Unfinished Business

17 minute read
Lev Grossman

Two months after the writer David Foster Wallace killed himself, his agent, accompanied by his widow, went into his garage office to look through his papers. It was Thanksgiving weekend, 2008, and the weather was cold and gray in Claremont, Calif. On Wallace’s desk they found a neat stack of around 200 pages containing several chapters of a novel called The Pale King.

His agent, Bonnie Nadell, knew he’d been working on it. A lot of people did: a significant fraction of the American reading public had been waiting for a new novel from Wallace ever since 1996, when his monumental Infinite Jest reshaped the skyline of American literature. But she hadn’t read it, and she had no idea how much of it he’d managed to finish. She did know it had an unlikely subject: the lives of a group of IRS employees in Peoria, Ill.

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Nadell called Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown & Co. and Wallace’s longtime editor. He flew out in January and started reading. As it turned out, there was a lot more than just that neat stack. “They brought me literally bins and drawers and wire baskets,” Pietsch says. “Just heaps of pages. There was no order to them.” He went back to New York City with a duffel bag full of them.

Pietsch spent two years assembling and editing the contents of that duffel bag. The results will be published, appropriately enough, on April 15. If The Pale King isn’t a finished work, it is, at the very least, a remarkable document, by no means a stunt or an attempt to cash in on Wallace’s posthumous fame. Despite its shattered state and its unpromising subject matter, or possibly because of them, The Pale King represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist.

David Wallace — his middle name was just for book jackets — was born in 1962 and grew up in Champaign, Ill. He was the son of two college professors: his father taught philosophy, his mother English (she’s the author of a textbook called Practically Painless English). Wallace was precocious both academically and athletically — he was a regionally ranked tennis player — but the academics won out. He studied philosophy in college but turned his attention to fiction after a sharp depressive episode during his sophomore year. His first novel, The Broom of the System, was published when he was 25. That was followed by a book of stories and then the 1,079-page Infinite Jest.

(Read “Appreciation: David Foster Wallace 1962-2008.”)

Even 15 years later it’s difficult to get Infinite Jest into perspective — it will always present formidable interpretive challenges, which have only been exacerbated by the complicated emotions surrounding Wallace’s death. But reading it now, one finds Infinite Jest both marvelously rich and strangely thin. It contains reams of glorious verbal improvisation and vivid, deeply felt portraiture, as well as some of the most glitteringly intelligent and warmly human dialogue in American literature, but it’s all arranged on a story so slight that it doesn’t rise even to the level of farce. Wallace had the postmodernist’s (and the modernist’s) distaste for conventional storytelling, and he built Infinite Jest around a kind of gimcrack comic thriller involving Quebecois assassins in wheelchairs and a movie so entertaining it renders viewers incapacitated.

It’s as if committing to his own story would have been too obvious, and maybe too honest, for Wallace — he wants to make sure we know that on some level, he doesn’t really mean it. But Wallace didn’t have the grand Pynchonian playfulness he would have needed to pull off this kind of bet-hedging performance, and the narrative of Infinite Jest can’t support the riches Wallace lavishes on it. It lies hopelessly pinned to the ground beneath them, twitching limply, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree crushed beneath its own ornaments. The result is a book that’s brilliant, funny, heart- and brain-rending and borderline unreadable. It’s great, but its greatness runs but north by northwest.

That probably wouldn’t have been Wallace’s assessment, but he wasn’t entirely satisfied with Infinite Jest either. He had more to say, and he spoke dismissively about what he saw as the postmodern trickery of his early work. Over the next dozen years he published two more books of stories as well as two books of essays. He got married and took a job teaching writing at Pomona College in California. And he worked on The Pale King.

Wallace’s papers for The Pale King form a remarkable record of an idiosyncratic mind at work. He began by taking notes in, apparently, whatever notebook was within arm’s reach; one of them has a Rugrats character on the cover. He switched pens practically every paragraph. The notebooks contain scattered words, character names and observations, as well as what appear to be personal admonitions. (One note reads: “If I wanted to, the solution is to get up early and go to the library.”) They’re chewed over and bent and practically charred by the intellectual energy Wallace expended in them.

