Criticism and The Pale King

Posted by @ 2:26 pm on March 31st, 2011

Elegant but problematic write-up on The Pale King in GQ by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Read it for the elegance, but I’d like to unfairly isolate the review’s conclusion, which alarmed me for the reasons articulated below. Quote:

Wallace’s work will be seen as a huge failure, not in the pejorative sense, but in the special sense Faulkner used when he said about American novelists, “I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” Wallace failed beautifully. There is no mystery whatsoever about why he found this novel so hard to finish. The glimpse we get of what he wanted it to be—a vast model of something bland and crushing, inside of which a constellation of individual souls would shine in their luminosity, and the connections holding all of us together in this world would light up, too, like filaments—this was to be a novel on the highest order of accomplishment, and we see that the writer at his strongest would have been strong enough. He wasn’t always that strong.

Insightful, or regurgitation of the “humanist” DFW diet? At what point will critics realize that there is not one single sense to DFW’s work–that is, Wallace as what Kyle Beachy, ironically or not, called the “empathy machine,” the brain with a heartbeat? There is no question that this caricature of Wallace suits our time, but it nevertheless should be considered as just that: a pitiful reduction of what Wallace demands, and the ensnaring of criticism in the dangerous matrix of “human values”–as if he awoke from his postmodern slumber merely to mourn the “souls who would shine”–which is, incidentally, my answer to Blake’s recent post. Answer: a critic should be critical, a problem which will be the challenge and measure of reviewing The Pale King.

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