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.