My previous post about David Foster Wallace’s final novel, “The Pale King,” led me to a closer reading of the article in The New Yorker about the writing of that book. It’s well worth a read, because it gives you a look at what was haunting Wallace in the last years before his suicide last year. The author of piece says that Wallace was striving for something in his final pages that was, in short, redemptive.
“Good writing (he said) should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. …The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”
A few things to think about - Wallace’s comment on the darkness and stupidity of life was not made in 2008, but in 1991, a time that by contrast seems positively paradise compared to the current news. Yet Wallace struggled his entire life with depression in one form or another, a depression so staggering he needed prescriptions to keep it at bay and sought solace in drugs as well. When one functions in that kind of world, whatever the day's news is becomes merely an excuse to rehearse once again the ills of existence. The other thing is Wallace’s perception that irony - or the cynical snarkiness we all seem to traffic in these days- can only reenforce our own self apprehension. It cannot feed the soul. Yet he was also put off by comfort and reassurance, as though the problems he struggled against were not the type that could be merely explained away or revealed as less than their crushing weight. There is the temptation to throw up one’s critical hands and decide this is an artistic temperament that will not be happy with anything. But I think we miss something critical.
While not everyone has Wallace's inner turmoil (thank God), we all have experienced the disjointed nature of time and the shallow core of existence in the day-to-day world. Wallace understood that fiction can explore and comfort, even though its material may not necessarily be comfortable or comforting. At the end of his life, he may have actually been on to how it could be done. But the more he tried, the more elusive his goal became.
“’The Pale King‘” had many ambitions. It would show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic freneticism 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. In 2005, Wallace wrote in his notebook, “They’re rare, but they’re among us. People able to achieve and sustain a certain steady state of concentration, attention, despite what they’re doing.” It did not escape him that his failing to write the book was rising to a meta level—that he could not write it because he could not himself ignore the noise of modern life.”
If I dwell on a point here, it’s this - modern life cries out for grace. There is a hunger for redemption. There is a feeling that these are “dark and stupid times,” even if the times themselves do not seem out of joint. So many times we seek the answer in the wrong places - the arena of politics, or entertainment, or simple experience. The relief we feels seems illusory or nonexistent. Time has a way of destroying it. Politicians betray and disappoint. Movies run too short, too long, too meaningless. The intense pleasure we feel in experience has a depressingly short lifespan.
We feel out of joint, and we want to know why. Fiction cannot solve this problem either, no matter how well wrought it is. (In some cases, the less well-wrought, the more overwrought the reaction can be - witness the Ayn Rand crowd) It can only, at best, point in a direction that answers the problem. It can only pose a question to the reader that she will discover the answer to on her own, strangely enough, like a character in a book. The writer, can at best, make that search shorter, and the happiness upon finding the answer deeper.