For the sake of convenience, let's call this a book review of David Foster Wallace's posthumous unfinished novel, The Pale King. Wallace didn't die a nice, easy-to-get death like cancer or plowed over by someone asleep at the wheel of a defunct school bus. He hanged himself after a protracted battle with depression. People go to books to learn things, and the thing they go to novels to learn is how to be in the world. So the natural question is what should or can we learn from a guy that ended up hanging himself? This is the existential question suicide lends to the work of a person's life. It's the first question, and no others can come before it.

First off: despite what we think about big hearted and deep souled writers, great writing doesn't make a great person. A great writer is just someone who's worked out a really good method for figuring out what word comes next. Nothing else in their life has to work. Second, yes, I believe there is a lot to learn about how to be in the world in the works of David Foster Wallace, including his posthumous unfinished novel, even if it wasn't enough to stop him from dying.

In the summer of 2000 I went down alone to my garage. I slid a beer fridge out to the center, underneath bare rafters. I took a length of rope and got up on the fridge, and standing on my tip toes tied it to a rafter. I tied a knot in the other end at the level of my neck. I stood on the fridge holding the loop about a foot from my face.

I can't quite fit in words what was running through my mind or what I was feeling, although I remember it well. Certainly a terrible disappointment, one that suffused not just me but seemed to spread out through the cosmos. I was sad, but I was also angry. If I'd failed (and I had) it was just as true that existence had failed me. I had judged the world and found it wanting. And on top of that, there was the unending pain, of walking through my days feeling as if meathooks rose from the ground with every step and tried to pull me into the earth. Major depression is like that, and major depression had me atop the beer fridge.

I thought of the people in my life, my work, my history, the functioning of my body. I was working up my courage.0 Whoever says this is an act of cowardice either never tried or doesn't remember that part. The next two movements were obvious and fluid: put it around my neck, and step off the fridge. It would hurt a little more, then not at all.

My mind was running through so much that I stood there transfixed for I don't know how long, makeshift noose in my hands at 9 and 3 o'clock. I was taking my time searching for the quiet place where I could act to stop the hurting. No one had any reason to come looking for me. It happened that someone did, and caught me before I could take that step.

In the time since I've done many things. I've had a child since then, changed my career, gotten married, gotten divorced, eaten, traveled, defecated, fucked, cried, slept, danced, and read The Pale King, all instead of decomposing.

The Pale King takes place at an IRS processing center in Peoria, IL during the 1980s. It covers the lives of the IRS employees working there, how they got there, and what their lives as tax agents are like1. The name is, fairly obviously, a reference to death. The book (The Pale King) is about death and taxes, yes. But that all served to talk about boredom and attention, and what it means to pay attention. We who love David Foster Wallace's work must admit to the world up front that The Pale King is not a good place for the untroubled lover of literature to start. The Pale King is a book you read because you already know and love DFW's work, or because you need to read it.2 If you want to start with a novel, you start with the >1000 page Infinite Jest, which is both a wonderful book and excellent trebuchet ammunition.3 This one weighing in at a paltry 500 pages was pieced together by his editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch, since his death in 2008.

This book is his (Wallace's) most grotesque, and this is a guy that really goes for the grotesque. He doesn't settle for mere physical and behavioral grotesque, but economic and policy grotesque piled on top. Nearly every page is unsettling in some new direction. It's pornographically rich in description. This is why it was never actually boring for me, I could sink into the images, spiral down into the specific details and feel the feelings they were supposed to evoke in a dreamy, hazy state.4

There is a character name David Wallace, who narrates. He opens with "I, the living author..." a few times. That hurt, and then I realized it was true. David Wallace the character, by fiat of postmodernism, didn't have to die with David Foster Wallace, the guy who taught at Pomona College in Claremont, CA.

The explorations of boredom and the grotesque must have been informed by his time in AA. I know this because of my two decades+ in AA's sisters program, Al-Anon5, for the families and friends of alcoholics and addicts. I have sipped bad coffee in uncountable basements of churches and rec centers in my life, listening to the same insipid, and yes, often boring, ritual words intoned week after week. After that, I've heard so many stories of wrecked lives that you could write characters for 50 DFW novels out of them, each page more shocking than the last. I go because I have to in order to stay alive. Every time I stop going, I end up crawling back barely hanging on and dragging the smoking remains of my life with me.

