The careers of great artists seem preternaturally suited to give rise to great ironies. This is probably to do with the fact that personal demons tend to be sublimated into art, as well as that the greatest artists are visionaries, leaving the culture to stumble as it catches up with them. Certain of these ironies can be seen in the reviews since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous notes toward a novel, now known as The Pale King. The irony here is that, though Wallace devoted no small part of his fiction to dissecting the dangers of addiction, fame, and celebrity in an American society that has fostered it to a more extreme degree than almost all others, a large chunk of the American critical establishment reacted to the publication of his final fictional blast as addicts to celebrity culture. Apparently, the withdrawal has even gotten so bad that at least one commentator even declared The Pale King Wallace’s greatest “novel.” The hyperventilation and hyperinflation surrounding The Pale King is directly attributable to two things: the reputation Wallace developed as the author of Infinite Jest and the reputation Infinite Jest itself developed. Almost immediately upon publishing his masterpiece, Wallace was rocketed to the very front ranks of American writers. In the culture’s estimation, he became not only a gifted wordsmith and a philosophical intellect worthy of wrestling with the great ideas that animated millennial America; he also developed his own cultish legend, that of damaged genius who had almost been felled by his own immense powers, then had gloriously triumphed over them and bent them to the production of an almost unimaginably large and complex novel. After Infinite Jest, so the story went, he was on the loose, looming at large with shotgun cocked and ready.
more from Scott Esposito at The Quarterly Conversation here.