Wallace article and unfinished novel excerpt in The New Yorker

booksthumbiconD.T. Max has written a fascinating and very lengthy biographical-critical essay on David Foster Wallace for The New Yorker. In the piece, Max draws on interviews, personal letters, and Wallace’s published work in order to create a portrait of Wallace as a writer and as a sufferer of mental illness. The essay also includes extensive discussion of The Pale King, an unfinished novel that Foster had been working on for the better part of a decade. The New Yorker also has an excerpt from the unfinished work.

Max’s essay makes for grim reading on the whole, but it is also full of insight about Wallace’s writing process and about his ideas about the aesthetics and purpose of fiction. In the following passage, Max writes about Foster’s desire to craft “morally passionate fiction”:

The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing 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. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. 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?”

So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool.

Though it was the flashy, ironic, and metafictional qualities of Wallace’s work that initially caught my attention back when I was an eager undergraduate reader in the process of forming my literary tastes, it was the moral qualities of his fiction, I think, that led me to devour all of Infinite Jest‘s thousand-plus pages in the midst of an extremely busy academic term. Wallace’s fiction dazzles on the surface due to his great mental and verbal agility, but it is his sincere moral seriousness that truly makes his writing exceptional.


1 Response to “Wallace article and unfinished novel excerpt in The New Yorker”

  1. 1 sonyachung March 8, 2009 at 10:41 AM

    Hello there — my blog generated a “related link” to your post, and I wanted to send along this link to my post on the DT Max article — I had a different take on it (i.e. strong negative feelings). I agree about Wallace’s moral seriousness, which is why I found the final paragraph, and Max’s conclusions about the meaning of Wallace’s death, so disappointing, and even reprehensible.


    (post password is dfw)

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