CORNEL BONCA thinks he was longing to connect;
LEE KONSTANTINOU suggests he was trying to transcend his own style.
David Foster Wallace
The Pale King
Little, Brown, April 2011. 548 pp.
At a memorial gathering held for David Foster Wallace at New York University a couple of months after his suicide in September 2008, his friend Jonathan Franzen recalled the talks he and Wallace used to have about fiction writing: why they did it, how to do it better, and, in a culture increasingly dismissive of serious fiction, what good it did anybody anyway. Whatever their disagreements — and they could be a combative, competitive pair; have a look at Franzen’s famously ill-advised meditation in The New Yorker, “Farther Away,” where he speculates that Wallace’s suicide was partly “a career move” — they agreed on one thing. Fiction was a way to speak the secrets of contemporary life that kept people distant from one another, afraid and alone. It was, Franzen said, “a way out of loneliness.”
It seemed like a homely formulation for two supremely ambitious writers who in the past were wont to throw down bold manifestoes about the state of their art like Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, or Franzen’s famous 1996 Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream.” But they’d both come to be convinced that the novel was one of the few places where it might be possible to listen to the manifold mysteries within and around us, where some protective circle could be drawn around a reader’s consciousness, where real subjectivity could still thrive. Both these grateful sons of postmodern master Don DeLillo have suggested that if you listen hard enough to America’s torrent of media and consumer madness — the “white noise” — you hear above it, below it, and even in it the sounds of fragile people negotiating a whole lot of cultural lunacy, frantically distracting themselves from their fears of mortality, and furiously trying to break through to one another — to connect.
In The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen brought his enormous talent to bear on delineating such desperate characters. But Wallace goes a step further, using fiction as a site where he enacts that desperation at the level of voice and style. The obsessive pressure of fictions like “The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon” don’t merely represent the hell of locked-in solitude: they’re clearly Wallace’s own wails from within his prison-house. The very attempt to escape and connect is probably what established such an intimate bond between him and his readers. (It’s a bond that I think is unrivaled in American fiction since the glory days of J.D. Salinger, whose fiction, especially the late Glass stories, Wallace’s work more than passably resembles in its combination of vulnerable charm, narrative virtuosity, and transparent reaching out to an ideal reader.) What Wallace’s works say over and over again is this: you’re not alone; don’t worry, I feel this too. Or, as Wallace puts it on the first page of his slyly hilarious, uncannily moving The Pale King, the novel he left unfinished at his death, “We are all of us brothers.”
All of which may seem like an unduly heavyweight way to introduce a novel about the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is, for most people, a fear-laden joke: just speak the initials at any public gathering and watch the smiles rise. (Why do we smile? Guilt and anxiety. Guilt at how we’ve, um, misrepresented our 1040s in the past. Anxiety that they’ll come after us one of these days.) I’m more than a little sensitive to this because, from 1980 till 1984, when I was a very young man, I worked for the IRS as a revenue officer — I was the guy who knocked on people’s doors, flashed my Treasury Department credentials, and demanded full and immediate payment, including penalties and interest, for delinquent 1040s, 941s, and 1120s. I was the guy who filed tax liens, levied people’s wages and bank accounts, seized people’s homes and assets when they refused to pay up. I mention this only because The Pale King deals with the IRS during a period (the late 1970s until the mid 1980s) which almost exactly coincides with my woeful tenure there, and I can verify that, however fictionalized Wallace’s IRS is, and however he gets things wrong — new IRS employees didn’t have to change their Social Security numbers to ones beginning with a 9; there was no such thing as the Spackman Initiative (more on this later), etc. — he’s spot on about the spirit of the place.
The spirit of the place was spiritless. The Pale King’s IRS employees have faces the color of “wet lead.” They spend their 15-minute breaks staring at clocks ticking them back to the bondage of their desks. In one only slightly over-the-top segment, we read about an IRS guy who dies at his desk — and nobody notices for four days. This is an IRS that’s unrelentingly, remorselessly boring and unspeakably bureaucratized, heedless of the basic need of its employees: to exact from their work some small measure of human satisfaction.