Years ago, before he (Wallace) died, a friend read a passage from Infinite Jest to me. I looked at my friend and said "That man is an alcoholic in recovery." My friend said no, he did a lot of research and he's just a great writer, but I would not be shaken. I knew him in this one small way; there is a certain kind of pain that is our shibboleth. When I read Infinite Jest myself I was rocked by it, and it helped me not feel so alone. At the same time, I understood why so many people I knew wanted to burn it and stomp on the ashes. It was messy and difficult, and it never tried to be easy enough to be clean. The ending had a few of my friends ready to stop speaking to me.6

Like Infinite Jest, DFW left things messy in Pale King. It's frustrating. Nothing was neatly tied up, he left too much for us to do ourselves. Nothing is whole, and catharsis isn't delivered to you, you have to go in and grab it and tear it out of the text. Maybe people have a right to be angry about his suicide, the pieces of The Pale King and even the fragmented end of Infinite Jest, I don't know. I probably don't. I know why people are angry, I know they are betrayed. Maybe he just ran out of the thread that wraps up packages, and left his gift to us in an exhausted heap on the floor.

At the end of Infinite Jest I fell silent. It seemed to drop with a thud into my unconscious, and leave me with a story about how people learned to care. The Pale King has made me talkative. It seems to be about enlightenment, about the heroism of meticulous attention. It reminds me of someone who said to me once, you don't work for the light, you work, and find out one day the light's been shining on you for a while.7

Like Wallace I am a science nerd and writer. Like him, I have struggled with depression my whole life. Like him, few of the drugs ever seemed to help. Like him, I have tried a hell of a lot of things. Like him, I have been in the program for many years. Really, the big life story difference between Wallace and I, and it's a difference I am keenly aware of, is that someone happened to walk in.

People keep asking me if somehow DFW's suicide invalidates the message his writing, if it casts doubt on all his life's work. I can't say no strongly enough. No no no, it doesn't. And I say this in part out of my own need to survive. Had someone not walked in and seen me certainly my life would have still been more than a prelude to that arbitrary moment. If someday my disease takes me, it takes me, but it can't take away a single precious moment I have fought it off, a single moment I have shared with you, or a single moment he shared with us. Please forgive us our trips to the rafters, and don't reduce us to that moment.

"It's all inside me, but to you it's just words." —from The Pale King


0. Selfish, yes. Maybe the most selfish thing, but it's not cowardly. Dying is scary as fuck.

1. I'd like to think that had he lived, Wallace would have thrown a fit about the inaccuracy of releasing the book on April 15th in a year when Tax Day actually fell on April 18th.

2. I have one of the syndromes/symptoms associated with Examinations postings in excess of 36 months, according to author David Wallace, an illness of the type with grotesque tics DFW liked to afflict his characters with: Spasmodic Torticollis. It's a nerve disorder in which some nerves fire off muscles for no good reason. My case is mild, but still painful. I don't visibly twitch, my muscles are just sore and mysteriously hypertrophied. According to my doctor's notes, my chin deviates slightly to the left. It doesn't make me a visual horror or uncomfortable to be in a room with; you'd never know I had it if you met me. But it does make it impossible for me to read a hefty book like The Pale King without becoming sore and falling into terrible illiteracy-inducing headaches. So a friend read The Pale King to me. It was my reading friend who found a reference to Spasmodic Torticollis, and cheerfully announced that I had one of DFW's diseases. I said no, upset and confused and a little grossed out. We went back and forth looking at Wikipedia and The Mayo Clinic websites, and my medical history. My doctor's notes said Cervical Dystonia in addition to the chin thing, which turns out to be Spasmodic Torticollis by another name.

I surrendered into the sullen silence of the recently proved wrong and possibly insufficiently grateful and let my friend continue to read to me.

