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The American mode of loneliness

David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008 deprived modern letters of one of its most honest voices. Jon

The Pale King: an Unfinished Novel
David Foster Wallace
Hamish Hamilton, 560pp, £20

The last story David Foster Wallace published in his lifetime appeared in the New Yorker in February 2007. Later that year, Wallace decided to come off the antidepressant he had been taking for the previous two decades after it started to have severe side effects. The consequences of doing so were disastrous. The depression that the drug had kept at bay came back.

Wallace began taking the drug again, was hospitalised twice and underwent electroconvulsive therapy - all with little discernible benefit. On 12 September 2008, having written nothing for more than a year, he hanged himself at the home he shared in Claremont, California, with his wife, the artist Karen Green.

In the New Yorker story, entitled "Good People", Lane A Dean, Jr and his girlfriend, Sheri Fisher, sit silently together beside a lake in Peoria, Illinois. Sheri and Lane have been "praying and talking" about how to deal with an unspecified calamity that has befallen them (which the reader infers is an unplanned pregnancy). Lane recalls that earlier in the day, he had told Sheri that he did not know what to do - but it is clear they have resolved that she will have an abortion (though Lane pretends that the procedure "had no name"). Now he is "frozen" by the recognition that he is "trying to say things that would get her to open up and say enough back that he could see her and read her heart and know what to say to get her to go through with it". Yet he cannot "read her heart". Sheri remains "blank and hidden" to him.

“Good People" is an artefact of what we must now learn to call Wallace's late style. In the stories he wrote in the last decade of his life (eight of which appeared in the 2004 collection Oblivion), Wallace's focus became more tightly circumscribed than it had been before. His sentences were as serpentine and as dizzyingly recursive as ever, but he was now deploying them in an attempt to present as fully as he could the inner lives of characters more often than not engaged in tedious corporate or bureaucratic work. (When he is not at the local community college or at church, Lane works in "dock and routing at UPS".)

Like Lane, the characters in these stories are often haunted by the possibility that they are locked inside their skulls, unable to make any emotional connection with other people. As Skip Atwater, the protagonist in "The Suffering Channel", the last and longest story in Oblivion, puts it, the "great informing [drama] of the American psyche" is the "management of insignificance" - of what Wallace once called a "peculiarly American loneliness".

“Good People" appears unchanged as chapter six of The Pale King, the "unfinished novel" that Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch has assembled from "two Trader Joe's sacks" full of manuscript pages that the writer left behind in his garage office in Claremont when he died. This was the "long thing" that he had been working on since 1997, a year after the publication of his second novel, Infinite Jest, the book that confirmed his reputation as the most ambitious and gifted American writer of his generation. In his editor's note, Pietsch says he was approached by Wallace's widow and his agent, Bonnie Nadell, to put together "the best version of The Pale King that I could find".

I spoke to Pietsch down the phone from his office in New York and asked him how he set about fashioning this mass of material into something resembling a novel (albeit one that is half finished and, even in its edited state, is full of false starts, repetitions and apparent non sequiturs). "My goal," he told me, "was to honour the sequence where there was a sequence, and to recognise the parts that were intended to form a narrative - and there turned out to be a fairly significant number of those."

That narrative concerns a small number of characters who arrive on the same day in 1985 at an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax return processing centre in Peoria. One of them, it turns out, is Lane A Dean, Jr. By the time we encounter him here, he has married Sheri - who kept the baby - and is working at the processing centre as a "wiggler".
His job is to examine newly submitted returns for orthographic and other errors - a "1040A where the deductions for AGI were added wrong", for instance (Wallace's long-standing fascination with esoteric argots or nomenclatures is fully intact here). The work induces in Lane a "boredom beyond any boredom he'd ever felt", one that makes "the routing desk at UPS look like a day at Six Flags".

The extravagant ennui that Lane experiences is the function of a sort of attention deficit: he is unable to achieve what Wallace describes admiringly in one of the notebook entries Pietsch has appended to the novel as a "steady state of concentration [and] attention".

There is a caste of IRS employees who do achieve just such a state, however. They are known as "immersives", and while being given a tour of the Peoria facility on his first day,
another character glimpses a room full of them, absorbed in their work in monkish, "motionless intensity". (Readers of a novel so fascinated by "dullness" will no doubt divide between immersives and those, like Lane, whose attention will wander. A character who happens to be named "David Wallace" observes that "living people do not speak much of the dull"; nor do most novelists. Wallace's gamble was to write a book about it.)

Other notebook entries suggest that Wallace intended to integrate the immersives into the exploration of what he says somewhere is, or was intended to have been, the novel's "big question": "whether [the] IRS is to be essentially a corporate entity or a moral one". The project of the new breed of IRS functionary is to replace human wigglers with computers as a way of maximising revenue while minimising costs. Wallace imagines one of this new cadre, Merrill Errol Lehrl, recruiting the finest, most immersive "rote examiners" available, so that when the computer "crushes them, the test'll be all that much more definitive".

In 2005, Wallace gave the commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio. "Our own present culture," he said, had yielded the "freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, all alone at the centre of creation". But the "really important kind of freedom", he went on, "involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people". In The Pale King, Wallace puts a similar thought in the mouth of DeWitt Glendenning, the director of the centre and a representative of the IRS old guard: "Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilise ourselves. We don't think of ourselves as citizens - parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities."

Wallace worried deeply about what the culture had done to Americans' ability to acknowledge such responsibilities. And here we see him grappling with what he once said was the fundamental question of all fiction: "How is it that we as human beings still have the capacity . . . for genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price?" Few novelists have taken as seriously as Wallace the obligation to write truthfully about the way we live today. And, as Pietsch says, even in an unfinished, uneven novel such as this, the products of that seriousness are "spectacular". l

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide