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David Foster Wallace’s “˜The Pale King’ is a royal read that breathes some much-needed life into today’s literature scene

By Alex Goodman

April 17, 2011 11:24 pm

It’s funny what being an English student does to your reading habits. You’re here because you love books, but you never have time to read ““ you’re too busy analyzing literature, which is a different thing entirely.

You’re searching for symbols and similes, close-reading passages and measuring meter. Instead of losing yourself in imagined worlds, you’re picking apart the words.

At its best, it’s an academic detective’s game, uncovering the hidden wonders of language. At its worst, it’s joyless and mathematically precise, a bit like doing your taxes.

Please your professors and call it ironic, then, that the most exciting book of the year is about agents at the Internal Revenue Service.

It’s David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” an unfinished, 560-page novel assembled by Wallace’s editor after the author committed suicide in 2008. Little, Brown and Company released it last Friday, on what is usually Tax Day.

When I say “The Pale King” is exciting, I’m not talking about plot.

By all accounts, the book is at times staggeringly slow-moving ““ intentionally so, as Wallace was writing in large part about boredom.

No, “The Pale King” is exciting precisely because people are excited about it.

Aside from Oprah, very few people publicly encourage the writing and reading of fiction anymore.

Last year, the media had several field days over Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” but it quickly devolved into a petty argument over whether or not Franzen is overrated.

It’s much harder to make that case against Wallace. His fiction may be dense ““ you can even call it self-indulgent, if you must ““ but, like Joyce and Pynchon, Wallace’s extreme intelligence dances around every page. Even if you don’t like his books, you can’t deny his genius.

And “The Pale King” evades easy judgment anyway. You really can’t call it a masterpiece ““ it’s quite clearly incomplete and unpolished. You can’t say it’s terrible ““ it’s not done.

Instead, we get something even more fascinating, a work in progress from the most awe-inspiring writer of the last 25 years.

We can see what Wallace was thinking about, and debate ad nauseum what we’d keep and what we wouldn’t, how we’d arrange the chapters and where we’d take the story from here.

We needed something like this to remind us of literature’s magic. And, tragic as his death was, it’s fitting that Wallace should be the one to give us such a gift.

He understood these modern times as well as any author, was fascinated by the advertising industry and the American obsession with shallow entertainment. But at the same time, his writing defies our craving for bite-sized treats, with its impossibly long sentences, meticulous detail and gratuitous footnotes.

Of all the people who buy “Infinite Jest,” his magnum opus of more than a thousand pages, I wonder how many actually read it. Those who do will find that, beneath all the postmodern wizardry, there’s quite a bit of heart.

Wallace cared a lot about commas and syntax and obscure vocabulary ““ and, apparently, the tax code ““ but he also cared a lot about people.

I hope it’s not just students of literature who pick up “The Pale King.” I hope it’s accountants too, and lovers of intricate rules.

Most of all, I hope it’s people who forgot how great it feels to read a perfect sentence, and people who are discovering that feeling for the first time.

And actually, I hope some people open “The Pale King,” stare wide-eyed at its intricacy, and grab a copy of “The Hunger Games” instead … as long as we’re reading, and talking about reading, in public and with great enthusiasm, and as long as young people hear about these things called books, and older people remember the power of them.

As long as English majors take the time, every now and then, to stop taking notes and enjoy the ride.

If you wish people would talk about books more often, email Goodman at [email protected]

“Pop Psychology” runs every Monday.

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