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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

An unattractive aspect of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

Much as I enjoy and admire about David Foster Wallace's posthumous, unfinished novel, "The Pale King," I have to believe there were lots of sections he would never have published, or at least not in current form - it seems that many of the sections, or chapters, of TPK are fragments, and possibly abortive attempts Wallace made to explore certain themes and characters. Some are incredibly tedious in fact: a long, sophomoric chapter entirely in dialog, spoken presumably by a few people, none identified by name or by anything else, about the government and taxes and our duties as citizens - the kind of dorm-room conversation that goes on or used to at almost any college at 1 a.m. Perhaps - in this novel, presumably these are some IRS agents socializing, somewhere - no setting though. Another chapter involves three IRS guys outside on a smoke break, talking two of them talking about what they did over the weekend, totally mundane information that DFW captures in all its banality. So my sense is that he would never have wanted all this undeveloped material in a final version of his novel. But what if I'm wrong? If he did want these sections - and we've got them whether DFW wanted them or not - it shows to me the less attractive side of DFW's writer-personality - a smart-aleck contempt for (some of) his characters, for their unexamined lives, for their ignorant observations, most of all for their inarticulate speech. Other writers have skewered office life and bureaucracy - Dostoyevsky, Gaddis, Yates - but generally in a way that is more loving and sympathetic, at least in regard to the protagonist, or more broadly comic. DFW's sections on the IRS employees, though they would get a lot of laughs had he presented them in public readings - which he probably did - are also rather cruel and unfeeling. I'm not sure of his larger purpose. He's obviously taken on a hugely challenging topic - when it comes to government bureaucracies, thousands have written about the CIA, the FBI, Congress, State - but who'd think there was epic material in the IRS? Yet what is his game? He's hinted at broader, grander themes - the sense that the agency is evolving into a revenue-generating agency, with all that implies for American values and the role of government vis a vis business; however,100+ pages into the long novel DFW seems ineluctably drawn to low-end satire. Hoping he raises the level in the next 100 pages.

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