Monday, July 18, 2011


I went on something of a book-acquiring spree over the past few days. At a used bookstore in town I managed to pick up on the cheap Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (more on this soon), Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and Richard Russo's Straight Man (yes, two more novels about professors). To go along with these books, I finally fulfilled a promise to myself and picked up DFW's The Pale King (along with Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets [which, if Walter's reading of the first chapter and my own perusal of the first two chapters in the bookstore are anything to go by, will be hilarious], the purchase of both of which made me curse the disparity between the cost of new books in Canada vs. the USA).
Anyway, I'm not super far along into The Pale King just yet (looks like ~1/5 of the way), but a few thoughts have crossed my mind so far:
  1. I'll go along with critical consensus (based on early reviews) and say "Wow" to the first chapter. I mean, serious writing chops on display and it's mostly just a list (of course, large parts of The Things They Carried are "mostly just a list" and the effect in that novel, as in The Pale King, is nothing short of electrifying). At the same time, while the (long) first sentence received a lot of attention (and, truthfully, it merits it), I was more drawn to the start of the second paragraph: "Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture's wire beyond which one horse semlls at the other's behind, the lead horse's tail obligingly lifted." Painting with language, indeed. You can see and smell and feel and hear everything about that scene.
  2. Chapter 3 feels like a leftover from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
  3. Chapter 9, the "Author's Foreward," though it has (again) been singled out for both praise and criticism by a number of reviewers (mostly because of its seeming way too clever and metafictional and postmodern for its own good) is, by and large, mostly wonderful. The "landscape" writing is what's impressed me most so far about the book (the description of the trailer park and the gypsum hills, the grandmother's house, the first chapter, Sylvanshine's view from the plane as it comes in for a landing, etc.), but Chapter 9 is like an obvious dose of "classic" or "vintage" DFW that just zips along until building to his chief philosophical/thematic concern in its final two paragraphs (based on the material surrounding The Pale King and other "late" writing of his like "This is Water," and even, to a certain extent, most of Brief Interviews). In a lot of ways this theme, especially as it is phrased in these paragraphs, reminds me of Mark Fisher (aka k-punk)'s comments re: life under capitalist realism. Is The Pale King capitalist realist fiction par excellence
"Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with out full attention. . . . [S]urely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUVs' backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, way down. . . . [L]iving people do not speak much of the dull. Why this silence? Maybe it's because the subject is, in and of itself, dull . . . only then we're again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome. There may, though, I opine, be more to it . . . as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size."
I think what I have in mind is something like Fisher's excellent gloss of this photo: "The image above is so evocative because it suddenly suggests an outside, an effective interruption of the blank trance you can see in the model's abstracted eyes, which reflect our own ...". Similarly, DFW's investigation of dullness, of boredom, of the "something else, way down" that's "hidden by virtue of its size," forces us not only into an awareness of that dullness and boredom that we cannot simply flee by closing the book (because now we are aware, and actions taken to mask the dullness and boredom reveal the states they are masking the more effectively they do the job, thus making it impossible to actually escape the dullness and boredom and necessitating a confrontation with the psychic pain that dullness and boredom force us to recognize in ourselves--cf. Zizek's remarks on the power of the "conceptual Jew": "The fantasmatic 'conceptual Jew' is not a paternal figure of symbolic authority, a 'castrated' bearer-medium of public authority, but something decidedly different, a kind of uncanny double of the public authority that perverts its proper logic: he has to act in shadow, invisible to the public eye, irradiating a phantom-like, spectral omnipotence. On account of this unfathomable, elusive status of the kernel of his identity, the Jew is--in contrast to the 'castrated' father--perceived as uncastratable: the more his actual, social, public existence is cut short, the more threatening becomes his elusive fantasmatic ex-istence"*), but also into a questioning of the larger systemic causes of the "psychic pain" that makes dullness and boredom--which are, in the end, merely symptoms of life in that larger system/social structure/cultural moment/historical era--so unbearable. That is, The Pale King creates, by offering a glimpse of the boredom and dullness that is contained (and therefore visible), an outside wherein the "blank trance" of that dullness and boredom is interrupted by an awareness of its own existence. The psychic pain that is kept at bay through a constant and ceaseless determination to experience neither the dull nor the boring (via the devices DFW mentions in the passage I quoted above, amongst other activities) is cast in sharp relief, and we wonder "what causes this pain and why do I experience it?"

Is this also, I wonder, pointing to some "obscene underside" of the action of enjoying a commodity in one's leisure time (i.e. the book The Pale King) in that reading the book--the process of enjoying that commodity--leads to the above understanding re: dullness/boredom/psychic pain and becomes the aim in and of itself (i.e. the experiencing of that psychic pain) rather than the enjoyment of the entertainment device that would ostensibly combat the dullness/boredom of modern life and prevent an awareness of that psychic pain from emerging? That is, the effects of the system are best revealed through a conscious participation in the system (a participation that the system encourages because of the difficulty of that participation ever being conscious [due to the psychic pain that participants attempt to avoid and that conscious participation makes readily apparent]). Indeed, the aforementioned psychic pain would seem to make acting against the system (which in this case are those cultural/political/financial institutions that help to create and perpetuate the "information society" [late capitalism]) difficult, let alone actually participating rather than just existing in the blank trance of rote actions--so, in the end, the system gets both to inflict pain and, by allowing the person within the system the chance to become aware of the pain that the system is causing, to offer a way to prevent that pain in a single gesture.

Anyway, some initial thoughts on The Pale King as I make my way through it. I'm excited to see where this novel is going.

[EDIT BASED ON MORE READING: The conversation in the elevator and the story about obetrolling/doubling clearly lend themselves to discussions of capitalist realism, and, in the case of the former, are essential to the novel's working (and not just stuff from high school civics class that should be cut). The most interesting mistake (?) so far: the sudden intrusion of the dialogue tag "I said" out of nowhere in the middle of the elevator conversation.]

*This is from Zizek's essay "Between Symbolic Fiction and Fantasmatic Spectre: Toward a Lacanian Theory of Ideology" from Interrogating the Real (229-48; the quote itself appears on 239).

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