The Pale King: David Foster Wallace (2011)

One measure of a great fiction writer is the ability – possessed by very few – to bend reality, to seem to mould the world into shapes you have created. When David Foster Wallace hanged himself on the porch of his house in Claremont, California, on September 12 2008, he set in motion a chain of events that has come to seem like one of his own sprawling, multistranded fictions, a story whose central image is the transmutation of a much-loved living writer into that bogeyman of the literary canon, the Dead White Male.

Wallace was 46, preternaturally talented, and at the height of a career crowned by the publication in 1996 of Infinite Jest, a 1,100-page slab of a novel set in a future North America where corporations have naming rights over the calendar, the action thus taking place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Unashamedly cerebral, maximalist, digressive, infuriating and often very funny, Infinite Jest became an underground badge of belonging, appearing on hipster bookshelves next to copies of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Before its publication, Wallace’s work had been acclaimed in the relatively small world of contemporary experimental fiction. His debut novel, The Broom of the System, started when he was still an undergraduate and published in 1987, had signalled that he was a writer to watch and a 1989 volume of short stories (Girl With Curious Hair) had been greeted with good notices but relatively low sales. After Infinite Jest, he was an international figure, as readers discovered that his work was both formally innovative and extremely entertaining.

Wallace had struggled with clinical depression all his adult life and, prior to his death, had been attempting, unsuccessfully, to cope without medication, convinced that it was preventing him from attaining a kind of emotional immediacy he sought in his writing. He had once written to his friend Jonathan Franzen, accusing himself of a “basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and post-structural and linguistically calisthenic”. Some of his early work had sacrificed depth for a manic, jittery (and occasionally contrived) formal surface but he had left that phase far behind. His short fiction remained wildly inventive (his signature device of using footnotes has been copied so often that it’s become an annoying tic in the work of certain younger American writers) but it had acquired an unmistakeable ethical urgency, far from the glib and defensive irony he saw as the dominant tone of his generation of American novelists. In an acclaimed 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction”, he argued that “irony and ridicule ... are agents of a great despair and stasis in US culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems”. It seems that his determination to solve those problems, to engage fully with the world regardless of risk, was a factor in his death.

Wallace’s suicide prompted an outpouring of grief of a type and intensity more usually associated with musicians or actors. The internet is littered with online memorials, fan art and obituaries that range in tone from reverent through hagiographic to frankly distraught. In September 2010, only two years after his death, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which has gathered an unmatched collection of contemporary writers’ papers, announced that the Wallace archive was open for business. They have already been inundated with requests by scholars anxious to pore over drafts, correspondence and heavily annotated books from Wallace’s library. But nothing caused more excitement than his editor’s announcement that Wallace had left a substantial, partially completed manuscript. Michael Pietsch confirmed that this was the “long thing” Wallace had occasionally referred to, a novel he had been working on for more than eight years set in the unpromising-sounding milieu of an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office in Peoria, Illinois, in the mid-1980s.

The Pale King was found by Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, as a pile of manuscript pages on his desk, and on various disks and hard drives around his office. The assembled text consisted of around 1,000 pages, divided into 150 chapters. Pietsch has edited that down to 547 pages and 50 chapters, with a short appendix of “notes and asides”. There has been no attempt to “complete” it – it has been explicitly subtitled “an unfinished novel”. Were Wallace a conventional writer, this would suggest an unsatisfying reading experience, only of interest to scholars and die-hard fans. Instead, The Pale King, which seems light-years beyond Infinite Jest, is somehow more powerful for being fragmentary.

In a series of allusive, hallucinatory episodes, the book introduces various IRS agents, whose lives are lived inside the vast impersonal bureaucracy of “the service”. Among them we meet one David Wallace, a new hire who is mistaken for an important senior officer. Another voice, identifying itself as the author, breaks into the text, claiming that what is being presented as fiction is, in fact, lightly disguised autobiography, describing (in painstaking detail) legal negotiations with publishers, co-workers and “unnamed family members” for the right to present the material in the book. This “authorial” Wallace claims that he worked as an IRS officer and was assigned a new social security number, which would for ever mark him as an IRS “insider”. As wary readers will already suspect, none of this is true.