The Pale King kept putting me to sleep. Mostly in the long, luridly beautiful passages of description where nothing much happened, except possibly in the past, in the childhood of the characters. I would drift away with the words interwoven into a decohered dream, just coming out the fog of the transitions between worlds, and occasionally my friend would elbow me or slap me behind the head a bit, and I'd declare a little too loud, "I'm awake!" Eventually I developed painful rituals of moving around and uncomfortable positions to stay awake, and I listened even when I didn't want to. I concentrated as best I could, and tried to snap back my concentration when it wandered. Sometimes I dug my fingernails into my palm, or pitched one hand with the other to keep my attention from wondering. It felt right to do that.

I never fell asleep out of boredom, or at least not out of boredom as I think of it. I think of boredom as annoying like an itchy sweater. Wallace sees it differently, as a state of torture, as a state of spiritual threat, as a state of grace, bliss, and enlightenment.

3. But, if you're like most people, you'll probably want to start with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

4. See footnote two again about the whole accidentally sleeping thing.

5. Now you know why this is published anonymously.

6. Spoilers. Seriously, badass spoilers.

Nothing is certain at the end of Infinite Jest, nothing is wrapped up. Pemulis is heading for a bottom. Gately might die, might not. Joelle is starting the hard work of living, and it looks hopeful, but she barely has any sober time. She and Gately might get together. Gately might sponsor Hal. JOI is still struggling to find peace, even death hasn't saved him. Hal is still isolated, but at least he's in there now, and finally, he cares. O.N.A.N. may end after YG, Orin may have survived, and the Entertainment may be threatening the world. John Wayne may be dead or run away with AFR. But now we know all of that plot stuff wasn't really the point. These stories will keep telling themselves over and over again fiercely, unceasingly, and will always end in death. DFW is too good a story teller to keep that from us. The end is not the point. The fulfillment of wrapping everything up neatly will be empty. Make it up. Whatever. The end is just an arbitrary point where we stop telling this one story.

Like its author, it is huge, messy, incomplete, and made of stardust. It is made of the stuff that gives life vitality and takes it away in awful silence. My final thought on Infinite Jest was another one of those insipid and annoyingly true slogans of the program:

Take what you like and leave the rest.

7. It's probably fair to say there's an element of writerly fantasy to the whole thing (By which I mean The Pale King). We writer types constantly battle to stay on topic, being to the last of us undisciplined slobs of some stripe who are also obsessed with what everyone else is thinking all the time. The elevation of someone that can sit still and do something that looks a lot like what we're supposed to be doing most of the time while we're playing with pets, picking our noses, or trying to figure out what everyone thinks about our writing-- all instead of writing; that's pretty easy for writers to fetishize.

38 Responses to “The Pale King”

  1. wolfiesma says:

    The thing that jumps out at me about the DFW suicide is the apparently haphazard stoppage of his medication. Jonathan Franzen, in his recent account of their friendship in the New Yorker, mentions Wallace took Nardil for 20 years, and then abruptly stopped due to concerns about possible long term health consequences. But then, in the end, not taking his meds is what sent him down the path to such an early death. (Presumably) So, you have to ask yourself, what is more damaging to health: anti-depressant side-effects or suicide?

    There are so many options available for managing mental health, and to just quit medication without vigorously investigating other treatments, especially for someone with such deep seated and long term psychiatric issues, just seems incredible dangerous. I think it serves as a cautionary tale for those with mental health challenges who choose to terminate or neglect to initiate their treatment. What happens when a diabetic refuses treatment? What about cancer? Why is this so different?

    When people refuse treatment for physical ailments, we call them anti-science. But with mental illness, the attitude toward psychiatric treatment is often so suspicious (paranoid?) that people go without urgently needed treatment. Not everyone who quits their meds will kill themselves, but some do, and this should be a wake-up call for people to take mental health care much more seriously. If one medication is ineffective or ceases to be effective, then it seems to me, the responsible course of action is to seek out new treatment and be prepared to try out different things to find what actually does work for a particular individual.

    And as a disclaimer, let me say, there is certainly way more to the story than any article or novel could ever tell us. And this is such a personal matter for the author, his friends and family that I feel weird even commenting on it. But his story does bring to mind these larger issues about mental health treatment that I think we need to consider. (If we haven’t already.)

