By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009
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 today, 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."
Nadell read just enough to realize she was dealing with a book, and that she should call Pietsch. "I wasn't sure that this would be a coherent book," she said, "but I knew it was enough to say, 'Get on a plane.' "
Pietsch had been working with Wallace ever since he acquired "Infinite Jest," which Little, Brown published in 1996. He flew to California in January to examine what he called the "rather huge collection of manuscripts" Nadell and Green had assembled "in various bags and boxes and bins." There were handwritten drafts, marked-up typescripts and notebooks filled with thoughts on the novel-in-progress. He started in on the "several hundred pages that read continuously."
It's still not easy for him to talk about this.
"I had the uncanny experience of feeling joy where I expected to find grief," he said, because he could feel Wallace's presence in his "astounding, levitating, daring" work. Yet it was agony "to realize that he was not here, and not here to finish it."
A couple of days later, he flew home. In the overhead bin was one of Wallace's duffel bags, crammed with material.
In the meantime, New Yorker editor David Remnick had assigned Max to write about Wallace and told him to take the time he needed. "There are different ways to be competitive," Remnick said. Being first with a story is one of them; "better and deeper" is another.
The reporter had never met his subject, though he'd once seen Wallace across the room at the kind of publishing event the writer hated, wearing his trademark bandanna and looking "horrified to be there." Max was also one of many would-be readers of "Infinite Jest" who hadn't made it through all 1,079 pages, though he recalls being "stunned" by Wallace's first novel, "The Broom of the System."
"There was a guy who was basically my age," he said, and at a time when minimalist fiction was the vogue, "he just exploded it."
Given time, Max persuaded a number of Wallace's friends and associates, including novelist Jonathan Franzen, to show him letters and e-mails from Wallace. With Nadell's help, he persuaded Green to talk with a reporter for the first time since her husband's death.
And in a Wallace letter to novelist Don DeLillo -- which he'd obtained earlier for another article -- he noticed a line he hadn't paid attention to before:
"I believe I want adult sanity," Wallace had written, "which seems to me the only unalloyed form of heroism available today."
"This was going to be the theme of his novel," Max said.
Sanity is also a theme of Max's piece, as it must be of anything written about Wallace. After his diagnosis of depression as an undergraduate, he had been on medication ever since. He decided to wean himself from the antidepressant Nardil -- a decision that may have had fatal consequences, though nothing about suicide is ever certain -- in part, Max writes, because he thought the drug "might be getting in the way of 'The Pale King.' "
Whether that was true or not, Wallace had a bigger, non-clinical problem with the novel: He was trying to evoke a way of being in the world that he himself had not achieved.
" 'The Pale King' had many ambitions," Max writes. "It would show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic hyperactivity of American life. It had to be emotionally engaged and morally sound, and to narrate boredom while obeying the physics of reading. And it had to put over the point that the kind of personality that conferred grace was exactly the kind that Wallace did not have."