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When the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes were announced on April 16, many readers, writers, and publishers were shocked to learn that there would be no winner in Fiction for the first time since 1977. Here’s how the process works: the jury of three read over 300 entries and make a recommendation of three finalists to the board, who then vote on the winner. This year, the board could not achieve a majority in favor of any one of the three finalists: Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Denis Johnson’s Western novella Train Dreams, and David Foster Wallace’s posthumously assembled The Pale King. The board has not made a statement about whether this is intended to communicate that none of the finalists were worthy of the Pulitzer, or that they simply could not agree upon a winner.
Why does all this matter to the common reader, other than the burden incumbent upon one to tote three “Big Novels of the Year” to the beach, rather than the customary single tome?
It doesn’t have to. Your literary taste should be no more dictated by the Pulitzers than your film taste should be determined by the Oscars. (After all, Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer in 1937, and if that’s not a sign of poor judgment, I don’t know what is.) However, examining the three finalists, as I did recently, reveals an interesting trend. All three display, to varying degrees of success, elements of “magical realism,” the matter-of-fact incorporation of supernatural elements into realist settings and characterization.
Reading through the “magical realist” Pulitzer finalists reminded me that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. When Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge collaborated to publish Lyrical Ballads, they decided that Coleridge’s task would be to make the supernatural seem natural, while Wordsworth would be charged with re-enchanting the natural world for readers, making the natural seem supernatural. While Karen Russell and Denis Johnson might be seen as Coleridge’s heirs, David Foster Wallace is more inclined to follow in Wordsworth’s shoes, substituting the IRS for daffodils. Here the Wordsworthian approach is ultimately more successful, if uneven; for Russell and Johnson, unlike the supremely weird Coleridge, the supernatural seems to function as fusty, yet obligatory, window-dressing.
Perhaps the only literary phrase overused more than “magical realism” is “Southern Gothic,” and no summary of Swamplandia! is complete without a liberal application of that label. The novel’s eccentric Southerners are a family who own and operate an alligator theme park in Florida. One of my frustrations with Swamplandia! is that Russell initially employs the Southern Gothic veneer but all too clearly and too soon reveals that there is no magic in the world. Everything is ultimately geared to thwack the reader over the head with the message that adolescent girls may think they’re invulnerable because they wrestle alligators, but their lack of knowledge of the “real” world makes them easy prey. If this served as a takedown of Southern Gothic stereotypes, Swamplandia! would be a far more interesting novel. As it stands, though, the Southern Gothic elements are not critiqued so much as merely discarded.
Swamplandia! is an expansion of a short story featured in Russell’s earlier collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves; Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is the republication of a 2002 short story (repackaged as a novella), and it features a girl raised by wolves. While brevity in itself is no sin, Train Dreams doesn’t seem fully developed to me. It’s a series of sketches from the life of Robert Grainier, a day laborer who loses his wife and child in a wildfire and spends the rest of his life alone in the Northwest. These flashes span from Grainier’s childhood in the late 19th century to his old age in the 1960s, but somehow for me they didn’t amount to the portrait of a man or the portrait of an era or the portrait of a region, as various reviewers have claimed. Grainier seems to take in stride tall tales such as a man shot by his dog or the appearance of his wife’s ghost, but we have little insight into why he accepts the supernatural as part of the warp and woof of his existence.
The Pale King is what “author” David Foster Wallace, claiming to speak directly to readers in several sections of the novel, claims is a “vocational memoir,” focused on the intersecting lives and backstories of a group of accountants at the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center. Many of these lives could be illustrations in fictional form of Wallace’s justly lauded 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, in which he told the assembled graduates that “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration.” But the value of a true education, and the meaning of true freedom, Wallace avers, is to choose what to pay attention to and how to frame it:
If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options [than boredom and frustration]. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Or, as a character in The Pale King puts it:
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable… It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
I relish this theme in both speech and novel form, since the primary rule in my upbringing — along with “Never give anyone a cold-fish handshake” and “Always finish anything you begin” — was “Never say you are bored. Only boring people get bored.” And yet… as I drifted through the The Pale King‘s 500+ pages, I admit I found my attention wandering, several times to such an extent that I considered leaving the book unfinished before being recalled by a fascinating, perhaps even life-changing passage. It’s a reading experience quite unlike any I’ve ever had, and it’s tempting to say that it’s an intentional effect created (whether by Wallace himself or by his editor, Michael Pietsch) to illustrate the attention-deficit dilemma Wallace so convincingly nails as the modern condition.
I’m a tad uncomfortable, though, with claiming, “The book is a masterpiece because, while being about boredom, it bores me!” There’s something disingenuous about meta-boredom, especially if it’s merely the result of the fact that Wallace left the sprawling manuscript unfinished at his death in 2008. While, as Wallace argues in the Kenyon speech, a sign of a well-adjusted life is the ability to keep in mind that the people who tick you off in a checkout line or on the highway may actually have more difficult lives than your own, this isn’t necessarily a virtue one is called to exercise toward fictional characters. On the other hand, there is something artful about the rhythm with which, just as you’ve written off a character as tiresome and juvenile, he accidentally stumbles into an Advanced Tax class in college and encounters the transcendent.
This scene, which the narrator frames with a memory of how he discounted his Christian roommate’s girlfriend’s conversion story, only to find himself undergoing a similarly inexplicable experience, is, for me, the heart of The Pale King. The Advanced Tax professor’s equating of accounting with heroism echoes Wallace’s Kenyon speech line: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” When the professor ends his lecture with the words, “Gentleman, you are called to account,” it captures, with a hint of Wallace’s self-deflating humor, the truth that paying attention to the mundane, and entertaining the possibility that we may not see it in its entirety, is both a spiritual discipline and a vocation — a calling — in the Christian sense.
So, despite my qualms about whether I’m reading into The Pale King more artistic merit than is actually there, it remains by far the most memorable of the three Pulitzer finalists for me. It’s not a novel I would recommend for everyone, but you can be the judge of how you want to devote your hours. For we are called to account — to account for what we choose to pay attention to, for how we spend our time and our talents. There are worse ways to spend them than reading David Foster Wallace.
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