New Yorker to Publish Part of Unfinished Wallace Novel

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009; 12:11 PM

When David Foster Wallace killed himself last September, his death shocked and saddened the literary world -- and provoked immediate speculation about what posthumous work might emerge.

This week's New Yorker offers at least a partial answer to that question. In a pile on Wallace's Claremont, Calif., desk when he died were nearly 200 pages from an unfinished novel called "The Pale King," on which the author of "Infinite Jest" had worked for years. Much more material related to the novel turned up in Wallace's files.

The magazine, due on newsstands tomorrow, is publishing a short excerpt from the novel as well as a long article on Wallace by D.T. Max that tells the story of the unfinished work.

Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor at Little, Brown, said in an interview that he had a tentative agreement with Wallace's agent to publish "The Pale King" in the spring of 2010.

The unfinished novel, Max writes, was in part Wallace's attempt to move beyond the "self-consciously maximalist style" of "Infinite Jest."

"I think he didn't want to do the old tricks people expected of him," Max quotes Wallace's wife, Karen Green, as saying.

"It was different from what he had written before," said New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who has seen portions of Wallace's manuscript -- though it's also clear, from Max's reading of part of the new work, that some of it recalls the expansive, trick-filled David Foster Wallace many readers came to love.

The characters in "The Pale King" are Internal Revenue Service agents working at an IRS facility in the Midwest. The intense tediousness of their jobs and their attempts to transcend boredom reflect Wallace's preoccupation with the concept of "mindfulness" -- the idea, as he put it in a 2005 commencement speech, that you should be "conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

The unfinished novel did not surface for more than two months after Wallace's death, said his agent, Bonnie Nadell.

Nadell said that she and Green had cleaned out Wallace's office at Pomona College, where he taught, on the second weekend after he died because "it was not particularly secure." They didn't find much there, however, because Wallace mostly worked at home, in a garage crammed with old couches, chairs and a multitude of the lamps the writer collected.

"It took us about two months before we could face going into this room," Nadell said. "It was like he was there."

Sometime after Thanksgiving, they finally started in. There was a great deal of old material to sort through, including "many, many drafts of 'Infinite Jest.' " But when they got to the pile of "Pale King" pages on Wallace's desk, Nadell said, "Karen clearly felt that it was there for us to find."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company