Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Pale Kings

David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel is brilliant; there’s no other way to describe it, focusing on the Internal Revenue service in a time where taxes are hotly debated in this election season, focusing on the comical clerks and accountants who populate the organization, plus riffs on the various political views and actors who influence tax policy, all in an amusing and highly entertaining tone without degrading the high theme, right smack into the debate on the role of government. Great writers are those who detect the pulse of their society, Wallace’s book though unfinished when he died, is a tome that displays his talent in focusing on the major concern long before it reached the news worthy proportions of today, accurately predicting that it’s a commendable subject for his talents. His voice reminds me of Thomas Pynchon, especially his book ‘Inherent Vice’, both comical but subtly displaying the absurdity of reality, a better story than those in books by his friend Jonathan Franken, who prefers to focus on social drama, like it were a television show, high end writing about essentially silly stuff.

I am also reading Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, herself a recent celebrated writer who just won the latest literary award (that escapes me at the moment), a wonderful book of social drama, with stories about an aging rock and roll executive and his pretty assistant, lacking perhaps the underlying seriousness of another author James O’Neill with his recent book ‘Netherland’, a book that focused on the sub culture of cricket playing immigrants in New York after 9/11, a book that I enjoyed very much especially its take on Bush and the neo-conservatives. Excepting Pynchon, Wallace is the superior writer when compared with the other writers discussed above, although I have not read his other novels and considering ‘The Pale Kings’ was unfinished and heavily edited by an editor, he still has a vibrant voice that slightly reminds one of George Orwell especially the book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. Orwell is the standard when talking about important writers who focus on the important themes of society, his novels ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ are the gold standard in comic absurdity without losing the high theme of political organization or centralized government or totalitarianism.

The late writer Christopher Hitchens’ book ‘Why Orwell Matters’ is an excellent essay on Orwell’s influence, coming from a writer with decidedly right wing tendencies, who was disgustingly critical of Jacqueline Kennedy in a Vanity Fair article, not realizing that she should be elevated to sainthood by the sheer fact of witnessing her husband’s brutal assassination, in turn losing her eldest son later in life though after her own death; a tragic family in any way imaginable; nevertheless Hitchens is superb in some of his arguments despite the occasional lapses in English snobbery. There does not seem to be any great English writers today in the same level as Orwell, the mantle passed to writers like Wallace or Pynchon or James O’Neill, authors who can write about the absurdities of life while focusing on great subjects, not succumbing to the Hollywood predilection for silly social drama, even the well written one. Perhaps it is like the comparison between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, great men who have done great things (the pale kings?) but the later one focusing on the difficult tasks while the former kicking the can of (health care) down the road to the next administration though balancing the budget and having a surplus (with the help of Newt Gingrich). One is chasing women and squandering his potential (silly social drama) and the other a decent family man unafraid to make difficult but unpopular decisions.

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