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David Foster Wallace

One can see that David Foster Wallace was thinking about the main problem of what would become his final work when he delivered his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005. Now regarded as a seminal piece on modern compassion, it proposed to reveal, as any small-college commencement address worth its speaker fee is wont to do, the “real purpose” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, it was this:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Wallace elaborates by applying this idea to a regular occurrence – a trip to the grocery store. Rather than lament our vice-tight schedules and the depressing lighting, or loathe the overfed customers in the overlong checkout line, we should look around, and imagine other people’s stories, realizing “the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.” More than a trite dictum on empathy, this idea is first and foremost about storytelling, about filling in for ourselves the unheard narratives that people tell themselves. And Wallace over the years was most interested in narratives of suffering. Boredom (so closely linked to the problem of addiction, which he addressed in Infinite Jest) is one such type, and it takes center stage in his last book, an unfinished project published under the title The Pale King.

Really, any book about the IRS that doesn’t talk at potentially tedious length about boredom would need to have its head checked. But Wallace makes it work in surprising and brilliant ways. Like Infinite Jest, the book establishes a central setting – this time a tax collection and processing center in Illinois – through which a wide variety of zany characters come and go. While the chapters that digress into the backgrounds of many of these characters constitute the type of attention to personal narratives Wallace spoke about in his address, there are other chapters, which go on for pages and pages about tax code, that deliberately test the reader’s ability to stick with it. We watch characters concoct more and more methods to cope with office tedia (the story takes place in the ‘80’s, pre-Internet), but we also watch characters experience supernatural effects of hyper-consciousness (one character floats when he’s really focused). Toward the end of the manuscript, our main protagonist (more on him later) comes to a final realization:

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy…I discovered the key. The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for…The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.

This passage comprises nearly the entirety of one short chapter, which I don’t have a problem calling the book’s climax. The remainder of the book (there’s not much left after this chapter) is similarly hopeful. Amid the subplot (any sequence that one wants to label a “plot” in this book would do well to call it a subplot, in that it operates, always, beneath the surface of things. Emily Cooke said it well in The Millions when she affirmed, “events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation”) of the attempts to replace human workers at the IRS with computers, certain characters, as mentioned, discover that they have special abilities to focus, not just on tax-work, but on the lives of others. The penultimate chapter, in which Meredith Rand, a beautiful (and, thus, emotionally isolated) agent, tells the story of her stint in a psych ward to Shane Drinion, the man no one else pays attention to, is the best in the book. It is a story about listening, about paying attention with unmotivated empathy. To see Wallace’s notes in the appendix address some of how this storyline would play out filled me with sadness over the potential this book really had. Namely: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

It’s fairly clear how preoccupied with boredom Wallace actually was in his final years. Jonathan Franzen asserted as much in his recent article in The New Yorker:

That [Wallace] was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil – was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it – is not inconsequential…When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

Franzen spends a good deal of this article hashing out his anger over Wallace’s suicide. But if we put his observations of his dear friend’s decline alongside what Wallace came up with in The Pale King, we see the tragedy. In short, this book is as much about writing as it is about working at the IRS. Tom McCarthy made the right connection between the image of the service agent and of the novelist, hailing the book as “a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – properly and rigorously forward – in an age of data saturation.” Cooke agrees: “The question is whether, along with the data, [the agents] can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an ‘information society.’”  It’s ultimately up to you to determine whether, like Franzen did, Wallace’s vocation and vision had left him, but, here, that struggle is valiantly dramatized.

Like addiction in Infinite Jest, boredom serves as a centripetal theme. Everything comes back to boredom. But, also like Infinite Jest, the theme is developed piecemeal, in a plotless tableau that is nonetheless filled with the delicious nuggets that we have come to love Wallace so much for. We have characters like the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, the compulsive and uncontrollable sweater David Cusk, the logorrheic and narratively expansive Chris “Irrelevant” Fogle, and the monastic Shane Drinion, who floats when he concentrates. Not to mention other chapters that tell of menacing infants, terrifying childhood shit stories, and life in the ‘60’s. They are digressive in that wonderful Wallacean way, becoming like legends, the way you can kick back with a friend and say, “Remember that part in Infinite Jest?” In that sense one feels that The Pale King could have been as long, as Rabelaisan, and almost as scriptural as its predecessor.

But the most interesting move Wallace makes is a vexing narrative divergence from the structure of Infinite Jest (by the way, I am happy to talk about Wallace’s shorter fiction, or his first novel The Broom of the System, but there really is no other analog, in a holistic sense). Namely, everything reads along just fine, until you hit Chapter 9, titled “Author’s Foreword.” The first line may evoke that familiar postmodern groan. Oh. This again. It begins:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, Dave Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:

All of this is true. This book is really true.

