The Haunting of David Foster Wallace: What to do with the dead

7 Apr

Posthumous publishing is a hot topic right now or a morbidly cold one if you’re invested in metaphor. Either way it’s come to the forefront lately as some of our greatest authors die a fragmented death leaving behind them unfinished pieces of themselves. The real discourse arises here, out of what to do with those pieces, it’s in the asking: Can we, those left behind, ever place those pieces in just such a way as to make the picture the dead intended? Or you can see it like this: death may have taken the author but it left their work here with us, the dead no longer get a say.

I came to this topic after investigating my joyous and totally unthinking reaction to the publication of what will presumably be (though there’s still the chance someone might find a napkin he once wrote something profound on) the last book by David Foster Wallace.
The Pale King, published in 2011 – 3 years after his suicide in 2008 – is about the I.R.D. Actually, as always, it is about facing ourselves head on and devoting time and thought to really questioning if what we do with our lives does justice to the privilege of living (BTW I don’t accept that this is an unforgivable paradox in someone who killed themselves, but we can talk about that just you and me if you take exception).
From the perspective of a fan (valuable on one level, surely) knowing that there would be another tome to hold on to, to cause breathlessness, to irritate, confound, challenge and humble, is something like transcendence. It wasn’t until I began thinking more about the man and about the mechanism he was being subjected to, without any opportunity to respond, that I started to have my doubts. DFW, from what I can gather from his personally illuminating essays (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) & direct interviews published as transcripts (Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself), was a thoroughly thoughtful, weighted person. One who valiantly struggled to present an idea as perfectly, as definitively and without scope for misinterpretation, as possible.
He seemed pretty much against canonization, in his own words: “to make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people.”

And that’s a brilliant point, his always were, but what we’re dealing with isn’t the man but his work. And what we’re struggling with of course is the fact that those two things are so intimately linked.

In David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace –which is the entire guts of an interview conducted over weeks intended for publication in Rolling Stone magazine but which never got printed due to space issues – DFW talks about the need for freedom from publishers deadlines in order to make sure that as an author you were ‘coming correct’ to quote some street slang.

“…I mean {talking about Infinite Jest}, my big worry is am I going to get this manuscript delivered to Little, Brown in time? They’re pressing to get it out quickly I think so that they can – {here Lipsky suggests, “Capitalize”} – Yeah. Capitalize on this. How am I going to deal with that? And with if I discover a couple of things really don’t work, and I need to take the summer to redo them?”

Death: the perpetual summer. Well there is no going back to edit once you’re dead and DFW knew this, I don’t doubt that he thought more than most about the implications of mortality and the repercussions for the living. Diagnosed with depression and medicated for it since the 1980’s DFW managed more often than not to live his life; he taught college kids and fell in love, got married and, as we all now know, began writing the follow up novel to Infinite Jest (hailed as the most remarkable, ground breaking, post modern novel of recent times). However the manuscript he was working on (which would become The Pale King) began to gnaw at him, he was writing about sadness and boredom, probably two of the most challenging yet relatable tropes in human life. He feared he wouldn’t be able to communicate the real possibilities for fulfillment these emotions presented.
After a bad stomachache thought to be exacerbated by the Nardil he was taking and in search of creative clarity DFW took a chance and stopped taking his medication.
His doctors confidently suggested he try a new generation of drug, one that, in other takers had vastly improved their living conditions. Sadly not so for DFW, as his sister Amy put it in her interview with Lipsky “It was determined, ‘oh, well, gosh, we’ve made so much pharmaceutical progress in the last two decades that I’m sure we can find something that can knock out that pesky depression without all these side effects.’ They had no idea that was the only thing keeping him alive.”

But look, whether we kill ourselves or life does it for us the central question is one of ownership, what should happen to what we leave behind?
In The Pale King’s editorial note Michael Pietsch references DFW’s perfectionism and the unlikelihood that he would have been okay with his work going public when it was in a state far less than perfect. But Pietsch goes on to say that ‘an unfinished novel is all we have, and how can we not look? David, also, isn’t here to stop us from reading or to forgive us from wanting to.’
Which is a beautiful summary of a tricky situation.

Questions of who gets to decide what aside, let me posit this: we all appear to be capable of doing one or perhaps a few things particularly well, it is in the doing of these acts that we find the greatest harmony, joy and purpose. Writing by the hand of an author such as DFW is a gift – I know he’d probably retch upon reading that sentence but for anyone who’s read anything by the man you know that your changed after doing so. To be affected, to be called to question your own complacency… if even the notes, the unrevised edit of the greatest of authors can do this, can point you towards yourself and ask you ‘why this?’ then isn’t that something we ought to be able to get our hands on. Isn’t that something worth putting in print?

NB DFW is one of my favourite authors and I could natter on all day about him only barely clutching at the hem of his majesty- so here, for those of you who are interested, are some links to interviews, reviews and memorials. All echoing the same sentiment ‘dam that man will be missed.’

David\’s comencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005

A near perfect review of The Pale King by Benjamin Alsup in Esquire

The New Yorker\’s tribute to David Foster Wallace


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