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The Pale King by David Foster Wallace '85 - Discussion

The%20Pale%20King%20by%20David%20Foster%20Wallace

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Thank you for the fascinating interview.  I was struck by the recognizable quality of Mr. Costello's description of Wallace as a freshman, as 'a shy, rail thin Mid-Westerner...'. who wanted to go on to law school and one day be a congressman.  His 'poor career choice' adds much to the moral life of this country and society, and to its political discourse.  Grateful for this fine introduction here, I am looking forward to, if you will, this longer and more freely and purely literary version of his address to a graduating class at Kenyon.

 

100 pages into it, one has a sense of an important and monumental book, a milestone of the literary history of the novel.  I am reminded of Agee's Let Us Now  Praise Famous Men, here the inhabiting of 'ordinary' American lives rather than the sharecropper's, through which an amazing amount of tension comes to the reader as the story moves us toward the IRS facility of Peoria, propelling us forward into the work, reading these passages as you might by the light of your own experience.  Some might sense Mr. Wallace capturing, through various characters, the ingrown self-enchanted horror of finding oneself fixated with writing, the future a complete clouded fog, a sense of being useless and largely incapable of doing anything right.

I have to wonder if the opening passage of the book describing local flora, ragweed and its brethren, speaks of allergic reaction, a well-honed marvelous immune system's reaction to a tiny invader.  Is writing, like perspiring, a natural way of reacting to all the slings and arrows and anxiety-provoking things of modern life, somehow a necessary act, as perhaps cave paintings were to our adrenaline hunting ancestors.  Sometimes the writer's efforts may seem slightly overdone, a bit of a stretch, in passages emphasizing dark humor's comical light upon the travelers here, but the high level of penetrating art here is such that we appreciate the twist, the 'yaw,'ready to be taken somewhere next.

 

Further in, encountering the difficulties of reading a text that reminds one's own self of uncomfortable things, like being a part of a generation that had its 'wastoid' moments, a rising chagrin, (as Chekhov renders so personally with his story My Life) which the author brings us into in '22,' concerning the pains of  father, mother and son's relationship (to not interfere with the reading experience), one finds in the text's natural challenges, a passage of simple luminescence revealing the sensitive soul:

Page 190.   For myself, I tend to do my most important thinking in incidental, accidental, almost daydreamy ways. Making a sandwich, taking a shower, sitting in a wrought-iron chair in the Lakehurst mall food court waiting for someone who's late, riding the CTA train and staring at both the passing scene and my own faint reflection super-imposed on it in the window--and suddenly  you find you're thinking about things that end up being important.  It's almost the opposite of awareness, if you think about it.  I think this experience of accidental thinking is common, if perhaps not universal, although it's not something that you can ever really talk to anyone else about because it ends up being so abstract and hard to explain.

Just the first half of a paragraph that is a reward for the pains of living, of reading, of the tactile experience of going through this book page by page, word by word, a work holding the sadness of life, as well as other things like the joy of reading British poetry, or a good civic lesson that happens in an elevator.  (And all of this admittedly under the knowledge that this book is constructed from the intentional notebooks of the author under the auspices of a caring editor.)  Indeed, we might find subtly within these words, something to live by (in our current economy), finding a way, as President Kennedy referenced at Amherst, of avoiding the fate of Robert Frost's The Hired Man, 'nothing to look forward to with hope, nothing to look backward to with pride,' namely, a way toward creative thinking, perhaps even spiritual thinking.

 In this free and open discussion that is a book club, knowing that there are other readers out there who appreciate such work and its brethren, there is much to acknowledge about this author and this particular work.  It is, as the author may have wanted, not something one should really feel inhibited or shy about commenting on, something participatory, like a physical practice of spirituality.  This is a book which opens doors and takes time, a book that has digested the education of one who really was paying attention at a place like Amherst, and how nice to hear an independent voice who may have listened to Commager's gentle nudges about de Tocqueville (and then going on to read it himself), absorbed The Federalist Papers, a voice capable of a sketch of what happened in American civic life in a particular time.

Is there art?  Is there a point to art? Is art a healthy thing, with the context of big important things that happen in a nation such as ours?  The answer is, yes, that such is the large part of civic duty.

We, as a community, as it falls upon us, are called to pick up this book, and read it, and find again its discoveries.  I for one, with a certainty, finds its words speak of Amherst, speak of the richness and freedom of liberal arts, of an education that finally lets us find meaning in what we do when we 'go to work.'  We have barely begun to read this book, by the end of this dedicated month, as it requires our renewed studiousness, but we shall, I hope, continue on with it.

Thank you.

 
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