A book of ‘adult sanity’

The New Yorker publishes excerpts from David F. Wallace’s unfinished novel

Published: March 8, 2009 4:39 pm

The New Yorker publishes excerpts from David F. Wallace’s unfinished novel
WHEN David Foster Wallace killed himself last September,his death shocked and saddened the literary world—and provoked immediate speculation about what posthumous work might emerge.

Last week’s The New Yorker offers at least a partial answer to that question. In a pile on Wallace’s Claremont,California,desk when he died were nearly 200 pages from an unfinished novel called The Pale King,on which the author of Infinite Jest had worked for years. Much more material related to the novel turned up in Wallace’s files.

The magazine is publishing a short excerpt from the novel as well as a long article on Wallace by D.T. Max that tells the story of the unfinished work. Michael Pietsch,Wallace’s editor at Little,Brown,said in an interview that he had a tentative agreement with Wallace’s agent to publish The Pale King in 2010.

The unfinished novel,Max writes,was in part Wallace’s attempt to move beyond the “self-consciously maximalist style” of Infinite Jest. “I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him,” Max quotes Wallace’s wife,Karen Green,as saying.

“It was different from what he had written before,” said The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman,though it’s also clear,from Max’s reading of part of the new work,that some of it recalls the expansive,trick-filled Wallace many readers came to love.

The unfinished novel did not surface for more than two months after Wallace’s death,said his agent,Bonnie Nadell. Pietsch,who had been working with Wallace ever since he acquired Infinite Jest,flew to California in January to examine what he called the “rather huge collection of manuscripts” Nadell and Green had assembled. “I had the uncanny experience of feeling joy where I expected to find grief,” he said,because he could feel Wallace’s presence in his “astounding,levitating,daring” work. Yet it was agony “to realise that he was not here,and not here to finish it.”

In a Wallace letter to novelist Don DeLillo,which he’d obtained earlier for another article,Max noticed a line he hadn’t paid attention to before: “I believe I want adult sanity,” Wallace had written,“which seems to me the only unalloyed form of heroism available today.”

Wallace had been on medication ever since his diagnosis of depression as an undergraduate. He decided to wean himself from the antidepressant Nardil in part,Max writes,because he thought the drug “might be getting in the way of The Pale King.”

“The Pale King had many ambitions,” Max writes. “It would show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic hyperactivity of American life. It had to be emotionally engaged and morally sound,and to narrate boredom while obeying the physics of reading. And it had to put over the point that the kind of personality that conferred grace was exactly the kind that Wallace did not have.”
Bob Thompson,LATWP

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