Franzen hinted that perhaps Wallace was on some level planning that glut of posthumous reactions, maybe even relishing the thought of it. I’m hoping not, but in either case, I’m also hoping the NYTimes Book Review Haggadah represents the worst of it. Because it’s pretty damn bad.
Tom McCarthy himself has some talent as a novelist, but that just makes it worse. He’s as self-indulgent as Wallace was and very nearly as self-infatuated, which has the distasteful effect of making his “review” read like a Gospel According To. Reading his name at the top of a “review” doesn’t bode well for any kind of impartiality in the passages that follow.
And it isn’t there. McCarthy writes his 900,000 words under the shadow of two completely immovable assumptions: that Wallace was a great writer, and that The Pale King is not only a book but a great book. So we’re told things like “The Pale King is pervaded by an air of melancholia, an acute sense of loss” even though it’s a manuscript-fragment and so can’t be pervaded by anything. Treating a badly unfinished manuscript as though it were a completed novel – or worse, far worse, acting like the difference is immaterial – is the hallmark of this hay fever.
To his credit, McCarthy senses this on some level. But just when that hint might force him to, you know, write about something else, he takes his Gospel act to the next level in order to stay on-topic:
Which brings me to the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – in an age of data saturation.
But it’s not the age’s data saturation that’s the point – it’s the parallel saturation in Wallace’s fiction, including in this novel-fragment. And that saturation is not only there by choice, it’s also the most visible and most annoying of Wallace’s flaws as a writer. That cutesy-poo over-bombardment of the manuscript with 200-page digressions, rafts of footnotes, endlessly tail-chasing syntax, all of it geared to make the writing of that manuscript – and by accidental side-effect the reading of it – as close to the simulation of a video game as possible. The fullest manifestation of this insane cowardice is Wallace’s dark gift to literature: that you have to concentrate on the fizzy thrills of weird typography in order to, like, enjoy a book – because otherwise, God help us all, you’d have to, you know, concentrate – otherwise, boring old things like plot and character development would have to matter … and if they mattered, somebody calling himself a writer would have to work at them, in order to do them well. Wallace wrote a 1000-page novel in part in the smug assumption that such an act would protect him from any accusation of laziness – and yet he was the laziest American author since Sydney Sheldon. In writing as in life, laziness isn’t defined by how little you do – it’s defined by how much you’re willing to do to avoid work. Wallace buried his editors and publishers with hundreds of pages of ‘notes’ and ‘clarifications,’ buried his books in hundreds and hundreds of pages of pointless verbiage, but he didn’t do any of that for the reasons he helped the literary world to craft. There was never any of the ‘tortured artist with so much to say‘ involved in all that over-production … it, all of it, every page of it, was produced in order to avoid doing the actual work of writing, the shaping of plot and character and action, the whittling and revising and precision that are supposed to separate the novelist from the tyro. That’s epic, Biblical laziness.
And it prompts laziness in turn. McCarthy at one point is practically asleep at the keyboard when he writes, “The issues of emotion and agency remain central, but are incorporated into a larger argument about the possibility or otherwise of these things within contemporary fiction.” I’m not at all sure what any of that means, but I’d hazard a guess that “issues of emotion and agency” are central to pretty much every novel ever written. These are the kinds of things reviewers write when the grip of a celebrity season is upon them, and even Wallace deserves better.
He almost gets it in this same Book Review, when Jennifer Schuessler turns in a very good Essay on some of the ways the I.R.S. has featured in American life and literature. She almost takes Wallace to task for shoddy plotting – she doesn’t quite do it, but she almost does. Even a partial hint at any of the dead author’s defects is yards and yards more than the literary world has been doing in response to this novel-fragment, but if Schuessler disliked The Pale King, she buries it under talk about tax codes, tax code novelists, and that bad old literary tax-dodger, Edmund Wilson. It’s a good piece, but at one point she writes, “One wonders what Wilson would have made of ‘The Pale King’ …”
I, for one, don’t wonder.