Don’t Pay Any Attention to This

by on November 15, 2011

Essays Issue 1 Nonfiction

Reading, and expecting to read, The Pale King was stressful. In the weeks leading up to its publication this past spring, I saw the book gather enormous momentum, revving the Internet into a dizzying echo chamber ofthe various characterizations now common to the David Foster Wallace discourse: rarely did his name appear without the sidenote that he was, of course, the heir apparent to the postmodern tradition, using maximalist yet incisive prose to give voice to the malaise of contemporary America; he was an unwilling celebrity who managed to be effortlessly magnetic, purposefully off-putting, and cripplingly self-conscious all at the same time; and, most tragic of all, he struggled with depression and hanged himself next to his famously unfinished manuscripts of The Pale King, three years ago last month. I found it difficult to wade through the hype. When Amazon made it possible for me to get my hands on the book before its release date in stores, I bitterly resented the opportunity; when the book finally made its presence known in storefronts, I hurried past with my head lowered. It was weeks before I purchased a copy, months before I tackled the first page.

The thing is, I consider myself an unrelenting Wallace loyalist who coddled and loved Infinite Jest to literal shreds, who—like so many others, I readily admit—believes that he speaks singularly to her values and anxieties. But I felt deeply reluctant to read Wallace’s final work because I couldn’t help but offset the constructed momentousness of the occasion with the writer’s own personal anxieties regarding the project. I worried that my experience would be influenced, decidedly in a negative fashion, by Wallace’s insecurities—and, what’s more, I could already feel the impact without having touched a page.

This past January, I had spent a week at the University of Texas in Austin to take a look at Wallace’s manuscripts, a largely professional collection in which the available correspondence was mostly limited to exchanges with editors. Fortuitously, the Harry Ransom Center also carried Don DeLillo’s manuscripts, which includes a folder bulging with agonizing, tortured letters from Wallace to his revered mentor. The collection covers more than 10 years of correspondence, from 1992 to many years after the publication of Infinite Jest, and “Mr. DeLillo” eventually becomes “Don” or “D2.” These messages are telling. If Wallace was a cheeky smart aleck who wasn’t afraid to call a character a “selfish little bitch” in an undergraduate English essay and who littered the margins of his galleys with nettlesome quibbles about comma usage, he was also a deferential and obsequious disciple who fairly fell apart in his letters to DeLillo, fixating on his perceived incompetence as a writer and inability to mature into adulthood.

Wallace’s ruminations about The Pale King are perhaps most self-flagellating of all. “I am not working well. You have not asked but I inform you,” he wrote to DeLillo in 1999, in a comically characteristic gesture of self-aware petulance. Wallace began research for The Pale King as early as the summer of 1997, the same year he received the MacArthur Fellowship—the so-called “genius grant.” The pressure immobilized Wallace: “I’ll lay stupid neurotic paralyzing trips on myself for several months, starting work and then getting scared/depressed and tearing the work up and starting again, until I finally get so tired that I don’t have the energy to scare myself into paralysis anymore, at which time I can really and truly start working,” he wrote to DeLillo. “This cycle is totally infuriating to me, but I seem unable to break it of my own will.” The writers that Wallace admired, he wrote, were those who possessed “sane, tough-minded discipline,” the adult capacity to look past the issues of fame, recognition, and acceptance, and instead focus on the integrity of the art itself. He hated the adolescent in him: distracted, erratic, inattentive.

Wallace’s frustration is accented by the fact that in penning DeLillo these letters self-diagnosing his inability to focus and his proclivity for moaning and agitating rather than writing, he exacerbated the very habits he vilified. He was subconsciously aware of, and deeply perturbed by, this possibility: “I stopped thinking neurosis was cool a long time ago—it seems to me now to be simply a system of poses—for oneself more than for others—that substitute for being a real person”—or for being a writer. In his letters to DeLillo, Wallace sounds like someone who’s just had a breakup, painfully cognizant that it makes him more pathetic if he continues to rehash the relationship’s dissolution but continuing nonetheless, because he simply can’t help it—the immediacy of the predicament overshadows the possibility of recovery. Neuroses permit him to think about the problem—obsessively, compulsively, even pathologically—without doing anything constructively about it.

