David Foster Wallace

Today, I spent the entire day writing, which looked like this:

No, I was not writing a story. I was working on a dissertation chapter. My dissertation has three chapters, each of which is about a hundred pages long. Because I’m also teaching three classes and writing professionally (I have stories and my Folkroots columns due), it takes me about a month to finish revising each chapter. This is the last chapter that needed to be revised. I will turn it in on Monday, and then I will begin putting the whole thing together. It feels as though, until I finish it, I won’t be able to have anything approximating a normal life. It’s been so long since I’ve gone anywhere on weekends, seen a movie or gone to the museum. Oh, I have scattered accounts of going to the museum here and there on this blog, but really taking a weekend off? It’s been a long, long time since I’ve done that. And I feel as though my life, my real life, can’t start until this is finished.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. What I want to write about is David Foster Wallace.

I’ve never read his novels, and I’m not sure whether I would like them if I did. But I’ve read some of his essays, and I’ve read about Wallace, of course. On Friday, I read a review of The Pale King, the novel he was working on when he committed suicide, in The New York Times.

Here is a general description of it:

“His posthumous unfinished novel, The Pale King — which is set largely in an I.R.S. office in the Midwest — depicts an America so plagued by tedium, monotony and meaningless bureaucratic rules and regulations that its citizens are in danger of dying of boredom.

“Just as this lumpy but often stirring new novel emerges as a kind of bookend to Infinite Jest, so it demonstrates that being amused to death and bored to death are, in Wallace’s view, flip sides of the same coin. Perhaps, he writes, ‘dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there,’ namely the existential knowledge ‘that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back.’

“Happiness, Wallace suggests in a Kierkegaardian note at the end of this deeply sad, deeply philosophical book, is the ability to pay attention, to live in the present moment, to find ‘second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.'”

The problem is, I don’t believe that. Oh, I believe that some of us are sometimes in danger of dying of boredom. I was a corporate lawyer, remember? But I got out of practicing law, left it to the people for whom being a corporate lawyer was not boring. The people who woke up every day wanting to be corporate lawyers. And yes, those people exist, and they are perfectly happy and very good at what they do. (I should make clear that there were aspects of being a corporate lawyer that I enjoyed. But I also knew that it was not what I was supposed to be doing, that the universe had set me another set of challenges. And when you feel like that, as though you’re in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing, I believe you have to leave. You have to find where you’re supposed to be, what your unique purpose is. What only you can do.)

I don’t believe that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces. I suppose we are if you think of life as a materialist? But I’ve never been able to think about it that way. I’ve always thought of the universe as having meaning, as being filled with meaning, and of my life as having a purpose. I’ve always believed in the pattern I describe in Mother Night’s house.

And I don’t believe happiness consists in living in the moment. If I try to live in the moment – well, that’s when I’m bored. I often live anticipating the future, or remembering the past, or doing something else with the moment, in a sense turning it into a story. Not just passively attentive to the moment, but telling myself a story about it, placing it in the context of the past and future. I’m not sure I can explain what I mean here, but perhaps I’ll try in another post.

I guess my objection to Wallace’s world view is that I see life as at least potentially magical.

This is from later in the review:

“Not surprisingly, a novel about boredom is, more than occasionally, boring. It’s impossible to know whether Wallace, had he finished the book, might have decided to pare away such passages, or whether he truly wanted to test the reader’s tolerance for tedium — to make us share the misery of his office workers, who come to remind us of the unhappy hero of Joseph Heller’s ‘Something Happened,’ or some of Beckett’s bone-weary characters, stuck in a limbo of never-ending waiting and routine.

“Yet at the same time there are some wonderfully evocative sections here that capture the exhausting annoyances of everyday life with digital precision. The sticky, nauseating feeling of traveling on a small, crowded commuter plane, crammed up against ‘paunched and blotchy men in double-knit brown suits and tan suits with attaché cases ordered from in-flight catalogs.’ Or the suffocating feeling of being stuck on a filthy bus, with ashtrays spilling over with gum and cigarette butts, the air-conditioning ‘more like a vague gesture toward the abstract idea of air-conditioning’ than the real thing.

“In this, his most emotionally immediate work, Wallace is on intimate terms with the difficulty of navigating daily life, and he conjures states of mind with the same sorcery he brings to pictorial description. He conveys the gut deep sadness people experience when ‘the wing of despair’ passes over their lives, and the panic of being a fish ‘thrashing in the nets’ of one’s own obligations, stuck in a miserable job and needing to ‘cover the monthly nut.'”

I think that at this point, I know something about the wing of despair. But I find that the way to deal with it is, again, to look at my life and find the pattern. That way, I can often see the events that put me into despair in context, and when I understand the context, I usually feel less despairing about it. And then, I make magic. I decide what I want my story to be and try as hard as I can to make it happen. (That’s what I’m doing now, by finishing my dissertation. I want my story to include finishing it and then going on to write all sorts of wonderful things.  Writing it is an adventure in a way, and I think my life has been filled with adventures.  How many people get to do a PhD, go through the hard work of it?  The day after day of writing your analysis, thinking to the edge of your ability?  That is a great adventure.  I want to finish it and go on to all the other adventures that await.)

But I was thinking about Wallace specifically because what I write is so different, is fantasy. I suppose it’s fantasy in part because it includes the possibility of magic, which is also the possibility of underlying meaning. That’s what the story I’m writing is about, part of a larger story about Mother Night and Mrs. Moth and Miss Gray and Thea and all of my characters. And what it expresses, really, is what I think about the universe, how I think it operates. That it’s filled with meaning, but it’s up to us to read the cards, to figure out the meaning.

Which, much as I respect Wallace as a writer, is a very different worldview.

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4 Responses to David Foster Wallace

  1. Hecate says:

    Great post; I’m going to read this several times over. Thank you.

  2. Sofia says:

    I agree with Hecate. Great post. My favorite phrase is “thinking to the edge of your ability,” because it gets at what makes academic writing both thrilling and exhausting.

    Karen Blixen, otherwise known as the writer Isak Dinesen, believed there were three forms of perfect happiness:

    1. The cessation of pain
    2. To feel an excess of strength
    3. To feel that one is fulfilling one’s destiny

    I’ve always liked this, because there’s nothing in there about love or conventional success or the things people usually associate with happiness. #3 seems to chime with what you’ve said here, about the pattern.

    Oh, and I’ve read Infinte Jest. It had some amazing passages. I didn’t read the end notes though. I couldn’t take it anymore.

  3. Grey Walker says:


    I’m not braining well today, but I do grok what you’re saying about fighting despair by looking for the pattern of meaning in my life.

  4. jecrump says:

    If I may, I’d like to offer a counterpoint. But first, a bit about my bias on this issue:

    I wholeheartedly buy into the acclaim that Infinite Jest received. It is in the category of books that Borges must have been talking about when he said “Let others pride themselves about how many pages they have written; I’d rather boast about the ones I’ve read.” Wallace could (and sometimes did) write about something as mundane as walking to the corner store to buy a can of beer and still make it enjoyable to read and somehow deeply meaningful. Wallace also suffered from severe depression from time to time, something that I understand very well.

    Now to my point. Some people just naturally have difficulty feeling the magic. You don’t seem to be one of those people. I think that Wallace was. I think the older I get, the more it seems that worldview is built-in, like the color of my skin or the way shoes fit. A strictly materialistic view of existence is severely depressing, and not inherently superior to a worldview that sees life and everything in it laden with meaning and purpose. But some people just can’t help it.

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