    • Anonymous says:

      My understanding is he stopped his meds in the care of his doctor. Nardil is an MAOI, which can have a deadly interaction with things like cheese. This is why they’re almost never used in the US, and many doctors will try to get patients onto another less dangerous med.

    • Anonymous says:

      So, you have to ask yourself, what is more damaging to health: anti-depressant side-effects or suicide?

      I’d just like to point out that one of the common side effects of anti-depressant drugs is an increased risk of suicide.

  2. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says:

    The good news is that because of his death, Infinite Jest is back in print

    Infinite Jest never went out of print.

    I don’t get the outrage over the assertion that people read novels “in order to learn how to be in the world.” As a categorical statement perhaps it’s a little overbroad, but certainly it’s one of the major reasons people read novels–to experience human society beyond our own daily rut, to imagine ourselves in other situations. Arguably the modern novel really only got started once large numbers of individuals could imagine that their own personal future might possibly entail circumstances other than the ones they were currently in.

  3. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    I read everything up to TPK except for the book on George Cantor. DFW was enough smarter than me (a lot smarter, apparently) to put that one out of reach.
    But I can’t read TPK and I won’t try. The openness and vulnerability in his writing made me feel his death too deeply. I just can’t face that again on every page of another book.

  4. greatquux says:

    I take issue with a few opinions here:
    1. I’ve never read any DFW and I started with TPK. I think it’s absolutely wonderful (have read through S23 so far) and based on it I’ll certainly be continuing with more of his works. And it’s not at all depressing – the author’s foreword and S22 are hilarious and sections had me laughing out loud!
    2. I don’t see any reason why any reasonably intelligent person who has not ready any postmodern fiction could not start with this book. I think they’d find it intimidating to start with IJ since it is so large. Although OTOH I am not one of those people – I love my Pynchon, Delany, just finished Underworld before this, etc, so I’m familiar with this stuff.
    3. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to his DFW character in the novel – its NOT cheap metafiction, which I’ve heard he hated and railed against (it can be stupid sometimes), but a way to make him live afterward. Since he’s fictional I’ve taken it as he was writing about a parallel-universe DFW that worked for the IRS, and didn’t have the mental problems he had, and so would continue to live.

    I had no opinion about his death when hearing about it since I’d never read anything of his, but after reading the foreword I was sad that he was gone. That said, so far the novel seems to be “mostly” complete (sort of like Kafka books, although I’ll have to see if it has an “ending”), and I heard he “tidied it up” hours before his death. I definitely commend his editor on bringing this to us to enjoy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for that. The best stories are intellectually and emotionally demanding experiences. Sometimes simply collecting those kinds of experiences seems like the most valuable thing I can do. I think I’ll make another attempt at reading Infinite Jest.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Odd, but I took this to be a “send up” of a review of the David Foster Wallace novel, not a real review.

  7. kingstonsk says:

    @agates Exactly right to make the Sylvia Plath comparison. Sylvia Plath was a good writer who got co-opted after suicide by faux-depressives w/daddy issues. Just don’t want the same thing to happen to DFW. He deserves better. Also, I just have an issue with some of the writer’s points/style: “People go to books to learn things, and the thing they go to novels to learn is how to be in the world.” First, it’s a badly written sentence and second is–really? People go to novels to learn how to be in the world?! I have no idea what that means. Could anyone explain that to me? Because it sounds like nonsense.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for writing this.

    I haven’t cracked TPK yet (well, maybe a little…) I’m really looking forward to it.

    DFW’s passing sent me into a depressive tailspin. I didn’t even know him, but I felt like he was a part of me. Or gave voice to an essential emotional core that I didn’t even know was there before I started reading his work. It wasn’t even the subject matter. It was more his style, his tone. It rang in me like a bell.

    Anyways. Thanks for being here.

  9. tyger11 says:

    “a nice, easy-to-get death like cancer”

    WTF?

    • Anonymous says:

      Speaking personally, I nearly died from cancer when I was 18, and later suffered from depression. And if I had to pick which one to go through again – cancer was easy, even though it came closer to killing me.

  10. Morfin says:

    The last two paragraphs of this review are some of the most moving words I have read in a long time:

    “Really, the big life story difference between Wallace and I, and it’s a difference I am keenly aware of, is that someone happened to walk in. … Please forgive us our trips to the rafters, and don’t reduce us to that moment.

