Damage is the natural condition of American culture and society in the fiction of David Foster Wallace. This damage takes manifold and pervasive forms, running the gamut between that of the purely physical, in violence and deformity, to that of the purely mental, in trauma and insanity. The most memorable of Wallace’s characters—that is to say, the most human—are often afflicted with more than their share of one or the other, and at least a little of both.
Such is the lot of protagonists and bit players alike in “The Pale King,” the manuscript assembled from drafts of Wallace’s last major effort before his suicide in September 2008. Among his admirers, there is an impulse—difficult to resist—to conflate the personal tragedy of Wallace’s death with the tragedies of the profoundly damaged people who inhabit his fiction, and more generally with the failure to fulfill the tremendous ambitions of what would have been his third novel had he lived to complete it. It’s unfortunate that many of the manuscript’s earliest reviewers were unable to stifle this jerk of the critical knee—which Wallace himself would doubtless have dismissed—leaving much of the quality of “The Pale King” unexamined. It’s a matter of fact that Wallace’s life and his relationship to the writing process informed his work. But rehashing this fact pays mere lip service to what makes the manuscript a unique and formidable artistic achievement in its own right, and to what made Wallace himself the voice the loss from which American literature has still not recovered.
15 years after the release of his sprawling masterpiece “Infinite Jest,” Wallace’s aesthetic—a metaphysical hunger sheathed in self-referential flourishes of both high- and low-brows varieties—has influenced a generation of writers who themselves now dominate the cultural moment in English-language prose, dubbed ‘hysterical realists’ by pejorative and endearing turns each. Perhaps it’s a queasiness with this shift from revolution to establishment, a chafing at the constraints of the style with which he had become synonymous that prompts some of his most striking substantive and stylistic gambits in “The Pale King.”
Much of the 500-page-plus bulk of the manuscript deals with the intake of several rote returns examiners at the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Regional Examination Center (REC) in Peoria, Ill. in and around 1985. Each of these new examiners, or ‘wigglers’—Wallace’s fictional shorthand for the myriad terminology and protocol of IRS bureaucracy testifies to the intensity of his research and helps these references pass humorously and smoothly on the page—demonstrates an iteration of the kind of damage that saturates Wallace’s America, scars whose circumstances are as banal as they are harrowing. Recounting a story from wiggler Toni Ware’s youth too horrifying and bizarre to repeat here, a coworker reflects, “So do not mess with this girl; this girl is damaged goods.” But this last phrase is applicable to most everyone who passes beneath the absurdly-decorated façade of the Peoria REC: David Cusk is afflicted with a pathological sweating disorder, the knowledge and heightened awareness of which only makes these attacks more frequent and severe; Meredith Rand is a recovering cutter; David Wallace—more on this later—is stricken with disfiguring facial acne. Beyond supplying a source of comic or tragic tension, the damage that permeates and even cripples these individuals has the effect of a general humbling or making low: it democratizes. Poised as they are between grotesquerie and personhood, the characters of “The Pale King” are therefore open to the possibility of redemption. “We are all of us brothers,” the narrator announces on the first page, without a soul in sight, and it has the air of benediction in that moment. But what’s left of the novel to come finds these souls, seemingly condemned to a waking life of Sisyphean drudgery, wrestling with these words and what it means for all of us if they’re true.
From what we have of “The Pale King,” it eems Wallace intended the novel to provide a model for this redemption in and of itself. Much of the manuscript reads as a response to the existential negativity of “Infinite Jest,” whose dystopian vision of America as caught in a narco-consumerist mise en abyme stands in stark contrast to the book’s moments of affirmation. Inside a darkened elevator, a group of Service administrators engage in a sort of philosophical dialogue, heady with the history of government and ethics in America, and a narrative of the lapse of moral society. If this lapse is where we find ourselves now, “The Pale King” would call us to make accounts—both to take responsibility for our lives, and to make manifest from its chaos some kind of meaningful order. Such is the epiphany in ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Vogle’s 100-page monologue, whose story of how he found the service has all the trappings of a religious conversion. The prism of irony that shapes its telling notwithstanding, the voice of Vogle’s evangelist hits with strange conviction: “You have wondered, perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats? The are today’s cowboys. As will you be. Riding the American range. Riding herd on the unending torrents of financial data... You deal in facts, gentlemen, for which there has been a market since man first crept from the primeval slurry. It is you—tell them what. Who ride, man the walls, define the pie, serve.” The model here, of a frontier of meaning mapped across a landscape of static chatter, evokes Heidegger’s existentialism both more openly and more uprightly than that of Alcoholics Anonymous in “Infinite Jest.” That model’s fulcrum is the ability to choose one’s patterns of attention—an ability that certain sections actively undermine even as they might lecture on the matter. Vogle’s call to the Service prevails over a life up to that point of what he calls nihilism. In “The Pale King,” it isn’t simply the drunks and the junkies that must aspire to a living grace: it’s the whole brotherhood of humanity.
