Woe Is I: David Foster Wallace and the Pale King

The life of a writer, musician, artist or celebrity who commits suicide at the height of fame will often assume the stature of legend. All work available before the suicide is suddenly, and then nearly exclusively, viewed through the lens of that final act. Then, invariably, posthumously released work that might not warrant worshipful adulation if the person were to live and continue working attains a power far beyond its intrinsic worth.

And then there is the case of David Foster Wallace, a genuinely gifted, chronically troubled writer who came off, on the page, as an over-caffeinated brainiac for whom language, pagination, even punctuation seemed an impediment to the nonstop whirl of thought. His work was alternately funny, depressing, perceptive, freakishly clear and yet also maddeningly obtuse—even though he went to absurdly great lengths to clarify and qualify everything in footnotes, sidebars, bullet points, boxes, all but leaving his phone number for you to call, if you had any further questions.

Before his 2008 suicide, Wallace was not a bestselling author, though his books sold well and his mammoth novel Infinite Jest was this generation’s book to own but not read—or, rather, to not finish reading (guilty as charged), just as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (ditto), James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (ditto), on down to John Milton’s Paradise Lost may have assumed that role for previous generations. And it’s true that after his suicide, some of Wallace’s posthumously published work was admired partly because of that tragedy (such as the amusing, but slight commencement speech he delivered at the 2005 Kenyon College commencement, which became known by the title “This Is Water”).

Two books published in the past year, however, may help to rearrange some of the furniture in the mansion of the Wallace legend. One is the posthumously published novel The Pale King, expertly pieced together by editor Michael Pietsch, and the other is Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max, essentially a New Yorker profile of the writer expanded to book length with secondary sources.

Though the idea of reading a 548-page novel, whittled down from thousands of manuscript pages festooned with sticky notes by an intermediary (Pietsch) who had no guidance from the author might seem dicey, The Pale King proves to be Wallace’s most “accessible” work of fiction. If by “accessible,” one means a book that follows a set of characters through a series of loosely linked events or, in this case, non-events. The Pale King is, in fact, unusual for Wallace whose fiction (from his first novel The Broom of the System to story collections Girl With Curious Hair and Interviews with Hideous Men) are often difficult to read. Where it isn’t difficult, these works are mesmerizing, and The Pale King is filled with such pleasurable patches.

Set in the early 1980s, Pale King is a story of employees known as “wigglers” who sit for hours on end in a soulless nondescript building located on Self-Storage Boulevard in Peoria, Illinois, poring over tax returns. This was before e-filing, e-mail, e-anything, really. The book’s narrative and layers of meta-clothing seem to pinpoint the beginning of the slide toward the total corporate subjugation of America, with Wallace offering flashes of insight about “the dark genius of corporations” and their “fugue of evaded responsibility” through their creative abuse—so creative it can slip past the best of the wigglers—of a porous tax code the rest of the 99 percent do not or cannot exploit.

Glendenning, a revered supervisor at the tax center, is the conscience of the “old” and “responsible” America, conservative in the best sense of that word. He sparks a whirl of conversations among some of the more articulate “wigglers”. While different voices are heard, Wallace doesn’t bother with naming who’s speaking, instead delivering gatling gun bursts of dialogue like:

Corporations…are revenue machines….I think it’s absurd to lay moral or civic obligations on them.

Their only obligations are strategic…at root they’re not civic entities.

With corporations, I have no problem with government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function. What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK.

This is soon followed by two other voices, saying, “They expect the government to do something about it” and then “Or corporations to grow souls.”

Under the guise of fiction, Wallace seems here to be speaking all the voices himself. The overwhelming sensation one gets from being immersed in such patches of The Pale King is not unlike the how the lobster must feel as the gradually rising water temperature in the pot eventually cooks him. Likewise, this may explain how we got where we are today as a society: the 99 percent dwarfed by the corporate edifices erected by the 1 percent. It did not happen overnight—the powerlessness, the hopelessness, the thwarted idealism of “making a difference” exchanged for simply having a job with health benefits. All of this, one could argue, began around the time the events in The Pale King take place.

Adding to the tragedy of Wallace’s early death is that fact that he has never written better prose than in this novel, from the opening descriptions of the setting (“The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers”) to the closing image of an assembly line worker immersed in her work. D.T. Max, however, shows with sad finality how it did not feel that way living inside Wallace’s skin. In fact, just before his death, Wallace was ready to toss in the towel on writing altogether and open a shelter for abused dogs, which partly explains the tortuous process that went into creating his final novel.

