September 12, 2009

DFW And The Pale King

David Foster Wallace committed suicide one year ago today.

Telegraph UK, August 13, 2009:
For at least 10 years before his death, Wallace was working on a long novel that he called The Pale King. Set in a branch of the US Internal Revenue Service, it aimed to articulate the hard-won thesis of mindfulness that Wallace had come to after years of depression and treatment: "Bliss -– a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious –- lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom."

Michael Pietsch, who is piecing together the many drafts of The Pale King in collaboration with [Wallace's agent Bonnie] Nadell and Wallace's widow, Karen Green, agrees. "The thrust of it," he says, "is an attempt to look at the dark matter of tedium and boredom and repetition and familiarity that life is made of, and through that to find a path to joy and art and everything that matters. Wallace has set himself the task of making a moving and joyful book out of the matter of life that most writers veer away from as hard as they can. And what he left of it is heartbreakingly full and beautiful and deep. He was looking at how one survives."
I am a huge fan of Wallace's work, especially his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, and I am beyond excited to read The Pale King, which will be published in May 2010.

TPK continues to explore the same themes that Wallace tackled in both his fiction and non-fiction. According to The New Yorker, the novel is "about the transcendence that comes through boredom". It centers on
... a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. The partial manuscript ... expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration. Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment ...
Wallace began his research for The Pale King shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest. Karen Green, his widow, said that Wallace took accounting classes and studied IRS publications. "You should have seen him with our accountant. It was like, "What about the ruling of 920S?"

That information helps us understand this 1998 exchange between Wallace and Gus Van Sant:
DFW: I'm on leave this year. I'm auditing a class but I'm not teaching. The class I'm auditing is a real bitch but somehow I'm holding on at a high C or low B.

GVS: What's the class?

DFW: It's ah, it's advanced tax accounting, which is a long story and you probably don't want to know about it, but it's wa-a-a-y over my little noggin. It's a Will Hunting class.

GVS: Oh my God.

DFW: 35 pages of incredibly dense, you know, CPA stuff at night and then you get tested on it the next day.
Simon Prosser, publishing director of Hamish Hamilton, a Penguin imprint which won the UK rights to TPK:
I think it's as good as Infinite Jest. I'm really, really blown away by what I've read. It's absolutely incredible. The level of writing is so high. It's just so tremendously sad that he didn't realise how close he was to what he wanted to achieve.
At "Consider David Foster Wallace: A Conference", held in late July 2009 at the University Of Liverpool, David Hering shared the comments he received from Mary Clemmey, Wallace's UK agent. Clemmey said (in part):
It is in a sense a book about everything that matters -- and everything falls within its scope. Nothing is taken for granted and at every level the book puts the greatest distance possible between itself and the cliched and mundane. It is has the highest of ambitions not just in terms of style and subject but also moral compass and indeed humanity. Without meaning to sound hyperbolic, it is unarguably the work of a writer of genius. And for once that word seems apt and indeed unavoidable.
Also re this conference, click here to read the keynote address given by Greg Carlisle, author of Elegant Complexity (a reader's guide to IJ).

TPK runs "several hundred thousand words and will include notes, outlines, and other material". What is totally cool is that Little, Brown will create a website that includes drafts, journals, and notes, so readers can see how the book came together and "have a detailed sense of Wallace as a working writer". As Pietsch said:
To see his mind at play, to see him begin to assemble these chapters out of scraps of narrative, throwing one word against another ... it is extraordinary, and heartbreaking.
There have been three published excerpts (between 2007 and 2009) that are confirmed to have come from TPK: Good People, The Compliance Branch, and Wiggle Room.

Two pages from the manuscript ("Irrelevant Bob") and artwork from Green can be found on The New Yorker's website here.

Other possible excerpts are linked here (this is pure speculation, however). There is also a report that in 2007, Wallace read something (about 30 minutes in length) at New Mexico State University about "a father/husband who was killed when part of him got caught in the closing doors of a subway train, and his family's attempts to deal with it". Nick Maniatis, who runs The Howling Fantods, has tried to get more information on this reading, but has come up empty.

After Wallace's death, two articles were published: "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace" by David Lipsky (Rolling Stone, October 30, 2008) and "The Unfinished" by D.T. Max (The New Yorker, March 9, 2009).

Max spoke to many people close to Wallace, including his widow, and offered the first information on The Pale King. A lot of Lipsky's article was drawn from hours of conversation he had with Wallace during the book tour for Infinite Jest. In June, it was announced that Max had been signed by Viking to write a biography of Wallace, to be published in 2011. A few weeks later, Lipsky also inked a deal. I'm not sure what form his book will take, but I'd be thrilled with an introduction and a complete transcription of the interviews.
On May 21, 2005, Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. Someone recorded it and a transcription gained some noterity on the internet. It was included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 and has been edited and published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

It's not a long speech, but by including only a sentence or short paragraph on each page, Little, Brown has padded it out to 144 pages. What Wallace talks about in the speech is certainly connected to the themes of IJ -- "banal platitudes can have a life or death importance" -- but I think it quite clearly has much more in common with his work on TPK.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
And you may never experience shopping at the grocery store the same way again. Scroll down here for an audio clip.

Infinite Summer, the mass group read of Infinite Jest, ends in 10 days. I'm thrilled that at least one reader of this blog decided to take the plunge after I wrote about it in June.

I hope he made it through! While I did not take part in the project, I have been enjoying discussions at the IS forums and several blogs, including Infinite Detox, A Supposedly Fun Blog, Infinite Zombies, Infinite Tasks, That Sounds Cool and I Just Read About That.

I am once again stunned and amazed by the writing talent that would otherwise have never been read -- and perhaps never been written -- without the existence of the internet.


laura k said...

I cannot believe it was a year ago. I never would have guessed it was last September.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Thanks for the shoutout.

I'm a former Boston man (lived there about 5 years during the late 90s). And IJ and Boston are inextricably linked, both because it's set there, but because I first read it there.

I was bummed a year ago when DFW killed himself. But now that I immersed myself in IJ with all these other great folks and I can see what a great impact he had on other people as well, I'm even more sad now, one year later.

I'm not a big baseball fan (although I used to love cheap Fenway seats when the mood struck), but I'll check back from time to time.

Thanks again,
Paul, September, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.

allan said...

Thanks for dropping in, Paul.

I'm hoping to re-read IJ over the winter, though I do not know how much I'll blog about it. After that, it'll be only a few months before TPK.

Infinite Tasks said...

Glad my blog shows incoming links, so I've been led your way! This is a great rundown on what to look forward to w/r/t TPK.

And by the way, along with appreciating my IS blogging, feel free to send some Boston to Oakland love our way for knocking Texas on its ass this last week. Not that you needed it, but a little breathing room never hurts, right? And to think, it came from three days of starting Tomko, E. Gonzalez, and Cahill! More improbable than Lyle licking the sweat off of Gately's forehead at St. E.'s, or Geoffrey Day getting an intimacy hug from Big Tony.