Bureaucracy’s boredom emerges as one of the novel’s primary concerns, though to say The Pale King is “about” boredom is about as enlightening as to say that Infinite Jest is about addiction. Bureaucracy is the territory, and Wallace goes at it from multiple directions, always avoiding the well-worn path. He piles on the insufferable language of bureaucracy, flirting with the imitative fallacy — describing boredom by being boring — and it’s a strategy that not every reader will appreciate. He refrains from taking the Fight Club route, which is to claim that the only escape from boredom is sensational violence. He also eschews the Warhol trap, which sees boredom as this really interesting aesthetic that the artist studies from his fortress of irony. No, Wallace’s take on boredom is frankly ethical and existential — he reconsiders what boring work does to people’s souls in ways that hearken back to the great “business” or “office” narratives of the last century: Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment, Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. He jumps right into the trenches of everyday middle-class ennui in a way that his fellow post-postmodernists abandoned long ago as way too lame and bourgeois to even touch.
Writing a long novel on the subject of droning dullness is a risky literary high-wire act, but “high-wire” was Wallace’s (other) middle name. Through a series of extraordinarily entertaining experiments — “Here and There,” “Westward the Course Of Empire Takes Its Way,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Infinite Jest, “The Depressed Person,” “Octet,” some of the “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” “Good Old Neon,” “Incarnations of Burned Children,” and the new book are my nominees for Wallace’s greatest hits — Wallace has shown he can make just about anything interesting. After all, he taught a generation of young writers how to look all over again: at cruise ships, at tennis, at porn conventions, at how it feels to be high and paranoid about it. And he developed a virtuoso style to pull it off, with its own immediately recognizable earmarks — 500-word sentences of staggering density designed to follow the “inbent spirals” of self-conscious people; the famous footnotes; the awkward phrase dropped amidst the meticulous description (an example from The Pale King: “There were fourteen new examiners in the room that sat 108, not counting the raised stage thing with the podium and rotary slide projector, which Cusk’s parents had one almost the like of”); his bizarre affection for possessives (“The station’s flagpole’s flag’s rope’s pulleys”); the intentional overarticulation; and those tour-de-force plunges into obsessive monologue.
But it’s not Wallace’s virtuosity that makes The Pale King’s obsession with boredom extraordinary. It’s that he’s got something new to say about how we should deal with its inevitable encroachments upon daily life. It has to do with “paying attention.” “Paying attention,” in fact, not boredom, is the real theme of The Pale King. He genuflects to it in the brief opening chapter, with its direct call-out to the reader: “Look around you.” What’s there to look at? He describes a seemingly dull weedy Midwestern landscape, but then — pay attention:
The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail. Read these.This sort of minute attentiveness to detail as a way of reconnecting to a life that’s been battered by the routines of modernity is, of course, the stock-in-trade of our lyrical poets, but Wallace doesn’t use it merely to deliver up the odd epiphany. It becomes the central insight of what amounts to the novel’s spiritual ethic, a compassionate concentration on the details of minute-to-minute experience that’s perhaps best limned by Simone Weil’s famous line: “Attention is the highest form of prayer” — studious awareness as the penetration of Being. One of the novel’s IRS men, Chris Fogle, puts it in a way that could stand as the whole novel’s mission statement:
It had something to do with paying attention … There were depths in me that were not bullshit or childish but profound, and were not abstract but much realer than my clothes or self-image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way — I’m being serious; I’m not just trying to make it more dramatic than it was — and that these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness.Such attentiveness in itself is hardly an answer to boredom, and at the redemptive level Fogle is talking about, it’s never “simple.” The characters in The Pale King — IRS employees all — tend, to put it mildly, toward impermeable self-involvement: Claude Sylvanshine is worried about taking his CPA exam, but “knowing that internal stress could cause failure on the exam merely set up internal stress about the prospect of internal stress.” Poor David Cusk is a torrential perspirer, and his attention is often absorbed by his heroic attempts to not sweat, because if he sweats, he’ll draw attention to himself, which will make him sweat even more, which will … etc. Meredith Rand, a beautiful tax examiner, has been so bombarded by male desire over the years that she’s unable to see herself an anything but “pretty meat,” and so feels trapped in the self-imposed cocoon of female beauty.
