Author's Final Book An Unfinished Tale Of Boredom
After struggling with depression for most of his adult life, writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2008 at age 46.
In one of his final acts, he tidied up the manuscript of a novel he'd been working on. The book was to be a follow-up to his 1996 masterwork, Infinite Jest. He called it The Pale King, and many said it would be a monumental contribution to contemporary fiction.
The manuscript was unfinished, but Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor at Little, Brown and Company, felt it was too important not to make the work available to the public, finished or not.
So The Pale King will hit the bookstores later this month, incomplete but still a window into the mind of a writer considered to be one of the most gifted of his generation.
"We chose to publish on April 15 as a way of casting a comic light on a novel that has a lot of darkness surrounding it," Pietsch tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz.
A Boring Book – Mostly On Purpose
The Pale King is focused with the way we regulate our attention to the dull, rote and boring. Wallace laid out the premise of his novel in a typewritten note before his death.
"Bliss — a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom," he wrote. Pietsch says it attempts the greatest challenge he's ever seen a novelist take on: "To write a novel about the boring parts of life."
By working through the boring, complex and difficult details of life, Pietsch says Wallace believed it was possible to truly connect with another person in a meaningful way.
"The book deals with boredom," Pietsch says, "But it's because it wants to deal with joy."
The novel centers on the life of several IRS tax return processors, and parts of it contain entire passages dedicated to the details of tax code policy. Some of the boredom here may not be entirely deliberate, Pietsch says — after all, it is an unfinished story. Wallace did not revise some chapters as tightly as others.
"I would imagine this novel, if David had continued working on it, would not have been boring for a second," Pietsch says. "But I'm prejudiced."
Putting Together An Unfinished Story
Wallace dug into his subject by taking accounting classes starting as far back as 1997. As it turns out, his longtime agent Bonnie Nadell tells Raz, Wallace was also quite good at math. "He could take very advanced accounting classes and follow them."
Papers left in his office reveal Wallace started correspondences with various accountants around the country. He took great interest in his own accountant, Nadell says, "who loved him to pieces, because no one ever asks about all the minutia of doing someone's taxes."
Wallace sought these details, Pietsch says, because he wanted to write a novel that connected to peoples' true lives.
"He's trying to write about what's it's like to go home every day to the same spouse for 40, 50 years," Pietsch says. "How do you look into the face of a job that you know you're going to do again and again for 40 years?
"How can you find meaning? How can you find delight? How do you find love? How do you find someone who will sit with you while you talk about what happened to you in line waiting to get to the bank teller?" Those are questions Wallace grappled with until his death, Pietsch says.
The evidence of that struggle was found in nearly 3,000 pages of drafts left in Wallace's office. Some were typed. Some were handwritten. Some were on floppy discs.
"When I first encountered it, it was this mass of material," Pietsch says, like a puzzle with no directions for assembly.
The Posthumous Question
Did Wallace's struggle to finish the The Pale King lead to his death? According to Nadell, it may indeed have played a role in the author's suicide.
Wallace got married in 2004 and by many accounts, became as mature and happy as he'd ever been. He enjoyed his teaching job at Pomona College. In 2007 he even decided to stop taking an anti-depressant he'd been on for many years — reportedly in hopes that it would aid him creatively. Still, Nadell says, "It was a hard book for him to finish."
"And he never did finish it," she says. But he did intend to publish it, she believes. "He left it in his office for people to find."
"And he was someone who threw out things constantly," Pietsch adds. In fact, he says, Wallace threw out nearly every piece of correspondence he ever received.
"He was clearly capable of throwing out things he didn't want to have," Pietsch says. "As I read these pages, I had no doubt at all this novel contains writing and thought as great and deep as anything David ever did."
"It's heartbreaking it's not finished." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
The writer David Foster Wallace struggled with depression for most of his adult life. In 2008, at the age of 46, he took his own life. One of his final acts was to tidy up the manuscript of a novel he'd been working on at the time. The book was supposed to be the follow-up to his 1996 masterwork, "Infinite Jest." He'd been working on the book, at the time, for about 10 years. He called it "The Pale King." And later this month, that book will finally be published. But it is not complete; David Foster Wallace never finished it.
So his editor at Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, had to piece it together from the thousands of pages of notes that David Foster Wallace left behind. And Michael Pietsch joins me now to talk about that process, from New York.
Mr. MICHAEL PIETSCH (Editor, Little, Brown): Thanks, Guy.
RAZ: Also with us is Wallace's longtime agent, Bonnie Nadell. Welcome to you as well.
Ms. BONNIE NADELL: Thank you very much.
RAZ: First, to you, Michael. By way of explaining briefly what the book is about, I will say that it comes out on April 15th, officially, in the bookstores. Can you explain why, Michael?
Mr. PIETSCH: We chose to publish on April 15th as a way of casting a comic light on a novel that has a lot of darkness surrounding it. And that comic light is that the book is set at the IRS tax return processing center based in Peoria, Illinois. It centers on the lives and work of a group of IRS tax return processors.
RAZ: We're going to - obviously - return to some of the themes in the book later. But first, I want to ask you, Bonnie, David Foster Wallace called this book -and I'm quoting here - the long thing. He compared writing it to trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm. Do you think that the struggle, his struggle in writing this book, contributed to his death?
Ms. NADELL: It partly did. I mean, there were a lot of things that contributed to his suicide. Part of it had to do with fighting depression. Part of it comes from going off his medication. But it was a hard book for him to finish, and he never did finish it.
RAZ: He had been - Bonnie, he had been married in 2004. By some accounts, he was in a kind of a happy - at least personally, he was in a happy place in his life; decided he was going to go off one of the antidepressants that he'd been taking for many years. But what? I mean, what happened?