    ‘It’s all inside me, but to you it’s just words.” —from The Pale King”

    As someone who continues to battle bipolar depression, I am dumbstruck by the stark, yet sublime, emotion in the reviewer’s words and his quotation choice.

  11. JamesMason says:

    DFW’s suicide caused difficulties for me as well. I had always enjoyed his writing style, and his extensive use of footnotes really mirrored my own thought process. I tend to make decisions about the choice of what word to use or in which direction to go that I think are important, and so the footnoting technique allows the reader to better understand the meaning, etc.

    Of course, that is not the point – the point is that DFW’s suicide made it difficult for me to purchase one of his books. I remember being in a bookstore a few months after his death and debating between something by DFW and Nick Hornby. I was leaning toward the DFW but was conflicted, because I didn’t want to validate his action, or become part of a statistic where his suicide caused his book sales to rise.

    Of course, this is idiotic, but it’s an important aspect of our culture where everything we buy supposedly has ramifications to the world around us. And yes, his suicide changed in some way, the way I will experience his work.

    I ended up getting both, I think. I honestly can’t remember. The good news is that because of his death, Infinite Jest is back in print, I think – and that is a book I had been meaning to read for awhile. So the statistic that I bemoan ends up being a good thing, I guess. That sucks, really.

    Anyway, thanks for the review (or whatever it is). I’ll probably read this one too.

  12. jonesy says:

    @kingstonsk: Author never said s/he was speaking for DFW. S/he is qualified to speak for anyone who has considered or attempted suicide though. Why would it be a joke? Stop being a drama-queen.

  13. agates says:

    For the sake of convenience, let’s call this a book review of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous unfinished novel, The Pale King.

    How convenient for the author. But pretty damn inconvenient for me, simply because I actually read this whole miserably conceived “review”.

    But I must say it is relatively comical to watch someone to pay his membership dues to the DFW Suicide Cult Clubhouse.

    I expect “reviews” of Plath and Sexton are around the corner?

    Im chewing on my hand in anticipation!

    • bklynchris says:

      Man, why you guys be hatin’?!

      Dear Anon, comment font change is a poignant touch.

      Fascinating review.

      And @kingstock, if that made you crazy try reading the definition for “reify”. “construct” will make you grind your teeth. Just sayin’

      But, I will give you that many seem to be going a little too Good Friday here.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Morfin: “…his quotation choice.”

    I was convinced that this piece was written by a woman, and I see you were convinced that it was written by a man. I suspect everyone who reads it is convinced it was written by someone exactly like them. That’s a serious lesson about good writing.

  15. Cassandra says:

    Thank you, anonymous writer. This is beautifully written: beautiful writing is one thing that makes me want to keep living, and compassion for the sad and ill and lonely is another. This essay has both. I had to read this in very small chunks because I’m fighting off depression every day and I knew that if I read it too fast I’d just end up sobbing until 4 am again, which would have been the opposite of what I needed to take away from this piece. The description of thinking about suicide (thinking about what you won’t be thinking about anymore, while also knowing that you have to act to end the pain and not knowing which act to choose but needing to end the pain) is really amazingly beautiful in its stark truth. Thanks.

  16. jonesy says:

    @agates: if you don’t take all this so seriously, why are you getting so worked up about it?

  17. Lexicat says:

    “People go to books to learn things, and the thing they go to novels to learn is how to be in the world”

    They also go to novels for reasons having nothing to do with “how to be in the world.” Methinks the author is struggling to create poignancy overmuch.

  18. mr_mediocre says:

    What’s the AA phrase? “It’s good to hear you” is what I think they say to Gately in IJ. It really is good to hear you, anonymous bOINGbOING contributor. Keep coming back.

    I’ve started reading TPK after all the other Wallace I could get my hands on, and after going through the glorious Infinite Summer a couple of years ago. The experience of reading through IJ with hundreds of other people was incredible, as people explained how profoundly Wallace’s work had touched and changed them. I don’t have any real hope that TPK will have that kind of impact, but already I feel the emotional echoes.