The 22nd chapter of The Pale King is a 100-page monologue by a character referred to as “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle. Fogle’s narration is as fine as anything I’ve read in contemporary fiction. The fact that Wallace chose to nickname the mouthpiece for such miraculous prose “Irrelevant” may just speak to the author’s own self-lacerating tendencies. By itself, this section could be considered the godson of A Fan’s Notes.

(Ah, there I go being all meta-critic: now I need to explain what A Fan’s Notes is because it’s no longer a cultural touchstone. A Fan’s Notes is a “fictional memoir” (more memoir than fiction) that Frederick Exley published in 1968, in which the author tries to come to grips with the fact that he had failed in his quest for immortality and must settle for simply being a spectator. Meanwhile, he fuels his old fantasies of greatness with alcohol and debauchery. Recipe for miserable reading? Far from it. Some of the funniest/saddest writing ever published by an American novelist. And yet, adding to its poignancy was its being so out of step with its own time, a boozy confession published at the height of trippy-dippy psychedelia, an apolitical rumination thrust amidst a nation consumed by political militancy.)

Echoes of Frederick Exley—entirely unintended by Wallace, who nonetheless had more than a passing acquaintance with drugs and booze—are seen in Wallace’s insertion of himself into the narrative of The Pale King. As in The Pale King, not much happens in A Fan’s Notes: sitting in bars watching the New York Giants on TV, in loony bins watching the New York Giants on TV, lying on the davenport of a long-suffering mother’s house in Watertown, New York talking to the family mutt and reading about the New York Giants in the daily newspapers. Wallace echoes Exley in his realization, stated clearly in The Pale King: “Welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience.”

“Irrelevant” Chris Fogle had (like Wallace and Exley) an up and down academic career (“my college transcripts looked like collage art”) but he, also like Exley, had what amounted to a religious conversion when he mistakenly enters the wrong college classroom—for Advanced Tax instead of his own assigned American Political Thought (a brilliant touch to link politics with tax evasion)—on the last day of the semester before exams. Rather than get up and leave the lecture hall, and make his way to his correct classroom, Fogle can’t move because he is transfixed by the visiting professor’s manner and confidence. This fictional scholar (perhaps the very “pale king” of the novel’s title) holds the entire audience in similar thrall. The lecture begins:

To experience commitment as the loss of options, a type of death, the death of childhood’s limitless possibility, of the flattery of choices without duress—this will happen, mark me. Childhood’s end. The first of many deaths …

On and on the unnamed professor drones, building on the theme stated above:

Gentlemen, by which I mean, of source, latter adolescents who aspire to manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.

Welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.

He closes his remarks, with “Gentlemen, you are called to account.”

* * * * *

Now for the “Woe Is I” part. Wallace himself is called to account by Max, who is equally enamored of Wallace the writer (and has a commendable knowledge of even the most obscure of Wallace’s scribblings) as he is disturbed by Wallace the person. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story makes clear that Wallace was in seriously deep mental trouble much of his adult life. He was a psychological mess, nearly paralyzed at times by his obsessive compulsive tendencies, his tics, his rituals and inability to curb them (for example, Max offers detailed accounts of Wallace’s loss of huge chunks of his life to Chauncey Gardner-like TV viewing).

Depression was his main disease and addiction (to drugs and alcohol) was just his attempt to self-medicate. His problems were longstanding, nearly intractable and, probably to those who knew him, his suicide was not the shock that it was to his fans.

Some of this is heartrending, as when he wrote his agent Bonnie Nadell from a mental hospital, “Don’t give up on me” and when he attempts to explain his mental illness to Jonathan Franzen in a letter. Wallace was desperate for connection, with ideas and people and work, and he saw that his life’s work would be the mantra “how to live in the world.”

However, much of his darker side is not heart-rending; it may even be unsettling for his fans to read. For example, Wallace became obsessed with the writer Mary Karr, who was inconveniently married with kids at the time. Max never makes it clear whether Karr encouraged this obsession. She certainly helped him land a much needed teaching job and was “enabling” in the sense that she did not draw any boundaries for him, which allowed the crazy inside Wallace to do things like tattoo her name on his shoulder, show up unannounced to shovel her driveway, move to Syracuse because she was there.

At some point, Wallace went from being a borderline stalker to a potential John Hinckley by trying (unsuccessfully) to buy a gun and then inquiring about hiring a hit man to kill Karr’s husband. The “plot” never materialized because the person he asked wisely brought the request to the attention of the drug rehab staff and, to Wallace’s salvation, not to the police. It is a mystery how Wallace avoided any legal consequences for this act. It may be an even bigger mystery how Karr allowed him to stay in her life after this, unless she had encouraged his preposterous fantasy or enjoyed the drama (eventually, they did have a romantic relationship, which ended disastrously).

