When David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of only forty-six, his death felt like a calamity for literature. At his best, Wallace gave you a thrill you could get from no other living writer: his prose was fluent, hip, startling, inventive, prodigious. When he got on a roll, he could almost make you forget to breathe. Writers as talented as that come along once in a generation – if we’re lucky. Literature, in this day and age, couldn’t afford to lose him.
But as the shock wore off, one began to recall that Wallace had had his faults. Hadn’t his fiction been as exasperating as it was exciting? Why was it that the most ludicrously gifted writer of our age had failed to produce a single novel that a normal person would want to keep reading to the end? Hadn’t his sense of structure been deficient, perhaps even non-existent? Wasn’t there something sterile and childishly irresponsible about his fuck-the-reader aesthetic? Why did he settle for being a writer’s writer? Did he lack the skills to be a reader’s writer, or just the inclination? In the end, didn’t his career represent a squandering of talent on a Joycean scale?
The Pale King, Wallace’s posthumously published final novel, fails to make these questions go away ... [read more]