Illuminating, horrible etc

Jenny Turner

  • BuyAlthough Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky
    Broadway, 320 pp, $16.99, ISBN 0 307 59243 X
  • The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace
    Hamish Hamilton, 547 pp, £20.00, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 241 14480 0

In the spring of 2008, shortly after he started reading Infinite Jest, my friend Francis got in touch to say a) he found the book astonishing, everything I’d said it was, one of the greatest literary works of all time; b) but when he got to the ending – 981 pp. body copy, another 96 of small-print endnotes – did I think he was going to think it was worth it? No, I said, the ending’s infuriating, and although the author denied it and I haven’t made a study of the available papers, I still suspect it was to some extent an afterthought, a way of ducking out of a project that, without it, would maybe never have ended at all. But anyway, I said, that doesn’t matter, because the book pays off so much elsewhere. In the whole thing, for example, the whole magnificent construct. And in its thousands of individual moments, funny, tragic, odd, illuminating, horrible etc. And in the late-stage revelation as to what is actually in ‘the Entertainment’, the video said to be so hideously gratifying that people die while watching it, round and round for ever, in an endless loop. David Foster Wallace always had trouble finishing his novels. And yet he put in this one a thought so absorbing and delightful that you could easily imagine yourself, like the rat in the experiment, pressing the lever over and over. ‘Thousands of times an hour,’ as a character in the book explains. ‘Stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue.’

David Foster Wallace killed himself on Friday 12 September 2008, the weekend Lehman Brothers collapsed. He had, his family told the papers, been trying to wean himself off Nardil, an old-school MAOI anti-depressant, which he had been taking for 20 years. Doctors had advised him to switch to something newer and he had tried to, but his mood had slipped and crashed. He was 46 when he died, and living with his wife and beloved dogs in Claremont, California, where he worked – the first Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing – at Pomona College. Before that, he’d worked at Illinois State University, living with two other dogs in Bloomington, which is where he was when Infinite Jest was published and when David Lipsky conducted a book-length five-day interview with him for Rolling Stone, now published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. He didn’t want the pressure, he said, of depending on publishers for advances: ‘I fear that pain more than I want the money.’ He found publicity ‘toxic’ and mistrusted the incestuousness of New York literary circles: ‘great white sharks fighting over a bathtub, you know?’ He had other reasons for wanting to stay out west. A former ‘near great’ junior tennis player and adolescent ‘math-wienie’ – in the words of an essay written for Harper’s in 1991 – he loved the ‘vectors, lines and lines athwart lines’ of the flat, boxed landscape he’d grown up with, in his Midwest boyhood, the son of a philosophy academic and an English teacher, in Urbana, Illinois.

Infinite Jest is not widely read in Britain – it’s not one of those paperbacks you see on domestic bookshelves, like A Suitable Boy or On Beauty – but when first published in 1996 it was a New York Times bestseller, and widely recognised as a masterpiece. In the years that followed, Wallace went on to publish A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), Everything and More (2003), Oblivion (2004), Consider the Lobster (2005) and McCain’s Promise (2008): two story collections and two of essays, one long Rolling Stone piece published in book form to capitalise on the 2008 elections (McCain’s Promise) and one (in theory) non-specialist introduction to Cantorian mathematics (Everything and More, which Francis gave up on around p.140 – ‘remarkable’, he emailed, ‘but steepening sharply as it went’). Wallace also started work on a new ‘long thing’, and in his lifetime published two extracts as short stories: ‘Good People’ in the New Yorker (2007) and ‘The Compliance Branch’ in Harper’s (2008). Since his death, there have been more bits in the New Yorker, and an archive of papers sold to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. And now, here’s The Pale King, this book-shaped version of the ‘long thing’, assembled by Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor on Infinite Jest, from ‘a neat stack of manuscript, 12 chapters totalling nearly 250 pages’ discovered by Wallace’s agent on the desk in his home office, augmented by a selection from ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of less ordered pages, ‘hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks and floppy disks’.

