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 echochamberofthe 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.