Eleven Steps Forward…

David Foster Wallace’s last book


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David Foster Wallace’s final book is boring. On that, everyone seems to agree. We understand, too, that Wallace intended it to be boring. In the years before he killed himself, David Foster Wallace was writing, after all, a long novel about the IRS. He hadn’t finished the book when he died. So, we are left with the incomplete remnants of what he was still in the process of creating. But it is easy to see, in reading The Pale King, published from all the material that DFW was working on before his death, that he fully intended to write a book that would produce long stretches of boredom for the reader. He wanted to produce boredom, he wanted to reflect on boredom, and he wanted, finally, to love boredom.

  • The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. 560 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $27.99.

The most important piece of writing to come out about David Foster Wallace in some time was written by Maria Bustillos for The Awl in early April of this year. Maria is an unabashed fan of David Foster Wallace and wrote a book (Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork) that includes the chapter, “David Foster Wallace: The Dork Lord of American Letters.” Being both a writer and a fan, Bustillos wanted to know. After the suicide, she wanted to know. She wanted what many of us who admired the writer wanted: more of the man. She hoped, as we all hoped, that secrets would be revealed and that the secrets of the interior David Foster Wallace might also shed some light on his terrible, impressive, and depressing final act, the taking of his own life.

Maria Bustillos decided to go to the source. She had the strength to go to his papers and to read them. The papers exist. His books exist, too, the books from DFW’s private library, many of which are heavily annotated. There are notes and jottings and lists and letters. It can all be found at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Maria Bustillos went there and she started to read, she started to look through all that material. What she found surprised her. Days after being there she was still trying, as she put it, “to cram my eyeballs all the way back in where they belong.” One thing that surprised Bustillos was:

the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.

David Foster Wallace was reading this self-help material because he was trying to put himself back together after having nearly lost himself. He almost died, to put it simply. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol and he was killing himself. He went into treatment. He attended rehab and AA meetings and became involved with 12-step programs. In doing so, he came to realize that his striving for genius, his need to produce works of genius and to prove to the world that he was a genius, was part of the problem. Those feelings, those impulses, were taking him out of the world, making him feel isolated and alone, cutting him off from the experiences of his fellow man. He became interested in killing the genius and becoming, once again, a human being. For him, the self-help books of John Bradshaw were more helpful in doing this than the philosophical works of Husserl. That’s how DFW saw it, at least.

The Pale King must be looked at, then, within the context of the ongoing process in which David Foster Wallace was trying to bring himself down to size. The character named David Wallace in The Pale King is a caseworker for the IRS. He is an anonymous toiler in a giant bureaucracy. Not just any bureaucracy. The IRS. Is there a less prestigious, less desirable job in all the world? There are chapters in The Pale King that discuss arcane matters of tax law down to the tiniest detail. There are painstaking discussions of the appearance, history, and significance of an IRS office building in Peoria, Illinois. There are descriptions of the daily goings-on at the IRS office that read like the following:

Howard Cardwell shifts slightly in his chair and turns a page. Lane Dean Jr. traces his jaw’s outline with his ring finger. Ed Shackleford turns a page. Elpidia Carter turns a page. Ken Wax attaches a Memo to a file. Anand Singh turns a page. Jay Landauer and Ann Williams turn a page almost precisely in sync although they are in different rows and cannot see each other.

David Foster Wallace seems like he is trying to melt into the boredom of these passages. In fact, that is exactly what he is doing. The sentence that comes directly after the passage just quoted above reads, “Boris Katz bobs with a slight Hasidic motion as he crosschecks a page with a collection of figures.” Suddenly, the boredom is leading to something more profound, an attitude of reverence even. DFW is not simply trying to punish us, or himself, with the tiresome monotony of life at the IRS. “It turns out that bliss,” Wallace wrote in his notes for the novel, “a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

There is a two-step process here. First, you accept the mundane. You accept the boredom and the toil of life in general. You even willingly push it to its extreme and sign up, for instance, to work at the IRS for the rest of your life. There you can become one with the boredom. You can have an experience that is not, on the face of it, special in any single way. But if you are truly attentive to the details, if you concentrate on the minutia like a Hasid davening before a sacred text, then you have come out through the other side of boredom into a heightened relationship to the here and now.

In fact, the collection of characters at the IRS that Wallace tracks in The Pale King are all mystics of the boring in one way or another. One character with almost autistic literalness and attention to the details of tax-code reaches states of concentration that find him levitating above his desk. Another character spent his childhood in the obsessive, body-contorting, yogi-like process of attempting to kiss every spot of flesh on his own body. These people have come to the IRS not because they’ve given up on life, but because they have discovered what they consider to be a secret at the heart of life. It is the boring that leads you to real reality. It is the mundane that is the door into the extraordinary. The things that seem, at first, to be exciting and pleasurable are actually a trap. They lead to emptiness.

