Many of the details in D.T. Max‘s New Yorker story about David Foster Wallace are sad and familiar, especially for anybody who’s read David Lipsky‘s equally thorough piece in Rolling Stone last October. But Max’s article does bring news of a manuscript that Wallace had been working on for years before his suicide, “The Pale King,” an exploration of the nature of boredom, set in an IRS office. (The Wallace fan site The Howling Fantods is gathering up materials related to the unfinished work, which Little, Brown plans to publish next year.)
Though Max’s version of events doesn’t differ notably from Lipsky’s, it wouldn’t be fair to the New Yorker piece to simply scan it for tidbits about “The Pale King.” Lipsky did an excellent job of tracking Wallace’s emotional despair, while Max does an excellent job of tracking Wallace’s rhetorical despair—his obsession with finding a way to make his fiction work as a powerful moral force. To that end, he spent his final years trying to strip away the barnacles of irony and metafictional trickery from his work, writing more nonfiction and clearing pomo gunk from “The Pale King.” As Max describes it, he wasn’t wholly successful on that front. Wallace wrote a smirking introduction to the book that poked holes at those acrobatics, but at the same time engaged in them:
[Wallace writes in the introduction,] “The very last thing this book is is some kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher.” He also writes, “I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too—at least now that I’m over 30 I do.” And yet there he was, writing about “David Wallace” in long, recursive sentences with footnotes.
It will be interesting to see how the final product looks after his editors are done with it. Will it echo the sprawl of the hundreds of thousands of words Wallace applied to the novel, or will it be reshaped into the more straightforward narrative he hoped it would be? Which version would do right by Wallace’s vision?