THE BLOG
09/10/2013 09:45 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Meaningful Work in The Pale King : In Memory of David Foster Wallace, Five Years On

Two opposing theories of aesthetic value conspire to render browsing the literature shelves of a bookstore a rather heavy and heady experience. One comes from the conceit of classical history, the idea that most of the narrative literature worthy of being read that will appear in my lifetime has already been written. This entails all worthwhile reading to be re-reading, leaving nothing to discover but the occasional new literal translation of Musil, Proust, and Tolstoy, or the appearance of another figurative attempt to make some sense of Joyce. The other concerns the priority of a privileged present, rooted in the facts that more than 6 percent of human beings who have ever lived are alive now, a much larger percentage than that have lived in the relatively recent era of narrative literature, a convergence of global cultures has made it a universal form of expression, and historically repressed peoples have found voice in that expression as the literate population continues to grow. Given these data, there has never been a better time to discover great new books.

The oeuvre of David Foster Wallace is too recent to belong to the first category. And, though it seems irrational to do so because he died in 2008, I still check the Ws, hoping for... I am not sure what, exactly. I don't expect a religious resurrection, but a literary miracle, perhaps. In 2012, some of his previously published essays were collected in book form by his literary trust. However, those are likely the end of new DFW discoveries. We can't go back and find his "early" writings from his days as a college student. By then, his level of achievement was so great that his senior thesis in English was published as the novel The Broom of the System not long after he graduated. His senior thesis in Philosophy was published after he died as Fate, Time, and Language for fans like me looking for more, anything that he wrote, knowing that nothing more original was being produced. Regrettably, I arrived late, very late, to the DFW party, taking special notice when I read his tragic obituary. Only then did I ascertain what his other devotees had already known: the implied author who seems almost to be another self, to think what you think, to express it more clearly and sympathetically and so amusingly that you want him to say it again and again. I'd bought my copy of Infinite Jest in 2002, after almost five years of hearing about and resisting its essentiality, and then I left it unread; I did not actually finish it until earlier this year. It is one of two thick books of his that I've literally torn in half, not in exasperation, but to satisfy my need to bring his writing with me on plane flights in bags too full to carry so many pages.

The Pale King is the other, and it might just be that literary miracle. Published posthumously in 2011, it is the novel DFW left in a neat pile, unfinished in the garage-office where he died, his place of work, his work about work, his despair about the boredom of characters who despair about the boredom of their own work. One of them dies hunched over at his desk, and nobody notices for days, because that's the same position and level of activity with which he worked. Another contemplates suicide while working the endless spaces between the 15 breaks that taunt him with their brevity and scarcity. The tragedy of these characters is their universality, representing many people's passive inability to summon the creative will to do more meaningful work in order to live more meaningful lives. Another discovers his calling as an accountant, but his compulsion to count the words in his narrative misses the point completely that it's not the quantity of words you produce but the meaning of those words that matters. That point is the solace the author left behind for us, as we mourn the fifth anniversary of Wallace's untimely passing with the recognition that no more new words from him are forthcoming.

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