Success came to Wallace early, with his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), written while he was an English and philosophy undergraduate at Amherst. The 70-page thesis written concurrently for the philosophy part of his degree has now been published, with background essays, as Fate, Time and Language – there’s lots of technical modal logic, but as a package the book works well.[*] A prodigious (and tiresome) blend of Pynchon, Wittgenstein, Derrida, The Broom of the System clung to the coat-tails of the mid-1980s craze for what Wallace called ‘conspicuously young’ first-time novelists: Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, writers Wallace despised. His next book, Girl with Curious Hair (1989), saw him starting to focus his brainpower in haunting, enduringly strange tales of television, flatness, chemical and electrical engineering: ‘Words,’ apparently, ‘will wither like the rules of form before them … The superfluous always exists simply to have its ass kicked.’ The book culminates in the 140-page-long, compellingly ghastly ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’, a sort of homage to John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968) only denser and even more postmodernly whorled: ‘For whom is the Funhouse a house? … For Tom Sternberg, the Funhouse is less a place of fear and confusion than (grimace) an idea, an ever-distant telos his arrival at which will represent the revelated transformation of a present we stomach by looking beyond.’

Over the same period, however, things were starting to go wrong for Wallace. In the Lipsky interview he concedes that he was drinking and that he smoked a lot of marijuana, but

It was more just like, I got more and more unhappy … I think it was almost more of a like, sort of an artistic and a religious crisis, than it was anything you would call a breakdown. I just – all my reasons for being alive and the stuff that I thought was important, just truly at a gut level weren’t working any more.

Writing ‘Westward’, he told Lipsky, had a lot to do with it: he ‘sort of folded it up into this tiny, infinitely dense thing. And that … had kind of exploded.’ He collaborated with his friend Mark Costello on Signifying Rappers (1990), an odd, fizzy book about ‘serious rap’ and ‘the “postmodern” inversion’. He started, and abandoned, a PhD at Harvard. He booked himself into hospital with suicidal thoughts. And then things started going right, but in a new direction. There was recovery, abstinence, a growing interest in spiritual matters, and a less studenty, more various social life: as the interview with Lipsky ends, Wallace is looking forward to a night out at a church hop. (‘Although I’m still not very good. I tend to do the jerk and the swim.’) The shift seems to have allowed him to recognise what he called, in a 1996 interview with Laura Miller of Salon, ‘a real American … sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated … and was sort of adrift.’ Instead of merely acting out this sadness, like most people, he started to explore it. He wrote his great thousand-page novel in about three years.

In its origins, Infinite Jest is the product of a fresh idea and an older, stalled one, the two of them spliced and laced together. The older part is about Hal Incandenza, a 17-year-old genius and tennis prodigy – preppy, bow-tie-wearing, obnoxiously know-it-all – and his disintegration, thanks to egotism and ambition, marijuana and family problems, all leading to his university entrance interview at which he tries to speak but is able only to writhe and shriek. The other tells of the regeneration of Don Gately, a man ten years older and, in some ways, Hal’s opposite – the neglected child of an alcoholic single mother, a high-school dropout and painkiller addict, who is known to his so-called friends as BIM (for Big Indestructible Moron) – who yet has transformed himself, by the time we meet him, into a man heroically determined, with the support of Alcoholics Anonymous, to lead a useful and loving life. If such a convergence sounds familiar – one younger man, one older; one street level, one upscale – the Ulysses echo is intentional, with a tension explicitly set up early on as to when, if ever, Hal and Gately will hook up. This projected meeting will, we are told, involve the digging up of a jester’s skull; and so, the story spirals backwards, through Hamlet, and back and back.

To begin with, then, the novel gives you a choice of two protagonists to fall in love with: Hal, the brainiac pothead; or Gately, whom life has dealt the shortest straws. But round them are packed dozens of others: Hal’s family, the dazzling Incandenzas, his teachers and fellow stoners at his elite, tennis-crazy boarding school. Round Gately come plainer stories of addiction, downfall, hitting bottom and sinking even lower: Poor Tony, the homeless, heroin-addicted drag queen; the ad agency yuppie Ken Erdedy, with his new bong and cans of cake-frosting, ready for yet another final marijuana binge; Kate Gompert, foetal, hospitalised, begging for ECT ‘because I can’t stand feeling like this another second, and the seconds keep coming on and on.’ Except that both story-cycles come always-already luridly scribbled over, like grainy photos in a piece of pop art, by the Entertainment archplot. The city of Boston is projected into a severely satirical near future, with toxic waste dumped into a massive hole that takes up most of New England. The years themselves are leased out to corporate sponsors, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. A terrorist cell from Quebec lurks in the background searching for the original of the Entertainment, which it plans to unleash on America as a WMD.

