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March 02, 2009


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I haven't read The New Yorker piece, but I did read the article in Rolling Stone from a few months back. You would obviously know better than I would how accurate it was, but I did find it to be indescribably sad, and if the desciption of Wallace's medical treatment in his last years was accurate, it made me pretty angry, too. I can't even claim to have been a fan of his for very long -- I only really started reading him last year, because I'm apparently one of those people -- but the Rolling Stone piece made him seem like that very rare thing, a truly good guy. And for some people and some families, It Just Isn't Fair.

I also wanted to say, even though you don't even bring it up in your post, that my gut reaction is that Wallace would not be happy with the idea of his unfinished novel being published. It seems to happen to every major writer with the misfortune to die with a work-in-progress stuck in a drawer somewhere, but that doesn't make it right. I know, it's because of this practice that we even know Kafka's name, and that's great. I just think it should be noted that we, you know, can't actually ask Kafka what he thinks about how things turned out, and there's every possibility that if he could have, he would have spit on Brod's shoes.

Glenn Kenny

Bill, you make an interesting point...one that I can't even begin to address without my stomach turning over, quite frankly. I can only assure you that the people who are doing this are people who knew Dave well and loved him.

And Christ (sorry, Christ), it's not as if it's not inevitable anyway. Vladimir Nabokov's son finally folded Dad's last set of index cards recently.

I honestly don't think the future of his work was going through his mind when Dave took his life. But knowing Dave as I did, I don't imagine that he was so naive to think that this would not happen in the event that he took his own life before completing the work to the closest to what one would call his satisfaction.



I feel like I just entered territory that you're closer to than I thought. I really should not have been so aggressive, or I should have just kept my trap shut in the first place. Please accept my apologize.

Glenn Kenny

Bill, while I appreciate the sentiment, really there's no apology necessary. The issue you bring up is a legitimate one—Dave and I actually discussed Kafka in precisely such a context once. (And, as it happens, a good friend of mind is actually a direct descendent of Max Brod's. But that's another story.) I wanted to reassure you that the responsible parties had, I think, considered the issue thoroughly. And beyond that, one hates to consider these issues when there's a much-missed friend involved, is all. But your philosophical objections are hardly out of line, and there's no offense taken.


Okay. I thought you might have been involved somehow in putting the book together. Either way, I'm glad I wasn't out of line.

I always assumed that Wallace's friends and family were involved, and have his best interests at heart. I believe that of Dmitri Nabokov, too -- it comes through clearly in interviews with him that I've heard and read -- but I frankly just, ultimately, don't see the percentage (this is even apart from the fact that Wallace doesn't have a say in the matter, which clearly I feel strongly about). Kafka's actually a different case from Nabokov and Wallace, and the case of the latter two there is a body of work that would exist regardless of the publication of the final, unfinished manuscript. And in these cases, the unfinished novel never really sheds that much light on things, or opens up a new area of thought, or is even thought of very often past the event of the book's publication. In ten years, I truly doubt that many people will be talking about "The Pale King". They'll be talking about "Infinite Jest" and "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and the rest of them. "The Pale King" will be a footnote -- an interesting one, no doubt, but the uncertainty of what it would look like had Wallace lived to finish it will ultimately be too much, and the unknowing will obliterate what's there.


As I've mentioned here before, Wallace was a big hero of mine, but I don't think that any mediocre posthumous work could taint his reputation. Actually, I don't think posthumous work could taint any great writer's reputation. Kafka only asked Brod to burn the unfinished novels, and we would have still had the short fiction if he had obeyed K.'s commands, but does anybody really care that the author of The Trial and The Castle had never been able to finish those two works? A nice, well-edited, honestly introduced and footnoted (perhaps by Pietsch) scholarly edition of Wallace's unfinshed novel wouldn't be a bad thing. No worse than Juneteenth, I guess.


I'm not saying this book will taint Wallace's reputation -- I'm just saying that it's not anyone's business, least of all the public's, to go poking around in a manuscript he wasn't finished with. If he knew this was going to be read by millions, Wallace might be mortified.

And it's always been my understanding that Kafka wanted Brod to burn everything, finished or not.


Bill, I looked over a couple of intros again, and I guess you're right: Brod was supposed to burn everything that hadn't already been published--but, since this was Kafka and he didn't finish much of what he started, that meant all of his unfinished work. As for Wallace, I just read the Max piece, and it sounds as if he left a couple of hundred pages with the intention that someone might want to publish them. As for the several hundred more that editors and family want to cull from his scraps and hard drives--it's not really for me to judge, but I'm certainly more sympathetic to the worries you voiced in your last comment regarding the novel's detritus. Incidentally, it sounds like a weird and terrific idea of a novel, and a great counterpoint to IJ: a book that turns boredom into a kind of utopia, after IJ turned entertainment into dystopia.


