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Inside the Forgiveness Machine with David Foster Wallace

This critique of the posthumous publication of The Pale King first appeared in Edinburgh Review issue 132.

‘How can one define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his death?  A theory of the work does not exist, and the empirical task of those who naively undertake the editing of works often suffers in the absence of such a theory.’

                  Michel Foucault, ‘What Is an Author?’

I first heard of David Foster Wallace in the spring of 1996 when Infinite Jest hit the bookshops with a large splash—and weighing in at over one thousand pages, the splash couldn’t have been small.  Of course, the hype had as much to do with the author as with the work itself.  He was young.  He was extraordinarily talented.  He was the recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant.  And look!  He had written an epic critique of consumer culture.  Reviewers reached impulsively into their closets for the period costume known as the ‘Great American Novel’ and suited up Mr Wallace as a runway model, with the consensus that although Infinite Jest was a bit wide in the shoulders and baggy in the waist, it was just about the best fit we could expect these days, wasn’t it?  This, at least, was how it seemed to me at the time.  I was in the final semester of my postgraduate degree in Creative Writing at Arizona State University, delighted to be putting the finishing touches to my dissertation—a ‘first novel’ in technical rather than artistic terms—and suddenly here was this unshaven dude in a bandana, only six years older than I was, being touted as the new Tolstoy.  Furthermore, he was a graduate of a rival MFA program two hours down the interstate.  I was at once curious and intimidated, jealous and admiring of Wallace’s work—or rather, the publicity surrounding it.


But once I began reading, I forgot about the packaging, the external apparatus of the novel’s production and promotion.  Here were the pages.  Here were the words.  This is all that matters, I told myself.  As I spent several months with this wrist-cracking behemoth of a book, which I took to calling Infinite Text, I found myself overcome with a deep ambivalence.  In my more upbeat and generous moments I viewed it as a masterpiece of lateral movement, of tangents and parallels and conic sections formed by its various plot lines in which the correspondences mattered as much as the intersections.  It had a fascinating assortment of characters, many of whom never even meet each other.  It took place in a satirical, dystopian near-future that, though outrageous, struck me as a keen depiction of America’s commercial pathology.  There were Québécois terrorists known as the Wheelchair Assassins.  There were cross-dressing government operatives and promiscuous mothers.  There was the high-tech intrigue of a video cartridge (remember, this was the ’90s) so compelling that viewers lost all volition to do anything but watch it until they died.  And most importantly, the writing itself was sharp and engaged and innovative and energetic.  These sentences had topography.


In my more critical moods, though, the novel came across as an undisciplined mess.  Some of the correspondences between these multiplexed plots and themes were too blatant, others too faint.  The hyper self-conscious erudition began to wear thin.  The endnotes, which in places added an extra dimension to the novel’s plane geometry, elsewhere simply didn’t earn their keep.  And the conclusion struck me not as a Beckett-like exercise in non-closure, but as a failure to finish, as if Wallace simply didn’t know where to go.  (Normally this would be the place for a spoiler alert, but trust me, there’s nothing to spoil:  Infinite Jest doesn’t really end.  It just stops.)  The non-ending, I thought, exposed crucial flaws in Wallace’s all-inclusive narrative technique, demonstrating just how much the story served his writing instead of vice versa.  I had spent several months, as it turned out, happily immersed in a novel that was less than the sum of its parts, buoyed by its musings and phrasings rather than its character developments or plots—its freemasonry rather than its architecture—and in the process discovering a key question to ask myself about my own work:  Just because you can write that scene or passage, does it necessarily mean you should.


Fifteen years later The Pale King raises the question again, but aims it in a different direction:  Just because you can publish that scene or passage, does it necessarily mean you should?  Posthumous publication seems to be successful only when a work is complete (or nearly complete) and worth publishing in its own right.  Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and John Kennedy Toole are only a few examples of authors who exist for us precisely because their best writing was saved from the fire, sometimes in direct disobedience to their last wishes, as if they couldn’t quite believe anyone would enjoy reading it.  The issue becomes much more problematic, however, when an established author such as Vladimir Nabokov dies with an unfinished novel on his desk.  The Original of Laura, complete with facsimiles of Nabokov’s fabled index cards, seems to have left most readers and reviewers with serious misgivings.  Do we need to see the unfinished scribblings of an author well past his prime?  The tendency here is to indulge our curiosity and then feel a bit cheapened afterward, as if we’ve rifled through his underwear drawer.  More complicated still is the situation with David Foster Wallace.  Here was a young and prolific author, arguably with his best work still ahead of him, who took his own life.  If you’re a fan of his fiction, the empathy and sadness at his death is eventually replaced by a sense of deprivation.  After all, we were expecting that next novel.  But now?  We feel cheated.  Posthumous publication is our fallback position.  Our impulse is to open the author’s underwear drawer even if it is exactly what he didn’t want us to do.  As Michael Pietsch says in his Editor’s Note to The Pale King, ‘Everyone who worked with David knows how well he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exacting standard.  But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look?  David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.’[i]


