The Pale King rides (at last)

One year ago tonight, I would go to sleep in a very dark place.

I’d reached a dead end, and no amount of wiles or fast-talking or any other intangible that I thought I possessed could get me out of it.  As my old man used to tell me when I as a kid: I was in need of a serious attitude adjustment.

Now, I’ve never been one for mystical, divine intervention type explanations.  To be fair, I’m still not.  But I think we can sometimes read or see or hear just the right thing, at just the right moment, which can give us the tools we need to see the world in a different perspective, give us a practical way of coping with reality that we’d somehow overlooked.  And to fold a little irony into the mix, we often find these little tools were right under our nose, waiting for us, our entire lives.

This “thing” for me, was the speech David Foster Wallace delivered to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005.  A good friend of mine, Jordan Marti (whose work you’ll find below), had sent me the transcript, now known as “This is Water.”  If I had to pick one summary sentence, and god I hate to do that because it’s truly a beautiful speech, Wallace told his listeners: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Nothing fancy.  Simple awareness and choice.

At the time I read the speech, I didn’t know who this cat named Wallace even was.  I didn’t know that he’d written a 981 page (1079 if you count footnotes) work of fiction or that he was considered by some to be the most important literary voice of an entire generation.  I didn’t know that he’d been given the MacArthur Fellowship: pretty much the only award in the nation given for being a genius.  And I didn’t know that at the age of 46, Wallace would be so utterly wracked and defeated by depression that one night he’d organize the manuscripts of the book he’d leave unfinished, write a goodbye note to his longtime girlfriend, and hang himself on the patio.

Journalist David Lipsky wrote of Wallace’s death, “Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning.  It has event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.”  A very true statement, Lipsky.  So it’s with a sense of mourning, of reverence and loss, that the world receives the recent, posthumous release of “The Pale King.”

The Pale King is said to be an expansion of Wallace’s call to mindfulness.  The book takes place in an IRS office, a murderously dull setting (I assume).  But leave it to Wallace to find holiness in the mundane: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”(The Unfinished,”The  New Yorker).

Wallace once said that an author can depict as dark of a reality as he wants, as long as he works to make the reader “become less alone inside.”  And that’s what Wallace has done for me.
To bring it back to the micro, my life is in a much better spot tonight than it was last year.  I’ve just received a full scholarship to graduate school.  I’ve got a brown-haired, doe-eyed fiancée who doesn’t seem to mind having a me around too much.  And I’ve got a demon cat named Blue that terrorizes me every. waking. moment.   In short, I’m glad I rode out the dark spot.  And while I can’t give Wallace all the credit, he definitely helped see me through it.
Wallace, however, is gone.  It’s funny how I can miss someone who I’ve never even met.  But in a sense, I did know him, just like many other people did — through his work.  Wallace left in his wake a gaping literary hole, one that the world’s best writers can only try to fill with their very best words.
Maybe one of the saddest most beautiful passages I’ve ever read describes what happens when a character dies in Wallace’s magnum opus, “Infinite Jest.”  It’s how I like to imagine David Foster Wallace left this world: “as he finally sheds his body suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home over…glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”

One thought on “The Pale King rides (at last)

  1. DFW’s stuff was definitely in a whole other stratosphere. I haven’t read them all, but he’s the only guy I’ve read where it really feels like he is creating his own dimension and he is operating on a level that could only be inhabited by him, that focus and drive wouldn’t ever really get your ideas to that point. The experience is mixed, because you can’t help but be a mixture of grateful and jealous.

    I, too, have a knack for stumbling upon little monoliths at appropriate times that help usher me out of the doldrums of life, often from unexpected sources. Certainly, I am blessed, but at least part of the reason for my fortune is owed to the fact that I don’t profess to have all the answers and am not eager to discriminate the source of the next message. Humility, resourcefulness, and scrappiness aren’t accidentally interwoven into our central Wisconsin small town DNA. Tiny, sentient creatures from our homeland need to be on their toes in order to survive. At some point, though, the qualities that helped you survive wading through the dross also berth you into the twinkling phosphorescence of the times when you realize you are truly living. There are DFW’s in books, in paintings, and in the voice coming through the phone. Until the receiver gets on the right wavelength, the message of the sender is irrelevant.

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