But these almost helplessly hermetic characters, victims of the inbent spirals of neurotic self-consciousness — lonely siblings of the addicts in Infinite Jest or of Wallace’s well-known “Depressed Person” — are supplemented in The Pale King by a new kind of Wallace character, one who struggles mightily to emerge from the fortress of her own self-regard into an attentive compassion that does feel redemptive. There is Fogle who, in his 99-page monologue, tells us of his journey from directionless bong-hitting “wastoid” through the divorce of his parents and the death of his father to, finally, his newly directed life as a dedicated, attentive IRS employee. There is Leonard Stecyk, one of Wallace’s sweetest creations — an altogether loving and compassionate man who as a child endured all manner of humiliation and ridicule: “Three sixth graders accost the boy in the southeast restroom after fourth period and do unspeakable things to him, leaving him hanging from a stall’s hook by his underpants’ elastic; and after being treated and released from the hospital (a different one than his mother is a patient in the long-term convalescent ward of), the boy refuses to identify his assailants and later circumspectly delivers to them individualized notes detailing his renunciation of any and all hard feelings about the incident…” There is Shane Drinion, an examiner who, possessing none of the normal accoutrements of selfhood (sexual desire, selfish interest, narcissism, etc.), makes of himself a kind of perfect listener at an IRS Happy Hour, attending to the thoughts of Meredith Rand as she struggles to explain her plight. (In fact, his selfless listening literally makes him levitate.)
That these “attentive” characters work for the IRS sounds bizarre, given the excruciating tedium to which they are subjected in their work lives. But this is where Wallace twists his theme, because in The Pale King the IRS’s status as bureaucratic soul-deadener of the first water makes it the perfect place for his characters to practice the kind of sacred attention the novel encourages. For example, there is a group of tax auditors in the novel called “immersives,” examiners who deal with complex, tedious details of thick corporate returns that require steady, almost “heroic” concentration if one is to do a good job. Wallace more than hints at this as a model for consciousness in general: immerse yourself in the details of things that have nothing to do with you. Look around you. Read these.
There’s more to the novel than I can suggest here: this unfinished book’s plot trajectories, barely adumbrated in what we have so far, point to a novel that would probably have been as long as Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages. There’s a “David Wallace” who introduces himself, seventy pages in, as “author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil,” who claims The Pale King is “all … true. This book is really true,” though we quickly discover that David Wallace is as fictional as anyone else, and has at least partly been brought into the book to skewer the memoir genre that has swept the publishing industry in the last decade, and toward which Wallace evidently held a most-intense animus. There is also a rather major plot line that involves the (totally fictional) Spackman Initiative, a movement within certain shadowy corners of the audit division of the Service to shift its emphasis away from “compliance” (making sure people honestly file and pay their taxes) and toward “profit” (examining mostly big dollar taxpayers so as to maximize the “return” the IRS gets from its workers). The Spackman Initiative turns out to be part of a related theme that gets explored in a typically Wallacian highbrow/lowbrow colloquy, held by several IRS employees who are trapped inside a stalled elevator. Their discussion, which braids The Federalist Papers, de Tocqueville, and the argument of Thomas Frank’s The Culture of Cool into a bracing and very funny Platonic dialogue, is about America’s descent from a nation dedicated to civic duty to one committed to selfishness. That the argument’s conclusion is conservative and a little boring is, it turns out, much to the point.
In both style and substance, Wallace’s novel — what we have of it anyway — challenges readers to pay attention with a selflessness that will allow the world to “[blaze] in an almost sacred way,” starting with a challenge to pay attention to the minute details of IRS regulations and to his characters’ lives in the same way that his heroic IRS immersives listen and sympathize. To read this way is to practice letting the world in; it’s to let other people in. The Pale King is a long, incomplete howl against the peculiar alienations of postmodern life, a distress call to connect and alleviate its pandemic loneliness. It might be a measure of both the book’s ambition and the severity of the problem it addresses that the book remains unfinished: in any event the book solved nothing for Wallace. How do we emerge from solitude? How do we connect? You might remember E.M. Forster’s famous “only connect,” that stately appeal in Howards End to connect the inner and outer selves, and to connect the self to others. I can just imagine Wallace’s painful grimace, even though he’s more than two years gone. “Only connect?” he’d be saying, “Only? Is he kidding? There’s nothing harder. But connection is everything.”
