Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Affirming life with The Pale King, of all books

I have now officially finished reading The Pale King. I make a special point of mentioning that I've finished, because it has been my habit to opine at some length about a book I am only halfway through ... only to discover that you kinda do need to read the whole book to understand what it's about. Also, I am very proud of myself. This is a long book--ultimately unfinished by the author himself, as we know--and it is full of tax-law arcana, which is fascinating in that it was fascinating to DFW.* But not at all fascinating otherwise.

I mean, what sort of mind can engage itself with that stuff at that level of detail? Of course, that's the central question The Pale King asks. And the answers within the book differ from those we've learned from DFW's biography. We all know that the author committed suicide before finishing the novel. So that suggests the mind in question was not a conventionally healthy one. But I just went back and added "conventionally" before "healthy," because without the adverb, the adjective seemed to cast judgment on that mind. Despite the terrible end to DFW's life, it seems, from the evidence of this book alone, that there was something right about his mind, something good and powerful, which may or may not spring from the same well as his depression.

I also think it's a mistake to look for clues to "what pushed him over the edge" within this book--even though I had avoided reading it precisely because I thought it would be littered with such clues. Reading it seemed somehow ghoulish, and I feared being sucked into depression myself. Yet nothing of the sort happened. I was able to forget, or put aside, my knowledge of Wallace's death, because the book is so full of ... yes, life. It's energetic, hilarious, compassionate, fascinated and amused by the most ordinary aspects of human life, sometimes frightening, and also pretty stark raving crazy. If anything, I found myself wondering, Why would a person who saw the world this way want to die?

I don't know the answer. But if I had to guess, I'd say that he couldn't sustain this level of embracing joy. Perhaps he could not even reach it at all, and this book is an act of straining toward what he could never actually grasp. Or maybe (like most of us, really) he grasped it only for brief instants, and the slipping away of that joy was unbearable to him. I was thinking about an episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge on NPR last weekend, the topic of which was "Why Do We Love Sad Songs?" One segment concerned the supposedly saddest piece of music ever written, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. The author of a book about that piece, Thomas Larson, explained how Barber wrote it during one of the happiest times of his life. An artist, he said, does not need to be in the same mood as the work he is creating. Rather, he needs to have access to that emotion--and that access might, in fact, depend on distance. In other words, if Barber had actually been that sad, he might not have been able to write that piece at that time. The reverse might be true of Wallace.

*Yes, I skimmed a lot of that. And some of the footnotes.

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