The David Foster Wallace Generation
On the posthumous publication of The Pale King, The Daily Beast gathered together 6 leading novelists to talk about David Foster Wallace’s influence on them, his surprising humor, and his final work.
How do you solve a problem like The Pale King? Reading the final, unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace—which was edited and sequenced by Michael Pietsch from a mass of papers left behind by the author after his suicide in 2008—presents a thicket of interpretive challenges. To review as a traditional novel, or not? To process it with extra-literary, biographical details in mind, or else try to experience it in a manner as close to a completed work as may prove possible?
The Pale King is an indisputably essential addition to Wallace’s bibliography—since it expands on themes Wallace had worked with in Infinite Jest, as well as in his widely read Kenyon College commencement address. In the 547 pages of The Pale King that Pietsch has selected for us to read, we benefit from Wallace’s attention to subjects such as religion, the civic consequences of the tax code, and what boredom means in contemporary American life. Wallace’s play of mind across these subjects is indelible and at times hilarious—even during stretches when the prose or character-sketching may feel less than fully figured out.
“Given what we all hear all the time about everything from attention spans to literacy and so forth, you sort of wonder about the future of those sorts of books, right?”
And yet, because knocking an unfinished, posthumous work of fiction for its lack of polish seems not only unfair but slightly off-point as a critical response, The Daily Beast and Newsweek decided to assemble a half-dozen novelists—each of whom published his or her debut in the post- Infinite Jest-era—to talk about Wallace’s legacy, how to approach The Pale King, and what it all might mean for the state of American fiction. (Minor spoilers follow—though, if you’ve read any advance press on The Pale King, you know the book’s narrative is hardly finished in the first instance.) Rivka Galchen, Matthew Gallaway, David Gordon, Darin Strauss, Charles Yu, and Deb Olin Unferth read The Pale King simultaneously in the week before its release, and then joined The Daily Beast via phone, from locations across the world, to participate in this virtual roundtable. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
THE DAILY BEAST: Before we get to The Pale King on its own terms, can each of you talk about how David Foster Wallace has affected your behavior as writers and readers? And does anyone prize his non-fiction more than the fiction?
Deb Olin Unferth: When I was coming up he was the king of our school, when I was at Syracuse. He had just left the area and moved to Illinois. We looked up to him as a sort of a big brother. I think that the reason was because he gave us permission to do a lot: to be philosophical on the page, to not be afraid of straying from straight narrative—and he gave us a way to do it that felt decidedly next generation, after [Donald] Barthelme, [Robert] Coover and [Thomas] Pynchon. He also gave us permission to be excessive and meta-fictional and yet be very readable and be very emotional. And so he gave us a new model that felt familiar, in a way, and also felt extremely fresh.
In many ways, Rivka Galchen: I think I’m programmed like a lot of other people: the huge-r the book is, the more skeptical I am. And so I kind of avoided [Wallace] for a long time, and ended up [reading] his non-fiction first. And it was so influential, because his voice was so unbelievable. And by the time I’d come to him, he’d already been fully formed. He almost influenced me, every time my sentence would go on a little bit longer than it normally would—or if I would feel like I was prosecuting a case in a nice way or free-associating. I’d say, “Oh no!” Though it was sort of a happy anxiety of influence. “I can hear that voice in my head again!”
Darin Strauss: Would you change your sentence?
Galchen: Yeah, probably. In that sense, that’s almost a tighter influence: When you’re perfectly trying to avoid sounding like someone you have in your head.
Charles Yu: There’s nobody else, for me, who, when you just hear the voice, you have to stop and just get into it. It’s like when I’m in the car and flipping through the radio and I’m not looking for anything in particular—and things kind of blend into a murmur of the radio. And all of a sudden I hear something I kind of wanted to hear that I didn’t realize I wanted to hear. And it’s like: “Wow.” And that’s what reading The Pale King was like, to me. I had been kind of avoiding [Wallace’s] fiction for a while; I’d been reading a lot of his nonfiction. And when I started slam-reading this I thought, “Oh man, I gotta go back and read his fiction again, things I haven’t read for years.” The Pale King just really stayed with me.
Matthew Gallaway: What’s great about reading his stuff is that he really does bring all of the neuroses and the tics and the addictions of outsiders to the forefront—while maintaining, or creating, a real sense of empathy for the character who’s going through that.
Strauss: Beyond even having appeal for outsiders, he was just the most talented and engaged writer of his generation, I think. And that was just something that was fun and intimidating to watch as his career unfolded because you knew whatever he was doing was going to be worth reading—and something you could look to for the kind of instruction we look to all the great books for. After he appeared on the scene, people’s fiction voices sounded a little different—a little slangier, a little looser, and also at the same time often a little more mathematically precise. It was that mixture of precision and looseness that was so influential.