In the three months since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s third, unfinished novel, The Pale King — an eternity in the world of professional reviews — plenty of opinions have been offered, but no consensus has yet formed about how it relates to the author’s career or aesthetic priorities. The novel, which follows a host of troubled characters that work or have recently arrived at the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL, in 1985, remains elusive. Everywhere in these fifty busy chapters, there are ominous signs of an ongoing organizational restructuring of the Service known as the “Spackman Initiative” or sometimes just “the Initiative.” One gets only a vague sense of the contours of the Initiative and the high-level plotting that gave rise to it over the course of The Pale King’s five-hundred-and-forty pages. Despite multiple dialogues about civics and shadowy background plots, what Wallace seems to care most about is describing how his characters survive the mind-numbing boredom of their IRS jobs and telling the varied, often brilliantly funny and inventive stories of how they came to work there in the first place. But what exactly was Wallace attempting to do with these characters — and more generally with this “long thing,” as he described the book to his editor, Michael Pietsch? How would The Pale King, had it been finished, have advanced the plot of Wallace’s career?
There are clear signs from what we have that Wallace was himself concerned about the novel’s reception, and with its effects on his authorial identity. Indeed, among the novel’s large cast we find a character named David Wallace, an alternate version of the author, who suddenly announces in the book’s ninth chapter (a belated “Author’s Foreword”) that what we thought was a work of fiction is in fact “a kind of vocational memoir.” “This book is really true,” David explains, and the disclaimer on the copyright page declaring everything herein to be a work of fiction or a product of the author’s imagination is designed to provide “special legal protection” for reasons that remain mysterious.
The perplexing description of The Pale King as a “vocational memoir” unveils the paradox at the heart of the novel. Wallace’s fictionalized doppelganger is clearly not the book’s protagonist; by burying the foreword nine chapters and sixty-six pages into the text (a structural decision that Pietsch stresses was clear from what Wallace left behind), Wallace signals that “David Wallace” is someone whom we should not confuse with the author. Unlike the author, the “David Wallace” of The Pale King was drummed out of Amherst College for selling his writing services to his fellow undergrads, though he seems in time to have become a fiction writer, albeit one who has been forced to write this “vocational memoir” as a way of making a buck. This mercenary “David Wallace” is an object of fun, an emblem of what Wallace came to dislike most about his own literary style (tellingly, almost the only footnotes in the novel appear in David’s chapters). Wallace’s working notes, some of which are printed in the back of the book, indicate that “David Wallace” the character would eventually disappear from view: “David Wallace disappears — becomes creature of the system,” reads one note, with Pynchonian undertones (Tyrone Slothrop makes a similar disappearance in the final pages of Gravity’s Rainbow). It seems Wallace cared less about dramatizing his fictional self than about understanding “the system” of the IRS.
And yet, though he arguably demoted David to the second rank of the novel’s huge ensemble, the novel itself is in many ways an actual vocational memoir, in the sense that Wallace’s struggle to complete the book was very much a struggle against himself and his own highly characteristic style of writing (perhaps even his style of being; Wallace’s prose style and personal affect were a lot closer than are most writers’). Across his essays and journalism, Wallace repeatedly insisted that the purpose of fiction was “to communicate,” to subsume the self in the service of something greater. And yet his highly individual style always seemed to transcend the content of whatever he was communicating; whether writing about cruise ships or tennis academies or conservative talk radio, it was often the form of his writing that his fans — and his critics — noticed and cherished most. No one was fooled, for example, when he published the story “Mr. Squishy” in the fifth issue of McSweeney’s under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm. Moreover, Wallace feared that subsuming the self could become just another kind of egotism, that in adapting what we say and do to serve someone else we might in fact only be trying to win validation and prestige, to gain approval at any cost. In the wake of his suicide, how can we avoid reading much of Wallace’s fiction — which dwelt so often on depression, compulsion, and loneliness — as a kind of memoir of a life filled with psychic pain? For this very reason, don’t Wallace’s strenuous efforts at self-effacement and service always leave behind the photonegative of a tortured soul?