As if the religious overtones weren’t strong enough—Vogle’s orator, he says, is a Jesuit accounting professor—the finest moment in all of “The Pale King” takes the form of modern Christian tribulation. We find Lane Dean Jr., a future wiggler and devout Roman Catholic, sitting in a park meditating on the kind of dilemma for which literature was made: deciding the future of an unborn child. What’s so remarkable about this section in the manuscript, and in his corpus generally, is the sincerity and the sympathy with which Wallace—a secular writer if there ever was one—illuminates this crisis. “What would even Jesus do? For it was just now he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, to turn him. What if he is just afraid, if the truth is no more than this, and if what to pray for is not even love but simple courage, to meet both her eyes as she says it and trust his heart?” Sections like these—of which there are only a handful—veritably shake with the clarity and sheer, uncomplicated joy of the represented truth. Lane Dean, like Don Gately before him, is the anti-neutoric; the hero upon whose shoulders the most unspeakable burdens will not falter because his is the fortitude, not of the mind, but of the spirit. It’s easy to see, in Dean, Wallace feeling through the same radical choice that Leo Tolstoy posits through Levin in the coda of “Anna Karenina”—a way outside the self-defeating logic of the existential circuit, towards something whole and permanent and perfect. It’s in the values that contemporary secularism and moral pluralism eschew—where, for once, there is a right decision and a wrong one—that Wallace seems, if only for an instant amidst the vast noise of the novel, to place his store. Later, in at his desk in Exams, as the unwavering monotony washes over him like waves upon the peaceful beach he cannot quite visualize, the image of his infant son is the one to which he clings for meaning and for sanity. How much of this positivity would have remained unchecked, how much of this exposition would have remained unqualified, had Wallace lived to see the novel through, however, is an unanswerable question.
The novel’s ostensive plot—most of which never materialized—would seem to take a direct interest in these moral stakes. Framed as a nonfiction memoir by a fictionalized David Wallace, the narrator breaks in not infrequently—in a patently Nabokovian device executed with sickening faithfulness, as if to cast a pall across that genre which his writing once invigorated—to explain the Service policy paradigm-shift known as the ‘Spackman Initiative’ which took place during his brief employ at the Peoria REC. Simply put, the Initiative marks the turn from the model of the IRS as simply a tax-collecting service to one of a for-profit corporation; from assuring general compliance to pursuing only the most profitable audits. What Wallace casts as a sort of recession from the Service’s civic responsibility into a state of moral ambivalence would be, in a completed version of “The Pale King,” the novel’s eminent crisis. The Initiative’s coincidence with the Reagan Era and the earliest nascence of the Information Age is, as it were, no coincidence. If “Infinite Jest” is the future of the inhabitants of “The Pale King,” then by now the damage has gone unchecked by too many for too long. From where we sit, the heroic accountant is already extinct.
That, in spite of its circumstances, “The Pale King” accomplishes all this, speaks volumes not only to its authors unsurpassed talent and to his obsessive perfectionism. A great novel, by any measure, is here stillborn in the manuscript. Whether that manuscript represents the aesthetic metamorphosis for which Wallace searched so relentlessly is another matter. The “Notes and Asides” section included by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch (who also writes the foreward) contains broad sketches for the novel’s machinations that, in its present form, “The Pale King” never produces. As a fundamentally separate critical case from that of a complete novel, the manuscript is a fascinating artifact in its own right. The book presents a rare opportunity to peer inside the mechanisms of unique and brilliant literary mind. An artist who put honesty before any pretension, Wallace nevertheless admitted publicly to agonizing over the preparation of his writing. The circumspection and transparency with which Pietsch, along with Wallace’s widow Karen Green and his agent Bonnie Nadell, has patched together a coherent book should serve as a model for the treatment of posthumous works generally: one that respects the dignity of the deceased as well as the right of the reader to their work. Their efforts—heroism of a different form altogether—have born precious if bitter fruit: how many wonderful books like this one would we trade to get back what we’ve lost.
—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.