As readers of the Daily know, we don’t publish criticism. But over at his day job, our Southern Editor has written a deep review of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King—a review that is really an essay on Wallace and his peculiar place in American fiction (and nonfiction).
Of The Pale King, Sullivan writes:
You’d be forgiven for suspecting that a book about random people who work for the government sounds insufferably tedious. The reason it’s not has to do with the word about—it’s the wrong word, the wrong preposition. Wallace doesn’t write about his characters; he hadn’t in a long time. He writes into them. That thing he could do on a tennis court or a cruise ship, or at a porn convention, that made him both an inspiration and a maddening, envy-making presence for the scores like me who learned to do “magazine writing” in his shadow (he was one of those writers who, even when you weren’t sounding like him, made you think about how you weren’t sounding like him)—Wallace liked to do that, in his fiction, with his characters’ interior lives.
Imagine walking into a place, say a mega-chain copy shop in a strip mall. It’s early morning, and you’re the first customer. You stop under the bright fluorescents and let the doors glide closed behind you, look at the employees in their corporate-blue shirts, mouths open, shuffling around sleepily. You take them in as a unified image, with an impenetrable surface of vague boredom and dissatisfaction that you’re content to be on the outside of, and you set to your task, to your copying or whatever. That’s precisely the moment when Wallace hits pause, that first little turn into inattention, into self-absorption. He reverses back through it, presses play again. Now it’s different. You’re in a room with a bunch of human beings. Each of them, like you, is broken and has healed in some funny way. Each of them, even the shallowest, has a novel inside. Each is loved by God or deserves to be. They all have something to do with you: When you let the membrane of your consciousness become porous, permit osmosis, you know it to be true, we have something to do with one another, are part of a narrative—but what? Wallace needed very badly to know. And he sensed that the modern world was bombarding us with scenarios, like the inside of the copy shop, where it was easy to forget the question altogether. We “feel lonely in a crowd,” he writes in one of his stories, but we “stop not to dwell on what’s brought the crowd into being,” with the result that “we are, always, faces in a crowd.”
That’s what I love in Wallace, noticed details like that, microdescriptions of feeling states that seem suggestive of whole branching social super-systems, sentences that make me feel like, Anyone who doesn’t get that is living in a different world. He was the closest thing we had to a recording angel.