Today marks the official release of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, the highly anticipated novel that was in the works at the time of DFW's tragic suicide in 2008. The novel, weighing in at a lean 547 pages (lean, of course, in comparison to the 1000+ cramped and endnote-heavy Infinite Jest), comes to us via Michael Pietsch's painstaking work to compile DFW's papers and notes. Reviews and commentaries to debate have appeared measured, calm, and a bit evasive of the text itself--a touch of folk wisdom to this treatment, in that we should never speak ill of the dead. (Although, through books, some version of the dead still manage to speak to us.) The Daily Beast's piece on six novelists' reactions to The Pale King provides a fairly accurate glimpse at how people have treated the novel so far: They're reacting more to DFW as construct of novelist, of person, more so than the novel.
Because, as with any posthumous publication, we have dozens of critical/textual/metatextual conundrums to mull before even diving into the book. The most important aspect of The Pale King's publication is precisely that we remember DFW for his entire body of work; the publication is a monument to DFW, not to this book per se.
(So, go and buy The Pale King, a novel on taxes et al, after remembering to submit your tax forms. And if you've already received your return? Buy a copy of the book and put those returned tax dollars to good work, rejuvenating the publishing industry!)
I won't comment specifically about The Pale King here (I'm actually contracted to write on that specifically, elsewhere), but it forces us to consider what exactly a posthumous publication is, and what service it provides the author. It's clear with the pre-release work surrounding The Pale King that folks want to immortalize DFW.
But most posthumous publications are not so easy to pigeonhole--one only need to look at the reception of Nabokov's The Original of Laura and the treatment it receives at Sam Anderson's hands in New York Magazine. Anderson informs us of some popular wisdom--that Nabokov wanted the ms destroyed after his death, but his family kept it around for sentimentality. (A similar love led Leonard Woolf to publish Between the Acts--arguably Woolf's weakest novel--after her suicide during WWII.) Anderson enjoyed the book, saw it as a glorious study of a controlled master out of control, and David Gates's review in the New York Times concurs that the book was properly published--if it was proper to publish it at all. Aleksandar Hemon's review in Slate pushes us toward the understanding that The Original of Laura isn't a novel at all, and that the underdevelopment of voice does a disservice to Nabokov's famous penchant for control.
And it gets messier when you have antagonisms and relationships that aren't strictly family. Consider Sylvia Plath's Ariel--and the various hands that Ted Hughes and Plath's children and others have had in different editions of this, The Bell Jar, and Plath's collected poems--and suddenly what should simply be a book gets pickled in the variegated brine of love, contempt, depression, and sold to us in a package that contains, for instance, not Plath but the bottled chunks of whom Ted Hughes wanted Plath to be. So it's more Ted Hughes than Sylvia Plath.
So posthumous publishing isn't easy, but despite these difficulties, much good can come from it. These books can immortalize or slander authors, but what's most important is that we keep reading. So get The Pale King or any DFW title, get The Original of Laura or a Nabokov classic like Lolita or Pale Fire, or track down an edition of Woolf's novels or Plath's poems. Read, remember, and be remembered.