Wednesday, May 20, 2009

David Foster Wallace and the Unfinished Novel

My first post of the year was about David Foster Wallace and his hefty novel Infinite Jest. Back then (Jan 4) I was nearing the end of book, after having first been introduced to Wallace by news of his September 2008 suicide, and I mentioned the post mortem article on Wallace in October 2008's Rolling Stone. I've since finished the novel, and months later I'm still slightly haunted by the impression it made on me. I thought I'd revisit the topic of Wallace if only to recommend the March 9 New Yorker article entitled "the Unfinished." The biggest news item contained in this very lengthy but informative article is that, when he succumbed to depression and took his life, Wallace left behind an unfinished manuscript for another big novel which is going to be published by Little, Brown sometime next year.

I'm going to use this post discuss (a) what we know about this unfinished novel, (b) the unfinished novel as a genre, and (c) some other random Wallace crap I want to talk about (you'll have to indulge me -- or, you know, skip that part and if you run into me sometime and I ask you about it just nod and be like "oh, yeah...").

The Pale King

Several months after Wallace's death, in the garage where he did his writing and in his files, his wife and agent found several thousand words which comprised the manuscript for the "Long Thing" he had working on intermittently since 1997. Of these, several hundred pages represent a continous narrative.

This unfinished novel, called the Pale King, in terms of its scope and its themes is basically a follow up to Infinite Jest. The story centers around a group of IRS agents who work in a field office in suburban Illinois. Whereas a key theme in Infinite Jest was America as the land of addiction (to drugs, entertainment, etc.), in the Pale King Wallace explores the idea of learning to live with boredom as an antidote to our dependence on diversion. Thus, the IRS employees, whose work mostly consists of the mind-numbing task of reviewing tax forms all day, embody the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration and thus they stand for (as Wallace once put it) "adult sanity... the only unalloyed form of heroism available today."

The New Yorker article contains a few more Wallace quotes which further elaborate on this idea: first, at a commencement speech in 2005, Wallace stated that freedom meant "being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to." Secondly, it references a character in the Pale King who suggests that boredom is associated with pain because it doesn't distract us from our lives' deep-seated, ambient-noise-level pain. Not to go too off the wall, but this reminds of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and his "universal pessimism": he came to believe that the myths of the ancients and imagination in general brought pleasure because they obscured the true nature of the universe which was filled only with pain and boredom (only, as per Wallace, I guess we've replaced myths and imagination with entertainment and drugs).

In terms of style, Wallace wanted to move away from the gimmicks and the "self-consciously maximalist style" of Infinite Jest which he had come to find too coy for his purposes: he feared that they were a distraction, or worse that they were incompatible with the moral he was trying to get across. Thus, the story in the Pale King is purportedly told in a more straight-forward manner. Wallace had already rejected sarcasm and snark and now it appears he was trying hard to also abandon the more showy elements of his personal style in order to write (as he once said about Dostoevsky) in an emotionally engaged and morally sound way. When one adds to this the fact that he was writing at length about the subject of boredom, it's not so surprising that he struggled with this work for so long. D.T. Max, the author of the New Yorker article, even goes so far as to suggest that Wallace's decision to go off the antidepressant he had been taking for decades may have been motivated in part by a fear that it was preventing him from engaging with his work the way he wanted to.

If you're interested in the Pale King there are three passages that have been published in magazines: "Wiggle Room" which accompanies the article in the New Yorker, "Good People" which first appeared in the same magazine in 2007, and "The Compliance Branch" which ran in Harper's in Feb 2008.

The Unfinished Novel as a Genre

There are actually a lot of great works of literature which were never completed by their authors. In English literature, perhaps the earliest is The Canterbury Tales (our #2 classic that nobody reads ): I think it's universally acknowledged that the work as a whole and even some of the individual tales remain unfinished even if scholars are not sure how much more Chaucer intended to write or whether he had a clear plan at all (there's some doubt whether he ever intended to follow up on the innkeeper's suggestion that each pilgrim tell a story on the road to Canterbury and another on the way back).

In European literature, all three of Kafka's novels (Amerika, the Trial, the Castle) sat unfinished when they were discovered by Max Brod after the author's death. Likewise, Gogol's masterpiece, Dead Souls, is an incomplete work. It is well known how Gogol intended this to be a work in three parts with the first outlining the problems of contemporary Russia and the next two going on to suggest the solution. Today we are left with part one complete and fragments of part two, although there is a legend that Gogol once had a complete (or near complete) manuscript for part two which he was unsatisfied with and threw into the fire. It's also said that Dostoevsky's masterpiece (and final novel) the Brothers Karamazov was meant to be the first volume of a larger work which would go on to recount the life of his hero Alyosha.

More recently, we have Nabokov's incomplete final work, the Original of Laura, which I blogged about and which is finally going to be published after all these years. Out of all of these unfinished novels it's interesting to speculate about which ones were left unfinished as a result of the author's interceding death (a grim warning to all us aspiring writers) and which were destined to remain incomplete no matter what (I mean, is it any wonder Gogol was unsatisfied with his attempts to pen a solution to the ills plaguing Russian society?). Likewise, I wonder which category we should put the Pale King in.

A Little David Foster Wallace/Infinite Jest Lagniappe

In addition to the mammoth New Yorker article (which is summarized by the Washington Post here), I also came across an interview with Glenn Kenny about what it was like to edit Wallace's essays for Empire magazine.

And then there's the Slate Audio Book Club podcast which tackles Infinite Jest. I have to say I was a little shocked at how dismissive the book clubbers were about the novel (although I guess having to read the book again might make one a little bitter). I've been thinking about it, and I guess I can see how some people might not be able to roll with all the encyclopedic tangents. Likewise, some readers might be less tolerant of the sillier parts of the story (which I'd liken to A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) or the more juvenile elements (which make sense in the context of the book, seeing as how a large part of it takes place at a tennis academy full of adolescent boys). One of the book clubbers went so far as to suggest that the novel is universally recognized as a mess, which is quite the assertion given its many fans and critical kudos. I mean, if I were teaching a class on how to write a novel I wouldn't use Infinite Jest as an example, but I thought it kind of worked. I guess I would have rather heard them spend more time discussing the book's many themes, etc (which they do get around to somewhat), and less time whining about how long it was and how it was all over the place.

One thing I have to thank the podcast for, however, is drawing my attention to the "Yorick" scene (which I half picked up on when I read the book). In the first and the last scene of the novel, the two main characters (who never quite meet) both have a vision of the two of them digging up a grave together. Whether this actually happens or not (in the gap between the novel's final scene and the epilogue, which comes at the beginning) is just one more of the novel's unanswered questions.

Images: Photo of David Foster Wallace from Getty Images found on; 1906 photo of Franz Kafka with bowler hat and dog found on

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