The Children's Hospital: On David Foster Wallace
Almost three years have passed since David Foster Wallace hanged himself on the patio of the house he shared with his wife in Claremont, California. Wallace was 46, an icon, for readers and fellow writers, of talent, ambition, humility, humanity. The publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 had established him, by wide agreement, as the writer of his generation. Revered for his brilliance of mind, he was beloved for his generosity of spirit, his willingness to stand for sentiment and sincerity in an age of irony and nihilism. In the world of letters, his death was received as a collective tragedy; no fewer than four public memorials were held. Suicide is a black hole, attracting explanations only to bury them beyond its event horizon, but the meaning of Wallace’s death was, if anything, overdetermined. The lifelong depression he never spoke about in public is everywhere implicit in his fiction, where thoughts of self-slaughter are seldom far from the surface.
Yet the author of Infinite Jest, of a nonfiction book about the mathematics of infinity and of a first novel, The Broom of the System, that breaks off in the middle of a sentence, knew as well as anyone that nothing ever ends, least of all a life. His work had made him a figure; his death made him a martyr, a sage, almost a holy man. His every word was to be sifted. He had left us too soon. His every word was to be cherished. A year after his death, a commencement address he had delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 was issued, in a kind of sayings-of-Confucius format, as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life. Last winter, garlanded with 175 pages of background material, came his undergraduate thesis, its title upgraded from “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” to Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.
Now we have The Pale King, not so much the “unfinished novel” its subtitle promises as the odds and scraps of one its prefatory note more candidly describes. Wallace had tugged at the manuscript for eleven years. His editor, Michael Pietsch, writes of finding “hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks” that “contained printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes, and more,” and of having returned from California to begin his reconstructive labors with “a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks heavy with manuscripts.” The scrum of material—all of which will eventually be deposited with Wallace’s papers at the University of Texas—contained “false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself” but no outline, “no list of scenes, no designated opening or closing point, nothing that could be called a set of directions or instructions.” For a writer like Wallace, whose greatest innovations were architectural—who assaulted chronology; traded in counterpoint, flashback, misdirection and digression; made a creed of concealment and incompletion; played with narrative rhythm like a jazz musician; and habitually betrayed his readers’ expectations—such an absence is fatal. Pietsch edited lightly, he tells us, line by line, but his crucial decisions were structural: what to include, what to leave out and, most important, what order to put it all in.
In any case, the manuscript had long been going nowhere. Whether an eventual novel would have included much or anything of what Pietsch has given us is an irresolvable question. The Pale King certainly looks like Wallace, but it is Wallace, for the most part, at a walk. The manuscript—we shouldn’t mislead ourselves by calling it a novel—examines a group of midlevel IRS agents at a regional center in the wilds of Illinois. This is Wallace territory in more senses than one: the flat, featureless country of wall-to-wall corn, plagued by mosquitoes, tornadoes and sweat, that he grew up amid and wrote about often, and the equally desolate scene—or so, at least, he conceived it—of the modern American office. Wallace had no direct experience of the latter milieu, but the man of quiet bureaucratic desperation bulked large in his mind. (“Salarymen,” he calls such figures in one story, adopting a term from the archetypally anonymous Japanese.) Who were these people, he wanted to know. Where did they come from? Why did they do it? How could they stand it? In The Pale King, he pushed the situation, as usual, to extremes. IRS work, accountancy, would represent the ne plus ultra of soul-crushing futility. If Infinite Jest was about entertainment, The Pale King would be about its converse, boredom.
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Like its monumental predecessor, the new project would display a fascination with institutions. Infinite Jest revolves around a pair of them, a teenage tennis academy and a halfway house for addicts, the twin chambers of the novel’s heart. Each is elaborated with vivid and loving particularity: its rules and rituals, its values and dialects, its intensely individualized inhabitants and their familially proximate relationships. As a teenager, Wallace had played competitive tennis; in his late 20s, after prolonged bouts of substance abuse and a second psychiatric hospitalization, he had passed through a halfway house. He knew both worlds, had felt them in his muscles and could make his way around them with his eyes closed, and it is from their portrayal that the novel draws its artistic authority.
