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Death and Taxes

Why David Foster Wallace still demands our attention.


Before reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, back in February, I had to enter into a nondisclosure agreement: I would not “advertise that [I had] a copy” or “share the galley (or any part of it)” or emit so much as a tweet in advance of its publication. It was the kind of thing more often associated with the Jay-Zs and Gagas of the world … and in the end, maybe best left to them. By March 30, when Amazon began shipping The Pale King to customers, Little, Brown’s attempt to control the book’s rollout would look downright laughable. Still, the results were the same. Practically every media organ in America was scrambling to cover Wallace. And one sort of has to wonder: at what point did an unfinished manuscript by a writer of avant-garde commitments and Rogetian prolixity and high Heideggerian seriousness (and footnotes) become a genuine pop-cultural event?

The answer surely has something to do with the grim fact of Wallace’s 2008 suicide, at age 46. It’s worth noting, though, that he already commanded national name recognition and a devoted following, having cracked best-seller lists and dorm rooms alike with his mid-nineties megalith, Infinite Jest. It was a novel that not only forecast the rise of the web; it practically demanded it. MetaCrawling and AltaVista-ing its “anticonfluential” plot threads and pharmacological arcana became a rite of passage for the literary young. Well into the age of Google, beflanneled undergraduates could be seen listing slightly to port under the weight of the big book in their messenger bags. And though no follow-up novel was forthcoming, Wallace continued to produce volumes of short fiction and shaggily brilliant journalism.

What his death did, then, is not so much spawn a Cult of Wallace as wrest it from the petri dishes of the Internet and turn it viral. There he was again, suddenly, in Entertainment Weekly and on network news. Graffiti to the effect of Yeah, David Foster Wallace!!! began to bloom around the East Village. Bird Lives it wasn’t, but it seemed to confirm the transformation of DFW into totem, guru, rock star—floating signifier and secular saint.

The convergence of longstanding esteem and speedy beatification subjects the 550-page novel now before us to some unusually stiff countercurrents: Is it a fragment of the true cross or just evidence that, to quote a recent headline, “Dead Author Breeds Big Business”? I think I can now safely disclose that I’m casting my lot with the cult. The Pale King is, for great swaths, an astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka’s Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And it reduces chatter about the provenance of its author’s late renown to background noise. The book demands our attention precisely because while we’re reading it, David Foster Wallace is again the most alive prose writer of our time—and the one who speaks most directly to our condition.

This latter point needs some unpacking; directness was rather notoriously not a major component of Wallace’s pre-humous rep. Indeed, part of the seduction of Infinite Jest—particularly for readers too young for time constraints like career or family or dry-cleaning—was the work it manifestly demanded. Finishing it was a badge of honor, a proclamation of one’s intelligence (or, at least, patience). To detractors, however, the fetish made of Jest’s complexity suggested the limits of the pleasures it afforded. “Uproarious and mindboggling,” wrote the Times’ Michiko Kakutani, “but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.”

It’s therefore tempting to frame The Pale King as a recantation. The novel is conspicuously lacking in intracontinental intrigue, dystopian marketing schemes, and even, by and large, the famous footnotes. And where Infinite Jest took its title from a “lethally entertaining” video cartridge, The Pale King explicitly concerns itself with “those parts of life that are and must be dull … Massively, spectacularly dull.”

Under the hood, though, what’s remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace’s earlier ambitions. Recent generations of Americans have, with a few notable exceptions, been allergic to what used to be called “the novel of ideas.” Information we love, and the more the better. Memes? By all means. But inquiries into ontology and ethics and epistemology we’ve mostly ceded to the science-fiction, self-help, and Malcolm Gladwell sections of the bookstore. A philosophy-grad-school dropout, Wallace meant to reclaim them. ­Infinite Jest discovered in its unlikely ­milieu of child prodigies and recovering addicts less a source of status details than a window onto (in Wallace’s words) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” And The Pale King treats its central subject—­boredom itself—not as a texture (as in ­Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale.

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