Because it is such a big, dense piece of writing, because what Wallace called the ‘queer, broad, slow movements’ of its human stories take longer to notice than the garish top-level motifs, Infinite Jest has a reputation as one of those sad-boy penis-extension novels: one remembers Woolf’s complaint, while reading Ulysses, about Joyce as ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. It’s true that the novel is deliberately, structurally forbidding, with a shattered chronology, fractal surface and a rebarbative strand of frat-boy body humour: giant feral hamsters, toothbrushes up backsides. This pimple-scratching, however, is strategic. The risk Wallace takes is to guess that he is not the only ‘obscenely well-educated’, curiously lost and empty white boy out there; that his sadness is also the experience of a whole historical moment. His style, he told Lipsky, aims to re-create ‘what it feels like to be alive right now’, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘the way it feels on your nerve endings’. ‘He wanted to be equal to the vast, babbling, spin-out sweep of contemporary culture,’ Don DeLillo said in a speech at Wallace’s memorial service. ‘Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.’

And yet Wallace was also the warmest and liveliest of writers: most obviously in the boundless, buzzing essays he wrote about cruise holidays and tennis tournaments, the Illinois state fair and a porn convention in Las Vegas, the place of television in contemporary fiction, the films of David Lynch. As DeLillo says, it’s very American to write about being young and lost; but it’s also very American to stride around like Whitman in joyous enumeration, to collar and eyeball your reader with the directness of Mark Twain. When I started reading Wallace, it was this directness that hit me hardest, this effort to speak openly and straightforwardly about things so obvious and so embarrassing that most of us, most of the time, just ignore them; this eager voice reaching out to touch its knuckles to my being, though both of us know there’s nothing there, really, apart from printed words on a page. Here is Infinite Jest on Don Gately, eight months into AA:

They somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain. Not around pain, or in spite of it. They leave this out, talking instead about Gratitude and Release from Compulsion. There’s serious pain in being sober, though, you find out, after time …

They neglect to tell you that after the urge to get high magically vanishes and you’ve been Substanceless for maybe six or eight months, you’ll begin to start to ‘Get in Touch’ with why it was that you used Substances in the first place. You’ll start to feel why it was you got dependent on what was, when you get right down to it, an anaesthetic. ‘Getting In Touch With Your Feelings’ is another quilted-sampler-type cliché that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real, it turns out.[*] It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.

Or, from ‘Good Old Neon’, one of the stories from Oblivion:

We all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.

Or there’s ‘The Suffering Channel’, the final and, I think, most misunderstood story in that book: the artist, helpless and humiliated on a see-through toilet, surrounded by media bods and magazine interns, waiting to see what exquisite folly he’s going to shit out next. The gawpers think they’re risking nothing, but as the action unfolds in the World Trade Center, in early September 2001, the reader knows – with glee, sorrow, fear, discomfort, deep poetic satisfaction? – that each of us sooner or later will turn out to be as vulnerable and as mortal as everybody else.

In theory, Wallace’s decision to set the new ‘long thing’, The Pale King, in an Internal Revenue office in Peoria is brilliant. It’s an institution, like a boarding school or a rehab clinic, in which characters of all sorts can come and go in any number of long, slow patterns. There’s space for plenty of Wallace-type side-topics, maths, visual-spatial structures, weird babies, fiscal systems: ‘A regressive tax, on the other hand, is where the ratio T/B increases as B decreases, meaning you pay the highest tax rates on the smallest amounts.’ And the entire subject could scarcely be more of a political hot potato: most of these drafts were being written in the years of the George W. Bush tax cuts. ‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say … Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilise ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens.’ Or, a more WikiLeaksy approach: ‘Consider … the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that … abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy.’

And there are other, more subtle stratagems. Philip Roth once talked about writers of fiction as playing ‘the what-if game’: unless he’s content to sit like a spider in the middle of a novel-about-a-novel-about-a-novel, the writer is inevitably engaging in spreadsheeted counterfactuals about what life is like when you don’t have writing, positing a person like yourself in some ways, in others completely not. For a writer as self-conscious as Wallace, and so ethically acute, this would never be a straightforward process. In her essay on Wallace in Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith noticed his tendency to ‘romanticise the pure relations’ the wistful intellectual likes to imagine to exist ‘between simple people’ (she is discussing characters from Wallace’s short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, such as the dad who worked as a toilet attendant, the dad with the rusty harrow, the dad who waggled his dick). Wallace ironised the tendency, somewhat, through narrative refraction and recursion; but the problem must have worried him, and perhaps explains why he tried to interest himself in low-level fiscal bureaucrats, surely one of the least romanticisable social groupings imaginable on this earth. He may also have liked the element of self-mortification involved in this choice, or perhaps it was the challenge he found exciting: ‘To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human,’ he has a nameless character say at one point, ‘is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.’