Ms. NADELL: Well, he was in a really happy place. I mean, I knew David for 25 years, and I had never seen him as happy and as mature in his life. I mean, he was teaching at Pomona College, which he really enjoyed. He liked living in California. They - he and Karen had bought a house.
RAZ: Karen was his wife, of course - Karen Green.
Ms. NADELL: He was very settled. Part of the reason why he decided to go off the antidepressant he was on was because he was happy and settled and felt if there was a time to do it, it was now. Unfortunately, the best intentions that he had didn't work out that way.
RAZ: Michael Pietsch, you are usually used to sort of being in the background, one of the quiet geniuses who makes great writers even better. You did that with David Foster Wallace. First of all, can you describe what he left behind?
Mr. PIETSCH: What David left behind was nearly 3,000 pages of draft in various forms. Some of them were handwritten; some of them were neatly typed; some of them were on computer discs. They were tucked away in various folders. They were spread all through his office. It was this - massive material.
RAZ: Just a pile of things. And in no particular order, just like puzzle pieces.
>Mr. PIETSCH: It was a puzzle piece. And within the book, there were repeated references to tornadoes - and in notes he had written to himself, to a tornadic structure that suggested that he wanted this book to be kind of a whirling. high-wind, massive material coming at the reader that way. So those were some of the guidelines that I followed.
RAZ: Besides that manuscript, David Foster Wallace left a typed note, and he laid out the premise of "The Pale King." And this is what he writes. He says: bliss, a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive; conscious lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.
Michael Pietsch, what was he getting at here?
Mr. PIETSCH: The book attempts the greatest challenge I've ever seen a novelist take on, which is to write a novel about the boring parts of life. Every other novelist in history is compressed around the exciting part.
Mr. PIETSCH: Elmore Leonard famously said he became successful when he learned to leave out the parts that people skip.
David's goal, from the very start, was to make people look at the parts they usually skip. There is a chapter written by a character named David Foster Wallace, and he begins by saying, go back and read that fine print on the copyright page of the book. His goal was to make people look at the parts of life that they don't usually focus on, and understand that this is where life is really happening.
RAZ: I mean, he has scenes where he's talking about characters auditing tax returns.
Mr. PIETSCH: He has characters auditing tax returns. He has characters having long conversations when stuck in an elevator that's stopped between floors. He very amusingly set scenes in these sort of agonizing circumstances, but he makes them riveting. He makes them brilliant. He makes them glorious. And he shows to get outside of ourselves, and to actually connect with another person, you have to navigate all the complexity of life - all the difficult, complicated details.
By doing that, then you can get to joy and to love, and to the meaning of life. So the book deals with boredom, but it's because it wants to deal with joy.
RAZ: Bonnie Nadell, David Foster Wallace researched this book by taking accounting classes. Can you describe what else went into his preparation?
Ms. NADELL: Well, David was - as well as being an amazing writer - was quite a prodigy at math. And so he could take very advanced accounting classes and follow them. He also started correspondences with various accountants around the country. His own accountant, who did his taxes and his wife's taxes, loved him to pieces because no one ever asks about all the minutiae of doing someone's taxes.
And he - and there is a whole section in "The Pale King" where he has characters talking about the tax code, and how the tax code has changed and why it's changed. You remember that part, Michael.
Mr. PIETSCH: Of course. Also, just to respond further to your question, Guy...
Mr. PIETSCH: ...the main theme of the book is the complexity and tedium of work. David had written essays about how he wanted to write fiction that really connected with people's true lives. And in this novel, I see him grappling with that. He's trying to write about what it's like to go home to the same spouse every day for 40, 50 years.
How do you look into the face of a job that you know you're going to go and do again, for 40 years? How do you do the things that you need to do again and again? How can you find meaning? How can you find delight? How do you find love? How do you find someone who will sit with you while you talk about what happened to you in line, waiting to get to the bank teller?
David was using this book as a way of trying to write about people, and then try to arrive at meaning that connected to people in a really big, deep, heartfelt way.
RAZ: There are parts of this book that are - I think it's fair to say - a bit of a slog, even boring. And I'm wondering if that was deliberate.
Mr. PIETSCH: I think that's a question that is going to be wildly debated, for good reason. Are those chapters that might be called boring, boring because he didn't finish them? My argument is yes, there are chapters that he did not revise as tightly and as forcefully as he revised some. I imagine this novel, if David had continued working on it, would not have been boring for a second. But I'm prejudiced.
RAZ: Bonnie or Michael, as both of you talk about this book in the coming weeks and months, I imagine you're going to get this question: Do you think that he would have wanted us to read this, all of us, even unfinished?
Mr. PIETSCH: Bonnie, what do you think?
Ms. NADELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think he did. He left it in his office for people to find. Our only hesitation was to know if we thought it was good enough and publishable enough. And that's why it actually took us a number of months before any of us made that decision.
Mr. PIETSCH: It is a fair question, and I think it's human nature to ask that question when confronted with a posthumous work. Bonnie has spoken to her surmise about David's intent, the fact that he left pages on his desk when he died. And he's someone who threw out things constantly. He threw out every piece of correspondence he ever received, practically. So he was clearly capable of throwing out things he didn't want to have.
So - and as I read these pages, I had no doubt at all. This novel contains writing and thought as great and as deep as anything David ever did. It's heartbreaking that it's not finished, but it's absolutely exhilarating for those of us who loved his work. And how can we not show that to the world?
RAZ: That's Michael Pietsch. He was David Foster Wallace's editor at Little, Brown, and the person who pieced together manuscripts to help create Wallace's forthcoming, posthumous novel, "The Pale King." We also heard from Bonnie Nadell. She was David Foster Wallace's literary agent.
Bonnie, Michael, thank you so much.
Mr. PIETSCH: Thank you for talking to us.
Ms. NADELL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.