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.
* * *
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.”
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.
* * *
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.”
For Wallace, American culture, the â¨culture of television, is fundamentally adolescent, in the precise sense of needing to deny the vulnerabilities of childhood. His great ideological foe, inveighed against in fiction and nonfiction alike, was the contemporary pose of weary cynicism, the hip anhedonia that denies the existence of feeling and need by treating inner emptiness as cool. “To be really human,” Hal thinks in a crucial passage, “is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile.” (It surely did not escape Wallace’s attention that “infantile” is a near-anagram—as well, in some sense, as a near-synonym—for “infinite.”) Infinite Jest is a novel of children. Nearly every character’s story leads back to abuse or neglect, to missing warmth or missing words. The Incandenza parents are impossibly aloof—he intensely present in his absence, she intensely absent in her presence—as well as immensely tall, over â¨6 feet 5 inches in her case, even taller in his: the parents, in other words, of small children. The film that drives the plot, an entertainment so addictive that it saps you of the will to live, turns out to consist, it seems, of a maternal figure, viewed from a crib through the blurry vision of infancy, saying over and over, “I’m so sorry. I’m so terribly sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
Wallace solves the problem of American adolescence, in other words, not by advancing to adulthood but by regressing to childhood. The novel’s moral center, at least at the tennis academy, is Mario, who corresponds to Hal’s description of our inner selves as “some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself…around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.” Mario is weak, dependent, endlessly loving and forgiving and grateful, an openhearted holy fool in the mold of Alyosha Karamazov. On the other side of the plot is Alcoholics Anonymous, likewise seen in terms of infantile surrender (to a “higher power”), of total vulnerability and emotional incontinence. Wallace’s vision of redemption seems to be to admit that we’re all Marios and at least be open and honest about it. This, indeed, is the persona he presented in his essays, eyes big and wet with childlike candor—willing to feel, to believe, to be naïve, to take a chance, to acknowledge his confusions, to be real. It was precisely that vulnerability that made him so beloved, the reason he was seen as a generational Moses who could lead us from the wilderness of postmodern irony.
I’m not suggesting that the attitude was disingenuous. In fact, Wallace was painfully aware of the paradox of trying to play the role of someone who refuses to play a role, a dilemma he explored in a long report on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, as well as, implicitly, in many of his stories. I’m also not accusing him of sentimentality, another danger he recognized and generally managed to skirt. But Wallace’s vision surrenders too much. He seems to need to break us before he can fix us—needs us humbled and hideous in order to be redeemed. There are no positive characters in Infinite Jest, almost no characters at all, who aren’t in some way damaged. The world becomes a children’s hospital, or a halfway house. Everything active, assertive, everything confident and even creative, must be surrendered. The novel refers at a certain point to “an AA life of ashtrays and urns,” and there’s a sense in which the program is a posthumous organization, a collection of people who have died to the world to be reborn again in sobriety.
Hal uses a word to describe the way that inner infant drags itself around the map: “anaclitically.” “Anaclitic” (I had to look it up myself) means “characterized by the direction of love toward an object (as the mother) that satisfies nonsexual needs.” The key word there is “nonsexual.” Sex in Infinite Jest—sex just about everywhere in Wallace’s work—is empty, exploitative, ugly, mainly a matter of men being mean. The tennis kids are too young to have sex; the newly sober addicts aren’t supposed to. Both live in a kind of substitute family of brothers and sisters. The novel’s great romance is Gately’s platonic affair with Joelle van Dyne, the Prettiest Girl Of All Time, who has taken the veil, or at least a veil, to secede from the destructive world of adult sexuality. Wallace seems to long to return to the presexual realm of childhood companionship, before desire divided us from one another.