The Pale King begins with two pages that speak in the second person, sweeping low and pastoral across unploughed Midwestern fields; there’s a long list of plant forms, the big country, the beloved land. It continues with Claude Sylvanshine, IRS functionary GS-9, flying into Peoria from Chicago: he has been sent by his boss as part of an advance party, charged with bringing change to the Regional Examination Center. For a couple of pages, Sylvanshine’s self-consciousness toggles fretfully between roads and fields from the aeroplane window, the pictures on the in-case-of-emergency card, and equations needed for the forthcoming accountancy exam. And then, poking through the surface, comes his perpetually hideous default mode: lobotomy, stress, disaster, the tricks of the will everyone seems to know except him.

What if there was something essentially wrong with Claude Sylvanshine that wasn’t wrong with other people? What if he was simply ill-suited, the way some people are born without limbs or certain organs? The neurology of failure. What if he was simply born and destined to live in the shadow of Total Fear and Despair, and all his so-called activities were pathetic attempts to distract him from the inevitable?

Reading Sylvanshine is an uncomfortable experience, but it’s a different kind of uncomfortable, unfamiliar to Wallace’s fans. It’s impossible to know if I’m projecting this, but the work just seems so obviously unfinished: brilliant, certainly, but also dim and fudgy in places; ideas laboriously reworked and repeated, stuck behind some not-yet-comprehended block; writing that hasn’t found its way yet; an author who hasn’t quite found the right angle to make the writing catch light. Which wouldn’t be surprising, given the circumstances; but it does raise the question of what we think we’re reading it for. In a short Editor’s Note, Pietsch explains that he assembled a ‘spine’ from more or less loose, unordered sections, and within sections line-edited ‘only lightly’, for consistency and to remove obvious distractions. Since this is a commercial easy-reading version rather than a scholarly edition, all such interventions are unmarked. There’s no way of telling whether Wallace still had lots to do, or only a little; whether the next stage might have involved a bit of tweaking or slinging the whole lot out and starting again from scratch. It could have been either or neither. Writers can hammer themselves into all sorts of odd shapes and sizes when a piece of work refuses to go well. Usually, the payoff is that by the time the horrible thing is published, writer and reader are both free to forget all the waste and misery and squalor that went into it; but in this case, that happy luxury is exchanged for the more dubious freedoms of second-guessing and speculation and pruriently inquisitive what-ifs.

Pietsch writes that Wallace spoke of The Pale King’s design as ‘tornadic’, like Infinite Jest, with diverse personal stories appearing and only gradually getting sucked in. There’s a character who sweats with self-consciousness about his sweating. There’s a woman who learned, in her trailer-park girlhood, about the grim satisfactions to be had from little acts of meanness; there’s a boy who does everything right with the result that everybody hates him; there’s a character capable of such perfect attentiveness that he actually levitates from his seat. The one who gets most space is an I-voice called Irrelevant Chris Fogle, who has a lot of dull memories of having been a 1970s ‘wastoid’ –

I remember KISS, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, Styx, Jethro Tull, Rush, Deep Purple, and, of course, good old Pink Floyd. I remember BASIC and COBOL … I remember Sony’s wide pocket transistors and the way that many of the city’s blacks held their radios up to their ear whereas white kids from the suburbs used the optional little earplug.

– until he has an awakening in an accountancy lesson at university: ‘Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism … Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality.’

The character who seems most satisfyingly developed is Lane Dean Jr, a young Christian who so fervently wants to be ‘good people’ – as in the title of the piece Wallace published in 2007 – that he marries his pregnant girlfriend, although he knows he doesn’t love her: ‘There on the table, neither frozen nor yet moving, Lane Dean sees all this, and is moved with pity and with also something more, something without any name he knows.’ As a result, presumably, of this marriage and baby, Dean ends up working as a ‘wiggler’ at the IRS, where he continues to strive for goodness, and yet finds himself being driven mad with boredom: ‘He had the sensation of a great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor. Never before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide. He was doing a return at the same time he fought with his mind, with the sin and affront of even the passing thought.’ A friendly ghost pops up – an IRS worker who died unnoticed at his desk – with the etymology of his condition: ‘Note too that interesting first appears just two years after bore. 1768. Mark this, two years after. Can this be so?’ But it’s Dean’s home life that gets the book’s single most delightful sentence: ‘He didn’t know how mushrooms even worked, if it was true that you scooped waste on them. Sheri’s cooking wasn’t what you would call at the level of adding mushrooms.’