When Pietsch finished his survey, he had found a total of 328 chapters and drafts and fragments from The Pale King, but Wallace had left no clues as to how they fit together. At that point Pietsch’s role skewed from editor toward collaborator. “It took me quite a long time to read all of that,” Pietsch says, “and take notes, find the latest draft of every chapter, read it all again, find the things that made sense together and discover that there was a central chronology, which was not at first apparent.” Pietsch organized the chapters in a spreadsheet, sorting them by type and character, choosing among multiple drafts and arriving at a tentative order from circumstantial clues. He edited the actual text as little as possible, but some chapters didn’t have proper endings — they just trailed off midparagraph — and Pietsch had to choose a spot and then snip them off cleanly.

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Read “David Foster Wallace: The Death of a Genius.”

Some of his decisions necessarily bordered on the arbitrary, and he has no illusions about his version of The Pale King being definitive. “Ultimately there were chapters that could have gone anywhere,” he says. “Like the first chapter — that was not the first chapter. It was just a beautiful love letter to an Illinois cornfield in fallow time. I don’t know if he intended it as an opening, but it just felt like a beautiful way into this novel.” The Pale King is a chaotic book, and under the circumstances it’s hard to tell how much of the chaos is deliberate. “He talks about a ‘tornadic’ structure in some of the notebooks,” Pietsch says. “I took it as part of his intention — that this novel come at you like a tornado, with shards flying at you.”

It will be — it already has been — argued that The Pale King shouldn’t have been published at all. Wallace was a perfectionist, and the prospect of his work appearing in print in a less-than-finished state would certainly not have pleased him. But the presumed desires of the author are not the only things to be weighed in the decision to publish a posthumous work. All of Kafka’s novels were unpublished when he died, and he left instructions that they should be burned. They were also unfinished; the order of the chapters in The Trial is still just guesswork. But I for one would not be prepared to give The Trial back. I wouldn’t give The Pale King back either.

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The first thing you notice about The Pale King is that it takes place in the past. Wallace’s first two novels, The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest, are set in the future, where Wallace felt free to adjust reality to suit his needs, making it more lurid and extreme, forcing it to satirize itself. In Infinite Jest, the years are named for corporate sponsors (the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and so on), and the U.S., Canada and Mexico have merged to form a single country called the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), with a former Vegas crooner named Johnny Gentle as its President. It’s funny — but the humor is a loss leader. It makes the world feel strained and weightless.

The Pale King is set in 1985 in a world that immediately feels rich and substantial and alive. We’re back on our home planet. The chapter Pietsch chose to put first contains this radiant catalog of the contents of a field by a highway:

An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite.

This isn’t satire; this is the thing itself. This is Wallace looking at the world calmly, without pointing and shouting. And as it turns out, looking at the world calmly is what The Pale King is all about.

(Read “The Journalism of David Foster Wallace.”)

Most of the characters are “wigglers,” the IRS examiners who take the first look at tax returns as they come in. They check the math and make sure the returns are signed and flag a few for possible auditing. (Never one for half measures, Wallace took accounting classes by way of research.) Sitting in rows at worktables, with rubber thimbles on their pinkie fingers to make turning pages easier, they are engaged in a silent war against the raging, soul-flattening boredom of their job:

Hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he’d ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices.

It’s the opposite of the film in Infinite Jest: the tax returns don’t command attention; they repel it. It’s also a vision of a hell only a few doors down from clinical depression.

(See a brief history of posthumous literature.)

Most writers would be content to be repelled. Novels have a blind spot where the unpleasant particulars of white collar work are concerned: you try to point the authorial camera at them and the camera just doesn’t want to go there. It wanders away in search of a dog with a heart of gold who belongs to a Swedish serial killer. But Wallace made a career out of rushing in where other writers feared to tread or wouldn’t bother treading. He had an outsize, hypertrophied talent, and he knew it, and he liked to take on problem cases:

Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. “Groovy” Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file. Ann Williams turns a page. Anand Singh turns two pages at once by mistake and turns one back which makes a slightly different sound. David Cusk turns a page. Sandra Pounder turns a page. Robert Atkins turns two separate pages of two separate files at the same time.

The Pale King is an attempt to stare directly into the blind spot and face what’s there. It’s an account of accounting.

There is very little resembling an overarching narrative in the 580 pages of The Pale King. Wallace seems to have found a better way of honoring his squeamishness about plot: not having one. We meet people, and we tour their childhoods to find out how they became who they are. (We don’t learn the meaning of the title — a character refers offhandedly to one of his bosses as “the Pale King,” but we never learn why.) Wallace sketches in the first bare strokes of something here and there — characters wrestle with their boredom and think about how they might get promoted. We hear about a bomb exploding outside a different IRS office, and we learn that one of the higher-ups is assembling a team of eccentric wigglers, but we never find out why. It’s all just shards in the tornado.

