David Foster Wallace
The Pale King
Little, Brown, April 2011. 548 pp.
At a memorial gathering held for David Foster Wallace at New York University a couple of months after his suicide in September 2008, his friend Jonathan Franzen recalled the talks he and Wallace used to have about fiction writing: why they did it, how to do it better, and, in a culture increasingly dismissive of serious fiction, what good it did anybody anyway. Whatever their disagreements — and they could be a combative, competitive pair; have a look at Franzen’s famously ill-advised meditation in The New Yorker, “Farther Away,” where he speculates that Wallace’s suicide was partly “a career move” — they agreed on one thing. Fiction was a way to speak the secrets of contemporary life that kept people distant from one another, afraid and alone. It was, Franzen said, “a way out of loneliness.”
It seemed like a homely formulation for two supremely ambitious writers who in the past were wont to throw down bold manifestoes about the state of their art like Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, or Franzen’s famous 1996 Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream.” But they’d both come to be convinced that the novel was one of the few places where it might be possible to listen to the manifold mysteries within and around us, where some protective circle could be drawn around a reader’s consciousness, where real subjectivity could still thrive. Both these grateful sons of postmodern master Don DeLillo have suggested that if you listen hard enough to America’s torrent of media and consumer madness — the “white noise” — you hear above it, below it, and even in it the sounds of fragile people negotiating a whole lot of cultural lunacy, frantically distracting themselves from their fears of mortality, and furiously trying to break through to one another — to connect.