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digging up david foster wallace: when the greatest american writer of your generation dies, becomes an abstraction, and leaves you to deal with life on your own

Arts & Culture | May 1, 2011

With some exceptions, killing yourself is a bad idea. This is particularly the case if you’re a writer. You run the risk of turning all your extant works into serial suicide notes. Or, worse yet, you might turn into some sort of icon. No one knew this better than David Foster Wallace. In his essay collection Consider the Lobster, he wrote, “to make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.” He was right.

If we hadn’t already made an icon of Wallace after his death, we sure got the job done over the past few months. Just about every reputable lefty blog and periodical eagerly anticipated the release of his incomplete novel The Pale King, offering up articles that read like belated addendum to the obituaries they published just three years ago. Together, the articles form a sort of melancholy procession: each one similar, a few exceptional, all coming quickly and with as much force as literati-oriented media can muster these days.

So why, when the novel was published on April 15, was it received in such a hush? Pale King is currently ranked 79th on Amazon’s top sellers list, trailing behind the likes of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Timothy Ferris’s The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, both of which were released long before Wallace’s novel. Why the rampant, aching fanfare for such a muted reception?

The answer is likely somewhere amid the morass of articles themselves, most of which, though pegged to the release of The Pale King, are more concerned with Wallace himself than the actual book. As they see it, any drama contained in the novel—a fractured pseudo-memoir about IRS agents combating the tedium of life—pales in comparison to the drama of its excruciating gestation and ultimate stillborn publication. The novel is too freighted with the tragic story of a writer-genius’s decline, his weaning off of the anti-depressant Nardil only to inevitably return to it, the resulting electro-shock therapy, the debilitating panic and his eventual suicide. It will be forever known as the book that killed him. So why aren’t we reading it? Because we’re still too busy reading into its author.

Wallace, prescient in so many ways, warned against this over-analytical impulse, too. Reviewing a biography of Jorge Luis Borges in The New York Times Book Review in 2004, he assailed the standard biographical procedure of mining the lives of writers for clues to their work. Borges’s stories, he asserted, “so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.” We seemed to have missed his point, for nowhere was Wallace-mining showcased more explicitly than last month, when the University of Texas’s Ransom Center released their DFW archive to the public. Within hours, salivating journalists, scholars, and PhDs were flying to Austin in droves to peruse his personal library and scrutinize the annotated entrails of his books, and maybe catch a glimpse of a few words circled in his pocket dictionary. Here’s one description from a popular literary small-press site called ThisRecording: “Sitting there, in the Harry Ransom Center, felt like a religious experience…I could not decide if I wanted to listen to my iPod or not as I didn’t want to taint his words, to change their meaning by mingling them with song lyrics. Many times, I had physical reactions to what I was reading. Goosebumps. Sweat. A heaviness in my legs.” We’d be printing “What Would Wallace Do” bumper-stickers if we weren’t so haunted by what we know he did.

No doubt, the outpouring of articles and archival materials have marked the shift from attention on his work to his “biographical” self, which has quickly become indecipherable from the stuff of lore. In a beautifully written piece in the Guardian, Karen Green—Wallace’s wife—takes issue with this shift in focus: “What do you do when your husband’s autopsy report is on the Internet and is deemed a subject worthy of fucking literary criticism?” As she can attest, The Pale King is just a convenient excuse for this spate of second-wave eulogies—articles that are as much exercises in securing his legacy as the Greatest Mind of our Generation as they are the therapeutic paeans of a culture that now, more than ever, is realizing the value of his lost voice.

In this light, which shines so brightly atop the spectral head of Wallace as to create a halo, readers don’t have the same motivation to read The Pale King that they had for reading Infinite Jest—a tome that, for all its structural impasses, imbues its reader with a connective compassion for all the oddballs partaking in Wallace’s most applied field of scrutiny: life. While we’re likely to find episodes akin to those of Infinite Jest in The Pale King, we know there is no redemption there, no communion. We’re scared of what we know we’ll find instead: too much ennui (it’s about boredom) and not enough closure—not even an ending.

We likely are not reading The Pale King because we know the novel is and will be a failure. Not on an aesthetic or intellectual level, or even because it’s unfinished, but rather because it will inherently fall short of Wallace’s own criteria for good fiction, which, he said more than once, was to make us feel less alone. In this respect, the book never had a chance. It failed the moment Wallace ordered its mired contents neatly under the lambent glow of his desk light and went out onto his front porch for the last time.

As the media response leading up to its release evidences, The Pale King is less a novel than a provocation. It rouses the unanswerable questions that have haunted his readers since his death: How could he—the author who wrote for the expressed purpose of helping us negotiate the hidden persistence of loneliness—kill himself? How could he, of all people, leave us alone? There’s something of a betrayal in that book.

So why isn’t anyone angry? Why are we so eager to turn him into a martyr for our isolation, our depression, our uncertainty, when really, deep down, all we want to do is beat the shit out of him for leaving us high and dry?

Instead of feeling spurned, we beatify and we idolize; we build an altar and make daily sacrifices, trying to shoulder the Sisyphean task of actually completing Infinite Jest. But we’re quick to forget that there is a lot Wallace didn’t want us to know. Wallace’s outward humor and good-natured candor are set against the secrets there have always been concerning his private life. There was another, lesser acknowledged and darker part to his nature. An enigmatic part. Wallace was well known to have been very ill, to have been hospitalized more than once for depression, to have attempted suicide, and to have been in recovery for addiction to alcohol and drugs. But we need our heroes—so, as soon as he died, we made him a saint. Accordingly, the presiding tone of all the articles (particularly the reviews for The Pale King) is one of unqualified appreciation and reverence with a touch of the guy fucking died for this book, the least we can do is give him a glowing review.

No one would be more skeptical of this unalloyed praise than Wallace; and, as his readers, we should be, too. We shouldn’t settle for the dumbed-down, distilled version of an author who was maximalist in his writing and intelligence. We shouldn’t gild him as the tortured romantic genius many no doubt will mistakenly remember him as. We know very well that he wasn’t ordinary, but he wasn’t a saint either, and we should be as pissed off at him as we are enamored of him. He is still missed today, perhaps more than ever, by those that were lost in the maze of self-consciousness and self-doubt that defines our peculiar times. He illuminated that maze brilliantly, but couldn’t show us the way out. All of which is to say that, through the media attention and our returned interest, there may be something collective that we’re working through here—something bigger than Wallace himself, something he may have even been proud of—the closest thing to the real legacy he’s left. O