Assembled from the scattered—in fact, very scattered—materials Wallace left behind, this ‘Unfinished Novel,’ as the publisher dubs it, is a patchwork of passages or chapters in various stages of development.  In the text itself we see many of Wallace’s characteristic fixations and flourishes, along with his double-edged swords of brilliance.  The first chapter is a prose poem that I imagine any author would be proud to claim.  The second, however, which devotes twenty-one pages to a character’s arrival at small rural airport and his subsequent bus ride to a centre for the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, is at once a brilliant exercise in free indirect discourse and a tedious slog.  After about three or four pages you’re likely to find yourself scribbling in the margin, OK, OK, I get it.  Enough already.  Further on there’s a disembodied, unprocessed dialogue about masturbation, along with two horrifically ill-considered metafictional chapters (with footnotes, of course) featuring an ersatz David Foster Wallace himself.  We also find a newspaper article about an Internal Revenue Service employee’s quirky death, plus assorted childhood episodes of characters who will later come together under the roof of the same IRS processing centre in Peoria, Illinois, where presumably the novel’s main plot was intended to take shape.  Simply put, to read this book is to sample scraps of various sizes and shapes and colours, many of which are dispensable—the sorts of things an author might bang out as backstory or reference material.


Yet some of it is indispensable.  The standouts, in my opinion, are two lengthy, self-contained chapters.  The first of these is a one-hundred page soliloquy spoken by a character named Chris Fogle during a video interview in which his explanation of how he ended up working for the IRS soon becomes a compelling and forthright exploration of how to think and feel, how to find purpose in every flicker of existence, how to be alive.  The other consists of a bar scene with a man who levitates (no joke) when his attention is absorbed, in this case by an attractive woman recounting her internment in a psychiatric ward when she began harming herself at a young age.  His levitation is understandable given that her story, not to mention the interaction between these two characters as she tells it, is quietly gripping and nuanced and vivid (though be advised that knowledge of Wallace’s own stint in an institution after a suicide attempt, also at a young age, makes it difficult not to hear autobiographical engines revving in the background).  If this description makes The Pale King sound more like a short story collection than a novel, then you’re on the right track.  Although characters are repeated now and then, the setting shared across some chapters, there is almost no sense of integration—and I don’t mean the sort of ‘integration’ that one expects in quasi-Realism, which Wallace repudiated.  This book comes across not so much as an ‘Unfinished Novel’ but rather as an unfinished draft, with pieces that Wallace undoubtedly would have revised before assembling and then, in turn, revised over and over again to meet his exacting standard.


Critics have picked through the assorted offerings of The Pale King with discerning and sympathetic responses, but to my knowledge none of them has questioned the process of the publication itself.  In part this is due to Michael Pietsch’s Editor’s Note, which precedes the text and evokes a close personal relationship with Wallace to the degree that, he says, ‘working on it was the best act of loving remembrance I was capable of.’[ii]  I have no doubt Pietsch is being completely honest here, but his statement also has the effect, intended or not, of pre-empting any serious examination of how this book has been produced.  It’s tamper-proof packaging.  The question, however, remains unanswered:  Why have we received Wallace’s text in this form?  ‘Given the choice,’ Pietsch says, ‘between working to make this less-than-final text available as a book and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn’t have a second’s hesitation.’[iii]  This begs the question of why it simply wasn’t published in its fragmented form—that is, in roughly the same state as the materials available at the University of Texas at Austin library—not to mention the actual condition of this ‘less-than-final text’.  Although Wallace left a stack of 250 pages on his desk, clearly marked for advance submission to his publisher, the rest of it was scattered throughout an entire garage in just about the most fragmented and chaotic state imaginable.  Pietsch says that he assembled The Pale King from Wallace’s ‘hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks contain[ing] printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes, and more,’ which filled a duffel bag and two paper grocery sacks.[iv]  Elsewhere he says there were ‘literally bins and drawers and wire baskets.  Just heaps of pages [with] no order to them.’  This latter quote comes from ‘Unfinished Business,’ a piece by Lev Grossman, who states the material amounted to ‘a total of 328 chapters and drafts and fragments . . . but Wallace had left no clues as to how they fit together.  At that point Pietsch’s role skewed from editor toward collaborator.’[v]


Suffice it to say this isn’t the tidy bundle of poems Lavinia Dickinson recovered from her sister’s locked chest.  It isn’t the stack of bound pages Thelma Toole took down from atop her son’s armoire.  In fact, it isn’t even the disordered but largely intact chapters that Max Brod eventually arranged into a sequence we now accept, for lack of better options, as The Trial—another unfinished novel which Grossman approvingly cites as a precedent for what has been done with Wallace’s writings.  At first blush the comparison is apt.  But Kafka didn’t leave this sort of chaos in his wake.  And he certainly didn’t have hard drives and floppy disks with masses of material, some of which, Grossman informs us, was unprinted.  (Yes, unprinted.  Writers, you know what this means.  Nonwriters, it might help to imagine discovering that your most idiotic and embarrassing moments have been not only recorded, but also posted on the Internet.)  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that unlike Toole, whose suicide had to do with his inability to publish A Confederacy of Dunces, Wallace’s suicide involved his inability to write the novel in the first place. ‘I don’t think he’d been able to write for more than a year,’ James Donald Wallace stated in an interview, describing his son’s struggle with both art and life.[vi]  Jonathan Franzen, one of Wallace’s closest friends, identifies the problem in more specific terms:  ‘As long as it [his fiction] was working for him—as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, as long as those dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest . . . he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself.  When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.’[vii]


