Wu Man is considered the master of the pipa. If that sentence was complete gibberish, the pipa is a 4 stringed lute-like instrument and Wu Man is a Chinese virtuosi of the instrument. This Tiny Desk Concert shows Wu Man playing three songs, solo.
The songs are, if not traditional Chinese songs, then at least traditional in style. Needless to say they are not for everyone (and really, they’re not even my cup of tea–I’m not downloading it, just watching it), but watching her fingers move on this instrument and really paying attention to the kind of things she’s doing with four strings, it’s quite an impressive feat.
She doesn’t sing, and the songs do not follow western musical structure at all. But it’s an interesting look into Chinese musical culture.
Even if you only watch the first song, it’s worth the time.
[READ: April 29, 2011] The Pale King
[Note: this review is pretty much free from spoilers--some details are given but I don;t think they ruin anything--but it is full of speculation and imaginings of what could have been]
I finished The Pale King today. It took about a month, but that was because I only read it at lunch hour. And I was surprised to find that, unlike with other books, I didn’t always feel up to pushing my lunch hour a few extra minutes to get some extra pages in. Not because I didn’t like the book, but I think it was just really dense and often quite intense.
I’ll also state that I hadn’t been making any kind of notations when I started. Then, a bit of the way through, when I realized there were a lot of characters, I started jotting down some names and characteristics. But then I stopped again, because it was interfering with my absorption of the story as a story (such as it is). So, this review is based on an initial read (yes, I’ll be reading it again in the not too distant future, that’s for sure), without any real note taking.
Is note taking necessary? Well, yes, at least to keep the characters straight. There are many many characters and most of them do not interact (or at least not explicitly) so it’s not always easy to know who is who or which person’s weird characteristics are showing up in any given chapter. Plus, there are dozens of chapters in which unnamed people are described. It’s hard to know how deliberate that was or how much of it is just the fact that book was unfinished.
The other thing is the ending, of course. DFW fiction is notorious for its “lack” of endings. Broom of the System ends mid-sentence, Infinite Jest ends in the middle of a scene, so who can imagine what The Pale King would have ended. As such, we have only to go by editor Michael Pietsch’s placement of chapters.
So, in many respects, this book is very much Pietsch’s project. Sure, DFW wrote all the words, but it was Pietsch’s job to piece them together. Who is to say that DFW would have wanted §50 to end the book? Pietsch also includes about ten pages of notes at the end of the book all showing ideas that DFW had asked himself about the nature of the finished product. Some of these questions are minor, but others are quite significant, and would effect not only connections in the novel, but also the overall shape of the book. It also implies that there could have been as much as another 500 pages coming.
The book feels like a kind of culmination of all of the things that he has been putting into his work for the past few collections. There are character sketches based on interviews (Brief Interviews), there are lengthy sections of bureaucratic minutiae, lovingly rendered (“Mr Squishy”), there are scenes of conformist office work (“The Soul is Not a Smithy”) and there is redemption in the everyday (“This is Water”). The mind reels at what this could have been had it been finished.
So this book is obviously, radically unfinished (and yet it’s still over 500 pages long). So, why bother reading it?
(Here’s where the review really starts).
Because what is here is amazing.
The book is arranged so that there are several short chapters and then some very (impressively) long chapters. §1 is 2 pages, §2 is 19, §3 is 2, §4 is 2 and then §22 is 98 pages. [I promise to not go into whether this was deliberate on DFW's part or anything like that].
These long chapters (and there are several) are absolute tours de force of writing. §22 is a lengthy “interview” with “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle who goes on and on at length about everything. (In true DFW form, there is no explanation as to who is conducting the interview or why it was being done). Some of the things he talks about are amazingly interesting, other things are not so much. But Fogle has no filter, and it’s an incredibly detailed character study into what a filterless person would be like.
And this is interesting because of what the book is exploring. The Pale King is about people who work in the Peoria office of the IRS, processing tax forms (circa 1985). And from pretty much the get-go, readers know that their work is soul-crushingly, mind-numbingly, clock-watchingly boring. Thus, it takes special people to do the job: people who don’t get bored, people who are able to not realize what is boring (and who consequently are pretty boring themselves). And yet, I feel compelled to say that even the boring people (and the boring work) is interesting the way DFW writes it. (True, a chapter like §25, which is literally a chapter of people all turning pages–people we know and many we will never see again is not “unboring” per se, but the rhythm of the writing keeps it interesting even if the content does not).
But we do meet a number of people in detail. Lane Dean Jr was the subject of a few short pieces that appeared in The New Yorker (not all of which were included in the final book). Dean is a fairly normal person and the boredom really gets to him. If the book had been finished one assumes that he would have played an even larger role, since we see so much of his current life and he is so empathetic, being stuck in this mind-benignly tedious work.
But some other folks, like Claude Drinion (who has a marvelous secret that even he doesn’t know) is almost robotic in his interaction with the world. We don’t see him at work, but one imagines him never stopping until it is break time. And yet, for all his inhuman ways, he is an awesome listener, almost because he has no inner voice telling him what to do.
Or what about Leonard Steyck, the boy who is so considerate of others that he pisses everyone off. The boy who is so thoughtful that when he plans a huge party and no one comes (because everyone hates him) except his relatives, by mid-party he is planning on what to do with the extra food and ice cream. What happens to this irritating kid to get him to be a reasonably respected IRS worker? (Part of Steyck’s story was leaked before the book came out and I was delighted to see not only the leaked part here, but also to hear the amazing story of how he earns respect).
And then there’s branch hottie Meredith Rand who is so hot that several of the men she works with can barely function when she’s around. What’s her story? (We learn in exquisite detail in one of the best chapters in the book).
