April 22, 2012

Consider David Foster Wallace

I might be done for now with David Foster Wallace, having finished his posthumously published, novel-in-progress The Pale King. Which, as I write is embroiled in an internet brouhaha over the fact that it, along with two other books, was a finalist for the Pullitzer prize for fiction and no prize was awarded this year. “Outrageous!” shouts one lot. “I should think not,” opines another, “you can’t give the Pullitzer to an unfinished novel cobbled together by the author’s editor. And, anyway, it's tedious.” There’s even, “Whatever, let’s stop talking about this dead guy.” 

I haven’t read the other two finalists so I don’t know whether they would have been worthy winners, but I would have no problem with The Pale King winning that or any other prize. David Foster Wallace is described by some as a genius, an attribution that bothered him; in a manner most unlike that of Uriah Heep , he seems to have strived to be humble.

I struggle to identify what it is that I find so compelling about his writing. There’s something about his attention to the details of people being people, the internal monologues, the self-consciousness, the uncertainties, that appeals, but it is more than this. Perhaps, in The Pale King,  his capacity to examine the special boredom, the tedium, of workers auditing tax returns in the US Inland Revenue Service, in the context of a change in culture in that Service from the service aspect, of doing necessary work, to a business model. The business model means that the tax returns that will be followed up on are those where the additional income to the IRS, in the form of previously unpaid taxes, is greater than the cost of doing the follow-up. “Bottom line” over “justice”. But it’s complicated. Always, with DFW it’s complicated, and that may be another way in which his writing appeals to me.

The Pale King, unfinished as it is, is a collection of pieces concerning how people in the IRS deal with the organisation, their jobs at various levels, each other and themselves. There’s no coherent plot, which, surprisingly, didn’t bother me. He captures something of the way many of us profess disdain for the very things we indulge in, like television or buying new things. Also, he sidles into people’s mental states and their relationship to reality—is how I think about myself how others think about me?.

I’ve written two earlier blogs about DFW’s writing (21 December 2011 & 28 Jan 2012).

It’s impossible to give a real flavour of DFW’s writing in short quotes, but here are a few anyway:

“Something has happened where we’ve decided on a personal level that it’s all right to abdicate our individual responsibilities to the common good while we all go about our individual self-interested business and struggle to gratify our various appetites .”

“Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is .”

“… all accountants wear hats? They are today’s cowboys.… Riding hard on the unending torrent of financial data.”

And I’ve not managed to say or quote anything to show how laugh-out-loud funny Wallace can be.


  1. Thanks. Its really helpful to get a flavour and I think I would enjoy his focus and perspectives. The description and quotes you have given are stretching the grey matter in pleasurable ways .. Got me thinking. Wheres a good starting point?

    1. I suggest starting with his essays. There are two collections: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and, Consider The Lobster. He's also written short stories, one collection of these is called Oblivion, I think there are others.