David Foster Wallace Wrote Two Novels, and The Pale King Is Not One of Them

The American writer David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, at the age of 46, having authored two novels. He also had published some excellent nonfiction and short stories. But novel-wise, that was his literary output: two books (one of which was very long).

That basic set of facts made it confusing to read, in the New York Times on Friday, Michiko Kakutani’s review of a book published under the title

The Pale King

, and in the name of Wallace, which she described as a “posthumous unfinished novel.” This project or literary event had been in the pipeline quite publicly and for a while, yet those three words, as a description of a published book with a specific final length and price (548 pages, $27.99), are moths eating holes in the whole project of the review.

What is this book? If it were a David Foster Wallace novel, Wallace would have sent it to his publisher himself. It was made out of ”

heaps of pages

,” Time magazine reported, stuffed into a duffel bag by Wallace’s editor. Maybe, in a world where Wallace kept on living, the collection of words would have turned out to have been half of a novel. Maybe it would have been one compact novel and a one collection of short fiction. Maybe it would have been tinder for bonfire.

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!

[H]is novels, stories and articles so often defied closure and grew and grew and grew, sprouting tendrils and digressions and asides — because in almost everything Wallace wrote, including “The Pale King,” he aimed to use words to lasso and somehow subdue the staggering, multifarious, cacophonous predicament that is modern American life

—well, fine, but perhaps unlike Wallace’s published works, The Pale King defies closure because IT IS NOT A FINISHED NOVEL.

If this object made of paper is to be understood as the final holy relic of a literary saint, wonderful, Wallace was a great writer. Take it as apocrypha and enjoy what’s there. But what can a reader of Wallace possibly make of a passage of criticism like this:

Happiness, Wallace suggests in a Kierkegaardian note at the end of this deeply sad, deeply philosophical book, is the ability to pay attention, to live in the present moment, to find “second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.”

Except to say, as a matter of plain truth, that this passage about happiness, delivered via duffel bag, is not “at the end”—that is, David Foster Wallace did not put it there.