David Foster Wallace


Zadie Smith called him an “actual genius”, with no equal among living writers.George Saunders said he was “The first among us. The most talented, most daring, most energetic and original, the funniest, the least inclined to rest on his laurels or believe all the praise.” Jonathan Franzen said he “wrote… as well as anyone who put words to paper.” His centrality to this latest generation of American letters was undeniable; his ceiling seemed to be the rarefied air of Melville or Joyce, the frontrunner to diagnose the ills of the present, and to heal or perhaps even save. However he was ill himself, once again stricken by the clinical depression that plagued him since college, the sickness that had him on medication that refused to work anymore.

The sickness he once described in his fiction as “a kind of infinitely horrifying billowing black sail at the edge of perception.” And so it’s so unspeakably sad that, on a late mid-September afternoon nearly three years ago, with a nail and a belt, he would decide to hang himself from his porch. The world still mourns David Foster Wallace. DFW (the affectionate shorthand preferred by Wallace acolytes) inspires the kind of unprecedented fandom, among peers and readers alike, that makes it difficult to, as a recent review in the New York Review of Books stated, “read him sensibly.”

A writer of prodigious talent; owner of a hysterical imagination, nearly unparalleled verbosity (tempered by a strict grammarian’s ideals of structure; complicated by a deep background in philosophy: modal logic and mathematics), Wallace had the kind of skill more typically reserved less for bestsellers than committed avant-gardists. He still is, however, in some respect, the last in a line of great American postmodernists — the Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo inheritance – and likewise reading DFW at times is entirely difficult work.

It’s a wonder that The Pale King, the unfinished manuscript of a difficult, dead writer — fragments of a novel concerned no less with the topics of boredom, drudgery and tax code — be greeted with the kind of fervor reminiscent of the last Harry Potter release. It’s something apart from the labyrinthine stories and sheer linguistic firepower, his technical brilliance, that drew readers en masse. Wallace — who carried himself much like the reformed smart-ass he was — tried desperately to write with affection and warmth, to fix the austere, alienating manner of his Pynchonian precursors, to tether the brainwork with actual emotional gravity.

A postmodernist with a heart. So far, this has been his legacy. Even those unfamiliar with Wallace have probably felt his influence: Dave Eggers and his McSweeney’s school of writing can be seen as an extension of Wallace’s “deeply felt” sensibility and humour; Wallace sans prolixity. It’s to this end that current editor of The Paris Review and former Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux senior editor, Lorin Stein, once said, “David Foster Wallace changed the way we read and write.” Up until the publication of The Pale King last month, Wallace had only two published novels to his name (the first, 1987’s The Broom of the System, a comic systems novel that was originally his college senior thesis in English) and three highly acclaimed short story collections; Girl With Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004). Although regarding himself as a fiction writer foremost, where Wallace had really built his reputation was off of his non-fiction work, the essays and articles collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997) and Consider the Lobster (2005).

These heady non-fiction pieces, marked by his razor-sharp observational wit, his unapologetic first-person presence, and breathless sentences that spilled out onto his trademark footnotes, and footnotes upon footnotes, elevated Wallace’s profile beyond his literary audience and invoked a journalistic style as unique and ground-shifting as maybe only Hunter S. Thompson and the New Journalists before him. Regardless, at the very center of his oeuvre stands his 1996 blockbuster Infinite Jest: his supernova and apotheosis.

A sprawling 980 pages in small type with an appended 96 pages of footnotes, Infinite Jest is best read as a meditation on addiction, and the role of entertainment in these complex, chemically and technologically troubled times (though, the actual plot of the novel revolves around a mysterious film [titled: Infinite Jest] that’s so entertaining it leaves it’s watchers powerless to do anything else and thus bound to death, and a conspiracy among a sect of wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorist separatists who desire to unleash the film on the American masses, but most of the novel attends to tennis perfectionism, film theory, and alcoholic/narcotic rehab).

There is some speculation that Wallace started work on The Pale King — which revolves around a curious set of tax accountants at an IRS branch in Peoria, IL in 1985 — as early as 1996, enrolling in accounting classes for research, which would suggest he intended the work to act as a follow-up to the just-published Infinite Jest. Jokingly referring to this new project as “The Long Thing”, it seemed his intentions were to provide a panacea for the problems he would diagnose in Infinite Jest before, primarily those dealing with our relationship with entertainment; the addictions it perpetuated, the pain it falsely eclipses, the problems that go unresolved in light of its distractions. In The Pale King, Wallace suggests that the answer is something like enhanced consciousness — simple awareness – a greater control over our ability to choose what we pay attention to.And as Infinite Jest says that unrelenting pleasure through entertainment will wreak spiritual havoc, The Pale King suggests that a supreme awareness, through soul-crushing tedium and boredom, is the ultimate enlightenment.

In Wallace’s own words: “Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping out of black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.” It’s both impossible and unfair to read The Pale King as a finished work. It’s not. There are some reports that suggest he felt the work to be, at most, halfway completed.

And as a notorious reviser and editor, a self-proclaimed “5-draft man”, it’s most likely that there are rough bits in the published work that he would’ve polished to a shine. Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s long-time editor, was charged with the task of putting together something coherent from the 250 pages of neatly stacked manuscript that Wallace had prepped and illuminated with a lamp on his work table that September day, as well as work-in-progress fragments compiled from “hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks… sheaves of handwritten pages and notes.”

But even with these circumstances in mind, The Pale King is a surprisingly coherent read, although not nearly finished-seeming, but affecting and satisfying in many of the ways his earlier work was. This mostly has to do less with a sort of narrative harmony than with Wallace’s excellence on a sentence-by-sentence level (”An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch,” from the very first page, looks to be an early critic’s favorite). Thematically The Pale King answers Infinite Jest stroke-for-stroke: boredom vs. entertainment, community vs. individualism, attention vs. distraction, oblivion vs. infinity.

It’s a logical end, of sorts. If anyone has taken up the position as the new spokesperson of difficult, high-concept writing, it’s England’s Tom McCarthy. McCarthy’s review of The Pale King in the New York Times is of the highest praise, not so much an appreciation of Wallace’s intellect as it is an ode to Wallace’s heart; the courage to grapple with the big questions, the willingness to engage in the high-wire act of the modernist literary tradition. McCarthy, and others, have been vocal about protecting this tradition, under threat of realism; the memoir boom; indifferent publishers; an indifferent audience; and an indifferent culture.

It’s the tradition that David Foster Wallace died in the service of. The very least we can do is read him. We owe him much more. Words: RJ Basinillo

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