    Like everyone else who’s thought about it at all, I hate the idea that Wallace is dead, for the usual mix of selfish and unselfish reasons. And while I acknowledge the ambivalence so many people feel about publishing an unfinished work posthumously, I’m grateful for this one last chance to hear David Foster Wallace.

  19. Henry Baum says:

    Man, some BoingBoing readers have a problem with sincerity. I have no idea what it takes to be so snidely critical of someone writing about their attempted suicide.

  20. aspec says:

    “I looked at my friend and said “That man is an alcoholic in recovery.” My friend said no, he did a lot of research and he’s just a great writer, but I would not be shaken. I knew him in this one small way; there is a certain kind of pain that is our shibboleth.”

    Here is some good evidence that the author’s instincts are correct, although technically the author of this letter is anonymous: http://quomodocumque.wordpress.com/2008/09/14/a-letter-from-david-foster-wallace-maybe/

  21. eerd says:

    I’m halfway through Infinite Jest now (well, ok, one third) and it has already made me think it’s a great book about mental illness and addiction.

    My friend who recommended IJ to me said he’d been unable to read another book after finishing it for the first time, so had been compelled to go back and start it again.

    I preferred this review to the article by Franzen in the New Yorker on DFW and Robinson Crusoe.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Actually, he taught at Pomona College, which is located in Claremont, CA, not Pomona, CA.

  23. KanedaJones says:

    @agates and the others like that..

    why so butt hurt?

    someone decided to wallow while contemplating someone else who wallowed in the darkness.

    I never understand why some people gotta stand up and say look at me! I disapprove! can we all value my opinion some?!

    some like this some don’t ya we got it.

    [as for being tricked into reading it you knew well before the end how cheesy it was so suck it]

  24. lapsene says:

    Here’s a 56 second video on how/why not to commit suicide:
    http://www.vimeo.com/20019177

  25. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic, thank you for writing this.

  26. anumberofyounglovers says:

    I’m also surprised people are confused/disgusted that others read novels “in order to learn how to be in the world.” It’s usually what I’m looking for in fiction, non-fiction too. I never thought this was mysterious or controversial.

    (There’s a great line from Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises: “I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it.”)

    Perhaps it’s a bit premature to bring up DFW Suicide Cults. All I see here is honest writing and some valuable insights. Suicide and depression are very difficult subjects to discuss, and this article is candid but fair.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the review & comments.

    DFW seems to write like he believes his “This is Water” thesis and there are no beginnings or endings, no build-up, no wrap-up, no denouements, no climax, … only people living.

    …and…

    “I surrendered into the sullen silence of the recently proved wrong and possibly insufficiently grateful and let my friend continue to read to me.”

    That’s just one of the most simply beautiful things I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  28. KanedaJones says:

    and wait a minute I take exception to the suggestion it wasn’t really a book review.

    I have a good idea what this reviewer saw in both this work alone and in comparison to his other works.

    thats all we ever expect from a reviewer and at best its what we get.

  29. kingstonsk says:

    This might be the single most ridiculous, self-pitying thing I’ve ever read. The last line is hilarious–‘please forgive us our trips to the rafters?!’ No, no, no! Besides the fact that it’s terrible writing, you don’t get to say that. You don’t get to speak for DFW. He doesn’t want your help. He is dead. He has never and will never need you to fight for him. Someone please tell me this was a joke.

  30. agates says:

    Butt hurt?
    @KanedaJones

    I generally don’t take anything I read on Boing Boing terribly seriously, so perhaps you invested more emotion into my post than I intended? My butt feels ok.

    Cheers!

  31. Anonymous says:

    @Anon #14
    I also took it as a send-up. (Full disclosure: I also hate it when people call him “DFW” — to me, that’s an airport in Texas.)

  32. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Anonymous. Enjoyed the homage format.

    About some of the strange reactions here, one man’s life preserver is another man’s superstitious fetish object!

    Sometimes attention is good, sometimes leaving off. Sometimes it’s the quality of attention that allows judging which. Curious about Wallace’s take.

    Heard at an AA meeting, AA is specialized to deal with the particular problems of alcohol hence NA, al-anon, etc. In my experience Depressed Anonymous goes into more detail about depression.

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