When the Dave Wallace narrator of Chapter 9 addresses the expectations readers have when reading a nonfiction work, he says the following:”as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there’s always a kind of unspoken contract between a book’s author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what kind of book it is, i.e. whether it’s made up vs. true. And these codes are important, because the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction.”
The idea that a book’s ability to connect with the reader is dependent on a certain contract has implications that go beyond the fiction/nonfiction issue (although that is definitely important for this book). It usually goes unsaid that when a book is read an exchange occurs between the writer and the reader, though they do not encounter one another–there’s time spent on both sides, effort expended, and presumably attention paid by the author to the potential reader, and by the reader to the intention of the author. Foreward Dave describes “our mutual contract here” as one which depends on our “understanding that any features” which might undermine the book’s “veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.” This calls for an examination of what we have agreed to and why when we decide to spend time with this book, and what kind of “commercial climate” is calling for the “business” of book-reading to be undertaken in this way.
I think that the fact that this book is asking the reader to, in a sense, agree to a certain set of conditions (but then making these conditions themselves pretty confusing) undermines the statement that “the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction”. The chapters we’ve read demonstrate that a writer can use nonfictional-seeming elements (his real name and address, the footnotes) to convey total fictions about Illinois’s tax history and fictional-seeming elements (such as, potentially, the story about Chris) to convey things that may have been true about his own experience. During the life-changing speech in chapter 22, Chris reflects that he “became aware for the first time that ‘authority’ was actually something real and authentic…and that the authority relation was not a ‘democratic’ or equal one and yet could have value for both sides, both people in the relation” (227 in my book). I think that this description, meant to describe the impact of the substitute Jesuit, can also be applied to the type of contract we have agreed to in reading the Pale King — we are not sure whether we are reading the real-world truth, but there is something about the experience of reading that will be valuable to us if we take the narrator to be an authority of some sort.
I also think that this issue of connectedness necessitating some sort of spoken or unspoken agreement is very present in Chapter 22. In the Foreword, the contract enables a connection between the writer (narrator?) and the readers, but in this chapter, we see: the “social contract, where the obligation to pay one’s fair share of taxes comes in”, Chris’s suggestion that his dad’s “primal, prehistoric fears that you would somehow miss getting to eat your fair share of the tribe’s kill” kicked in before his death, the litigation following his death, and the suggestion that the “Service” (whether military or Internal Revenue) might be the way of maintaining one’s obligations to the country (both of these types of service are also described as “voluntary”, which brings up the issue of what it means to be free within a contract).
All these examples make me wonder: is it only because we live in such a “commercial climate” that the word “contract” is evoked to describe our connection to the author of a literary work? Or is there something to the idea that there is a real relationship between contracts and connectedness? What are our obligations while reading the Pale King, and how does the fact that the book plays with fiction shape them?