There’s also an amazing section written by the “author” David F. Wallace. Wallace gets two “author’s note” chapters in which he explains that he is writing The Pale King and that it is indeed a memoir of the events that happened in 1985 when he worked for the IRS. The book details his life at the Service (the IRS) and his amazing (and confusing–to him) arrival. These sections are so believable that you can’t help but wonder if DFW really did work in a Peoria IRS branch for a summer. He has the details of the time period perfectly (and it perfectly coincides with DFW’s life), it all seems so real, (mixing tiny bits of his real life in with the fiction) that it’s hard to believe that he made it up. (Of course, we know that DFW did extensive research into the IRS and boredom, so even if he made it up, we know it is based in reality).
The David Wallace story (complete with extensive footnotes) shows him arriving for work at the Peoria office and being mistaken for another David Wallace, a much better, much more impressive candidate who just happens to have his same name and who doesn’t arrive until the next day). And David F. Wallace is shown a side of the IRS office that most of the regular people will never see.
It’s really great. As are the publishing and legal comments that the author makes about the book itself (including referencing the book’s front matter).
The thing that I miss most about this book (and who knows if he even planned to write something like this) is an overview of the office. Or more specifically, a chapter or two about the actual workings of the branch. There was so much detail in IJ about both the tennis academy and the halfway house that I can’t imagine that he would miss the opportunity to give a bird’s eye view of the place (something that would be reminiscent of “The Soul is not a Smithy”‘s imagined scene of his father’s workplace and its oppressive tedium, but you know bigger, grander and probably funnier).
I have to admit that I was actually looking forward to more stuff about the tedium of their job (how is THAT for something you don’t hear very often). The Lane Dean sequence of him just staring at the clock waiting for time to pass is amazing. And I would have enjoyed more scenes like that in the office (watching how more grunts deal with the excruciating job) or, even more so, how the most unusual candidates deal with the job.
For, like with Claude’s secret mentioned above, there is more than a little supernatural at work here. There are spirits who haunt the cubicles, there’s a ghost who directly interacts with Lane Dean and there’s my (now) favorite supernatural “gift/curse” in fiction: Sylvanshine is a “fact psychic,” in other words, random meaningless facts just pop into his head: The population of Brunei, knows [a Hostess Twinkie machine operator's] weight, shoe size, bowling average, how long a piece of gum has been on the underside of a seat (but not who put it there).
There’s also an amazing chapter (§19) in which DFW presents characters trapped in an elevator who are discussing civics. I found it not only interesting as dialogue but relevant as social commentary. Although it is a discussion of Reagan era politics and is not prescient (hindsight and all that), it seems achingly relevant to today’s society where people are far more concerned about themselves than they are about their country. Where civic pride has taken a back seat to what people want for themselves (and where classes in civics simply no longer exist). And since the characters are employees of the IRS, they can say with great passion that people have a duty to their country to pay taxes. While the Reagan era stuff is not predictive in any way, this tax stuff sounds like he is anticipating the Tea Party, and it’s amazing how relevant this chapter seems today.
There’s quite a bit more here as well (no kidding): there’s some kind of plot of terroristic proportions (which is sadly never explained further). There’s some kind of “incident” at the company picnic. And there some very subversive activity from Toni Ware, a character who gets small sections but who warrants so much more. There’s David Cusk, a boy (and eventually an agent) who sweats copiously which makes him self-conscious and nervous which makes him sweat more. There’s a boy whose goal is to touch every part of his body with his lips.
Many of the “plots” (for who knows what was meant to be a plot in the story) are written in DFW’s elliptical style. So the incident at the company picnic is never given any real detail (the main person being questioned is still dosed in some way, so we never find out exactly what happened). There’s an interview with Fogle late in the book in which details are given but it’s unclear what he should do with them. And then there’s The Pale King himself. It seems pretty clear that he is a character named [Glendenning] but as to what the nickname refers, it’s not explicit in the text. Most of the other characters have nicknames (that are quite funny–although often not to them).
It’s hard not to read this book without a feeling of sadness (not even talking about all of the sadness of DFW killing himself and whatnot), just sadness that there is so much here and the story feels so full and rich and yet knowing that the connections will never be completed. Never knowing if DFW even liked the stuff here or is he would have edited it down to a fraction of itself. That word “unfinished” is a real dagger.
At the same time, the story itself is full of sadness. Of people (misfits, really) whose lives are devoid of something and yet who manage to function within this bureaucracy. There are scenes where social interactions are planned out, and we see a microcosm of these misfits trying to fit together. But mostly the just go to bars and drink, some of them hoping to make a connection.
There’s also this, from the notes at the end [and this may be a spoiler, but it's not part of the plot, just a note that DFW wrote in the margins: "He's able to pay attention even in what has to be a staggeringly dull job"]. Some speculation from me: the end pages also say that “Claude Drinion is happy.” Drinion is the robotic man who is able to pay very close attention to what people say. Despite all the things that people see as odd about him, he is happy. DFW really seemed to want people to pay attention to the world around them.
Or perhaps he just wanted people to pay attention to the details of his writing. It certainly pays of in IJ. It’s impossible to know if it would pay handsomely in The Pale King. But this The Pale King is constructed with lots of gaps. A childhood is explained in detail but you are responsible for connecting that child to the adult he or she became. The ellipses in character’s live aren’t as staggering as in IJ, but maybe they would have been.
I know that when I read it next time, I will have pad and pen nearby to try to form a whole from all of the parts. It’s impossible to succeed in that quest, but I’ll try anyhow. But the main reason I will read it again is because it is just so damned good.
And now I’m going to read all of the reviews of the book that I’ve been putting off reading until I finished it.