The Pale King approaches these questions through the theme of boredom. Whereas Infinite Jest was concerned with the ways we use addictive substances and entertainment to paper over our pain, to alternately extinguish and maintain ourselves, The Pale King attempts to confront directly whatever it was we were so desperate to avoid in the first place. What boredom forces us to face, in the words of one IRS employee who finds himself engaged in a Platonic dialogue on a stalled, blacked out elevator, is
[o]ur smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back […]Such passages tempt us to read Wallace’s fiction as if it were a species of philosophy, or an extension of the concerns he so vividly explored in his nonfiction. This interpretive impulse would not be entirely misguided; his stories, like his essays, are studded with theses, arguments, and polemics. The thesis of The Pale King, if it has one, is more or less this: that modern boredom is a mask, and that we amuse ourselves endlessly to avoid confronting a dread truth that is always right in front of us: that the universe is a Very Sad Place indeed, that we are always working extremely hard to conceal our fear of death and oblivion from ourselves. Behind that boredom, though, we can find not only terror but also an almost religious ecstasy. In his working notes, Wallace wrote: “It turns out that bliss — a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom … Constant bliss in every atom.” Another character in The Pale King suggests that “[t]he key [to surviving modern life] is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.”
We can summarize the book’s arguments in this way, and we would not be mistaken to do so, but Wallace’s fiction, though informed by argument, is always also about the process of discovering these views. The reason Wallace’s arguments require the form of fiction is that they’re arguments about how to live. As in the writing of Wittgenstein or Hegel or Plato, how we arrive at the truth is as important as the particular content of that truth.
That’s why it’s so significant that The Pale King is both the culmination of Wallace’s life’s work and also the germ of a powerful new literary style. As early as 1993, in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace pined to find or invent a new group of literary “anti-rebels” who could withstand what he saw as a virulently ironic U.S. pop and high culture in order to address
plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere.All his life Wallace was deeply concerned with the nature of contemporary heroism. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, he expanded upon his conception of what American culture most needed, explaining that “[m]y guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes.” These heroes would
evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very … You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.”It’s important to note not merely the content of the heroism that Wallace imagined in this 1996 conversation with Lipsky — that his hero explains the need for higher taxes cannot help but resonate with the themes of The Pale King — but also its form. The hero of contemporary middle-class American life doesn’t merely tell the truth but does so in an unadorned fashion. Like many of the characters who populate The Pale King, he’s stylistically “dead on the page” and may come across as “very banal.” The hero we most need, the hero whose existence Wallace wished to dramatize and invoke, offers us no bells, no whistles, no wry winks at the listener or reader, no entertainment to sugarcoat the bitter truth. Our hero is, if anything, anti-charismatic.
It is the quietly decent Chris Fogle who most resembles the hero Wallace is looking for. Fogle is only one of the many characters Wallace assembles at Peoria’s IRS Midwest REC who seems like a potential protagonist — the peaceful and highly attentive Shane Drinion is another candidate, as is the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, who appears early in the novel but soon fades from view — but Fogle’s chapter runs over a hundred pages and is the most compelling piece of writing Wallace produced since Infinite Jest. At the level of the sentence, Fogle’s epic monologue, which is framed as part of a documentary being produced about the so-called New IRS, is something like the antithesis of the sclerotic sentences that defined some of the more alienating stories in Wallace’s often bleak final story collection, Oblivion. Any passage, selected at random, will give a flavor of how different the prose in Fogle’s chapter is from anything Wallace has produced before:
What I really was was naive. For instance, I knew I lied, but I hardly ever assumed that anybody else around me might be lying. I realize now how conceited that is, and how unfocused that lets actual reality be. I was a child, really. The truth is that most of what I really know about myself I learned in the Service. That may sound too much like sucking up, but it’s the truth. I’ve been here five years, and I’ve learned an incredible amount.This passage, like the rest of Fogle’s monologue, shows only the barest traces of Wallace’s characteristic style: if this chapter had been published in McSweeney’s under a pseudonym there would have been very few clues that Wallace had written it. There is the doubling of “was” in the first sentence and the word “incredible” (a Wallace favorite) but few other telltales. If anything reveals Chris Fogle’s chapter as a Wallace creation, it is the section’s tremendous length and the morbid humor that stalks Fogle’s sad life. Fogle’s hardworking, reserved, and long-suffering father dies, after enduring all sorts of abuse at the hands of his disrespectful son, in a manner that is both horrific and uncomfortably hilarious, recalling James Incandenza’s suicide by microwave oven in Infinite Jest. Fogle’s ultimate conversion from drug-using “wastoid” to IRS Examiner is, we are meant to understand, a true conversion experience. While in college, Fogle accidentally sits in on a review session for an Advanced Tax course, led by a “substitute Jesuit.” “We are called to account,” this substitute father instructs his students at the end of the session, and Fogle poignantly hears “a genuine calling to pursue tax accounting and systems administration and organizational behavior.”