David Gordon: Right. For me, I guess it was Infinite Jest that really was so huge. As someone who probably right around that time was myself completely obsessed with Pynchon and Gaddis and big, large-format experimental writing, to see somebody kind of following in that path and at the same time being young and scoring a huge huge mainstream hit—there was something fascinating [about it], and I didn’t quite know quite what to make of it. And then later on with the non-fiction, suddenly I kind of met him again, as this other much more mature and super-readable kind of voice. And I think of him mainly now as the fate of that kind of—for lack of a better word—that kind of experimental, big ambitious fiction in America.
THE DAILY BEAST: Does Wallace’s career augur poorly or not, do you think, for that kind of fiction in America?
Gordon: You mean does the outlook seem good or bad? I don’t know. Given what we all hear all the time about everything from attention spans to literacy and so forth, you sort of wonder about the future of those sorts of books, right? It’s not like people are rushing off to read [William Gaddis’] The Recognitions right now. So in that sense Infinite Jest stands as a kind of strange occurrence in that narrative…
Strauss: Don’t you think it’s because he’s so readable? As great as Gaddis may be, The Recognitions is not the kind of book you can pick up for fun the way you can pick up any Wallace and have something tickle you in every paragraph. He was so accessible and yet so demanding at the same time. So if anything about it augurs well or ill for literature, it’s that it might be awhile until there’s someone who’s able to sing in those registers at the same time.
Gallaway: His subject matter is always—even though he deconstructs it in a million different ways—it has a lot of mass appeal. Whether it’s taking drugs or sports, or having in the case [of The Pale King], having a boring job—which a lot of people can certainly identify with—he takes these universal subject matters and then filters them through his own head. And that has a lot of appeal. It goes down to a sentence level; you can immediately grasp that. He does have a very informal tone. He really mixes the high and the low. And that low [part] can really pull you into the big conceptual stuff he’s dealing with.
Strauss: I teach him at NYU. And it’s funny how frequently that trick comes up in literature, and how it always works. If you think about [Vladimir] Nabokov: he would mix the high and low. And then [Saul] Bellow would do it. And then Wallace came along. Each person doing it sounded like no one else, and yet they were doing this wonderful trick. It’s just something that always appeals.
THE DAILY BEAST: What about The Pale King, in particular? Does it pull off that trick as well as Wallace’s other fiction?
Galchen: This is my favorite Wallace novel I’ve read. Everyone is talking about him being super accessible, and he is in the sense that it’s really fun to read him. But he’s also always coming up with some strategy about how to present data, or how to use data to avoid certain things. But in this book, I liked the sections where he’s making fun of the “David Foster Wallace style,” [with] the whole character of “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle—whenever there’s information he brings up and he’s thinking through whether it’s really information or not in that way. And also the way in which the [first-person] “David Foster Wallace” sections were aggressively boring.
Galchen: Like, aggressively, aggressively boring? Which I just thought made his voice even more interesting to me. Because you saw past the frame that his other work was in. Which I wouldn’t really see past either, because those works were also really successful. This one seemed to let go a step further and kind of contextualize tolerance for boredom and tolerance for data and tolerance for things not happening. I found it really soothing. I thought: “That’s what’s going on in a lot of his other books. It’s soothing to go through all of this data and information.”
Unferth: I would say this is also my favorite fiction by David Foster Wallace. I was surprised at how un-funny the book was, in comparison to his other work. There was no interest in making things silly or fantastic. There was such a seriousness to it, and I loved that attempt. Despite itself, it’s still hilarious. I also loved the unfinished feeling to it. I feel like none of his work stems from a desire for cohesion or from direct action that results in some moment of understanding or something. The fact that is all arranged into these little pieces—it feels so Proustian to me. I loved seeing into his head in that way. It doesn’t feel appropriate to ask if it works or it fits, because I just feel like I’m seeing into the mind of this dead man who never got to finish this.
Gallaway: I had a somewhat different take in that, my other favorite Wallace book is Oblivion, which I think has a very finished feel to it that … it just feels very polished and tight in a way this book did not feel. And it made me wish he had been really able to pull it together in the way he did with Oblivion. To me it lent sort of a scary—almost voyeuristic—quality to reading The Pale King, given that we know that obviously this guy killed himself. So I think it’s sort of safe to assume that his mind was not functioning on all gears…
Galchen: Maybe it was functioning on all gears! That’s sort of the more upsetting voyeurism of it maybe?
