“I have a feeling you’re going to read this book like most people read ‘Harry Potter.’” – friend, Meghan Witzke re: me & David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King
Rarely do such high levels of excitement and sadness meet like this. Because I can’t stop talking about the book to people – and because many of them weren’t aware of the situation – they keep asking, “How did he die?” which keeps catching me off-guard before having to explain that he killed himself. Suicide is different territory to color the normal experience of anticipation.
You read the first page and you want to cry it’s so beautiful. You can’t help but stop every few pages, when the little cup of disbelief spills over again and you can’t believe someone so talented wouldn’t want to keep living and then immediately catch yourself and judge yourself for thinking about life – and much more someone with mental illness’s experience of it – in the simple terms of easy-to-quantify, pros-vs-cons. And then you read a few more pages and get lost in his words again; in how acute his talent was for how to translate specific, minute details of experience into the kinds of sentences that make you go, “Yes! That’s exactly how that feels!” Here, Claude Sylvanshine is on a plane:
Wisps and flashes of uncolored cloud flashed past the window. Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at al. It just got really foggy.
His observations about people were equally deft:
The trick was homing in on which facts were important — Reynolds was a rifle to Sylvanshine’s shotgun.
The book’s editor, Michael Pietsch, provides a note at the beginning of the book, explaining the process of retrieving a 250-page prepared, finished manuscript from Wallace’s home, as well as a large duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks filled with various drafts of chapters, false starts, dead ends, including notes from Wallace about them, which, while providing some insight about the overall scope and vision of the book, did not give any indication as to the order of the pages or chapters. Pietsch writes,
The novel’s central story does not have a clear ending, and the question invariably arises: How unfinished is this novel? How much more might there have been?…Some notes among David’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plot substantially beyond the chapters here. One note says the novel is “a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens.”…Still another suggests that throughout the novel “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen.” These lines could support a contention that the novel’s apparent incompleteness is in fact intentional.
He also explains that the entire bulk of pages and notes will eventually be on display to the public at the University of Texas. Think of that: it’s the closest thing you have to a tangible presentation of an author’s writing process. It’s an opportunity not without its conflict, though, as is the whole idea of publishing and reading the book at all. Is this right? Would the writer even want me looking at this? Pietsch understands this feeling, and ends his note this way:
Everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exact standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.
It is unavoidably worthy of discussion that a notoriously perfectionistic writer’s final novel is being published first-of-all after his death, and secondly unfinished and incomplete. Because it’s known that Wallace often felt he couldn’t get out of his own way, it seems deeply significant that he didn’t even get to choose the order of chapters he wrote. But is there actually any real significance there? A case could be made that after Infinite Jest, the only way to up the literary ante would be to publish a work in progress as the finished thing (since after all, is any work of art ever complete, or does someone just decide here’s as good a place as any to put it to bed?), but is that true? Is it fair? Or is it just a way of talking around the irony embedded in thick tragedy?
It should go without saying, but maybe among people like me doesn’t, that as interesting as the book and the story around its publishing are, they would be given up in a moment – the book given back unread and us all going back to patiently waiting for it for who knows how long – for the return of its author. And hopefully the true nature of the interest for us is in fact affection for Wallace and his writing and not some sort of elitist rubber-necking. We have the situation we have, created without and then experienced fully by us. And while sadness drapes the proceedings, it is the truth of this world and even yes I will declare a loving God that there can be/have been both beautiful and good things to come out of it all.
The New Yorker published an extensive piece in 2009 called “The Unfinished,” which talked about his life, his work, his death, and the impact on writing and writers he left behind. Recently there was a great article about Karen Green, Wallace’s widow, in which she talks about being furious and trying to move on and make art again and also mentions “watching The Wire box-set for the third time,” which is a detail that just kills me. It’s a great piece. Jonathan Franzen, in his interview in TIME, said he wrote most of his newest novel after Wallace’s death. I’m mentioning written things, yes, because they’re a tangible product. There’s no way to gauge the impact of a person, let alone one with any celebrity, but I know what it feels like to be impacted by another person, as I’m sure you do. You know it by the way you instinctively connect things to them, moments in your life, pieces of inspiration. I know he’s impacted me and will continue to. I know I love his words and how they’ve impacted me as a writer and as a person. I wish he was still alive. A lot of people do. But that doesn’t mean his death can’t/doesn’t/won’t have meaning. And the question of why he couldn’t have just kept having an impact by continuing to live is an unanswerable on this side of things as how different The Pale King would be if he’d finished writing it. It doesn’t nullify meaning, it just makes it harder to see sometimes.
Me Talking About David Foster Wallace, Then Reading From The Pale King (Note: The reading itself starts around 4:55)