On that same note, Wallace also had the most patient editors in the world. Indeed, it may be maddening for some writers to learn what he got away with that would have resulted in doors being slammed in most everyone else’s faces.

Normally a writer’s private demons should be given wide berth, allowing for the writing to speak for itself. However, this part of David Foster Wallace is an important thing to know going in because one of his recurrent themes was that Americans his age were self-absorbed to the point of solipsism—which could easily be said of his own behavior at time. At his worst, Wallace had the addict’s or drunk’s, tendency to project his own darkest urges onto everyone else, perhaps to minimize one’s own culpability.

It is, of course, a measure of the inner strength Wallace ultimately found that he did eventually wage an honest and courageous struggle with his own dark baggage and more often than not found himself wanting.

Max also shows that Wallace was always torn between coveting fame—to the point of agreeing to take part in an US magazine photo shoot as one of a group of young writers sitting worshipfully at the feet of the insufferable Tama Janowitz (where is she now?)—and being sickened by the part of himself that did so. That was his real beat: a fascination with America’s excesses and a hatred of them. It was worse than simply being nauseated by this covetous side of himself; he was ashamed. It might be something as simple as this, as Max notes: “Behind the ordinary fears lurked the fear of being ordinary.”

* * * * *

Okay, crawling back to the light again: Less trumpeted is Wallace’s non-fiction, his “journalism,” if you will, though “journalism” seems too constricting a word for what he does with the form. This work, found in the collections Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, is the foundation on which his legend should really rest; a few of these pieces contain some of the most exciting prose in the English language in the past 20 years, particularly such “essays” as “Big Red Son,” “Up, Simba,” “Consider the Lobster,” “Host” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing”.

These free-form reports from the front lines, and slit trenches, of American culture—porn film industry, political campaigns, animal rights activism, right-wing talk radio, a state fair, the cruise ship industry, professional sports—alternately make your eyes water, your side hurt from laughing and your mind spin from the nonstop whirr of Wallace’s word-slinging, all the while he is practically apologizing for taking up your valuable time with his confusion. Perhaps he shines in non-fiction because he can focus on a specific subject and work outward from there. He digs deeper into some of these subjects than any writer before and mines ore that no one else, with the possible exception of Nicholson Baker, can reach.

I didn’t get interested in David Foster Wallace’s writing until after his suicide. A story about him in Rolling Stone piqued my interest. Before then, I’d lumped him with the literary pack swarming out of university MFA programs, a sort of grunge Thomas Pynchon. But I’m touched by the story of his struggles with chronic depression, a condition I’ve battled for more than years myself—and Max’s biography is a good chronicle of such a battle, the equal to William Styron’s Darkness Visible or Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon (or, for that matter, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes).

Then I read the title essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and I realized this was a once-in-a-generation writer.

7 Responses

  1. When you are writing about a
    When you are writing about a writer as brilliant (in the true sense of the word) as David Foster Wallace, one ought to be able to write pretty well oneself. This was a very well written piece. I think you nailed a lot here. Too tired to go into specifics.

    And is there anything that makes one want to finish a book more than a comment such as yours above: “this generation’s book to own but not read”?

    The answer is no.

  2. I want to read the Wallace
    I want to read the Wallace oeuvre witten about above after reading this. Thanks!

  3. Alan, great job. thanks for
    Alan, great job. thanks for this. Going to finally read A Fan Note’s now, maybe revisit Wallace too. Also was impressed with your bookseller essay “Bookdrunk.” Just finished reading it for the second time.

  4. Very nice essay. I, like you,
    Very nice essay. I, like you, didn’t get into Wallace until after his death. Then I read Infinite Jest and The Pale King, and posted my thoughts here on LitKicks. I saw a video of Wallace being interviewed, and he came across as very smart and very anxious. That he was able to write with such power and beauty while holding such terrible demons at bay seems incredible. I have yet to read his non-fiction, but it’s on my list.

    I have enjoyed all of your essays here on LitKicks – keep them coming!

  5. Thanks for your kind remarks,
    Thanks for your kind remarks, everyone. And Michael, I will now eagerly go back and read your essay on Infinite Jest and Pale King. It might even inspire me to finished reading Infinite Jest. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up reading Gravity’s Rainbow and Finnegan’s Wake. They’ve been staring at me from my bookshelves for going on 25 years!

  6. If you read the book
    If you read the book carefully you could know that the pale king in the title is a baby. It is the pale redheaded baby of audit group manager Gary Manshardt. An entire department has to babysit the child. Quite funny. I still love your piece, but do not agree that The Pale King can compete with Infinite Jest in any way.

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