David Foster Wallace and the Work That Made the Man

The posthumous The Pale King finally gets its day in court.

It’s no surprise that a whole cottage industry has sprung up around the late David Foster Wallace. The author, famous for non-fiction but renowned for his much more demanding fiction, hasn’t been with us for over six years, now. Since his untimely death, an avalanche of critical approaches, ephemera collections, and a biography have been made available for readers. Sadly, the man’s passing, eclipsing the impact of his work, has been the key driver for this expanding library.

Divorcing Wallace from his work is more difficult than it is with other authors. Due to how strongly Wallace’s personality is associated with his writing, postmodern notions of the author’s death are, partially, refuted. That seems fitting for an author constantly straining against the limits of both American modernism and postmodernism, striving to spawn the ineffable post-postmodern (or, whatever) moment we inhabit, one becomes awash in prefixes.

David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing”, edited by Marshall Boswell, focuses on Wallace’s later work, namely the unfinished novel, The Pale King. Though there’s a smattering of essays focusing on his earlier work, it’s this final product that dominates much of this critical collection. Divided into two halves, examining Wallace as a novelist and then the novels themselves, the very structure of the book reinforces the tangled overlaps between Wallace the fiction writer, DFW the essayist, and Dave the man.

Considering that Wallace only completed two novels in his lifetime (with the posthumous The Pale King as a somewhat third), a critical edition about Wallace as novelist might seem like an exercise in bottom scraping. But it’s not. Considering the richness and the denseness of Wallace’s “long things”, including The Broom of the System, but especially Infinite Jest, this single volume is overflowing with diverse content and view points, all without giving the impression of a well running dry

Despite a much more prolific career as a short story writer and essayist, Wallace was deeply concerned with the function and importance of novels in contemporary America. This was clearly on display when he ruminated on the role fiction plays in overcoming loneliness, a dominating theme of his. The book cites an interview between Wallace and Salon’s Laura Miller:

There is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. But that’s just the first level… A really great piece fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I’m sitting in a chair. [But] there’s a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do.

It’s no wonder Wallace gets so mixed up with his work. Perhaps that’s what makes his writings so endearing to a loving fan base of like-minded souls.

That’s what makes this text, likewise, endearing. Each writer clearly has an affinity for Wallace as writer and Wallace as mock-philosopher. While critical editions can often seem cold and clinical, this one is less so. Perhaps that comes from the unique focus, examining the writer prior to his death.

Partly the reason the literary tourist trade around Wallace’s legacy has become so prevalent is that his specter haunts all contemporary discussions of the author. Whether it’s a biography from D. T. Max, an essay by Jonathan Franzen, a collection of interviews, or the impending The End of the Tour, a film adaptation of Wallace’s time with David Lipsky, the man and the work are fused in our minds, molded together. At this point, it’s often difficult to separate the two, a task not even attempted by this book.

But that’s not terrible. Writing is an incredibly revealing act. It’s rather like undressing before an audience. You end up revealing bits of yourself, both private and not. To begin to understand Wallace, and this book, one need only remember the title of Lipsky’s biography of Wallace:

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

Through writing, of course, Wallace became himself. Or, at least, the self we know. That’s what this critical collection gets at. Instead of trying to focus exclusively on the author’s work, the two become intermingled. In a way, just below the level of explanations of ekphrasis and the moral worldview of IRS agents, this text reads like biography.

David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing” is a fine addition to the expanding critical literature surrounding a monumental author. Instead of trying to divorce the man from his work, it takes the road that does Wallace justice: trying to understand the work that made the man.

RATING 7 / 10