I recently finished reading The Pale King, the novel David Foster Wallace was working on when he died, by his own hand, in September 2008. I love David Foster Wallace. I love everything he wrote. I certainly never met him or anything, but when I heard of his suicide, I texted my son, and we spent the day mourning together. He re-read Infinite Jest; I re-read all the essays in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, especially the final eponymous essay, which is about cruise ships, but also how they lead us to despair.
The Pale King, even in its unfinished state, is extraordinary. Wallace left behind no plan for the novel, no description even of which chapters should come after which other chapters, just notes suggesting an indeterminate ending, which it certainly does have. A lot of it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. One early chapter is pretty excruciating, I think intentionally. Because Wallace’s theme with this final, great novel is boredom. He argues, quite explicitly in fact, that boredom can confer nobility, that in our contemporary society, withstanding boredom, putting up with it, transcending it, especially in the service of some task necessary for society, is as close to an act heroism as we’re likely to achieve.
It is, in fact, a novel about the IRS. It’s about the various people who work at an IRS servicing center in Ohio, their quirks and personalities, their petty office politics. It’s not as funny as Wallace can get–see for example the entire academics-deconstruct-the Brady Bunch-riff in Infinite Jest. It’s filled with all those post-modern flourishes for which Wallace was known, including a character named Dave Wallace, who wants to be a novelist but who, as a young man, is putting in some time processing 1040s. (Wallace did not, as it happens, ever work for the IRS). One character would seem to be a space alien. This is never explicit, but he has odd abilities, such as levitation. Others can read minds. (One imagines an entire dissertation on genre-busting in Wallace: sci-fi or not?)
It’s a profound and important book, all the more so because he never finished it, and would surely have been appalled at the thought that someone–even a close friend, working with his wife–would publish under his name something so unpolished. I tried to work it out, why I was so moved by an unfinished book. Part of it is the tragedy of Wallace’s own life, the struggle a writer I love and admire waged with clinical depression. There will never be another Wallace essay or story or novel. Part of it is the power of the writing itself–there are passages in The Pale King that will haunt me the rest of my days. But I also think that it’s the fact that the novel is unfinished–that this novel, on that theme, is unfinished.
It’s a novel about the quiet heroism of people who work in an office all day performing an important but unengaging task. It’s about boredom, and how it can lead to either despair or transcendence.
I also finished Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God recently, and she describes religious devotion as a kind of discipline: a mental, moral and ceremonial set of prescribed actions that can be a struggle to maintain, but which lead to something wonderful, something we variously call nirvana or ‘being saved’ or, in our cases, a testimony. I think that’s part of what Wallace (who never wore his faith on his sleeve, but who also was an active member of a church his whole life) means by the heroism of tax accountants, especially the sort of exalted state some of his examiners reach after a day doing 1040s.
It occurs to me that most of our scriptures are unfinished–that theologically, we believe in an open canon, which means unfinished writings. The Book of Mormon, of course, has a sealed section we’re not ready for yet. The Doctrine and Covenants has added revelations twice in my lifetime, and Joseph Smith worked on his translation–which really means expansion–of the Bible most of his life. We believe in continuing revelation, because we also believe in eternal progression. We believe in our lives as unfinished books.
Of course, we also believe that when it’s finally done, it’s going to be really good. We keep drafting, keep polishing, keep refining, keep after that nagging third paragraph, that tiresome metaphor, that cliched image we can’t seem to find a better way of expressing. We keep plugging away at it. We keep trying, despite boredom, to stay conscious.
At this point, I’m not saying anything Wallace didn’t say better. As here: http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words
But I wonder sometimes if any piece of writing is ever truly finished. Publication seems like a kind of death, sometimes, and I’m sure we’ve all experience that post-publication panic: crap, dang, NO, it’s NOT DONE YET. (More or less, I think, our first thoughts when we enter the Spirit World.) We’re all Edwin Drood.
I’m a theatre guy, so it’s easy for me to think this way. Theatre pieces are never finished, not really. Theatre involves interaction between a text and actors and directors and designers, all those guys, and the audiences for whom we perform. And when we see a play, we’re seeing something new, unique, being created for us at the moment, never to be repeated. Not perfectly. Obviously, we’re pretty meticulous, and you don’t want actors making up their own lines and blocking on the spot, unless it’s that kind of theatre. But there’s a mystical communication between actors and audience members that does, in a very real way, shape the performance. Doing eight shows a week can be, well, boring. The trick is staying . . . awake, alive, open.
That’s Wallace’s theme, in his last, great novel. That’s also at the heart of our own art forms. Let’s stay awake. Let’s all be heroes.