The rest of the chapter recounts his suspension from university (rich students paid him to write their papers) and subsequent employment at the IRS. In a later chapter we learn how he was confused for a higher-ranking David Wallace and was thus given a job well above his pay grade. All of this is fictional, of course. Wallace wasn’t even forty in 2005. He was 43. Not to mention the fictional home address and social security number (“Wallace” claims he was issued a new one when he joined the Service). But this is not the point. In short, this whole sequence is a blatant ploy at the idea of fictionality in general. There are other first-person narrators, some identified, some not. Other chapters refer to Wallace only in passing, as merely a tangential character. He is both focalized protagonist and wallflower. But there is more to it than what “Wallace” himself calls “postmodern titty-pinching.” The real point here, broadly, is that Wallace seems to be writing a counterfactual life. If we take Franzen at his word, we might partly read this book as a dramatization of Wallace’s own despair. Many characters share famous Wallacean traits (excessive sweating, precocious “data mysticism,” penchants for storytelling), and we find that their lives in the Service have a Plan-B quality. Sylvanshine wants to become a CPA but can’t; Cusk has unnatural processing abilities but is too paralyzed by his condition to live a public life; Fogle shifts life paths after he stumbled into the wrong review session in college; Lane Dean signs up after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Across these characters Wallace depicts the tragedy of what could have been, condemning characters to lives of tedium. The saddest thing about it, though, is the hopeful note it ends on, as these seemingly doomed characters become friends and begin to rise to the challenge of remaining relevant in the dawning digital age. At any rate, we see Wallace here searching, an activity that maybe occurs most often when we are bored, for greener pastures.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that I have refrained to this point from calling The Pale King a novel. This was essentially my way of broaching the rabbit-hole debate over the book’s textual status. A particularly snarky article (and that’s saying something) from Slate’s Tom Scocca took to task Michiko Kakutani’s review. He writes:

Evaluation is beside the point. Kakutani, gamely taking things at face value, wrote that the book was “lumpy but often stirring” – well, why wouldn’t it have lumps? It’s not a finished novel.

And: “this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity.” But why would it be continuous? It’s not a finished novel.

The Pale King is less inventive and exuberantly imagined than Wallace’s previous novels.” But it is not a finished novel.

It is “[t]old in fragmented, strobe-lighted chapters” – but it is not a finished novel!

And so on. Scocca accuses Kakutani of over-harshly mistreating The Pale King as a finished, polished product, when it is really just a draft.  He’s looking for his “Gotcha!” moment, but his qualms, in form and content, are more reductive than Kakutani’s claims by far. She’s doing her job of evaluating what’s there. Scocca drops the ball by assuming that what’s there is somehow worse than what could have been there. In other words, he dodges the idea that a fundamental characteristic of any novel is its unfinishedness. This is an idea as old as Bakhtin and central to deconstruction, as well as to novel theory in general. The Pale King offers a rare glimpse into process in a raw state. As Emily Cooke concluded, “the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive [Wallace’s] questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t…As much sense as it settles into, it will escape us. It escaped him.” If ever a novel was going to be patently unfinished, it should be this one. Wallace has created an open-ended counterfactual existence, where he was free to imagine possibilities bleak and hopeful. That he couldn’t give us a final answer was the great tragedy of his life, but perhaps his most novelistic quality.

1. “John Billy,” which begins, “Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” and is the fifth of 10 stories that appear in Girl with Curious Hair, strikes me as starkly different from most of Wallace’s work. This is, for example, one of the very few of his short stories that feature or is focused on lower class characters. There is also the tailor in the story “Say Never,” in Girl with Curious Hair, and the last piece in Oblivion involves some poor Midwesterners, though it’s not about them, and there are some stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men where, it seems to me, it’s ambiguous. But, for the most part, Wallace’s world is made up of well-educated, gainfully employed, could-go-to-therapy-if-they-wanted, upper middle class whites. There is no one in his short stories who mows the lawn, or stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, or drives a truck for a living. There is no one who would appear in a Raymond Carver story or in the worlds Cormac McCarthy writes about, but “John Billy” is an exception to that, and this story actually could have been told (differently, obviously) by either of them. From the moment it opens, “John Billy” is dramatically different.

2. In his later work, Wallace is primarily interested in ethics — human relationships, solipsism, sadness, etc. — and some of that comes through in Girl with Curious Hair, but in this story he seems primarily interested in language. “John Billy” most clearly owes a debt to McCarthy, who Wallace praised a number of times and in a number of places, my favorite being the three word recommendation/review of Blood Meridian that reads, in entirety, “Don’t even ask.” In an interview somewhere Wallace said he didn’t know how McCarthy “gets away with it,” and that’s the part of McCarthy’s project that Wallace focuses on here: how to make the anachronistical and anarchic, mythical, biblical, dirt poor, ungrammatical, spoken language work.

