Can Always Count on Lev

I see that the esteemed “critic” Lev Grossman makes that GQ article on Pale King look like a genius work.

“Despite its shattered state and its unpromising subject matter, or possibly because of them, The Pale King represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist,” says Lev Grossman in TIME. While much praise was heaped on Infinite Jest, that novel was at once “great” and “borderline unreadable.” With The Pale King, Wallace “achieves power levels… never reached in his first two novels.” It’s not perfect, given its tragic, unfinished circumstances, but it has “an emotionally raw quality” that’s missing in his other work.

So apparently morbid depression and suicide were the keys Wallace was lacking in the first two novels. For God’s sake, make it stop . . .

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My favourite part of all this was when I read Dave Eggers initial review of Infinite Jest (hated it), and then his eulogy of DFW after his suicide (loved him and loved Infinite Jest). From that, I was certain how the reception to The Pale King would play out.

Dying has always been a strong career move. Suicide is even better, because then it allows one to find additional ‘meaning’ in all the little scribbles and doodles left lying around. It’s particularly wonderful when you (the reviewer “you”) are able to load every fragmented sentence and unfinished paragraph with all manner of profundity because the author is unable to refute it.

It’s a shame, really, because these reviews become more about the reviewers ability to engage in hyperbole rather than the strength of their criticism. One cannot reasonably criticise The Pale King – at least not in a mainstream press article – because the literary Seal of Approval was stamped upon the unfinished work on September 12, 2008, and won’t be removed for years thanks to the gross obsession mainstream critics have with creative people who “died before their time”, an obsession which blinds them to everything but the tawdry sensationalism of the persons death, as though it’s a rare and mysterious thing when it happens to an author, musician or actor.

Dying has effectively canonised Wallace well before he was due. I don’t see that changing soon, and it’s a shame really, as much of his work is unreadable and overly indulgent.

Damian: I’ll go you one better. Wallace’s death has given some people the green light to begin turning him into some latter-day cultural guru. Ahh, the complete bastardization of an extremely complex and nuanced body of work in the name of giving people an icon to follow. Wallace would have been appalled.

Yes. And to think, it’s happened twice in recent years, with Roberto Bolaño being the other unfortunate.

Damian, where can I find Dave Eggers’s negative review of Infinite Jest?

I have to say I find all this moaning about the reviews quite annoying. Why would any serious reader care what TIME’s esteemed Lev Grossman has to say about The Pale King? Maybe it’s the wrong place to level the charge, but when has the contemporary critical reaction to a novel ever mattered to the novel’s eventual reputation/canonization/exegesis? As if Lev Grossman et. al. are really capable of besmirching DFW’s legacy…And the make snide remarks about the undergraduate-level English of the reviewers, the pleads to “make it stop,” are, to me, the equivalent of trumpeting the travesty of injustice committed by the Academy Awards in giving the Oscar to The King’s Speech rather than Jonas Mekas’s latest film.

And respectfully, Mr. Kelleher, if you consider the work of the 20th century’s Greatest and Most Tragic Cultural Icon “unreadable,” I think the problem lies with you (but seriously though).

The first three comments to this blog post are better than all the hyperbolic media coverage of The Pale King.

qwerty, i believe damian is talking about the foreward eggers wrote for infinite jest, it wasn’t a negative review. i would like to mention that i also disliked that foreward.

and wow, infinite jest borderline unreadable? surely this is only because of its length. and even then lev should say something like “borderline unmanageable.” i think the prose is stellar and consistently so. it doesn’t have the same unreadability quotient as say gravity’s rainbow [you knew i was going to say that didn’t you] which has defeated me on more than one occasion.

For clarity’s sake, Damian is not referring to the foreword. Eggers first wrote a very negative review of IJ before praising it extravagantly in a foreword to the 10th anniversary edition. Some info here, although I’m not sure the original review is still available online.

And yes, anyone who finds the prose in IJ challenging has not read truly challenging prose.

ahhh, i was quick to assume on that one. interesting..i should track that down.

Believe it or not, it was the McSweeny’s website which pointed me in the direction of the Eggers/Eggers critical face-off.

I believe they linked to a page which had the initial review (written when IJ was published) side by side with either Eggers’ foreword to IJ later on, or his comments when the author died (I think the latter). It was eye opening, to say the least. I’ll see if I can find it over the weekend.

For me, IJ is “unreadable” in the sense of it is 700 pages too long. What it does it does well, but it doesn’t need to do it so much. I liked the short story focus of The Broom of the System, and I also liked much of Girl With Curious Hair. Wallace’s schtick exhausts around the forty-page mark, but before that it’s certainly nice to read.

One of the posts Scott made re: Perec’s Life contained an extract from Gabriel Josipovici’s essay on the novel, and in it he writes,

“When English or American writers conceive of a Major Novel they can only think of it as an Ordinary Novel blows up (think of Burgess, Mailer, Pynchon)”

And to me, that hits the nail on the head. I would certainly include Wallace with this, as well as Barth. Though not Gass.

A normal novel made larger is not better, and is in fact often worse. Hence “unreadable” which, though harsh, sits about right with me. I won’t ever read IJ again, because it’s too long and I have better things to do. But some of his short work? Sure.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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