THE DAILY BEAST: Camus and Kierkegaard are referenced a couple times in The Pale King, so that question of suicide, or of resignation, as a rational approach to an absurd or depressing world isn’t just a function of the background authorial biography that we’re aware of, right?
Strauss: Hmm, wow. This [book] has the same effect for me as The Last Tycoon, the final Fitzgerald book that was also unfinished. There are parts that are so beautiful and parts that just feel unfinished. I agree with Matt, I would have loved to have seen this book when he was finished with it. I mean there are passages of great imagination and strength—when he’s talking about that woman, Meredith Rand, the beautiful woman and her effect on co-workers. Deb mentioned Proust, and I agree—that was so insightful and funny and bleak at the same time. But reading a book that you know was unfinished is always an odd proposition because you’re reading the work and you’re reading a lot of extra-literary things. You’re testing… does his mind seem at full strength here? And well this doesn’t work, but maybe it’s not supposed to work—or maybe it would have worked differently had it been finished. It’s hard to read it as innocently as you would a finished text. So I think it’s hard to know how to take it. Because he didn’t finish it or put it in this order, even. So I’d be wary of saying it was my favorite book of his.
Unferth: It wasn’t my favorite work of his ever. I love his non-fiction. But it was my favorite of his fiction, I think.
Galchen: The book doesn’t feel unpolished to me, with very rare exceptions; it feels unfinished. Which maybe was some sort of insight into the way he worked. But also for some reason… I have to imagine, usually, the hope would be that his work would sort of exceed what it was going for. The book isn’t really a way to get to know him. I think that the author frequently is not the best expert on the book, and even on the way that it should go together. And unfortunately we usually only get to read what that person had almost too much control over.
THE DAILY BEAST: Reading drafts of Infinite Jest in the Wallace archive at the Ransom Center last fall, it became clear to me how much tracks-covering Wallace engaged in as he refined that novel. So—when people are talking about the directness of the voice in The Pale King—I think that can be a function of how he didn’t have the chance to cover his tracks on this one.
Yu: The first thing I thought of as a reader was: it was really valuable to me as an unfinished novel. Although if you took 100 people and had them read the whole thing and didn’t tell them if it was finished or not, it’d be interesting to know what they thought. … Essentially what we have is a guy’s draft. We have a snapshot of his hard drive and papers as they looked at one moment in time. Which is terrifying. If you took a snapshot at what was on my hard drive at this time it wouldn’t be legible, let alone readable as a book. So that’s amazing, just as a reader. It feels so polished at a paragraph and sentence level. It’s just kind of mind-boggling. So that’s all as a reader. As a writer, this is maybe the most valuable thing I’ve gotten. I’m never letting go of this. Because now I have a snapshot of Wallace’s process, which is crazy to me. I have so many notes just because … he hasn’t been able to cover his tracks, and it’s so illuminating to see where he was trying to go and what he was trying to do.
THE DAILY BEAST: What kind of notes?
Yu: I’m not sure they’d make a lot of sense to anyone else. A lot of what occurred to me as I was reading this, was how it compared to my process and how it dwarfed it. The velocity and density of everything just boggles my mind. But on a much smaller level, I think about how I would have conceptually linked these things. Because he wasn’t able to stitch those things together, I get to see these things as they were sort of growing without having yet been overlaid with some kind of finishing, some kind of conceptual structure that might link them all.
Unferth: I agree with that. I feel exactly the same way—almost like I came across the bones from some early civilization. Someone has kind of aligned them for me, but I know that wasn’t how they were originally scattered over the sand. And I love that, even though I can’t see… can see only pieces of what the entire must have looked like. I feel like his other work—of course Infinite Jest and the of course the essays—a lot of times he kind of approaches the world form all these different of angles, and the crescendo he creates has more to do with ideas and emotions rather than crescendo of action. Here I can see him driving toward that crescendo—and yet he doesn’t quite reach it. You can feel his fumbling for it. And I love seeing those ragged edges; it feels like a gift.
Gordon: Clearly it’s not completed in terms of plot or so forth. The individual sections did seem to me highly worked. But who knows? Anything’s possible! I guess for me the great modernist masterpiece that this book most obviously recalled was The Castle. The idea that, 100 years later, the unfinished or almost-burnt quality of Kafka’s works are just part of the work now, right? That’s what we have—this fragment or broken piece of sculpture. … Eventually readers are just going to pick it up as a book. It’s unfinished-ness will just become a part of it. So in a strange way, consciously or not, part of what this book is now about is its existence as a kind of fragment.
