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"A Paradigm for the Life of Consciousness": Closing Time in the Pale King

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 44, Numbers 4, Winter 2012
pp. 371-388 | 10.1353/sdn.2012.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the center freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments...so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (424-25)

Everything in art is a formal question.

—Frank Bidart, "Borges and I" (11)

With barely five months passed since the novel's publication, we are clearly still in the prototype phase of Pale King criticism, where the task is perhaps not yet to definitively categorize the novel, but rather to prepare a blueprint for a larger and later critical project. This project involves trying to separate our judgments from the sometimes distorted claims that since 2008 have circled around Wallace's name in the mass media, so that we can tease out the logic of what Wallace was trying to do in his final novel. For all the established orthodoxies of the intentional fallacy and the death of the author, to some extent it is only when we can start to disentangle what Wallace originally planned from the published text (heroically and painstakingly reconstructed, as it is, by his editor) that we can begin the critical project of understanding The Pale King in earnest, and plot its place on the rising curve of Wallace's career. As we might expect, The Pale King itself provides the best model that we have for this task: the end of the list poem that begins the book describes "the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened...tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls" and concludes with the instruction to "Read these" (4). This is, of course, an allegory for the reading process, especially the process of reading a posthumous novel—the lines of imprinted marks are not themselves the sign of a present maker, but are a message that only becomes visible once the creature that created them has passed by. At the same time the scene uncomfortably resembles a disinterment: the worms' bodies emerging from the ground, the hungry crows waiting for the carrion.

To undertake the critical project of reading the lines that Wallace left behind is not to deny that Michael Pietsch has performed a remarkable service for readers by assembling the text of The Pale King, but rather to recognize the novel's hybrid quality, and to begin to think about the kinds of approach that will yield a greater depth of insight as we move out of the prototype phase. Part of Wallace's importance in the history of the novel, in my view, is his skill as a narrative architect, and his fiction's layered design is often underpinned by a logic of juxtaposition that drives it forward. At the level of the sentence this logic concentrates upon the polyphonic effects sought by Wallace's prose, the contrast between different voices and the elasticity of his rhetorical register. At the level of a work's total architecture, by contrast, the same logic underpins the mosaic effect that Wallace created in each of his novels through carefully juxtaposed episodes and fragments. But because Wallace's manuscripts for The Pale King have not yet been made available to scholars, our reading of the book's total architecture is necessarily speculative at this stage; and it may forever be speculative. We know that Wallace left a 250-page manuscript on his desk, but Michael Pietsch told me that:

None of the Sylvanshine chapters [were] in the partial manuscript that David had assembled as a possible portrait of work in progress. The two "Author here" chapters were first, followed by the explanation of the Personnel snafu that led to the David Wallace/David Wallace confusion. Then the "turns a page" piece and the long Chris Fogle monologue and a bunch of the childhood stories. I think David's goal was to send chapters that were very polished and that gave a sense of the book's main strands and themes. I don't believe he'd decided on a final order of presentation.

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