David Foster Wallace’s “posthumous unfinished novel,” The Pale King, has arrived — let the commentating begin.
Over at Slate, Tom Scocca tears down Michiko Kakutani’s review of the new book, and of the whole notion, more generally, that a deceased author should be evaluated based on work that he never completed.
Scocca, in blistering form:
It’s not so much a problem of Art—David Foster Wallace took himself out of the conversation about what David Foster Wallace wanted, after all—as a problem of craft. The Pale King is not a finished object. Reviewing it as a novel is like eating whatever was in a dead person’s fridge and calling it a dinner party and comparing it to the dinner parties the deceased gave in the past.
Evaluation is beside the point. Kakutani, gamely taking things at face value, wrote that the book was “lumpy but often stirring”—well, why wouldn’t it have lumps? It’s not a finished novel.
And: “this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity.” But why would it be continuous? It’s not a finished novel.
“‘The Pale King’ is less inventive and exuberantly imagined than Wallace’s previous novels.” But it is not a finished novel.
It is “[t]old in fragmented, strobe-lighted chapters”—but it is not a finished novel!
Meanwhile, a second New York Times piece by Sam Anderson does a thoughtful job (I think) of addressing the awkwardness inherent in writing about an unfinished work. Here’s Anderson:
These complications are further complicated by the fact that it’s hard to even talk about how “unfinished” “The Pale King” is. The book is a collation of material that was left in Wallace’s office at the time of his death — 12 polished chapters stacked neatly on his desk, the remaining hundreds of pages scattered through notes and files and disks in various stages of revision. All of which is yet further complicated by the fact that, in his finished work, Wallace always used incompleteness, very consciously, as a narrative tool. (“Infinite Jest” ends nowhere, with a million big questions unresolved.) A truly unfinished Wallace novel, then, is exponentially hard to chart — it’s as if Picasso had accidentally tipped a bucket of blue paint over the corner of one of his blue-period paintings. How do we distinguish between intentional and unintentional blue? What does unfinished unfinishedness look like?