* * *
The whole issue of human connection seemed to have caused a lot of trouble for him. Beset by social anxiety as a young man, he began his career with exactly the kind of writing you’d expect from a precocious geek-boy trapped in his own head: preoccupied with abstract theoretical questions (Wallace studied math and philosophy as an undergraduate), stuffed with technical and cultural arcana. The thick wall of personality seems to have been especially dense for him. The Broom of the System, his first book, is largely about the separation of self from other, expressing at once a longing for merger and a terror of engulfment.
The same dialectic carried through the rest of his oeuvre and explains its divided nature. Lab-cold stories on the one hand, snot-warm essays on the other. In the former, characters fret, in the endless, rationalizing, involuted, self-consuming, double-pump, psychobabble sentences that became his stylistic signature, about their inability to present themselves honestly to other people and thus, ultimately, to themselves—a kind of panic of inauthenticity, a dread of existential disappearance. In the essays, Wallace lurches to the other extreme, spilling his selfhood all over the page as he bids anaclitically for the reader’s love. Complaints about his self-indulgence or lack of self-discipline are wildly misguided with respect to his fiction, where the prolixity always serves an artistic purpose, but not when it comes to the essays, where he offers himself in his own person. Many of the latter, especially the overlong, footnote-freighted reports on things like the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise and a right-wing talk-radio host, pieces in which he seems to lose his filter altogether, remind me of the character in Infinite Jest whose chatter is referred to as “listener-interest-independent.” Infantile, infinite. Love me, love all of me.
The suspicion arises that Wallace’s self-consciousness was less aesthetic than psychic, perhaps the reason that he could never shut it off. Yet he knew his predicament, and struggled in his work against it. In Infinite Jest, the highest ethical act, the opposite of talking, is listening, with all the self-surrender it involves. Instead of the stories’ boyish staring fascination with the hideous, he cultivated, both in that novel and The Pale King, an empathy for the ugly and uncool. His language does the same. If Martin Amis, carrying on the elitist tradition of Joyce and Nabokov, declares a Nietzschean “war against cliché,” Wallace joins the battle on the other side. Not only does he endorse the everyman wisdom that platitudes embody, as in Infinite Jest’s defense of AA bromides; he takes the hackneyed idioms and loose and sometimes ungainly rhythms of everyday speech up into his writing, making them the basis of his style. For all his recondite vocabulary, Wallace practiced a latter-day version of sermo humilis, the low or humble style of early Christian writing, which sought, like Christ and his teachings, to incarnate the highest truths in the humanest form, a way of honoring our common commonness.
Above all, he developed a philosophy of attentiveness. In the Kenyon address, he spoke of the need to renounce the deep (and infantile) belief “that I am the absolute center of the universe” by “simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of me.” Rather than defining the self by what it helplessly desires—this is the kind of reframing that’s exemplary of Wallace’s immense moral intelligence—we can define it by what it wills itself to be aware of. And here we return to The Pale King, a work in which Wallace sought to move beyond both the adolescence of American culture and the childlike candor he had previously offered in its place, to show us a picture of what it means, as he put it at Kenyon, to live “adultly.”
The longest section of the manuscript, nearly a hundred pages, is the story of Chris Fogle, a self-proclaimed ’70s “wastoid” college student, and his ’50s-vintage father, who worked a banal bureaucratic job for the City of Chicago. “He had a family to support,” Fogle says of this stoic representative of the last generation of American grown-ups, “this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, everything else is just self-indulgent nonsense.” In short, “He was an adult; he had himself firmly in hand.”
But Fogle doesn’t discover the will to follow in his father’s footsteps until he stumbles into an accounting class one day. True heroism, he hears the instructor say, is not exciting or romantic, and cannot, by its nature, have an audience, because admiration is a form of reward. What is heroic about true heroism is that it has no reward. (The idea reminds me of Borges’s notion—Wallace was a great fan of the Argentine writer—that Judas was the real, secret Christ, because he wasn’t lionized.) True heroism, the instructor says, consists of endurance: “Effacement. Sacrifice. Service.” It was “probably the first time I’d ever considered the word moral,” Fogle says in a typical Wallace touch, “in any context other than a term paper.” The instructor is unlike anyone Fogle has ever encountered. He makes him think of words like “credibility” and “authority.” He wears a hat, that icon of a bygone masculinity, as Fogle’s father wore a hat and as the REC men all wear hats. The instructor speaks of heroism, but Wallace clearly means for us to understand the term as a figure for adulthood, or as the instructor calls it, “manhood.”