THE DAILY BEAST: Is that scary to you all, as novelists?
Strauss: But, with Kafka, that is part of his whole narrative. He was a writer who never published widely, and never saw his work in print. And Wallace has a huge novel that he finished, that he worked on to his complete satisfaction and then sent out, which is Infinte Jest. So maybe it is a worrying thing as a writer to think that your first draft could go out and represent all of your work.
Galchen: Or your final draft!
Strauss: Well that’s true, but at least you pack it off and send it to the publisher. [Wallace] left a couple hundred pages [of The Pale King] for his wife to find; that’s not the same thing. In terms of finding his voice, I just bow to the finished work. And I’m also a big fan of the book Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself, which is a book where Wallace talks to another writer, David Lipsky. And you hear his speaking voice. So that’s a good way to get a sense of who he is as a person. And the best way to get who he is as an artist is the finished work.
THE DAILY BEAST: Finished-ness aside, what about the ideas that drive the book? How well do they work for you?
Strauss: I was struck by how it was sort of a fictional workout of the stuff he was talking about when he went to Kenyon, in that commencement address where he says the important thing is to be aware enough to pay attention to existence even in the shopping line when you’re bored and angry about having to wait. The fact that he wrote a book about boredom seemed like … the key thing for him was how to be conscious enough to choose what to notice and how to live, in that kind of very modern feeling of being bored out of your mind sometimes.
Gallaway: My favorite chapter was the “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle chapter. For me it was a companion piece to [the Wallace story] “Good Old Neon,” in which the narrator says his whole life was a fraud and ends up killing himself. And in both of these stories, there’s this revelation—in The Pale King it’s when this kid is sitting there watching As the World Turns, and then he goes out and finds this belief system and decides to become a tax guy. Which to me is, you know, it’s kind of depressing. Your choices, in order to be in the moment in the way Wallace is postulating, are that you’re either going to have to kill yourself or you have to be able to turn your mind off and become one of these tax guys or become like Drinion at the end of the book—who is this almost monkish figure who can levitate. And who, in the [afterward] notes, it says that Drinion is happy, but Drinion is the guy who has never had an emotional experience in his life—that he will at least admit to. So it was very sad to read the book for that reason.
Gordon: That was also my favorite scene in the book, between Meredith Rand and Drinion. Clearly it wasn’t meant to be the end, but as the book stands, it sort of felt like a kind of climax to me. I did feel like it was kind of the way out of the boredom, in a maybe more uplifting way than Matt saw it. What was interesting to me about the way boredom was described, was that it wasn’t just sitting around doing nothing—which is suspiciously a lot like novel writing. It was the boredom of being forced to think about something unbearable all day, like jobs I’ve had where I just alphabetized things all day. And I think what he’s hinting at—though never quite says—it’s that there’s this horrible awareness of time passing and of yourself kind of dying so that boredom becomes like a kind of hell. The other terrible curse that these characters labor under is a horrible self-consciousness: that they sweat or their skin is bad or whatever—or even in the case of that girl, that she’s too pretty, so that it becomes like a trap. And what we see in that little scene is two people kind of escape the trap of themselves. It’s a kind of miracle that nobody even notices. So that’s very ironic. The slightly kind of hopeful bit is that if you can actually forget about yourself for a minute, by thinking about someone else then it doesn’t matter because you don’t feel time passing, you don’t feel yourself dying, you’re just kind of existing in this Zen presence. That for me is why, aside from it being a really great little play unto itself, that scene made me feel like this can stand as a novel. Not just a person’s last failed attempt or something.
Galchen: Drinion seems to be able to concentrate and pay attention to Meredith fully. So [his levitation] is sort of a joke but it also feels—it does feel like a way out. A little pathway that points outside of what feels like a cage in the book.
Gallaway: I thought it was hilarious, the fact that he was equating the tax guys to being the cowboys of the Wild West. It was so over the top. If that’s what you’re gonna have to believe in, that’s a bleak picture, once you get behind the hilarity.
Yu: I think that’s interesting. Maybe I’m identifying myself here as another bleak person, but it was funny … even if it does feel over the top. At the same time, he wrote at least 500 pages about this. And I feel like I’m supposed to take this seriously. He spend a lot of time on the tax code itself; he goes over and under everything. I don’t know if he formulated it this way ever, but he says: if you look at the tax code, you can see policy choices and also how that affects the household and individual levels. The characters in this book are called to something, called to account.
Gordon: My question, to turn it around: Has anyone here had access to the archive? It’s a massive amount to research. Did he know anything about accounting or taxes going in? As a writer, that’s staggering to me; I’m so lazy.
