Exclusive: The First Lines of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

March 15, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 27

coverWhen David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, he left behind an unfinished manuscript and a number of fragments that, with the efforts of his long-time editor Michael Pietsch, has become The Pale King, to be released next month amid the high expectations of the late writer’s many fans. The book’s lyrical opening sentence, printed below, may be familiar to Wallace completists. It opens a brief piece called “Peoria (4)” that appeared in the fall 2002 issue of Triquarterly. That piece, which can be found in PDF form here, in its entirety makes up the opening sentences of The Pale King. (Recently, according to handful of blogs, the opening of The Pale King was read on a BBC radio program and some incomplete transcriptions of this appeared online.)

The opening sentence of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

27 comments:

  1. I don’t write these few lines to provoke; I am truly interested in what others
    will have to say. I am not a huge fan of Wallace, though I have read one
    of his books. I am moved to write because I read this first sentence and my
    first thought was that it was not a good sentence. Wanting to be reasonable,
    though, I read the sentence a second and a third time, smiling to myself
    as I wondered what a high-school English teacher might say at having to
    diagram the thing. Then, as I read it a fourth time, trying to cut out all the
    subordinate material so as to get at the basic sentence, I wound up not
    being sure that it was a sentence at all. And while beginning a novel
    with an elliptical sentence is allowable, such a long one merely calls
    attention to itself without giving the reader (me, anyway) the satisfaction
    of having read a sentence. What is the very in this thing? Can somebody
    help me out? Again, I don’t write merely to provoke, but to get some
    information. Thanks.

  2. robert, hi. it is a sentence. don t worry about it. it comes to mind an essay from zadie Smith, where, she, if i remember correctly, said that wallace imitates in a new way, the way in which some old writers like H James broke the linear thought trough this kind of work that youve been having trouble with. the opinnion on wallace may be turn 160 degrees depending on which book youve read, and depending on if you finished it or not. I have read him in spanish first, and in english later, and he sounds amazing in both languages, somehing not every writer has.
    I have read the peoria pieces before, and theyre both one of my favorite excerpts ever, so, for my everything about it will by filled with good sentences. besides, dont know if yove read stuff like pynchon, or coover, etc, the naked lunch burroughs, they all do theese kind of tricks and ther are all wonderful.
    thanks.

  3. What is the very in this thing?

    If I understand the question, it asks why this DFW sentence is special. I found it helpful to click through and read the entire “Peoria (4)” piece. It’s not long and it offers more detail, more scenery, more of the narrator’s mindscape.

    The long list of prairie flora does little for me directly, I’d be able to connect only dandelion and goldenrod to a picture. It does alert me that this narrator sees a lot of detail where I’d only see a bit of fallow ground next to a river. If I pay attention I might learn something.

  4. Hello to the two people who answered (and any others who may have just
    read my comment. I was so intent on writing in a neutral tone that I paused
    so long over whether or not to use the word “thing” to describe the beginning
    words of DFW’s novel that I messed up and left out words. What I wanted
    to ask was, more or less, “What is the basic foundation and structure of
    the sentence (if it is a sentence). Again, I understand the fact that elliptical
    sentences are fine to use, and I don’t have negative reactions to them.
    (But I think one would read a long, long time in Henry James before finding
    one).

    Anyway, as far as I can read, the words say–and I’m paraphrasing here not
    to be in any way jokey, but simply to simplify the sentence–“Past the so-and
    so, and past the thus-and such, to the place beyond the windbreak , where
    this plant and that plant and this plant and that plant, all heads nodding in
    a morning breeze.”

    So. I do not paraphrase these words in order to minimize them, but t help
    find out if the words add up to a sentence. I believe I’m missing a verb
    in these words. If “nodding” were “nod,” for instance, I would hear a
    sentence. (And again, to fans of the author, I do not want to denigrate him,
    only to find out if the beginning of his new novel starts with a sentence or
    not. As I recall, the beginning of “The Corrections” began with an
    elliptical sentence, (though it was a lot shorter, probably), and I liked that
    novel. I am simply seeking information here, and thank anybody who
    helps me.

  5. I believe I can provide a simple gloss on the essence of this sentence…The key is to understand that here Wallace is using the colon in place of the missing main verb (and, in a way, the missing noun) you are seeking, which is a (sort of) one of the proper functions of a colon. Viewed in such a way, the sentence reads something like this, simplified:

    “Past [list of things including graphs, skyline, plains, etc.], and past the river to the place beyond it, where there are fields, (and here is where the colon is, but instead of colon read this instead), there are or one sees or we see or he/she (if a character is being described) sees [list of types of trees, brush foliage, whatever], all of them looking like heads gently nodding, etc….”

    It is decidedly not a sentence out of Strunk and White, but while it certainly stretches the rules, bends them even to the will of the perceptions being described, I feel confident it is a sentence. If you’ve ever read Wallace on grammar (he wrote and talked about it a lot), you will feel pretty certain he knows what he’s doing sentence-wise, even when it seems tortuous or just weird.