* * *
Wallace had been working toward these ideas for a long time. Gately achieves a monumental stature, late in Infinite Jest, by simply enduring—lying in a hospital, a gunshot wound in his shoulder, refusing the drugs that would relieve his excruciation. But Gately has an audience, the lovely Joelle, and his situation is dramatic and glamorous. Closer to The Pale King, almost a sketch for the longer work, is “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” from Oblivion. “I had begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven,” the story’s teenage protagonist says. His father is an actuary; when he comes home from work, his eyes “appeared lightless and dead, empty of everything we associated with his real persona.” As for the nightmares, they feature a vast, bright, windowless room filled with scores of men sitting in rows of identical desks.
This describes the REC precisely. Now the nightmare is real, and so is the heroism. The true terror of adult life is not physical pain but boredom, or as Fogle’s instructor puts it, “routine, repetition, tedium, monotony…the true hero’s enemies.” Gately takes it, in his hospital bed, not one day at a time but one second, second by second, and so do the men in The Pale King, facing down the agony of boredom for an endless succession of moments. The one who has it worst is Lane Dean Jr.—a brutal irony, because Dean was the one who had courageously accepted his girlfriend’s decision to keep their child. Now he is shackled to his job, and has a new vision of hell. “He had the sensation of a great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor. Never â¨before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide.” In another section, a fellow examiner is menaced by the infant he is asked to keep an eye on. “I was, thenceforth, this tiny white frightening thing’s to command, its instrument or tool.” This is Eraserhead (Wallace was also a big David Lynch fan): the terror of children, and all the doom of black responsibility they spell for a young man.
Wallace, ever the seeker, wants to find the situation’s spiritual potential. Now redemption lies not amid the congregation of AA but along the thorny path of solitary asceticism. The story of the contortionist, that victor over the body, makes reference to Catholic stigmatists like Padre Pio and Therese Neumann (who was said to have subsisted on Communion wafers), as well as to a Bengali holy man. On the other side of boredom, says Fogle’s instructor (who seems to be a Jesuit priest), lies “a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” The path of corporeal transcendence is represented in The Pale King most fully by a taxman named Drinion. In the manuscript’s second-longest section—Pietsch places it near the end—Drinion listens to the confessional monologue of a fellow agent, the gorgeous Meredith Rand. (Their beauty-and-the-beast relationship recalls that of Gately with Joelle.) Listening, remember, was Wallace’s ethical ideal. Drinion’s concentration is complete, and as Rand talks away, he starts to levitate, like saints and yogis before him.
But Drinion achieves his bliss at an enormous price—that, essentially, of having no self. Co-workers consider him “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” He seems to have no interiority: no feelings, no imagination, no relationships, hardly even a past. “I don’t think I’m really anything,” he tells Rand. “I don’t think I’ve ever had what you mean by sexual attraction.” If perfect Zen emptiness is the only route to happiness, there’s something wrong with Wallace’s vision. He’s willing to try to be a grown-up, but he can’t imagine that there might be anything good about it. Tedium, deadness, drudgery, imprisonment: but no possibility of fulfilling work, or the joys of childrearing, or the increase of powers, or the growth of wisdom—no recompense at all, abundant or otherwise.
Wallace wanted to advance from adolescence to adulthood, but his idea of adulthood was still an adolescent’s. The breakthrough he was searching for he never made. He may have been the best mind of his generation—that is, of mine—and his failures are as telling as his triumphs. He made our story his and his our own, but the part that he could never finish was the one where we all grow up.