David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Pale King’ and style

The more I read and write about reading, the less convinced I become that it is possible to talk about a writer’s ‘style’ in a meaningful way. The word ‘style,’ begins with the assumption that there are certain things in a text that can be neatly compartmentalised, anatomised and put in different, clearly labelled Tupperware containers. But we’d never argue that form and content are easily separable from one another, unless we were a fool, which we are not, because we know well that the form that an artwork takes is indissociable from the content that it supposedly contains. Form constitutes an integral part of any text’s processes of meaning-making and is never merely a disposable container of the work itself.

But we still talk about ‘style,’ as if the words on the page were say, replaced by indistinct smudges of wet coal, we could come to an understanding of the way the writer wrote, by elucidating the tempo of these smudges. Awful example. The point is I think when we talk about ‘style,’ we often mistake ‘style’ for what the words are actually saying. For example, I doubt Beckett’s ‘style’ would be referred to so frequently as ‘morbid,’ ‘moribund,’ ‘mordant,’ or ‘pared-back,’ if he didn’t spend so much of his time describing death, decay in witty, economical ways. When we think we’re talking about ‘style,’ we’re often just re-deploying content any varying our vocabulary a bit.

I just finished David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, wishing to understand why he has come to be known as a primo sentencer, but mostly to lecture sanctimoniously to those who will only come to him after having seen The End of the Tour. Anyway, Wallace’s ‘style’ is, I think, notably pliant. It is by turns capable of evoking 1) the concatenating anxiety of Sylvanshine, 2) the neurotic ruminations of the over elucidating prosthesis, the ‘author,’ David Wallace and, perhaps most impressively, his ‘common touch,’ which makes itself known in a sequence of dialogues between a number of unnamed, sometimes un-numbered men, which appear too infrequently.

These stylistic fireworks do much in the service of The Pale King, because, in its unfinished state at least, much of what the novel has to say seems rather disappointingly conservative. Zadie Smith’s critique of Wallace being too over-laudatory of the relationships between quote unquote simple folk, (an oppressively irritating presence in a novel written by a known beneficent of an education from a prestigious university, it really is the noble savage of our time) makes itself known in the aforementioned dialogues, as does the tentatively advanced notions that things ain’t what they used to be, the decadence and luxury of our contemporary milieu has compromised our moral integrity and kids these days don’t want to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

I suspect that a lot of this is bull and on some level, I think Wallace thinks so too, he has a number of characters voice their opposition to these beliefs as being too simplistic. The characters who have initially advanced the views held above accept that this is probably true, and yet these arguments keep re-surfacing. Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about Wallace’s ‘style’ is that he advances via disclaimer, as may be attested to by David Wallace’s (the character-author this time) frequent insistence that what is contained within the novel is all fact, that when he says so he is not indulging in a kind of meta-fictional tease or ‘titty-pincher,’ though of course, he is doing exactly that.


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