A strand that works less well is the one concerning ‘David Wallace’, ‘age 40, SS no 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd, Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005’. The idea, it seems, is that 20 years previously, ‘Wallace’ was slung out of university having been caught selling his essays to richer students. So he takes a job at the IRS, only to discover that ‘the Personnel office had mistaken me for a completely different David Wallace, viz. an elite and experienced Immersives examiner from Philadelphia’s Northeast REC.’ He is now writing a ‘vocational memoir’ about the experience, ‘a portrait of a bureaucracy … at a time of enormous internal struggle and soul-searching, the birth pains of what’s come to be known among tax professionals as the New IRS’. ‘Please know,’ ‘Wallace’ pleads, ‘that I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too … and that the very last thing this book is is some kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher.’ Except, of course, that it kind of is.

‘The way hard deskwork really goes,’ ‘Wallace’ writes at one point, ‘is in jagged little fits and starts, brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men’s room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make.’ To which I can only say, I know the feeling, and know it better and more deeply and thoroughly after undergoing the immersive existential process of plodding through this book. ‘Especially,’ he continues, ‘if the task at hand was dry or repetitive, or dense, or if it involved reading something that had no direct relevance to your own life and priorities, or was work that you were doing only because you had to.’ As I can never make too clear, I’ve never read anything I love more than most of Wallace, and yet much of The Pale King I found completely deadly. One could enumerate its many virtues and virtuosities for ever. And yet, at the end of the process … to what purpose?

A note to self left by Wallace in his papers, which Pietsch has appended as a dangling paragraph of possible plot-point towards the end of his version of The Pale King:

It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into colour. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

Is this the sort of idea Wallace was working with? Is this the shape of the story he wanted, eventually, to tell? There is no way of knowing that would be worth having. It’s interesting, though, to note how similar this movement is – through ‘crushing, crushing boredom’ to ‘constant bliss in every atom’ – to the meditative practices of so many of the world’s religions, from Ignatius Loyola to Julia Roberts in her ridiculous ashram in the film of Elizabeth Gilbert’s yogatastic self-fest, Eat, Pray, Love. It seems to me that the knockabout bit about TV golf doesn’t quite cover up a sentimentality, a bit of an idealisation of both IRS employees and your average yogic guru, the latter of whom is probably guffawing like a Smash Martian as you sit there with your eyes shut, back aching and wallet considerably lighter, waiting for enlightenment to hit. A similar question hangs over ‘Backbone’, a mysterious and very beautiful tale of a boy obsessed with doing spinal contortions, the most recent excerpt from The Pale King to turn up in the New Yorker as a stand-alone story. The boy’s chiropractor, who ‘was not a loon or a huckster’, is said to be a firm believer in ‘the universe as an infinite system of neural connections that had evolved, at its highest point, an organism which could sustain consciousness of both itself and the universe at the same time’. Whenever I hear the word ‘universe’ used like that I find myself reaching to check my purse.

If neither mystic discipline nor metaphysical experience result, what then is to be said for ‘crushing, crushing boredom’? Well, it looks to me as though most people who submit to it do so for reasons of personal survival, and/or to help or support or care for others; and then there’s that smaller subset of people who believe themselves to be building towards something marvellous: an ambition, an obsession, a piece of art or craft. I wonder if Wallace in some way found himself getting these motivations mixed up. Instead of presenting us with people we might have thought of as boring, but whom the writer reveals to be blooming with life and interest, he’s working on characters he, too, in his heart of hearts can’t help finding boring, but has, with grim-faced and perhaps increasingly desperate determination, set himself the task of making interesting by dint of writerly virtuosity. Or, to make this point in a more vulgar fashion: why a tax office, why not a hospital or refugee camp or care home? Is it in some ways easier to deal with numbers in a bureaucracy than to come into daily contact with actual human need?

One final thing about The Pale King, its brilliance and incompleteness and sense of being stalled. At first, it seemed to me that perhaps the flaws I thought I’d found in the basic concept explained what had gone wrong with the entire project. Now, though, I’ve thought a bit more, and I think that’s arrogance, another layering of mystique. Up until the moment he finally gave up on it, the possibility remained open that Wallace might have found a way through these problems. You might do it, you might fail completely, there’s no way of ever knowing.

[*] Columbia, 252 pp., £41.50 and £13.95, December 2010, 978 0 231 15156 6.

[*] Wallace’s asterisk refers you to note 178: ‘A more abstract but truer epigram … goes something like: “Don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings, they’ll get in touch with you.”’