Here and elsewhere in The Pale King, Wallace is attempting to wrestle his own signature style to the ground, to still a mind so famous for its hip, syntactic acrobatics. Which isn’t to say the Wallace we know is gone from the page. For from it. And yet, despite the novel’s many characteristic chapters, I think we now have the key to understanding why he inserted himself into The Pale King as a memoir-writing character. Memoir is the antipode of the book Wallace was trying to write. Whereas memoirs are marketable, the book Wallace eventually would have written, if he had finished it, might not have received as much mainstream attention as the incomplete Pale King, with the publicity hook of Wallace’s suicide to sell it, has (though anything Wallace published would certainly have had an impact in literary circles). Whereas the memoir is by definition personal, The Pale King is concerned with a decentralized network of characters, none of which bears the classical features of a protagonist. The book would have been — and largely is — a memoir of Wallace’s vocation as a writer, the product of his lifelong struggle to efface himself or at least to efface what seemed to him to be the negative entailments of his style.
Would the full novel have succeeded? In the days since I’ve read the unfinished Pale King, I have taken to imaging what the completed novel might have looked like. In my imagination, the book would be a phonebook-sized encyclopedic work, a text that used the IRS to look on all of American life. It would be printed on tissue-thin paper, filled with reams of data, perhaps double columned (as one of the novel’s most inventive chapters is), utterly compelling but overwhelmingly challenging, a book you need to read very slowly and attend to. One imagines the book would have been reviewed, usually favorably, but often tepidly and with barely disguised frustration, much as Infinite Jest was (which had a much more mixed reception than is commonly remembered these days). After all, where are our relatable characters? Where are the addictive themes that keep book clubs up late at night with wine-stained lips? Who has the time to read so many pages? This David Foster Wallace guy has had such a hard life — why doesn’t he write a real memoir? Now that would sell. And how on earth are we going to make a movie out of this kind of book?
But of course such responses would only underscore Wallace’s claims, the need for his book in the first place. As another prominent character in The Pale King, Meredith Rand, is told late in the novel by a psych ward attendant who she will later marry and who is dying of a rare heart condition: “because he [the attendant] was a walking dead man and not really part of the institution of the nut ward he felt like maybe he was the only person there who’d really tell me the truth about my problem, which he said was basically that I needed to grow up.” We best remember Wallace, a walking dead man in our psych ward of a world, by looking past his own life and personality and looking instead at our fallen American condition with the heightened senses and iron-willed focus he did some part in helping cultivate in us. As readers and as citizens, we best honor what he argued for by growing up.
Cornel Bonca is Associate Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. His fiction, literary criticism, and journalism has appeared in more than a dozen publications.
Lee Konstantinou is the author of the novel Pop Apocalypse (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2009) and the co-editor of the forthcoming collection The Legacy of David Foster Wallace: Critical and Creative Assessments (University of Iowa Press, 2012). In the fall, he will start as an ACLS New Faculty Fellow in the English Department at Princeton.
Image: Rubberband Ball © Jeanne Williamson http://bit.ly/koS2Iq