David Foster Wallace killed himself in September of 2008. I turned 25 that month. He’d already published a book by that age. When he died, he left an uncompleted manuscript for a novel he’d been working on for years, since his second novel, Infinite Jest came out in 1996. Before he hanged himself, he wrote his wife a note and left the manuscript on his desk, incomplete, but findable. It will be published this fall.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, and somehow between buckling down so I can finish Infinite Jest and thinking about the legacy we leave behind, I’ve been drawn more and more to Wallace. I read a wonderful selection from his unfinished novel, The Pale King, which appeared in The New Yorker as “Wiggle Room” in 2009, in addition to an extensive farewell article, a short biography of his life and work and hopes and fears. It’s called “The Unfinished.”
My goal was to give an analysis of both the selection and the article, but jeez, I just think you should read them both right now and then call me and then we can talk about it for hours and hours.
The article about Wallace’s life dealt with his (Wallace’s) belief that in a world of hyperactivity, boredom can lead to amazing breakthroughs in one’s life. Transpose that to food, and it’s the same as fasting. What is strange is that reading, for me, in my current place, is just such a breakthrough. It has served as a reminder of everything I want my life to be, even if that’s not what it is right now. His novel is about an IRS Rote Examiner, saddled with the task of an endless string of reports to calculate, tabulate and validate. That he tries—and fails—to do this mindlessly is the biggest problem in his life. He can’t get over how much his mind won’t just go blank, let time slip away, and let his body do his job. If he could, he knows his days would go by faster. But he can’t and so he is left checking the clock moment to moment to moment.
This is the very same issue I’m dealing with at work: boredom. With nothing to do, the break-through for me has been returning to reading. I’ve noticed if left to my own devices and with everything available to me, I read less than I would like to. I write less than i would like to. At work, all I can think about is how much I want to do these things, because all of the other distractions and activities are removed and I am faced with boredom, with nothing. And when I see that nothing, I can also see what I want it to be filled in with. With writing and reading. With films, absolutely, but I don’t have to push myself to watch movies or TV shows. So at work, I find my appetite for reading is immense. I inhale articles and stories. But how weird to be sitting at work, as all around people are on the phones and talking insurance, and there I am being taken away and deeply moved by writers. There have been moments when I wanted to cry for being moved or laugh out loud for being tickled. I find myself glancing around, sure someone has noticed. My facial expressions aren’t those of an adjuster. They’re of a reader. I love it.
Some of the best things about the article are Wallace’s thoughts on writing:
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being” and should make one “become less alone inside.”
“It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet… All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”
“Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
“The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, [post-modern] stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important.”
I see these ideas being sorted out in Infinite Jest, particularly the third sentiment. I also love how much he plays with words. “Wallace explained that Broom [of the System] wasn’t “realistic, and it is not metafiction; if it’s anything, it’s meta-the-difference-between-the-two.” “
And if Wallace felt that way about his first book while writing his second, he seems to have had apprehensions about the second while writing the third. He still felt like he was using too many tricks. He’d been working on the book since 2000, and he couldn’t find his way through it. He wrote to numerous friends and other writers, looking for inspiration, begging, pleading for them to help his breakthrough. He fell into a sortof Charlie Kaufman-esque state. Aside from all the sections about the IRS workers, he writes himself into the book through faux-introductions and he makes up things about himself and just sticks it all in there. Because he couldn’t help how interested he was in absurdist writing and how in love with language he was. Because one of the things that is so great about his writing is the way it battles itself with its disparate tempos- here calm and straight-frward and beautiful in its simplicity; there frenetic and confusing and dumbfounding in its linguistic complexity.
And yet, he didn’t want his work to become only about that. In the article he notes how irony can do a lot of things, but one thing it can’t do is redeem. It’s outside of the realm of irony’s abilities. It seems like he battled that throughout the composition of this new book. In one of those letters (I think to Franzen), he said for it to be any good, he would have to write a 50,000 page transcript and then cut it down from there to a readable “thing.”
The article is the place to go for info about Wallace. This is much more about how I think of myself in relation to what he said. But before he died, his goal was to create a work that is all the things he believes about writing and the world. So of course it includes him. He wanted to write something that helped someone. But, because of his mental state, which was in disarray (the article details the litany of medications he took and his various attempts and failures to half-successes to deal with depression), he couldn’t bring himself to write anymore. He had an untold number of pages and notes and ideas, but he couldn’t make it work the way he wanted to on the page. (The above pages were also posted on The New Yorker’s website. You can click on them to enlarge and read his notations. To me, it’s inspiring to read a writer at work.)
I know very well what that’s like. To get the tone of the thing right, to make it all of the things you want it to be – all of which are different so as to immediately avoid any criticism that a) it’s too nice or too cynical or too whatever and b) more importantly, to avoid any assumptions or categorization by readers (or viewers) about which parts of the writing directly mirror your own personality, c) it covers all the bases you know of to cover.
Wallace’s suicide seems almost like the given ending to his final novel. How else could an author’s final novel end, how else could his career end, but in death? It’s a surprise, given he wrote so much about himself in his new novel, that he did not write a post-script in which he killed himself. Perhaps because he could not focus enough to write or could not settle his fears enough to focus on anything other than the fact that he thought the fears were taking over him, he decided to make his reality the ending to his fiction. Perhaps this was the way he thought he could prove to his readers that he was willing to die for them.
He spoke so often of wanting to move of wanting to make his work something useful that would point people toward something better. He wanted his work to help people. And so it seems that he made his life the warning and the blatant plea he could not figure out how to give on the page. A warning and plea to get help. A warning and plea to keep going. A warning and plea to do what, in the end he could not: to keep writing and to write something that helps make people less alone inside. He did it so well and so beautifully for a while. But he couldn’t sustain it, and he hated that fact.
Maybe he thought his life had become the emotional, mental equivalent of what my Grandfather’s body’s physical state was just before he died: unable to breathe on its own; damaged and deteriorated beyond repair, such that to go on living would not be living anymore. I’m not commending or even excusing his suicide. I’m just trying to gain some hint of his possible motivation.
And so the book will be published this fall. Talking with my good friend BJ, recently, he observed that for someone so wrapped up in style and the way Wallace’s own feelings about it expanded and arced the older he grew, combined with an increasing drive to be simultaneously helpful and innovative, the idea of an unfinished novel – particularly an unfinished novel he had grand reservations about – becoming the published work just might be more interesting than a “fully-realized” work of fiction. More interesting, more fitting, and more final. And besides, when in the history of any artistic endeavor worth pursuing has the phrase “fully-realized” entered the artist’s mind as a thing achievable?