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Which is, actually, all right. Nothing in Wallace’s earlier work suggests we’re missing much. He never had a great feel for the novel’s percussion section, the plot and structure and rhythm. Whereas his ability to render the fine finials and fractals and flourishes of a mind acting upon itself, from moment to moment, using only the blunt, numb instruments of language, has few if any equals in American literature, and this we see him do at full extension. The second chapter of The Pale King gives us 13 pages (with exactly one paragraph break) of one Claude Sylvanshine sitting in an eighth-row seat of a small airplane on his way to take the CPA exam in Peoria. Wallace needs no external action to sustain his flow: we simply ride along inside Claude’s head as he casts his mind forward to the impending test and back over the life that had led him here and sideways into the clouds around him. It’s a bravura performance worthy of Woolf or Joyce, all business all the time. By the end you feel as if you could draw Claude’s face from memory.

Of course there are things in The Pale King that don’t work. One chapter, in which a clutch of IRS employees discuss 1980s-era political theory, goes on at such insupportable length, it’s as if Wallace were exploring the idea that to write about boredom it is necessary to actually bore the reader, which is a form-content game that not even he can win. Elsewhere, when Wallace introduces us to a little boy who is so obsessed with the idea of kissing every part of his own skin that he engages in agonizing contortionist exercises, The Pale King approaches, and then achieves, inadvertent self-parody.

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There’s also a dearth of compelling women, and Wallace’s distinctive voice overpowers several of his characters, giving their dialogue a suspicious sameness. (One also wonders how the book will be received by real-life wigglers — for all I know, they might love their work and resent its appropriation by a literary mandarin as an epitome of human suffering.) And, inevitably, a few passages lack Wallace’s usual high stylistic polish, though there’s something perversely pleasant about the rough patches. Much of Wallace’s oeuvre is about the problem of loneliness, but the relentless, brutal virtuosity of his prose can sometimes leave readers feeling even lonelier than when they started. The Pale King is imperfect, but it feels more like the work of a human being than Infinite Jest does.

We’re watching a rehearsal, not a performance. There is much throwing of things at walls, and not all of them stick. But the book’s unfinished state gives us a lot of latitude for forgiveness, and there is never any question who is doing the throwing: The Pale King is full of Wallace’s trademark no-look passes, as when he offhandedly pegs a large, pale woman as “the ghost of a draft horse” or describes the (heretofore indescribable) sunlight just before a storm as “the approximate color of a spent flashbulb.” And when Wallace steers the tanker back to its theme — the struggle to extract meaning from each second that passes, no matter how empty or lonely or indistinguishable from the second that came before it — The Pale King achieves power levels that Wallace never reached in his first two novels. “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is,” a professor of accounting tells his students. “There is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

(Read “One Writer’s Road Trip with Novelist David Foster Wallace.”)

The Pale King is complete in one sense: it asks a question and posits an answer. Here and there throughout the book, Wallace alludes to a state of mind, or perhaps a way of being, in which a human being can set aside boredom, or pass through it, to experience reality calmly and openly, appreciating it for its richness without demanding from it anything as easy or satisfying or ready-made as meaning. There’s both a whiff of dorm-room, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance mysticism to this idea and a whiff of truth as well. Not everybody in The Pale King is able to find this state of mind, but everybody is looking for it.

If Wallace was able to experience his own life that way, it was only fleetingly. He couldn’t hold on to it long enough to make existence survivable. In this sense The Pale King has an emotionally raw quality that Wallace’s other novels lack. Infinite Jest was about your pain, America’s pain, humanity’s pain, anybody’s pain but the author’s. The Pale King feels as if it’s about Wallace’s pain.

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One of the characters in The Pale King pitches us an idea for a play: an IRS employee sits at a desk onstage, silently reading 1040s, occasionally turning pages and making notes. “He sits there longer and longer, until the audience gets more and more bored and restless, and finally they start leaving, first just a few and then the whole audience, whispering to each other how boring and terrible the play is. Then, once the audience have all left, the real action of the play can start.”

This touching vignette is a miniature of The Pale King itself, and you can read it two ways, both of which are true. It tells us that all art is a travesty of real life, because real life happens in private, alone, before an empty house, without the gaze of an audience to ennoble or redeem it. But it would be just as true to say that the audience misunderstood what they were watching. They waited for the action to start without realizing that it was already happening, all around them, if they only knew how to see it. The play’s the thing, but the waiting is the play. And the waiting is the hardest part.

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