The Children's Hospital: On David Foster Wallace
There is almost none of this alertness in The Pale King. With few exceptions, the prose is merely serviceable. Is this how Wallace wanted it, flat language to mimic flattened affect, or would he have improved it on a rewrite, or could he simply not do better anymore? We’ll never know. The truth is, nothing else in his corpus measures up to Infinite Jest. Nothing even comes close—not only in the aggregate but even line by line. Wallace wrote the novel, all 1,079 pages of it (and indeed a great deal more that Pietsch persuaded him to cut), in three years in his early 30s. A special grace must have governed him. His three volumes of short fiction—Girl With Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004)—contain some marvelous ideas, bravura turns, ingenious constructions, but nothing that possesses the emotional texture, the intimacy and immediacy, of his magnum opus. In a review of the second collection, a book that often reads like a set of exercises, Andrei Codrescu got it more right than he knew. Wallace, he said, “has a seemingly inexhaustible bag of literary tricks.” But tricks are often all it is, a long series of contrivances, as if Wallace aspired to be no more than the cleverest kid in the workshop.
There is a coldness to the stories, a clinical kind of cruelty. Typical of the sort of characters they involve is the protagonist of “Mister Squishy,” an overweight guy with a meaningless job who goes home at the end of the day and masturbates himself to sleep while fantasizing about the woman he’s in love with, who scarcely notices him and isn’t all that attractive anyway. And so forth. Ferocious amounts of ingenuity are expended to delineate these dead-end lives. As the characters pace through their pointless existences, unloved and lonely, trapped in the maze of their own minds, the author seems to stand above them in a lab coat, jotting their responses on a clipboard. More, with his taste for arcane torments and bizarre humiliations, he seems to toy with them, a boy pulling at flies. The framing strategies, the famous footnotes, the gestures of self-reference and self-consciousness—Wallace had a bad case of the metafictional fidgets—only make it worse. Instead of assuring us that it’s all just a story, all just words on a page, that none of these people are real, they add an extra layer of indignity. The losers—they’re not even real!
Only in Infinite Jest did he let himself go, and his characters, too—he into his experience, they into theirs. The frames and fractures are still present—388 endnotes, for starters, plus the whole Quebecois separatist/wheelchair assassins/near-future subsidized-time comic dystopia thing—but the story proceeds, as it were, in spite of them. Hal and the tennis academy, Gately and the halfway house: they are given their freedom, their imaginative stretching room. To use a dated but indispensable phrase, they come alive. To use another one, Wallace makes us care about them. They are even allowed, at times, to commandeer the frame, Hal and Pemulis, his partner in crime, inserting some crucial endnotes at a certain point in the proceedings, as if they were the story’s secret authors all along. The novel is dense with feeling, meaning, tangibility, presence, conviction. It may be heresy to say this, but Wallace’s greatest strengths were as a realist: an observer, a describer, a metaphor maker, a constructor of scenes and dialogue, a creator of convincing situations and morally autonomous characters—someone, in short, who believed in fiction’s ability to represent the world.
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A realist was the thing he never let himself completely be. Wallace came of age in the shadow of postmodernism—of Gaddis, Pynchon, Barth. He responded by treating postmodernism not as a given, the only metaphysically legitimate way of writing fiction, but as a genre in its own right, something to be played with and transcended. But what began as a generative (and generational) struggle became in the end a kind of boxing with ghosts. This is not to say that Infinite Jest should have been written like a nineteenth-century novel. The shimmer of irreality that surrounds its central stories somehow adds to their amplitude. But in the later fiction—and in the nonfiction, too, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997) and Consider the Lobster (2005)—Wallace’s self-consciousness more often seems neurotic, a tic he can’t get rid of. In The Pale King, it is literally beside the point, a separate strand with no substantial connection to the rest of the manuscript. The whole narrative, Wallace steps in to tell us in his own voice, is actually a work of nonfiction, a memoir of his own time (imaginary, of course) as a novice agent at the REC, but disguised, for legal reasons, as a work of fiction. This is terrifically clever, as always, and Wallace rings some marvelous changes on the conceit, but aside from a few loose thematic congruities—contemporary literature as commercial and legalistic artifact—it seems to belong to a different story.
Yet if The Pale King embodies technical stagnation—which may be why he never finished it—it also represents a thematic and indeed a moral advance, the next step in a long conversation that Wallace had been having with himself. To see why, we need to start at the opposite pole in his work from postmodernism and its analytic abstractions. Wallace was a compulsively cerebral writer, but he was also an intensely somatic one. His characters’ experience is always bodily experience, no matter how much time they spend in their own heads.
Think of Infinite Jest. The tennis players are athletes; Gately and company are addicts. The novel focuses enormous amounts of attention on the relationship of both to their own bodies—the athletes training and dosing, the addicts puking and shivering and craving. Deformities are everywhere: the tennis players’ hypertrophied arms, the assassins’ missing legs, Mario’s multiple birth defects, Madame Psychosis’s epic catalog of hideosities (“Those with saddle-noses. Those with atrophic limbs…. The Brag’s-Diseased, in their heavy red rinds of flesh”). An endless series of grotesque calamities befall the novel’s minor characters (obese asses stuck in bus windows, suicide by garbage disposal). The body in Wallace is not Joycean, Rabelaisian, the site of joyful appetite and pleasure and glorious fecundity. It suffers; it decays; it seeps and stinks; it is ugly and weak and shameful. It is the contemporary body, which knows it’s on its way to obsolescence, superseded by machines and humiliated by images of perfect beauty.
So it is in The Pale King, but with a new element. Now the body becomes not only a personal problem but a professional and ethical one. A tax examiner’s whole job, as the manuscript portrays it, is to sit still, to suppress the urge, in the face of overwhelming boredom, to fidget and break concentration. “The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts,” we’re told about how people usually perform such tasks, “brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men’s room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine,” etc. The taxman’s challenge, in other words, is to keep the body in check. Hence those two peculiar figures, the uncontrollable sweater (whose condition afflicted the author himself—the reason for his trademark perspiration-blotting bandana) and the self-kissing contortionist. One is overwhelmed by his body; the other achieves the impossible feat of transcending it.
What he transcends—this is central to Wallace’s understanding of the body and indeed of the human condition—is pain. Wallace’s greatest subject, for reasons that are all too clear in retrospect, was psychic distress: sadness, loneliness, loss, dread, depression, anomie. But psychic pain, he knew, is physical. That’s why they call it pain. It is no accident that the addicts in Infinite Jest are not alcoholics, by and large, but abusers of narcotics. (Gately’s drugs of choice are Demerol and Talwin.) “Consciousness is nature’s nightmare,” goes a slogan in a story called “The Suffering Channel.” Addiction, for Wallace, including the larger societal addiction that we call entertainment, is an effort to stave off the pain of being alive. (To Wallace, the most important fact about contemporary American society is the amount of television we watch.) Recovery, in turn, becomes an extreme version of the universally necessary process of self-confrontation. “Don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings,” some of the twelve-step veterans like to say in Infinite Jest, “they’ll get in touch with you.”