After struggling with depression for most of his adult life, writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2008 at age 46.
In one of his final acts, he tidied up the manuscript of a novel he'd been working on. The book was to be a follow-up to his 1996 masterwork, Infinite Jest. He called it The Pale King, and many said it would be a monumental contribution to contemporary fiction.
The manuscript was unfinished, but Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor at Little, Brown and Company, felt it was too important not to make the work available to the public, finished or not.
So The Pale King will hit the bookstores later this month, incomplete but still a window into the mind of a writer considered to be one of the most gifted of his generation.
"We chose to publish on April 15 as a way of casting a comic light on a novel that has a lot of darkness surrounding it," Pietsch tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz.
A Boring Book – Mostly On Purpose
The Pale King is focused with the way we regulate our attention to the dull, rote and boring. Wallace laid out the premise of his novel in a typewritten note before his death.
"Bliss — a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom," he wrote. Pietsch says it attempts the greatest challenge he's ever seen a novelist take on: "To write a novel about the boring parts of life."
By working through the boring, complex and difficult details of life, Pietsch says Wallace believed it was possible to truly connect with another person in a meaningful way.
"The book deals with boredom," Pietsch says, "But it's because it wants to deal with joy."
The novel centers on the life of several IRS tax return processors, and parts of it contain entire passages dedicated to the details of tax code policy. Some of the boredom here may not be entirely deliberate, Pietsch says — after all, it is an unfinished story. Wallace did not revise some chapters as tightly as others.
"I would imagine this novel, if David had continued working on it, would not have been boring for a second," Pietsch says. "But I'm prejudiced."
Putting Together An Unfinished Story
Wallace dug into his subject by taking accounting classes starting as far back as 1997. As it turns out, his longtime agent Bonnie Nadell tells Raz, Wallace was also quite good at math. "He could take very advanced accounting classes and follow them."
Papers left in his office reveal Wallace started correspondences with various accountants around the country. He took great interest in his own accountant, Nadell says, "who loved him to pieces, because no one ever asks about all the minutia of doing someone's taxes."
Wallace sought these details, Pietsch says, because he wanted to write a novel that connected to peoples' true lives.
"He's trying to write about what's it's like to go home every day to the same spouse for 40, 50 years," Pietsch says. "How do you look into the face of a job that you know you're going to do again and again for 40 years?
"How can you find meaning? How can you find delight? How do you find love? How do you find someone who will sit with you while you talk about what happened to you in line waiting to get to the bank teller?" Those are questions Wallace grappled with until his death, Pietsch says.
The evidence of that struggle was found in nearly 3,000 pages of drafts left in Wallace's office. Some were typed. Some were handwritten. Some were on floppy discs.
"When I first encountered it, it was this mass of material," Pietsch says, like a puzzle with no directions for assembly.
The Posthumous Question
Did Wallace's struggle to finish the The Pale King lead to his death? According to Nadell, it may indeed have played a role in the author's suicide.
Wallace got married in 2004 and by many accounts, became as mature and happy as he'd ever been. He enjoyed his teaching job at Pomona College. In 2007 he even decided to stop taking an anti-depressant he'd been on for many years — reportedly in hopes that it would aid him creatively. Still, Nadell says, "It was a hard book for him to finish."
"And he never did finish it," she says. But he did intend to publish it, she believes. "He left it in his office for people to find."
"And he was someone who threw out things constantly," Pietsch adds. In fact, he says, Wallace threw out nearly every piece of correspondence he ever received.
"He was clearly capable of throwing out things he didn't want to have," Pietsch says. "As I read these pages, I had no doubt at all this novel contains writing and thought as great and deep as anything David ever did."
"It's heartbreaking it's not finished."
Excerpt: 'The Pale King'
David Foster Wallace
The Pale King By David Foster Wallace Hardcover, 560 pages Little, Brown and Company List Price: $27.99
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb's-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture's wire beyond which one horse smells at the other's behind, the lead horse's tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes' brand incised in the dew. An alfalfa breeze. Socks' burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert. Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. NO HUNTING. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak. 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.
From The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.