In other words, Wallace thought he wanted, above all else, “sane, tough-minded discipline,” the ability to firmly moor his shaky attention span to his work—but this attention was often misdirected at mulling, and exacerbating, the problem itself rather than finding the solution.

If you were to flip through my copy of The Pale King, you would notice a small symbol making repeated appearances in the margins. It’s a single line spiraling into itself, each ring growing smaller and tighter until the arrowhead indicating the nose of the course can move no further, trapped inside a cage made by its own tail. It’s the sort of symbol you would see associated with vortexes or black holes—some entity collapsing into itself, its very life source becoming the impetus for its ultimate destruction. A shorthand for self-cannibalism.

I scrawled this symbol in the margins any time I came across such self-defeating moments in the novel. For example: situations in which A leads to B, but, by its very nature, B has no choice but to revert back into A, thereby ensnaring the subject in a vicious feedback cycle of guilt, shame, or self-hatred. Consider the nameless boy whose saint-like disposition and unshakable capacity for forgiveness and grace when faced with the worst in others lead everyone to hate him (A)—a hatred, however, made “complex” by the fact that it “often causes the haters to feel mean and guilty and to hate themselves for feeling this way about such an accomplished and well-meaning boy [B], which then tends to make them involuntarily hate the boy even more for arousing such self-hatred [A].”

Then, in what is perhaps the book’s most poignant example, there’s David Cusk, who suffers from an extreme sweating disorder that manifests at the most inopportune of circumstances (A), forcing him to devise elaborate strategies for avoiding detection or further attacks (e.g., running through the halls between classes to claim a desk away from the radiator) (B) that typically backfire and trigger yet another episode of profuse sweating (A). The tragedy of David Cusk’s situation, as he comes to understand, is that he’s forever doomed to attempt resolution of his problem. No longer is profound consciousness of one’s issues a good thing; rather, heightened awareness of his disorder condemns him to its very continuation:

The worst thing was that one degree could lead to the next if he worried about it too much, if he was too afraid that a slight sweat would get worse and tried too hard to control or avoid it. The fear of it could bring it on. He did not truly begin to suffer until he understood this fact, an understanding he came to slowly at first and then all of an awful sudden.

These moments, especially the story of David Cusk, showcase a breed of attention vastly different from the ones I’m familiar with in the rest of Wallace’s oeuvre. Much has been made of The Pale King as a novel about the virtues of boredom, a particularly easy characterization to make when juxtaposed with the idea of Infinite Jest as a novel about entertainment and pleasure-seeking. Even those who haven’t read the book likely know that The Pale King follows a group of IRS examiners, whose ability to sustain steely focus and steady concentration as they plow through stacks of dull files becomes a form of modern heroism—“today’s cowboys,” as one character calls IRS employees. The novel, as many have already noted, echoes one of Wallace’s central thematic motifs: in a world deluged with data and choices, it’s crucial that we practice awareness and carefully choose what we pay attention to.

But David Cusk is paying close attention, and it’s apparently doing him no good. In Infinite Jest, the characters who give themselves over to empty pleasures, like drugs and the eponymous film, are zombie-like, transfixed into a muted, static, “slack-jawed” state. The text makes clear that these moments of captivation are exactly that: acts of submission in which they passively allow themselves to be overcome, even to the point of death. In The Pale King, we find characters at an opposite extreme, those like Cusk, who are hyperaware, neurotically awake. But why is it that the matters they commit their attention to, the problems and neuroses focused on as things that require careful consideration and eventual resolution, are the ones that evade control?

In The Pale King, too much attention is akin to no attention at all. Consider the character Chris Fogle, who recounts his experiences using the drug Obertrol to create what he calls a “doubling” effect, in which his awareness is not simply heightened but duplicated altogether so that he becomes aware of his awareness. The experience is one of “doubling” in the sense that he can observe his actions and thoughts as though from outside; instead of simply reading or speaking, he can articulate to himself that he is in the process of performing those actions. But Fogle, who initially revels in the drug’s ability to make him feel “alive” and hyperaware, recognizes the dangers of Obertrolling:

… past a certain point, the element of choice of attention in doubling could get lost, and the awareness could sort of explode into a hall of mirrors of consciously felt sensations and thoughts and awareness of awareness of awareness of these. This was attention without choice, meaning the loss of the ability to focus in and concentrate on just one thing, and was another big incentive for moderation in the use of Obertrols, especially late at night—I have to admit that I know that once or twice I got so lost in the halls or stacked layers of awareness of awareness that I went to the bathroom right there on the sofa.