According to the New Yorker article, one of the final things that Wallace did was rearrange his manuscript and carefully set it out, along with various notes and outlines, for his wife to find. It does seem that he was at peace with some form of publication. A beautifully written post about a very sad article. Personally I found one of the saddest things about it to be that Wallace went off his medication, even though his non-writing life was about as well as it had ever been, because the destructive allure of artistic creation lured him back into it. Even incomplete, I'm glad that the novel will be published, one last piece of Wallace's writing to look forward to.


Billy Budd was unfinished at Melville's death. I'd not want to be without that one.

I can't add anything else, except to say I am still so sorry, Glenn.

Claire K.

John--I agree with you that, certainly in light of the ultimate result, going off medication seems like a catastrophic decision, but both the Max article and the Rolling Stone article talked about the decision not being solely or even primarily about sacrificing mental health to the demands of his muse or some such, as about real concerns about health and the risks and physical toll associated with long-term use of MAOIs. I mean, no matter what the reasons, the consequences were horrible, but I think it's probably doing Mr. Wallace a disservice to suggest that he decided to sacrifice himself to his art.

Chris Soelman

Huge Wallace fan, but I feel like since his death it has been the mission of those is the DFW business to turn him into a Saint. Reading how other people feel about him, you would think that he loved more than anyone, that he felt more deeply than anyone, that he was the only complete human on the fucking planet, and I don't buy it. Reading all of his work, I get the sense that he was someone who yes, tried to understand what it was like to be inside of someone else's head, but I also get the sense that he was deeply, deeply contemptuous of the human race, and that he toggled between those two polarities, which, to me, makes him just like everyone else. Was he smarter and better educated than most people? Of course. But he was just a guy. He wasn't Saint Dave. He didn't die for the sins of my generation, which is not what anyone here is saying, but which is a sentiment that has been floating around in all of the eulogies I have read about him. Everyone can pretend that his death was due to wacky brain chemicals, but I think that's just too reductive. David Foster Wallace killed himself because he hated being David Foster Wallace. It was a metaphysical problem. He was trying to write his way out of the problem, but you can't, and for someone who was a genius, I find it kind of ironic that he couldn't understand that, or maybe he did, and maybe that's why he killed himself. Because that is a perfectly good reason to erase your own map, as he was so fond of saying. Or one of the reasons. He didn't want to be inside of his own head anymore. Maybe David Foster Wallace was a paragon of human compassion, but if he was, then he forgot to feel compassion for himself, which sounds trite and sentimental, I guess, but which sounds like the truth to me. Dave Wallace murdered David Foster Wallace. That's a fact. And maybe one day someone will try and address this instead of trying to turn him into the equivalent of one of those tacky paintings of the angelic little chrubs with the big wet eyes.

Glenn Kenny

I don't think anybody's trying to turn him into a Saint, Chris. Hell, would a Saint call David Leavitt a "fuckwad"? Well, maybe he or she would, at that. But you're right: nobody around here is saying that he died for the sins of his generation. And no one with a shred of intellectual credibility WOULD say any such thing. Zadie Smith didn't say it, Jonathan Franzen didn't say it, Don DeLillo didn't say it. David Lipsky didn't say it, and he could have gotten away with saying it, given he wrote his Wallace piece for "Rolling Stone." So I don't understand why you're dragging the argument here, where no one is making it. Complain to them, not to me.

As for your idea that Wallace was "deeply, deeply contemptuous of the human race," well, I dunno. That attitude doesn't jibe with a guy who would give away the only corded phone he owned to some A.A. fellow he barely knew because that guy couldn't afford to buy his own. But what the fuck do I know, right?


Wittgenstein said something, and Philip Kerr quotes it in one of his mystery novels, to the effect that the best evidence of state of mind is inadequate evidence of state of mind. A neurologist might go a bit further and say "inauthentic," rather than "inadequate."

Which is a roundabout way of saying that not publishing works left unfinished or unpublished during an artist's lifetime seems a pretty poor way to memorialize somebody, and "not anyone's business" a pretty weak argument. It doesn't seem, to me, very different from Isabel Burton justifying burning Richard F. Burton's supposedly pornographic manuscripts after his death by saying that she had a dream in which he instructed her to that effect, except that the latter uses nineteenth century pieties (spirits, Victorian propriety surviving into the life to come, widows' wisdom) and the former the twenty-first century counterparts (privacy, authorial intent, that sort of thing). I can't say how Ruskin justified burning Turner's sketches and paintings, but he shouldn't have.