That is, in fact, an idea that David Foster Wallace had already explored in the book that made him famous. Infinite Jest is, among other things, a novel about the emptiness of contemporary life. All the entertainment, all the distraction leads to naught. It is the road of despair. You have to find something else, you have to find a way out of it. Infinite Jest is about zeroing in on that problem. The Pale King is DFW’s attempt to make the next step into a possible solution. If you can exist and thrive within the IRS, if you can love the IRS, if you can become one with the IRS, then you can do anything, you can be OK with any aspect of the world as it is given to us, any aspect of mass society from its empty entertainment to its mindless bureaucracy. There is a passage where the sometimes narrator of the novel, the fictional David Wallace, explains this quite clearly:

I’m not the smartest person, but even during that whole pathetic, directionless period, I think that deep down I knew that there was more to my life and to myself than just the ordinary psychological impulses for pleasure and vanity that I let drive me. That there were depths to me that were not bullshit or childish but profound, and were not abstract but actually much realer than my clothes or my self image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way — I’m being serious; I’m not just trying to make it sound more dramatic than it was — and that these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness, if only I could stay awake off speed.

It doesn’t really matter how autobiographical that passage actually is (though I suspect it is very much so). The logic of moving from the psychological impulses for pleasure and vanity to the sacred depths of the self was real to David Foster Wallace and translates directly into the fictional experience of David Wallace, employee of the IRS in Peoria, Illinois. “Simple attention, awareness” is a powerful force in The Pale King. In the novel, DFW has turned the entire bureaucracy of the IRS into a secret hiding place for those who seek to perfect the art of paying attention.

You could say that David Foster Wallace was looking for a place for prayer in modern American life. It was Simone Weil, the great Catholic/Jewish philosopher and mystic of the 20th century, who once said that, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” That is exactly the power all the characters of The Pale King are learning about, absolute unmixed attention. The IRS building in Peoria, as Wallace imagines it, is practically a monastery. The acolytes are at their examiners tables learning how to pray. The U.S. tax code becomes the new catechism.

Looking at it this way, you could also call The Pale King David Foster Wallace’s version of an 11th step. According to the literature of AA, the 11th step is when members of AA “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” The earlier steps in the 12-step tradition are largely about clearing away the bondage of self, learning to reintegrate oneself into the “stream of life.” The 11th step is about formalizing that process into a daily practice. It is, in DFW’s language, about creating habits for simple attention, awareness. It is about finding ways to worship. Here’s how Wallace put it in his now-famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College:

 Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

The Pale King is a novelistic exercise in and exploration of that trick, the trick of keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Why did he kill himself, then? The text of The Pale King, as we have it, suggests that he was getting somewhere. He was doing his own version of the 11th step. He was getting better. He was even, maybe, continuing to show the rest of us ways forward through the most difficult problems and questions anyone can confront. He was facing the emptiness of modern life head on and taking it seriously. He actually thought that a person can ask real questions such as, “How am I to live?” and come up with real answers. And then he killed himself and the whole thing collapses. Is DFW’s 11th step thus a false solution? Are his ideas about what it means to have absolute unmixed attention a route to despair and finally to suicide?

I doubt there are any truly satisfying answers to that question. DFW’s suicide, especially in the light of what he was trying to do in The Pale King, is troubling all the way down to its core. It is terrifying because it suggests that the possibility of absolute despair never goes away. Simone Weil seems to have gone in that direction, too, starving herself to death in solidarity with her fellow French countryman suffering during World War II. Or maybe, (it is sometimes suggested) she was trying to emulate the suffering and despair of Christ. At its heart, her death, like the death of David Foster Wallace, is a mystery and a painful conundrum. Perhaps it is simply the case that if you’ve been convinced that life can have real meaning, that there is an absolute good with which we can have contact, it must also be conceded that there is an absolute bad. And when you have opened yourself to the absolute good you have also, potentially, exposed yourself to the absolute bad. Lurking behind DFW’s critique of contemporary culture and its celebration of entertainment and distraction is the darker thought that equates our drive for pleasure with evil. He is touching on the territory of original sin and the possibility of redemption. The most radical thing David Foster Wallace may have achieved was to raise once again the matter of good and evil in the post-modern world in which nothing is supposed to matter very much. If he was right about that, if he was on the right track, then he was telling us about the most important things there are. He was telling us about life and death issues or issues, maybe, even more important than that. Was he trying to tell us about our souls? Who knows? Surely, though, he was trying to tell us the truth. He was trying to speak the truth and, ultimately, he died for it.  • 24 June 2011