The rich literary afterlife of David Foster Wallace

Devotees await the imminent publication of the cult US writer's unfinished masterpiece

Tim Walker
Saturday 19 March 2011 01:00

In his too-brief lifetime, David Foster Wallace published just two novels: the magnificent, mind-altering doorstop Infinite Jest (1996), and his 1987 debut The Broom of the System, which a lesser novelist would have been happy to call their masterpiece.

The late author’s work is read less widely than that of other American fiction stars such as Dave Eggers or Jonathan Franzen. But the readers it does reach are evangelical to a man (or woman). No wonder, then, that they’re eagerly awaiting next month’s publication of The Pale King, the unfinished book he left behind when he took his own life in September 2008, at the age of 46.

Wallace’s style is so unmistakable that, even on the few occasions when he published stories under a pseudonym, he was quickly rumbled. To read one of the many authors who’ve honoured him with their imitation is to yearn for the real thing. His career, however, was fragmentary: in the 12 years between Infinite Jest and his death, he produced plenty of short fiction and a handful of classic magazine pieces that put full-time journalists to shame, on topics from John McCain’s first presidential campaign, to seafood, to tennis. With all that material exhausted, fans can pick over the paraphernalia that has emerged online, posted by devoted fans: his students’ neatly marked essays, his annotated copies of Don DeLillo’s books – not to mention his own precocious early writings.

But there were no more novels, which is why The Pale King is so precious. Discovered by the writer’s wife Karen L Green, passed to his longstanding agent Bonnie Nadell, and shaped into a final draft of sorts by Michael Pietsch – his editor at publishers Little, Brown – the manuscript tells of a group of workers at a tax-return processing centre in Illinois, and the “soul-crushing tedium” they endure. Despite this unappealing premise, Pietsch has explained, Wallace “takes agonizing daily events like standing in lines, traffic jams, and horrific bus rides – things we all hate – and turns them into moments of laughter and understanding.”

The author struggled for years to get to grips with the work and, says Franzen, who was a close friend, “If he’d finished it, I think he’d be alive today. Boredom is a tough subject to tackle in a novel and, arguably, Dave died of boredom.”

Wallace’s death was followed by a flood of appreciation. Eggers’ publishing house McSweeney’s opened a page of condolence on its website, which was soon filled with mourners’ remembrances. Hamish Hamilton (which will publish The Pale King in the UK) devoted an edition of its house magazine Five Dials to celebrating his life and work. A fan website, The Howling Fantods!, collected obscure Wallace works from the far corners of the web and beyond. Last year, the University of Texas made his archive of notes and other writings available for research. His inspirational 2005 address to Kenyon College’s graduating class was published as a pamphlet, This is Water. Lesser-known books were reprinted in the UK; in the US his major titles returned to the New York Times bestseller list.

Meanwhile, The New Yorker and Harper’s have, between them, already published six fragments of The Pale King as short stories. But not everyone agrees entirely with the incomplete book’s release. Influential books blogger Scott Esposito recently wrote that it “represents a heavily edited and stitched together version of what Wallace left behind ... if its editors had chosen to leave it in the disarrayed state it was discovered in [this] would have been a book with less mass appeal than the ‘completed’ Pale King ... but would it have been truer to Wallace the writer?”

Wallace battled depression for most of his life, and readers may find it troubling that his mental state was so entwined with the frustrations of the unfinished work. One early reviewer admits that “it’s hard not to wince at each of the many mentions of suicide.” Wallace left behind his last draft, neatly organised for others to find, but not every dying writer has done the same. Should some posthumous works remain unpublished? And can unfinished books really be considered alongside finished ones?

“It’s difficult to justify [posthumous publication] if a writer has said categorically they don’t want it published,” says Jamie Byng, the publisher at Canongate Books. “But if that’s truly the case, then they should probably destroy it. If you leave it so that someone could theoretically read or publish it, there’s a little part of you that thinks ‘actually, they do want it published.’”Vladimir Nabokov expressly ordered the destruction of his final, unfinished novel The Original of Laura before his death. When it was published by his son in 2009 the critical response was damning, of both the book and its publication. Yet among the many incomplete books to be posthumously printed are – to give just one example – the complete novels of Franz Kafka.

The few early reviews of Wallace’s last work are predictably glowing, and its publishers are confident that they have a critical hit in the offing, if not a commercial one. “I’ve heard that The Pale King is pretty extraordinary,” says Byng, “so I’m certain more good than harm will be done by its publication. Even if it’s not exactly as David Foster Wallace would have wanted it, potentially a brilliant book is about to appear.”

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