The Regional Examination Center, or the REC, as the manuscript tends to call it, was to have been their equivalent in The Pale King. But the situation never gels. Much of the manuscript—and the best parts, too—tells the back stories of about a dozen agents, their variously tormented childhoods or wayward youths. Some are grotesque—and meticulously elaborated from their baroque premises—in the usual Wallace manner. One boy sweats so heavily he becomes incapable of having a social life. Another decides, at 6, to press his lips to every square inch of his body and spends the next few years developing the contortionist’s abilities that allow him to do so. (He conquers his nipples before age 9, and his perianal region.) Other episodes are masterful, stunningly affecting vignettes. One, about a girl who grows up in a trailer park, is rendered in the high, archaic style of Cormac McCarthy:
Her inner life rich and multivalent. In fantasies of romance it was she who fought and overcame thereon to rescue some object or figure that never in the reverie resolved or took to itself any shape or name….
Begat in one car and born in another. Creeping up in dreams to see her own conceiving.
Another, in which a young man struggles to accept his girlfriend’s decision to renege on their agreement to seek an abortion, rewrites Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” as an internal monologue and with a different conclusion:
But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent.
Yet once he gets his characters together, Wallace doesn’t find very much to do with them. Granted, as Pietsch points out, the novel may not have been intended to have a lot of plot. But that isn’t the main problem. What plot there is involves a pair of young, ambitious agents, Sylvanshine and Reynolds, who descend upon the REC as advance men for their boss, the eponymous Pale King, who’s coming in to give the place a shake. The two are reminiscent of the three Incandenza brothers in Infinite Jest. Like Hal and Mario, they have long been roommates; like Hal and Orin, they have a bantering kind of jockstrap relationship that’s now conducted mainly on the phone. But they are the only people at the REC who have much of a relationship at all. We see a happy hour at a local bar, and a little bit of workplace horseplay, but nothing much beyond that. Not only does Wallace fail to put his characters in motion, at least on the evidence of what Pietsch gives us; he largely fails to put them in communication.
Missing, too, is the stylistic intensity Wallace achieved in Infinite Jest. That novel’s prose is a marvel, a fat, fluent flow of continuous linguistic improvisation and syntactic invention, one long riff of wit and delight, changing registers, changing voices, changing structures, but always in vivid dialogue with the American idiom:
Shit’ll paralyze you over time, Incblob. Saw it happen time and over, back in the neighborhood. Once-promising stand-up guys spending their lives in front of the TP, eating Nutter Butters and whacking off into an old sock. The shit-fairy moves in with luggage for an extended stay, Inc. Plus indecisive? You haven’t seen indecisive til you’ve seen a guy with little fat-titties slumped in a chair in his tenth year of nonstop Bob Hope. It’s not pretty. Incster my friend it’s not pretty at all.
The whole novel is like this, loose and graceful and perfectly paced and placed, a prodigy’s volleys at center court. My favorite shot’s the cantilevered noun phrase, unfolding an entire story in a single long breath:
The ads with the more dental-pain-type paintings Hal doesn’t even want to think back on, what with a fragment of cannoli wedged someplace upper-left he keeps looking around for Schacht to ask him to have an angle-mirrored look at.
But Wallace’s most common stroke—and this gets buried in the endless inevitable discussions of his postmodernist metafictional self-consciousness, our generation’s theoretical hobbyhorse—is simply the small descriptive touch, the stock-in-trade of humble, workaday realism: “the sun still pale and seeming to flutter as if poorly wired”; “the ball’s high heavy arc that of a loogy spat for distance”; “an incredible female body, an inhuman body, the sort of body Gately’s only ever seen with a staple in its navel”; “their handshake looked…like C.T. was jacking off and the little girl was going Sieg Heil.”