In focusing on the nature of seeing, smelling, or tasting as opposed to their targets, you are no longer seeing, smelling, or tasting at all. If the act of attention is considered and studied until it is theorized into abstraction, are you really paying attention?

This problem of hyper-attention, like that little symbol I made over and over in the pages of The Pale King, makes futile circles around itself, seeming to address the issue while at the same time amplifying it. Attention, in the lives of Wallace and the characters in his final work, has the potential for malignant neutralization.

In the “Author’s Foreword,” which begins on page 66 of the novel, we hear from the “real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona.” The narrator of this chapter calls himself David Wallace and breezes through a variety of biographical facts that the reader is supposed to assume are actually true of David Foster Wallace, that man we’ve seen in interviews, wearing bandannas and round glasses, etc. (I am unfortunately—or perhaps this is a relief—unable to verify Wallace’s social security number, but his Claremont address as described in the Foreword is real.) The narrator states that he is lifting the veil so as to inform the reader of the “truth.” As he baldly states: “All of this is true. This book is really true.”

After reading something like that, one wonders if Wallace is poking fun at his readers. Truth is the purported project of his narrative denuding, but the novel’s explicit voicing of its self-awareness as a creation by Wallace-the-man works in the opposite direction, actually burying the truth in layers of narrative until obfuscation renders it entirely obsolete. As readers, we know that the novel is fictitious: no matter how many times the book states “Author here,” we know that this “real” author is entrenched in the textual fabric as precisely the “abstract narrative persona” that he so loudly claims he is not. The reader is forced into heightened consciousness of the novel’s operations, but awareness of the “real” author does not generate a simpler read. Rather, like that ever-constricting ring, the novel circles inward toward self-depletion: it not only turns its attention to itself, but describes itself in the process of doing so. We are “Obertrolling” or “doubling” as readers: the text is not directly absorbed, but rather held at a distance; Wallace wants the reader to know that he knows that the reader knows that he is presenting an irreverent commentary on a silly meta-trick.

Wallace’s name has become somewhat synonymous with a neo-hipster ideal of un-ironic earnestness, the couching of high intellect within the comfortable bed of the colloquial lowbrow; he romanticized the ability to say what you mean without a shred of self-consciousness, pretense, and jaded cynicism. Wallace, after all, is famously quoted as declaring that literature is about “what it is to be a fucking human being”; he and good friend Jonathan Franzen decided together, in youthful earnestness, that literature should combat loneliness and illuminate shared experiences and truths. But how to achieve this authenticity without looking silly? He identified the problem as a contemporary obsession with sarcasm and irony as means of avoiding having to actually mean what you say: “irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks,” he wrote in an essay. Metafiction operated under a similar principle: it rested complacently on its being able to see itself, it treated self-awareness as an excuse for remaining trapped in its cage. Significantly, Wallace said that he experimented with metafiction in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” in an attempt to appropriate and reconstitute the form once and for all—but he called the work a dismal failure because it spiraled inward ever more, worsening instead of curing the cancer of irony.

The meta-metafictional twist introduced in the “Author’s Foreword” of The Pale King, is just another example of the same quandary: Is it possible to find a solution while treating the problem itself as the locus of remedy? Is it possible to create metafictional narratives that are supposed to be self-destructing commentaries about what you’re actually not supposed to do? His hands were made unclean so that he could wash them pure. He broke his own rules so that he could police himself back into order. He tried to fight fire with fire, metafiction with metafiction, irony with irony—and instead of emerging with sincerity or solutions, he spiraled inward toward the tropes and styles that created the problem in the first place. In desiring to move beyond postmodern “titty-pinchers,” Wallace found himself pouring the cement and erecting the clapboards for his very own funhouse—thinking that he could eventually demolish the construction with his own hands. Wallace fully realized the problem, but he felt that a life’s work was not enough to solve it.