    I’m tempted to launch into a long defense of this sentence here, the way it seems to me to be mimicking certain aspects of perception we have taught ourselves to rush past and through without even recognizing or acknowledging (though whoever the perceiver here is does not), and then ends with a lyrical image that makes the cataloguing of flora and fauna personal…but since this is all I’ve read so far, I will resist.

    Does that help at all? And please know that nothing in this post is intended as at all snarky or snide or even defensive. I actually love the question, because it forced me to read this sentence a number of times…(which may be why I’m such a fan of poetry—the best of it forces me to reread sentences, phrases, lines multiple times).

  6. To Richard:

    Your explanation is truly elegant. I don’t know if I accept it wholly, but I
    wholly enjoy and appreciate it. You are wonderful in your gloss–you give
    the writer not only a verb, but also a noun. Thus, you have slipped in a
    complete sentence inside what I believe to be an elliptical sentence.

    No, I don’t find your reply snarky or snide or defensive. When I say I think it’s
    wonderful, that’s exactly what I mean (and you are not given, as I am, to
    parenthetical expressions which run on so long that the closing parenthesis
    is forgotten).

    I thank you for your response and am truly grateful for it. If I were a politician,
    I would pay you a fortune to be my press secretary. You write so very
    well. I am a poetry fan, too, which may help explain my initial four readings
    of this sentence trying to find a verb.

    Best to you,

    B.G.

  7. I keep intending to get back to reading a book, but DFW’s words niggle at
    my attention, and so I read Peoria (4), and now know more than I did. I
    read the first page, and there are–if I counted correctly–24 sentences. Of
    these sentences, only four are complete sentences. Now I know what I did
    not know so well before: Wallace loves to write beautiful, mostly longish
    sentence fragments. Which is fine with me. Lots of authors will start out
    with this style, then use it less as the book gets into the swing of the narrative.

    Thanks again to anyone who tried to help me.

  8. What is the very in this thing?

    Okay, it was a typo. Addressing the question “What is the *verb* in this thing?” I agree, there is none. No subject either, that I can find. Ergo, no sentence.

    I can imagine a couple of scenarios where the quoted DFW text might occur in speech. Had I asked the location of an object, the narrator might have responded, “Past etc.” Or we might be jumping into the middle of a conversation. “We drove …”, the narrator paused. “Past etc.”

    Anyway, I didn’t notice the missing parts of speech until I read the comments. Thanks.

  9. B.G.: You are much too kind (particularly now that I notice the inelegant typos in my earlier post!), but thank you for the very nice words. Even if you don’t buy my gloss completely, I’m certainly glad you enjoyed it! And thank you for raising the question to begin with–it really is a great one, and I think we’ve all benefitted in some way from rereading DFW’s words, even if only to clarify our own thoughts and reactions to them. Exchanges like this are one of the very reasons I have grown to love sites like this one.
    Best, Richard

  10. I just want to say that I’ve grown so weary of reading comments on DFW, because people tend have such strong opinions about his writing. Many people seem to love him or hate him and of course they’re more likely to comment, getting very huffy-puffy and heading straight for absolute statements and (sometimes) insults. So it was somewhat surprising to read Robert and Richard and everyone in the comments here actually being nice to each other and seriously/sincerely discussing the merits of DFW’s work. On a blog. How rare.

    Thanks. This was a good start to my day…

  11. The sentence is silly but not interesting, cerebral but unintelligent, awkward but unbeautiful. Pretty much sums Wallace up.

  12. I think it’s a wonderful opening line, despite whatever grammar faux pas are in it. Wallace has more than proven his dedication to the rules of grammar. He flaunts that dedication in his fiction by disregarding it for aesthetic reasons and I don’t fault him for it.
    What’s important to me is the effect of the sentence on me, and it’s powerful. While I’m focusing intently on all of these things of nature, he then at the end whips it back around to me (with “your cheek”), very gently though sudden. It’s a very subtle thing and it makes me smile.

  13. The whole point of the opening paragraph is to withhold a verb until we get to the sentence ‘Look around you.’ This sentence then clarifies what’s at stake (and you can see how the earlier sentences could have been written with imperative verbs as well, but weren’t). It’s clearly intentional, and that is, you know, the point, not an error.

  14. Peoria (4) is utterly sublime prose poetry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prose_poetry

    At its core is a pastoral meditation, which is profoundly moving.

    Sentences, in their rigidly defined noun/verb construct, need not apply to such a stylistic approach.

    I look forward to Pale King. Thank you David Foster Wallace — rest in peace.

  15. Simmer is a verb. Simmer is ‘the’ verb you’re all looking for is it not? I read the opening bit as positional, locating the subject of the sentence. The subject which does the action. The subject being the ‘untilled fields’. The action being to ‘simmer shrilly in the AM heat’. Am I wrong?

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