Unfinished Business

Resurrecting David Foster Wallace's last novel

  • Share
  • Read Later
Marion Ettlinger/Corbis Outline

Two months after the writer David Foster Wallace killed himself, his agent, accompanied by his widow, went into his garage office to look through his papers. It was Thanksgiving weekend, 2008, and the weather was cold and gray in Claremont, Calif. On Wallace's desk they found a neat stack of around 200 pages containing several chapters of a novel called The Pale King.

His agent, Bonnie Nadell, knew he'd been working on it. A lot of people did: a significant fraction of the American reading public had been waiting for a new novel from Wallace ever since 1996, when his monumental Infinite Jest reshaped the skyline of American literature. But she hadn't read it, and she had no idea how much of it he'd managed to finish. She did know it had an unlikely subject: the lives of a group of IRS employees in Peoria, Ill.

Nadell called Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown & Co. and Wallace's longtime editor. He flew out in January and started reading. As it turned out, there was a lot more than just that neat stack. "They brought me literally bins and drawers and wire baskets," Pietsch says. "Just heaps of pages. There was no order to them." He went back to New York City with a duffel bag full of them.

Pietsch spent two years assembling and editing the contents of that duffel bag. The results will be published, appropriately enough, on April 15. If The Pale King isn't a finished work, it is, at the very least, a remarkable document, by no means a stunt or an attempt to cash in on Wallace's posthumous fame. Despite its shattered state and its unpromising subject matter, or possibly because of them, The Pale King represents Wallace's finest work as a novelist.

David Wallace — his middle name was just for book jackets — was born in 1962 and grew up in Champaign, Ill. He was the son of two college professors: his father taught philosophy, his mother English (she's the author of a textbook called Practically Painless English). Wallace was precocious both academically and athletically — he was a regionally ranked tennis player — but the academics won out. He studied philosophy in college but turned his attention to fiction after a sharp depressive episode during his sophomore year. His first novel, The Broom of the System, was published when he was 25. That was followed by a book of stories and then the 1,079-page Infinite Jest.

Even 15 years later it's difficult to get Infinite Jest into perspective — it will always present formidable interpretive challenges, which have only been exacerbated by the complicated emotions surrounding Wallace's death. But reading it now, one finds Infinite Jest both marvelously rich and strangely thin. It contains reams of glorious verbal improvisation and vivid, deeply felt portraiture, as well as some of the most glitteringly intelligent and warmly human dialogue in American literature, but it's all arranged on a story so slight that it doesn't rise even to the level of farce. Wallace had the postmodernist's (and the modernist's) distaste for conventional storytelling, and he built Infinite Jest around a kind of gimcrack comic thriller involving Quebecois assassins in wheelchairs and a movie so entertaining it renders viewers incapacitated.

It's as if committing to his own story would have been too obvious, and maybe too honest, for Wallace — he wants to make sure we know that on some level, he doesn't really mean it. But Wallace didn't have the grand Pynchonian playfulness he would have needed to pull off this kind of bet-hedging performance, and the narrative of Infinite Jest can't support the riches Wallace lavishes on it. It lies hopelessly pinned to the ground beneath them, twitching limply, like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree crushed beneath its own ornaments. The result is a book that's brilliant, funny, heart- and brain-rending and borderline unreadable. It's great, but its greatness runs but north by northwest.

That probably wouldn't have been Wallace's assessment, but he wasn't entirely satisfied with Infinite Jest either. He had more to say, and he spoke dismissively about what he saw as the postmodern trickery of his early work. Over the next dozen years he published two more books of stories as well as two books of essays. He got married and took a job teaching writing at Pomona College in California. And he worked on The Pale King.

Wallace's papers for The Pale King form a remarkable record of an idiosyncratic mind at work. He began by taking notes in, apparently, whatever notebook was within arm's reach; one of them has a Rugrats character on the cover. He switched pens practically every paragraph. The notebooks contain scattered words, character names and observations, as well as what appear to be personal admonitions. (One note reads: "If I wanted to, the solution is to get up early and go to the library.") They're chewed over and bent and practically charred by the intellectual energy Wallace expended in them.

When Pietsch finished his survey, he had found a total of 328 chapters and drafts and fragments from The Pale King, but Wallace had left no clues as to how they fit together. At that point Pietsch's role skewed from editor toward collaborator. "It took me quite a long time to read all of that," Pietsch says, "and take notes, find the latest draft of every chapter, read it all again, find the things that made sense together and discover that there was a central chronology, which was not at first apparent." Pietsch organized the chapters in a spreadsheet, sorting them by type and character, choosing among multiple drafts and arriving at a tentative order from circumstantial clues. He edited the actual text as little as possible, but some chapters didn't have proper endings — they just trailed off midparagraph — and Pietsch had to choose a spot and then snip them off cleanly.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3