Unpacking David Foster Wallace’s library and the publication of his unfinished final novel
There are 36 million manuscript pages held in the collections at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center but David Foster Wallace’s shelves look unlike the rest. The Austin-based institution acquired this archive last year, and it comprises more than 300 heavily annotated books from his private library, as well as 34 boxes of manuscripts and notes. In the building’s basement those boxes form a beige expanse like all the others but, when I visited in April, the Wallace shelves were the only ones striated by the bright red folders which denote loaned files. These small absences are a reminder of the greater one: in 2008 Wallace, who had suffered from depression for more than 20 years, killed himself at home in Claremont, California. He was 46.
He wrote about the things that are hardest to bear – affliction and disfigurement and terror and loneliness – but did so with such tenderness that they shone with comic light. Zadie Smith was right to put it as plainly as ‘[he had] no equal among living writers. He was an actual genius.’ Those red files are cheering as well as upsetting in that they signal how many scholars and fans are immersing themselves in Wallace’s papers. The surge of grief after his death has been overtaken by a surge of interest in his writing (a biography, written by The New Yorker writer D.T. Max, is due for publication next year) which has intensified with the posthumous publication of The Pale King, an unfinished novel.
Wallace worked on the manuscript for more than a decade and used to refer to it, with a mixture of dread and bathos, as the ‘Long Thing’, a monumental coda to Infinite Jest (1996). That huge, teeming novel is set between a tennis academy and a rehabilitation centre but the mania of addiction thrums through both institutions. Its MacGuffin is The Entertainment, a lost or possibly mythical film so engrossing that it is literally deadly: unable to stop watching it, viewers starve to death. In contrast to the fraught pleasures of substances and moving images, The Pale King is concerned with boredom and drudgery. Its characters are irs officials whose psychological wranglings are over how to endure their activities rather than avoid or renounce them. While each of these two big novels appears to be the other’s thematic foil – entertainment versus boredom, gratification versus asceticism – they are really about the same thing: paying attention.
The enormous vaults of the archive in Austin are cool, light and bright: the space is not, by any stretch, sepulchral. Nonetheless, it’s very hard to watch the centre’s directors laying out handwritten notebooks without thinking of holy relics. This would no doubt have given Wallace – to use a favourite saying of his – a case of the howling fantods. But the systematization of the archive nevertheless feels fitting: Wallace’s own imagination was so uncontainable and recursive that in his writing, footnotes famously begat footnotes that begat footnotes. They seem to indicate some of the absurdity of trying to classify human experience; the more achievable classification of his own papers might have provided him some amused satisfaction.
One chapter of The Pale King purports to comprise the transcripts from irs interviews and is titled ‘Videotape File 04780 (r)© 1984, Internal Revenue Service, Used By Permission 945645233’. The titles of folders in Wallace’s archive sound like they too could be chapters from the novel. Folder 3 of 3, from a box labelled ‘Material Accounting Classes 1997–1998’, is filled with notes and test papers on accounting. Sample question: ‘If supplies has a credit postings of $19,000, debit postings of $10,000, and an ending normal balance of $11,000, its beginning balance must have been’. (The missing question mark is particularly crushing – as though there is no room here for inquiry, just hard, dry fact.) The answer Wallace gives is $20,000. We know it’s the right one because at the top of the ten-question test he’s written a note to his instructor: ‘Patty – can I just see how I did? I won’t normally ask you to grade me.’ It’s accompanied by a small smiley face. There are a lot of these among his notes but they tend to look a little more anxious – three dots for eyes and nose, below them a wobbly line for a worried mouth and, above, a slanted one for a perturbed brow. Patty’s reply is emotion-less; she’s written ‘I don’t mind’ and ‘10’ but then, as if to reassure her anxious student, has added ‘– Perfect!’ Wallace’s ability to perfect the impenetrable system of tax law seems a particularly remarkable feat for such an antic mind. This wasn’t masochism, but an exercise (or several) in concentration and how it can lead to rapture. ‘It turns out that bliss’, Wallace writes in the notes at the back of The Pale King, ‘– a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.’
Paying attention can yield riches in a more straightforward sense too, or a least it can for a Wallace fan poring over property exchange calculations. Among some notes from 1997 there is this neat little rectangle of handwriting: ‘I am a MacArthur Fellow. Boy am I scared. I feel like throwing up. Why? String-free award nothing but an avowal of the belief that I am a “Genius” – I don’t feel like a Genius.’ Wallace’s fiction is filled with people tortured by a sense of their own phoniness. In ‘Good Old Neon’, from his 2004 collection of short stories, Oblivion, the narrator announces: ‘Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.’ What he terms the ‘fraudulence paradox’ is that, ‘the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive of attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside – you were a fraud.’ The narrator kills himself. Needless to say, the story is an even harder one to read now. But in The Pale King, a passage provides some retroactive consolation. A character suffering a similar crisis over his self-perceived hypocrisy, is granted ‘what he later would call […] a moment of grace’. It is the realization that, ‘he was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men.’
The Pale King also includes a long section in the voice of a self-professed ‘wastoid’ college student. He is another young man who feels himself a hypocrite, until he’s ‘called to account’ by a chance encounter with an Advanced Tax class. It’s an epiphany, but the miracle of attention has already struck him while on the stimulant Obetrol. He experiences ‘a sort of emergence’, ‘as though I was a machine that suddenly realised it was a human being’ and is made aware, ‘that there were depths to me that blazed in an almost sacred way […] these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness.’ His salvation is in deciding he will find them through becoming an irs official rather than through taking Obetrol. At the end of the final class, the teacher addresses his class of would-be irs officers. ‘True heroism,’ he says, ‘is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care.’
Wallace’s most-read piece of writing is probably neither Infinite Jest nor The Pale King, but a speech he made in 2005 which is a little like the one above. Addressing the graduating class of Kenyon College, a liberal arts university in Ohio, he cautioned: ‘There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The important thing, is being aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience [...] the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline.’ Literature consoles but not because it gives us soothing or entertaining stories – the consolation has to do with attention. Reading demands attention, and attention is the opposite of solipsism; it silences the voice telling us we’re a fraud and wakes us up to the world. In being both more wildly entertaining and more demanding of attention than any other writer of his generation, Wallace’s writing helps us apprehend something of the heroic. Like paying taxes, paying attention is a mundane, often difficult necessity. Unlike taxes, it allows us to put aside our split-off selves and know that there are depths to the world that blaze in an almost sacred way.
First published in Issue 140