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David Foster Wallace's Final, Unfinished Novel

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David Foster Wallace's Final, Unfinished Novel

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David Foster Wallace's Final, Unfinished Novel

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

When the writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide last September, he left behind hundreds of pages of an unfinished novel that he'd been working on for years. Little, Brown plans to publish the incomplete manuscript next year under the title "The Pale King." David Foster Wallace was 46 when he died, and he struggled mightily over this novel, which he started referring to as "the long thing."

D.T. Max writes about Wallace's last work and about his years of mental illness in this week's issue of The New Yorker. Dan, welcome to the program.

BLOCK: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: David Foster Wallace made a huge splash in 1996 when he published that gigantic novel, "Infinite Jest." And he started working on this one pretty soon after that. How different is it from that big mammoth work?

BLOCK: I think that David had decided after he finished "Infinite Jest" that he just didn't want to write that way anymore. And that way was a kind of a long, elaborate, maximalist, stem-winding, huge monster of a novel. He felt that that kind of writing was getting in the way of what he really wanted to say.

And I think the struggle, the sort of decade-long struggle, which ended with his suicide, was, in part, about trying to tone down his language and get closer to his thoughts and his emotions.

BLOCK: It's interesting. Wallace's widow, Karen Green, agreed to talk to you as you were working on this piece. And she said, I think he didn't want to do the old tricks people expected of him, but he had no idea what the new tricks would be.

BLOCK: I think that's right. You know, style runs so deep. You think that you can change how you write, but to change how you write, you really have to change how you think. And I think in David's case, how he thought was just so deep within him, so central to the kind of generalized anxiety with which he perceived the world, it was what made him an amazing conversationalist, an amazing thinker, you know, and a remarkable writer, was that his mind was always going so fast.

BLOCK: Well, there's an excerpt of this, this unfinished work, in this issue of The New Yorker, and it's about IRS workers going over tax returns. How did he land on that subject?

BLOCK: You know, it sounds stranger, in a way, than it is because on the biographical level, he always was interested in - apparently, he was an obsessive completer of his own taxes, and he was very interested in systems, and the IRS is, above all, a system. But I think the biggest reason he chose this was - and I'm just imagining this now - is that he was casting around. He had come to believe, through the later part of "Infinite Jest," that the key to contentment was to sort of quiet your mind down. So he sort of had to find a group of people who almost entirely ignored, at least in his fictional imagining, entirely ignored the modern world.

So he couldn't very well do a rock star. He couldn't very well do even a writer because a writer sort of comes out of his study, and then he's in the modern world. So he picked this kind of priesthood. I mean, he turned them into priests, anyway.

BLOCK: I wonder if you could read a short bit of this excerpt from David Foster Wallace's work. This is in The New Yorker, and I'm thinking of a section on page 64. He's writing about the numbing, completely stultifying boredom of this work through the character Lane Dean.

BLOCK: (Reading) Lane Dean summoned all his will and bore down and did three returns in a row and began imagining different high places to jump off of. He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote - tasks involving numbers that connect to nothing he'll ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never goes down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it and just leave the man there to his mind's own devices.

BLOCK: And earlier in this excerpt, Lane Dean says he starts thinking of suicide for the first time in his life. And I don't mean to put too fine a point on this, but you write Wallace himself, the writer, had attempted suicide several times before he killed himself. He'd struggled with mental illness for decades.

BLOCK: It's a very, very sad story. On one level, it's a story about somebody who really was essentially born with very severe depression. So I think it's wrong to say that it was despair over his novel that drove him to suicide. It was something much more subtle and much more complicated.

What happened to David, I think, is that as he began to feel he was hitting a wall with the novel, I think he cast around for ways to sort of shake up his life, and the one way that made the most sense to him was to get off of an antidepressant he was taking called Nardal.

He felt that it distanced him from the world and in some way, which I don't think he ever exactly was certain of, if he could get rid of that distancing, he could write better. He could write more intimately, he could write more truly. He could, in a sense, escape a style that he had had that's the only style we know of for him. I mean, it's the style of every book of his from the extraordinary first novel, "Broom of the System."

BLOCK: You have a line in here that haunts me about his struggle with this work and writing in general. You say he was no longer sure he was the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write.

BLOCK: You know, he was happy. He was in love. He was in love with the changes he had made that had allowed him to mature so that he could be the kind of person who was in love with Karen Green, his wife. He was politically involved in a way that I think he'd never been very politically involved before.

You know, just the sort of single-minded devotion, the absolute monastic fixation on the novel was something that he really wasn't sure - that was a place he wasn't sure he wanted to go again. And he suspected that if he could get there - he didn't know this - but if he could get there, there was at least a chance he could accomplish the novel.

BLOCK: D.T. Max, his article about the writer David Foster Wallace is titled "The Unfinished." It's in this week's issue of The New Yorker. Dan, thanks very much.

BLOCK: Thank you.

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