Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
published by Little, Brown
547 pages

I've been putting off reading The Pale King for mainly two reasons: I had just finished re-reading Infinite Jest around the time it was published and also, the more obvious reason, this would be the last piece of fiction that was more or less sanctioned by DFW. So reading it has that bittersweet quality.

Like baseball stats and steroids, The Pale King should always have an asterisk next to it. And Little, Brown knows that, and Michael Pietsch knows it, and every DFW should know that too. There are maybe 200 cumulative pages or so that are startlingly good. The rest of the book is a bit unpolished...but as a DFW fan, I'm glad it was still there. And the unpolished stuff isn't even "bad", it's just not up to the ridiculous standard that DFW had left behind.

It stands up against any "finished" novel out there in the book market and is certainly worth reading. And not to say that The Pale King drove DFW to suicide because that would be stupendously naive, but I could see that finishing The Pale King would have seemed like a monumental task as he was essentially writing a novel without action, where the action was mostly hinted at and that he was taking an enormous risk with this project and when asked about it by his editor, Michael Pietsch, he likened working on it to carrying a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.

So if we were to take a step back as critic and try to ponder what he was actually trying to accomplish, using a template of tax code and boredom and systems of systems to try and communicate real truths about life and happiness and love...I don't know. He astounds me and I will continue to use his work as a lighthouse.

Also, here are a list of some of the surnames that were used throughout The Pale King: Eyckz, Moeller, Van Noght, Rath, Candelaria, Geach, Acquistipace, Nugent, Witkiewicz, Biron-Maint, Neti-Neti, Shearwater, Friedwald, De Chellis, Gastine, Sabusawa, Drinion, Drtiz, Keck, Bondurant, Krody, Haight, Sylvanshine, Lehrl, Satterthwaite.

Are you kidding me with these? Brilliant.

“This, according to the fellows who saw me as fit for a Service career, put me ahead of the curve, to understand this truth at an age when most guys are starting only to suspect the basics of adulthood--that life owes you nothing; that suffering takes many forms; that no one will ever care for you as your mother did; that the human heart is a chump.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata (and Jim Fingal, fact-checker)
published by W.W. Norton
123 pages

Wow. Let's just start with that one word. Moving on, this slim "book" is unlike anything you've ever read. It's a sort of companion piece to the astoundingly good About a Mountain (also by D'Agata). About a Mountain was originally an essay that was later fleshed out into a book. The Lifespan of a Fact is the story of that original essay but really it's about fact-checking, but no, it's really really about truth vs. accuracy, but seriously it's really about Art and Literature and the failings of Genre Labeling and Nonfiction and suicide and James Frey but it's also about everything.

(Just for clarity, the book is structurally set up in a unique way, where the center of each page has a section from the essay that Jim Fingal (the fact-checker for The Believer) is examining and then as a kind of border to that text is Jim's own comments on what he feels needs to be verified and sometimes John (the author) responding to Jim's accusations.)

My first thought was, "This is brilliant and this is going to be amazing." About 20 pages in my thought was, "This is getting a little repetitive but it's still interesting and surprisingly addictive." Then I kept reading, a chapter or two a night (they're pretty short) and then I powered through and read like four chapters because John (the author) and Jim (the fact-checker) were really getting into it ("it" being an argument/discussion/pissing match/exploration). And then the last six pages or so is just John and Jim going back and forth, trying to really get at something True and Real about Art and Literature and it ends beautifully.

I believe this will go down as one of the most important books of its time. It will be taught and studied. It will appear on every Nonfiction course syllabus.