THE DAILY BEAST: I spent a week there last fall, after the archive opened. And, in fact, that line in the book about accountants being “cowboys of information” is actually a note that Wallace made to himself in the margins of a notebook he kept during an accounting class he took while writing The Pale King. He took several classes, and was serious about this stuff—writing letters full of questions to tax lawyers, etc.
Gordon: So he could write and do math.
Yu: What did people make of the general “David Foster Wallace” part—the first-person conceit of memoir, or non-fiction. And this legal fiction, hiding under the blanket of the copyright page.
Gordon: I felt like it was a kind of showmanship and this highly intellectual meta-fictional move. In a way, on another level, he brings it in just when you really need to kind of breathe. Because this tight focus on this world and the tax code, is so intense—suddenly when he pops in and says “hi, it’s me, and here’s this really funny story about this snooty college I went to,” there’s this opening up and this breath. I thought it was this interesting way of creating this insertion to the architecture of his own book. But then again it slips around. … So there’s also the sense that he doesn’t become an all knowing narrator either. I was impressed with it, because it worked really well and wasn’t just a clever idea. The wizardry of the stuff about the disclaimer about the copyright and … while I thought that was smart, I was more impressed with the way it really worked.
THE DAILY BEAST: One thing you can see in Wallace’s archive is how he, during an early draft of Infinite Jest, also inserted a character named “David Wallace” into a long end-note at the back of the book. By the time we get to the published version, that character’s name has been changed to Marlon Bain.
Unferth: I was so interested in that when you mentioned it over email, because I could completely imagine Wallace having the deep urge to put some version of himself in as a character. Because he abhors dishonesty so much—and while he’s writing he can feel the presence of himself so much that it feels dishonest not to have himself in the book. Yet once he puts himself in, since it feels false not to—then, because he’s a fiction writer, he can’t start inventing all these crazy details about himself. I love the celebratory nature though, of doing that.
Strauss: We don’t know if he would have kept that, though. Maybe it’s a mnemonic thing he does to remind himself of what the character is like, and at the last minute changes it.
Gordon: It’s a biographical coincidence, tragically, and clearly—that this [was written] by a person who was concerned with unfinished-ness and with openness and incompletion and so on. It does make me continue to think of the different ways that books can be put together: about plot, or the lack of plot. I would throw that open to other working novelists. Where do you think that stands? … It’s still a big attempt. He was trying to write a big book. He must have planned a lot of pages, since it’s nowhere near done. More to the point, though, it’s a big ambitious book in terms of what it was about and the kinds of tools and structural devices he was trying to use.
Strauss: Doesn’t that just make you sad? I just felt like what an ambitious amazing attempt—and how sad that we won’t know how this great mind would have taken these discrete parts …
Gordon: Exactly, that’s exactly it. But aside from the personal sadness of course that he didn’t get to finish it—what kind of role does this book play right now?
THE DAILY BEAST: Perfect closing question!
Strauss: Well, [Jonathan] Franzen did a big novel. And this was arguably more ambitious. I’m thinking of a quote from Zadie Smith, about how we need novels that shake the novel out of its complacency, or something like that. This would have done that even more than Franzen’s book, because as good as Franzen’s was—and I’m one of the people who really liked Freedom—it was conventional. So if Wallace had finished this—you know, he was a famous enough figure and a good enough writer that people had been waiting for 15 years since Infinite Jest for him to come out with another novel. Maybe I’m naïve but I think a big book of finished fiction by David Foster Wallace would have had a big impact and been a big cultural milestone.
Yu: I think the unfinished nature of it really bums me out in terms of not being able to know what happens to these people. Some of them we get to see in the lab as they were still being made into people. But in some ways getting to see that rawness of still being mixed together and how it comes out in some of the more polished pieces struck me as the point. So perfectly right between raw and polished. And that voice, it was just that thing that people have been waiting 15 years for. I guess my answer to David’s question about what this means for works like this is, finished or not, I feel like it’s going to be important work on its own, as it is—just because of who he was.
About the contributors:
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Vacation and Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Darin Strauss is the author, most recently, of Half a Life.
Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe.
Matthew Gallaway’s debut novel, The Metropolis Case, was published last year.
David Gordon is the author of The Serialist.
Seth Colter Walls has been a senior reporter in "The Culture" section of Newsweek magazine since 2009. Previously, he worked as a writer and editor at The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, and as a reporter in The Huffington Post's DC bureau. He regularly contributes essays to The Awl, and is a graduate of both NYU and Columbia University.