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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

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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

This article first appeared in GOD Special

2011-04-18