Since David Foster Wallace couldn’t promote The Pale King, others decided to read publicly from his posthumous novel on his behalf. In Los Angeles, for instance, actors from various television shows I’ve not seen as well as Henry Rollins (for some reason) signed on to “bring Wallace’s work to life,” according to the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy.
Although I’ve already expressed my dislike for The Pale King in a review for my local paper and in a previous dispatch, I’ll give one more illustration of what irks me about his method and then be done with it. The receptacle of quirks embodying information overload that Wallace names Claude Sylvanshine is declared a “fact psychic,” someone who intuits useless data. The facts that come to him out of nowhere are “ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting.”
They’re also, at least sometimes, not facts at all.
Wallace has Sylvanshine unintentionally realize something about “the 1938 featherweight WBA champ.” Yet no such fighter existed. The National Boxing Association, founded in 1921, didn’t become the World Boxing Association until 1962. In addition, the phrasing here suggests that sanctioning bodies (whose initials usually precede weight classes in references to championship titles) award their belts on an annual basis, which they don’t. When Henry Armstrong decided not to defend his crown after knocking out Petey Sarron in 1937, New York’s top 126-pounder, Mike Belloise, faced Joey Archibald for the NBA’s championship in 1938. Archibald won and held the title until 1940, when he lost it to Harry Jaffra, and he then retrieved it from Jaffra the following year.
What bothers me about this is not that Wallace didn’t know boxing history or patois – even though it would not have been hard to look up any of this stuff. Instead, it’s that he tries to have it both ways: facts pop unbidden into Sylvanshine’s skull and yet inaccuracies do not matter. The facts Sylvanshine magically registers are “not incorrect,” Wallace writes, incorrectly, “just irrelevant, pointless.” Wallace says: “The fact psychic lives part-time in the world of fractious, boiling minutiae that no one knows or could be bothered to know even if they had the chance to know.” Perhaps, then, getting things wrong doesn’t matter, since no one knows these kinds of things anyway. Well, except for those who do bother to know them…
One might suggest that Wallace simply made a mistake here, or that he intended the false fact as a small joke for the few readers likely to notice it. Then again, perhaps Wallace fans would simply say of solecisms like this, as the Wallace character in the novel says at one point, “Although, you know, whatever.”
Reading fiction in which the writer’s deliberate decisions might count for little or nothing made me think of a scrupulously careful novelist who did believe conscious choices made all the difference. More specifically, it brought to mind this passage from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood, Stephen continued, make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art?” I’m not calling Wallace an indiscriminate hacker, but I can’t call The Pale King a work of art either.