As I reread the foregoing, I think that I come across rather more combative than I intend. I don't mean to condemn anybody's emotions about DFW, his death or the potential effect on his reputation of the publication of work that he had not deemed "finished." I just think that the world has lost a great many things to the fear of death that finds expression in pronouncements about what the dead wanted or would have wanted.


As a bereaved fan, ever since Wallace's death, I've been trying not to get too deeply sucked into the kekulean knot of "why he did it." I agree with most of what's been written here, but it makes me mad when I read stuff like "it was a metaphysical problem." Nobody commits suicide because of a 'metaphysical problem.' That's pure glib nonsense, and it's not helpful. The tragedy is that for all of Wallace's intellect and courage, and for all of the love of his family, and for all of modern medical science, he was unable to find a suitable treatment for a disease that proved lethal, namely severe unipolar depression. This is not being reductive. It happens, instead, to be as close as those of us on the outside of the problem, i.e. everybody who wasn't David Wallace, can get to the truth.

Anybody who understands depression knows this. It might be interesting to think of in metaphysical terms, unless you are yourself suffering from the disease, in which case it is just that: a disease of unbearable and literally indescribable pain from which you will do just about anything to escape. And the last resort is self-annihilation. Re-read Kate Gompert's analogy of the person who leaps from the burning building in IJ.

And it does indeed sound as if Wallace made his manuscript available for some kind of publication/circulation. We don't know what was in the note to his wife, and we don't know what was in his will, but we'll have to trust the people who Dave trusted, which is plenty good enough for me.

Chris Soelman

Oh, Zach, you're just so complicated too, aren't you, just like David Foster Wallace, who you really felt a kinship with, right?

If you're going to call me glib (and you know what, I wasn't attacking anyone here, so why you feel the need to attack me and call me names is kind of lame), then I'm going to call you shallow. Good. Now that we have both pinned pejoratives on each other, let me continue. I'm sure you'll find most of what I have to say "glib," so you don't have to call me that again.

Most of the human race is depressed. Tens of millions of people are on anti-depressants, and most of them don't hang themselves. Something was bothering Wallace, and it had more to do with the chemicals in his brain. I don't believe that human suffering can be boiled down to biology. All I was doing was thinking out loud. Wallace went round and round, tying himself in knots. I believe he was in the throes of a massive miscommunication with himself, that's all. But if you and everyone else wants to think that's it just so easy to say what went wrong with him, then fine, if that makes you feel better about your own problems. I didn't know Wallace like you did, Zach, but from everything I've read, it seems like it would have made him uncomfortable to hear what people are saying about him (if I can make my own ridiculous speculations about someone I didn't know as well as half the people here, it sounds) and what went wrong. I think it's pretty obvious that he senses there was something WRONG with him, and it was more than depression and it was more than medication. That's what I mean by "metaphysical."

Sorry to be so glib about the whole thing. My apologies.


Chris, I apologize for sounding as pejorative as I apparently did. I'm not trying to piss you or anybody else off. I still stand behind what I wrote, but let me just clarify: I'm not pretending to know how Wallace felt. I have, however, been close to people with depression, and I've struggled to better understand it, and there's a vast and readily available body of work to peruse concerning the disease.

As much as it would be inappropriate to make this the battleground for a debate, it's important, I think, to be clear about such a condition - if not for Wallace, then for other people who still suffer. Saying things like 'most of the human race is depressed' is, to put it as non-pejoratively as possible, not helpful. Yes, tens of millions of people are on antidepressants (and in therapy). Many of them don't kill themselves, for the simple reason that the treatment works. If we're talking about a disease, which we are, then the aforementioned statement is also empirically false. It might be the case that most of the human race is majorly bummed out. They (we) sure aren't wanting for reasons to be. It is, however, not the case that most of the human race is clinically depressed.

And I while I strongly suspect that I'm not nearly as complex as Wallace, I do feel a certain kinship with him, even now, through his work. Which is kind of what he believed fiction to be about, as I understand it.

By the way, I agree with you that all human suffering can't be boiled down to biology. If I did, I wouldn't have read Wallace, or any other fiction, in the first place.


Wallace had a secret. And the only person who knows what that secret was was Wallace. No one will ever know. No matter how well they think they knew him, they will never figure out what the secret was. Because that means Wallace gets the last few words. And what Wallace said was fuck this noise. You can pretend that wasn't his exit line, but it was. I'm out of here. The rest of you have a nice time. That was Wallace's final answer. Does that mean the rest was bullshit? Who knows. Wallace was a cosmic comedian. Which means the joke is on everyone but you.

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