I read David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King” in late April, soon after its release date, but our introduction felt secondhand. It was like meeting a friend whose reputation had preceded him. Every page seemed filtered through the viewpoints of pundits of every stripe and pedigree, whom I’d consumed in the media frenzy anticipating the novel. Boredom! IRS! Taxes! Consciousness! It gave me the sensation of operating in reverse, just like grad school, where we read theorists like Derrida and Zizek and Foucault and only later, on our own, did we read the original texts they referred to.
This order of consumption — reviews followed by novel — isn’t my normal order. Normally I avoid information pre-book. I shun book flaps. I steer clear of Publishers Weekly. I throw away the cheat sheets from publishers and skip tell-all blog posts. Even reviews, which implicitly promise to limit spoilers, I avoid (even though I plan to return to them after reading the book). My ideal situation for reading is to arrive at a book without any preliminary knowledge and let the actual writing do the heavy lifting.
But Wallace’s posthumous book upstaged my ideals. Interviews from his widow Karen Green, overviews of the oeuvre, connections between “The Pale King” and his previous work, online excerpts in a variety of publications — it was all too irresistible. I succumbed to literary gluttony, spending far too much time trolling Twitter for new links and my favorite sites — thank you, The Millions — for articles gushing about the genius of the bandannaed fictioneer. “The Pale King” was compared to Kafka’s unfinished masterpiece “The Castle.” It was praised in measured but certainly laudatory terms. Most importantly, it was described and summarized and analyzed: It’s about boredom, as opposed to the entertainment of Infinite Jest. It deals with a number of IRS agents, including a character named David Foster Wallace. It’s about taxes.
It’s those “abouts” which skewed my reading. All those “abouts” didn’t let me come to a realization of what it was about. The meaning was forced on me.
While the first hundred pages only obliquely deal with taxes and boredom, I had been conditioned by the onslaught of coverage to see taxes and boredom everywhere. Those two ideas (among others) were a lens for the book. I couldn’t read cleanly, and for a book like this, I really wanted to read cleanly, without any kind of pre-arranged insights.
I try to read without presuppositions not because I dislike the role of reviewers but because I value the role of authors. The author deserves first chance to woo. After all, the author has carefully arranged the sequence of information — place, identity, events, relationships. The order isn’t meaningless. If a certain character doesn’t enter the scene until the second chapter, that’s because the narrative structure required that timing. If the reader doesn’t discover the location until the end of the first scene, it’s because that scene is meant to be read without knowing the place.
It’s not just sequence, though. Reviewers often state unambiguously what is revealed ambiguously in the story. Or the dawning of information comes gradually, through a number of subtle clues, and the reader is meant to come to that knowledge almost intuitively, rather than having it dumped a priori.
Reviewers often assume that it’s only about giving away the ending, as though the ending were more important than the premise. I don’t think this is true. Ask any author how much time they spend on the first chapter, and you’ll wind up with a value quite high compared to the ratio of the other parts. The premise can be spoiled just as much as the ending.
It’s ironic that that I’m using “The Pale King” as an example of how readers can have their introduction to a book spoiled, because David Foster Wallace didn’t choose the order of his posthumous title, his editor Michael Pietsch did. But I think the principle still holds. I love reading a book for the general dawn of information over my consciousness, as I discover information for myself. In a way, every book is a detective story, and we are thrilled by the discovery of every new clue. And with the complex web of character and details and genre that Wallace creates, the chapters could have been shuffled into any order and I still would have wanted to approach the book without any foreknowledge.
For me, at least, the proper time to read book reviews is not before the book, but after. It’s more like a conversation and less like a lecture. Instead of blindly relying upon the reviewer’s judgment, I can weigh their assertions against my own experience of the book, and confirm my insights, shift my vision of the work, or disagree with their reading. Their information and insight carries more weight, post facto. I also remember their claims and positions much better, because I know the book they’re referring to.
Reviewers (of which I count myself one) will likely cry foul here. How will readers know which books to read? By an old method that is currently conveyed through new media: word of mouth. If a trusted friend, whether online or off, tells me to read a book, I will. And if he or she starts to tell me what it’s about, I’ll just shush them, and tell them in a few weeks, and only in a few weeks, we can talk.