Some of it works and works amazingly well, like:

And was me told the table how except for the eyes, the jaw, and the pelvis, which to our community relief all healed up, prime face, in just weeks, leaving good luck bad luck Chuck Junior a sharper shot, wickeder dancer, nearer to handsome than before, how except for that, the major impact and damage from the accident had turned out to be to Nunn’s head, mind and sensibility. How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil …

and:

Now the buzzards outside the Outside Minogue Oklahoma Bar was down, sitting row on straight and orderly row on the edge-of-Minogue land stretching off toward dirt. Appeared to us through the window like fat bad clerics, soft and plump, teetery, red-eyed, wrapped up tight in soft black coats of ecumenism and observation. Had orange beaks and claws.
Was a good thousand orange beaks out there. Double on the claws. Lined up.

But other attempts seem to me to still be too far away and condescending, informed more by Deliverance than by any actual contact with poor whites. More bad joke than interesting use of language. An example is the title character’s use of the phrase “interjaculated,” for “interjected,” which is funny, but in a snobby, snickering way. It has the same attitude as The Jerry Springer Show.

And Wallace is really better than that.

3. There also, curiously, some sentences with cadences that could fit into a Bob Dylan song. The names all seem like something from Dylan — T. Rex Minogue, Glory Joy duBoise, Simple Ranger — and there are passages that could be narrated in his nasal, for example:

T. Rex Minogue was asking us to drink to his death.

or:

We passed the jars around and unscrewed Minogue’s bootleg lids.
We was silent at our table, expected T. Rex dead, or at least twisted, traumatized, Nunn-struck.
“Hi,” he said.

4. Which — 2) & 3) — is not say this piece is in any way derivative or merely imitative. What is exciting here for me is precisely the way Wallace is experimenting and pushing himself and trying to use language with which he is unfamiliar. There are some parts of this, too, that are very traditional. For example, “John Billy” is told as a story being told, a style that goes back to Chaucer, was used by Conrad, and wasn’t, in 1989, experimental. But Wallace finds ways within this form to experiment and does a number of things that seem to me to be original. For one, it’s narrated as a story told to us about a story told about a story, which makes the traditional style more complicated, and, for two, Wallace starts introducing prosodic elements like line breaks into the prose narrative, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in fiction.

For example:

How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil,

“evil,” I emphasized, and there was shudders from civilians and Glory Joy,

and how a evil Chuck Nunn Junior fought and cussed and struggled against his spinal restraints, invected against everything from Prime Mobile to OU Norman’s head football coach Mr. Barry B. Switzer hisself; how even slickered in blood, and eyes hanging ominous half out of their holes, Nunn’d laid out two paramedics and a deputy and shined up my personal chin when we tried to ease him into an ambulance …

Or, the same thing with stranger punctuation:

She told how Nunn come more or less to, in his little wrap-around car, his torch-lit busted eyes in blood like bearings in deep oil;
“Remember the eyes of Nunn,” I interjaculated, and Simple Ranger give me a watching look
; and as Glory Joy finished up communicating anger and justicelessness she felt, upon seeing T. Rex’s brother V.V. Minogue, listing far to port up against the largely unharmed cab of his IH liquor truck, weepy, shitfaced, scratchless …

5. Stylistically, there’s something constant in Wallace’s work, which can be found in his non-fiction and fiction pieces, which can be found here too, even when Wallace is writing in a voice that isn’t the one that comes to him most naturally. I don’t know exactly what it is called but it is a hyper-accurate, very technical language. The sense, which Wallace conveys with this almost-sometimes-stilted voice, is of someone struggling to express what’s hard to express, what’s delicate, struggling to do justice to the complication — a very careful, cautious, circuitous way of speaking (common in therapy and the best of continental philosophy), which is sometimes criticized as obfuscationism but is, in fact, normally an attempt to be ethical verbally, to be fair to that which is not simple.

To me it seems like it’s the texture of Wallace’s writing, but while this texture is vital to the kinds of questions Wallace asks in Oblivion‘s “Mister Squishy,” or Brief Interview with Hideous Men‘s “The Depressed Person,” it didn’t have to happen here, in “John Billy,” which points to this being something essential about Wallace and the way he writes.

He has this ethico-linguistic texture, here, with his use of,

– coordinating modifiers (“at an ominous and coincidental point in time”)
– compound nouns and modifiers (“a climactic and eternal chase-down-the-field and catch-from-behind” and “the runner-plus-interference problem,” respectively)
– extended and sometimes doubled non-defining relative clauses (“V.V., stepped in post-explosion guilt and self-loathing, plus not a little eau d’sweet potato, was speeding away”)
– very specific, technical or speciality-specific vocabulary (“near-gerunds confrontation,” “vis a vis,” “institutional-caring facility”)
– irregularly-used works, such as brand names as verbs (“to arrive and gawk and Kodak”)
all of which express the kind of carefulness that emerges later, when Wallace returns to fiction, as explicitly ethical, and shows, even this early, the impulse towards writing as a kind of ethics.