Wallace seems to have researched the workings of the IRS with the same meticulousness he brought to all his writing. He discourses on the niceties of the US tax code, on the exact hardware configuration of the computer systems that implement it. “Suffice it to say that I know more about the chemistry, manufacture and ambient odors of instant coffee than anyone would voluntarily want to” remarks faux-authorial Wallace, in a footnoted digression about a billboard near the entrance to the IRS facility where most of The Pale King takes place. With mingled terror and awe, you realise he (whichever of the nested Wallaces “he” refers to) probably does.

Wallace’s love of precise language, which he takes to comic extremes in these bravura digressions, is one of the great pleasures of his writing. A wood by a trailer park has “the sound of dry things snapping and stridulation of bugs in the duff of the copse and the two bottles and bright plastic packet impaled on the mulberry twig”. His relentless desire to know the world in its totality is matched by an uncommon intensity of feeling.

The key factor uniting all of Wallace’s IRS tax inspectors is their experience of boredom. Their work is unremittingly tedious and demands intense concentration. “Real entropy,” notes one character “had zippo to do with temperature.” But the novel keeps hinting that there is something that lies beyond boredom. The various inspectors come to seem like avatars of a single spiritually questing person, and the Midwestern Regional Examination Center where they work seems as much a metaphysical place as an office building, a depressive ante-room to some future experience of wholeness and bliss. “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish,” Wallace promises mysteriously. Some of the agents possess unusual powers: levitation, data-savantry. They are tempted by distracting, demonic figures, like devils besetting Christian desert fathers or the wrathful Tibetan deities that frighten the soul as it attempts to attain samsara. The building is home to at least two ghosts.

Boredom is a dangerous subject for any writer. When Jonathan Franzen told a journalist that “Dave died of boredom”, he was condemned by internet commentators who felt that he was belittling his friend’s illness. But The Pale King is, among many other things, the record of a struggle against all the things that “boredom” comes to stand for in this novel: disengagement, distraction, isolation, an inability to feel. The world of boredom is a world without love, without human connection. It would be a simplification to see it as a metaphor for depressive illness but the two are intimately bound together.

What would The Pale King have been like if Wallace had stayed to finish it? Fragmentary notes reproduced in Pietsch’s assemblage suggest that he might have intended to develop a plot concerning the recruitment of a team of psychically-powerful IRS agents. However, he also noted the “central deal” of the novel as “Realism. Monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” Viewed through this lens, the fragmentary, incomplete Pale King may actually be complete and functioning just fine.

In some ways the form of the novel, with its lapidary finality, its artificial completeness, was not a natural one for Wallace, if only because his fiction always seems to have the potential to expand to the horizon in any direction. Infinite Jest is bursting at the seams with wonderful things but, for all its bulk, it’s less perfect, less fully achieved than many of Wallace’s shorter works. Wallace was a maker of riffs, what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze would call “lines of flight”, aimed at breaking free of territory claimed by the fiction of the past. He was always plotting an escape from the conventional psychology and romance plotting of the middlebrow “literary” writing that dominates prize lists in the English-speaking world. In this sense, The Pale King was never intended to be “finished” as such. It was never going to turn into a domesticated, well-crafted “good book”: its author had bigger fish to fry. The tragedy is that Wallace found The Pale King so impossible, so unfinishable, that it became in some way implicated in his state of terminal despair, perhaps not quite as a cause, or a symptom, but in the way that novels do when you’re working on them, as a metaphor for your own condition. It is hard to read the book without feeling crushed that the author is not alive to make more work like this, to follow the tendrils of his thought outwards for another 30 or 40 years.

Wallace, in life a shy, considered, and considerate man (or so he seemed to me when we met at a mutual friend’s New York reading) would most probably have been embarrassed by the drama in which he is currently starring. He would also have tried to understand it, to give it his full attention, even, or perhaps especially, when he found it boring. The rapidity of his canonisation feels startling, even though it’s deserved. There are already grumblings online about the emergence of a “David Foster Wallace industry”, and the publication of The Pale King will only take this to the next level, but the truth is that Wallace’s new level of posthumous celebrity isn’t the work of some corporate publicity department. It has proceeded from the ground up as fans have unearthed uncollected texts, written criticism and organised conferences. Wallace’s reputation will only grow, and like one of the broken columns beloved of Romantic painters, The Pale King will stand, complete in its incompleteness, as his most substantial fictional achievement.

This review appeared in the Financial Times