Wednesday, April 27, 2011

PALE SPRING: When You Were Inside Them They Ceased To Be Clouds (§1 - §9)

[The first in a series of posts that I'll be making for the blog-through of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, all of which can be found, in the future, at Pale Spring.]

If we are what we eat, then we are also what we read (or devour, in the case of David Foster Wallace), and so it is that §1, which only seems to be a simple (but rich) list of descriptions, dictates what we can expect of The Pale King, and what we can expect The Pale King to do to us. This opening is a shell-game of perspectives, far more than "coins of sunlight" sparkling on a "tobacco-brown river." It is, almost immediately, a series of contradictions, for while it is a "very old land" shaped with "quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs," it is also a place with a singular moment in which "an arrow of starlings [fire] from the windbreak's thatch," and a place newly anointed with "dew that stays where it is and steams all day." It is an "untilled" place, but it is processed enough to look like "flannel plains."

The ground from above is "blacktop graphs," the sky from below is "ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow" (and thereby the two never touch). From where you stand (note the second-person intrusion, the reader joining the author), things are defined and definite: "insects all business all the time." And yet, down the road from where you find "Your shoes' brand incised in the dew," we have the unshaped: "The horizon trembling, shapeless." In a moment, we will join Claude Sylvanshine en-route to Peoria via plane (§2); we shall then eavesdrop on two GS-9s in their "mindless monochrome drive up to Region HQ in Joliet" (§3); catch up on some IRS-related news (§4); flashback with Leonard Stecyk (§5), Lane A. Dean Jr. (§6), and Thomas Bondurant (§7); sit for a spell in a trailer park with Toni Ware and her mother "abroad again in endless night" (§8); and catch up with "the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona" (§9), and in this notably un-annular way, we will stress the kicker of that opening paragraph, which states that for all that we may see, experience, or be, "We are all of us brothers."

Anything can happen when we play with perspective in this fashion: the worms baked (and then unbaked) in the earth each day will constantly make new shapes in the ground; the "core accounting equation A = L + E can be dissolved and reshuffled into everything from E = A - L to beyond." The word "illiterate," repeated with the frequency of a oscillating propeller, can cease to mean anything and yet still be lovely in itself. So as we travel, let us pay closer attention to the things we do share in common with one another -- the worms themselves, and not the shapes they temporarily make up -- and consider the twins of entertainment and boredom that we so often use in casual conversation to connect us. Let old stalwarts like "How 'bout them Yankees?" or "Lovely weather today, no?" give way to the underlying mindlessness they represent in our "safe" interactions; as Wallace puts it: "The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not" and "The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception's objects."

So what is it that we all have in common? What it is that Wallace wants to show us as he moves from the aerial overview to a slow decent ("mainly a heightening of the specificity of what lay below") toward a parking lot, "Each car not only parked by a different human individual but conceived, designed, assembled from parts each one of which was designed and made, transported, sold, financed, purchased, and insured by human standards, each with life stories and self-concepts that all fit together into a larger pattern of facts." If it is the anxiety that comes with being unable to recognize ourselves (or ourselves in others, thereby leading to distrust), then let us listen to these fears; let us see them and in seeing them, be unafraid.

The unnamed GS-9 makes me worried that others will not understand me. Frederick Blumquist makes me worried that no-one will notice that I am gone. Leonard Stecyk makes me worried that I will never be good enough, and worried that, in realizing this, I will never really try to be good enough. Lane A. Dean Jr. makes me worried that I am not a good person, simply because I worry that I may not be a good person. (He worries that "He might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself.") Additionally, worried that I, who have only rarely been in love, might have "no earthly idea what love is." Worried that, like Toni Ware, I have become so accustomed to life the way it is that I have limited myself from what might or should be. Worried, like Sylvanshine, that man is nothing more than "the exact pocket of space that he displaces," and terrified, like Wallace, that there is "some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us (whether or not we're consciously aware of it) spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling with our full attention." But hopeful, too, in that we are all brothers, and that there is more than mere distraction. That as I stand here, in the dew-stricken pasture, affirming that everything is affixed, there lies change -- or the potential for change -- down the horizon, where none of us can entirely see.

No comments: