Best of 2011: David Foster Wallace Leaves One

This April’s literary publication of  The Pale King, the last book written by David Foster Wallace, had that odd media-world tinge of  knowing, in reading about the book, that Wallace was dead and no more work was forthcoming, except for this unfinished manuscript, which he had left in his house organized into piles with lights trained on them at the time of his suicide in September 2008. (His editor “finished” the book.) I have not yet read the Pale King but my Ipad is directly responsible for my affair this year with the great and indeed awesome Infinite Jest, published in 1996 when the writer was still in his 30s. The book,  a 1000-page saga of the Incandenza family, including the deceased (by his own hand) patriarch J.O., creator of the “entertainment,” is said to follow an organizational logic that owed to Wallace’s admiration for mathematics and in particular, understanding of fractals. Correspondingly, the book is a highly elaborate set of athwarts; Hal Incandenza, junior tennis prodigy; Don Gately, an in-between man; Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis, a shadowy woman with a radio voice; and an equally shadowy bunch of Canadian separatists called the AFR (an acronym meaning wheelchair-bound assasins; for why, you just gotta read the book.)

It’s a long book. No question. I felt after the first burn of 50 pages that I had, actually, fallen down, into, the rabbit hole. I might need just to stop everything else and lock myself into a room. And while this is a bit of overstatement, I sorta did. For eight weeks that began with my mother’s final illness, and culminated in September, at precisely the week that marked the third anniversary of Wallace’s suicide, I came to the end of my read.  (Excellent article in the New Yorker on his life, and his death.)

What more can be said? Loss is unforgivable in many real ways. In one of the online interviews with Wallace I began to trawl after finishing reading, I heard him ask his reader to consider not just one dance with Infinite Jest, but two. I hope in the future to comply. For those who don’t have 1000 pages in them, consider, readable here on Byliner, shorter prose works such as his ode to Roger Federer “as religious experience.” But Infinite Jest stands out as that gift of time, over time, of literature combining such intricate linguistic pyrotechnics and social deconstruction that the puzzle, the labryinth of the great novel, is its wit, humor, and lacing sadness. I felt grief-stricken on finishing. The melange of: I’m never going to write that. Art does not save lives. Yet: Reading is that great un-aging intrigue; undiminished by death or time; it doesn’t matter when you find it.

Exquisite. Brilliant. Including a murder by post-nasal drip, and a mens’ group scene that bears out what he says in this interview.




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  1. Sue Sommers says:

    My fave too! Just finished Infinite Jest this morning … still in a mind-state about that, hah … but read Pale King as soon as I could get my hands on it. Thank you for posting this.