So what do we make of this publication?  It would be all too easy—and all too incorrect, I think—to impugn Michael Pietsch’s motives.  It seems to me that he is devoted to Wallace’s writing well beyond the obvious financial incentive, as evidenced by the staggering and painstaking amount of work he put into this book.  (Writers take note of this endangered species:  an editor who actually edits.  Also take note you have to die to get him to work with you.)  No doubt any increase in Little, Brown’s bottom line is offset by the knowledge that Pietsch, as Executive Vice President and Publisher, could have spent his time more profitably elsewhere.  P.T. Barnum doesn’t haunt this project.  Instead we have to consider the crucial fact that Karen Green (along with Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s longtime agent) invited him to assemble this book.  According to her, Wallace left a two-page suicide note, but no instructions regarding his work-in-progress.  Instead he set those 250 completed pages on his desk with lamps arranged to spotlight it—an especially significant gesture when one considers that Green is a visual and conceptual artist.  Notwithstanding the danger of speculating about Wallace’s intentions, as an author this arrangement of the manuscript nevertheless strikes me as a deliberate strategy.  He didn’t say publish it.  He didn’t say destroy it.  He said, in effect, what are you gonna do with it?  If you’re a writer in your darkest and final moments, this gesture allows you to feel that for once—just once—you get have it both ways.  If the work is released to mixed or negative reviews, then hey, it’s a rough draft you never claimed was ready for publication.  And if your work happens to receive acclaim?  Vindication.  You were a genius with one hand tied behind your back.  You’re covered no matter what.


If this seems cynical or calculating or far-fetched, let’s return to Franzen, whose hard-nosed honesty about Wallace—and himself, for that matter—includes Wallace’s ‘loathsome hunger for career advantage’ which was powerful enough to extend beyond death.  In fact, Franzen states, to some degree Wallace’s death was ‘suicide as a career move, which was the kind of adulation-craving calculation that he loathed in himself and would deny (if he thought he could get away with it) that he was conscious of making, and would then (if you called him on it) laughingly or wincingly admit that, yeah, OK, he was indeed capable of making.’[viii] With this in mind, Wallace’s placement of the manuscript seems less like an enigmatic message and more like a smoke signal.  ‘I have no doubt in my mind this [the publication] is what he wanted,’ Green stated in a recent interview.  ‘It was in as organised a state as David ever left anything.’[ix]


But, of course, ‘it’—that is, the neat stack of pages on his desk—wasn’t what was published as The Pale King, and one finds it hard to imagine Wallace counting on such a full-scale excavation, culminating in the search and seizure of every scrap he wrote.  He was outmaneuvered.  And rightfully so.  The more you learn about the circumstances about his life and death, the more difficult it becomes to conclude otherwise.  On 12 September 2008, David Foster Wallace stepped out to the patio he shared with his wife and hung himself, knowing she would be the first one to discover his body.  Despite all sympathy for his condition, this was an act of profound cruelty.  ‘[He] killed himself,’ Franzen says, ‘in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed.’[x]  I can only imagine how Green found her way out of such devastation, but in part it must have involved her first post-David artwork, an object called a forgiveness machine.  It was a seven-foot long contraption with a vacuum at one end and a giant shredder inside.  After writing down something you wanted to forgive, or be forgiven for, the nozzle sucked in your paper and spat it out in unrecognisable bits.  She put the machine on display at a gallery, where it soon broke down due to heavy use.  ‘Forgiving is never as easy as we would like,’ Green said.  ‘Apparently quite a lot of people cried.’[xi]


The Pale King is the result of an editing process that no author’s work should receive.  But he gave up his prerogative when he put that rope around his neck.  This ‘unfinished novel’ is at once a tribute and a desecration, a piecing together and a shredding of his text.  It’s a forgiveness machine.  His friends and family need it, and perhaps, to a much lesser degree, so do we.  David’s unofficial title for his work-in-progress was ‘The Big Thing’.  It was the truest phrase he ever wrote.

2010 - present
2010 - present

[i] Editor’s Note, The Pale King, Hamish Hamilton, London 2011.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ibid.

[v] ‘Unfinished Business,’ Lev Grossman, Time, 31 March 2011.

[vi] ‘The Last Days of David Foster Wallace,’ Robert Ito, Salon, 26 September 2008.

[vii] ‘Farther Away,’ Jonathan Franzen, New Yorker, 18 April 2011.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ‘Karen Green: “David Foster Wallace’s suicide turned him into a ‘celebrity writer dude’, which would have made him wince”’, Tim Adams, The Observer, 10 April 2011.

[x] Franzen, op. cit.

[xi] Adams, op. cit.

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