For at least one person with whom I’ve discussed the book, the designated Chapter 9 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, headed “Author’s Foreword,” is a real uh-oh moment for the unfinished novel, particularly coming as it does after the very raw and straightforward and harrowingly detailed Chapter 8, describing the particulars of the worse-than-hardscrabble early years of Toni Ware, of whom it is said in Chapter 45, “do not mess with this girl; this girl is damaged goods.” For Wallace to offer up such a magnificent and evocative and straightforward piece of prose, I have heard it argued, and then introduce himself as a character in the novel, thus falling back on one of the tired postmodernist tropes/tricks that he himself had often avowed to be well and truly fed up with, well, that is/should be kind of disappointing, what?
Well, without getting too much into the vexed issue of postmodernism and literature, to complain about postmodernist tricks is indicative that postmodernism has done a pretty shitty job of making itself understood. If we look at the postmodern investigation as at least in part and attempt to pull back the curtain of artistic artifice in order to get at certain deeper truths about the stories we tell, then to express impatience with that investigation could be seen as an admission that we’d rather be lied to. But again, if we go there, we’re not going to get to the precise point I want to go to here. So let’s look at the ostensible laying-of-the-cards-on-the-table in Chapter 9:
Right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005,to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.
The careful reader familiar with certain specifics of the “real” author’s biography might notice something right off the bat, which is that on the fifth day of spring, 2005, David Foster Wallace would have been age 43, not age 40; his birth date was in February of 1962. Readers who were fortunate enough to have known Wallace personally will also recall that when announcing himself on the phone or in a voice mail or what not, he did not very frequently at all refer to himself as “David Wallace” but rather as “Dave Wallace,” so there’s another clue for you all that in ostensibly pulling back the curtain on fiction’s artifice Wallace is in fact constructing another fiction atop the premise that he’s pulling back the curtain, which becomes clearer still once it’s understood that the whole business about getting your original Social Security number with a special number beginning with “9” once you enter the IRS as an employee is a complete (and pretty funny) fiction. So who’s the real author of The Pale King, and what’s he really doing? A little later on in that chapter he refers to having had the “specific dream” of becoming a “great fiction writer a la Gaddis or Anderson, Perce or Balzac.” Note not just the names, but the “or” rather than “and.” All this counts.
Reading Wallace or someone like him assert that a clear fiction is in fact “really true” brought to mind working with him on the piece that was initially published as “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment, It Turns Out” in the September 1998 edition of Premiere, and then printed in expanded and unbowdlerized form under its original intended title “Big Red Son” in the essay compilation Consider The Lobster. Here is a passage from the beginning of the piece:
Let us not forget Vegas’s synecdoche and beating heart. It’s kitty-corner from Bally’s: Caesars Palace. The granddaddy. As big as 20 Wal-Marts end to end. Real marble and fake marble, carpeting you can pass on without contusion, 130,000 square feet of casino alone. Domed ceilings, clerestories, barrel vaults. In Caesars Palace is America conceived as a new kind of Rome: conqueror of its own people. An empire of Self. It’s breathtaking. The winter’s light rain makes all the neon bleed.
Consider for a moment the phrase “synecdoche and beating heart.” (By the way, the "Rome, conquerer of its own people" riff is repeated, as it happens, in The Pale King.) Wallace just dashes it off, but its implications are kind of mind-boggling, particularly because of the use of “and” instead of “or.” We’re not just talking about a part referring to a whole, but that part being the driving, essential organ of the whole. It’s significant, but that phrase isn’t the reason I’m reproducing that particular passage; the reason is that one piece of data, that Caesars Palace contains “130,000 square feet of casino alone.” As it happens during the fact-checking process leading up to the publication of the article, we couldn’t verify that information. Dave didn’t give us a source for it, we couldn’t find a source, and so on. There were plenty of other pieces of data in the article that were entirely empirically verifiable for instance, the number of men that Stephanie Swift performs analingus on in Gang Bang Angels 1, and the number of gobs of spit she takes in the face from those men some moments after. You could sit there in front of the TV watching the tape and just tick them off. But the actions and the tales told by the fictionalized composite characters Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba (based on myself and Evan Wright, then writing for Hustler magazine and quite miserable about it) were not entirely above board in the actual fact department; the whole bit about Hecuba getting throttled by porn star Jasmin St. Clair and his “special autotint trifocals” disappearing into the “forbidding décolletage of Ms. Christy Canyon, never to be recovered (the glasses) or even seen ever again” becoming a source of particular concern and confusion for our unusually helpful and cooperative legal department, members of which I did not pester with rationales concerning postmodern practice or tensions between provable fact and larger truth or any such thing but merely said, “The author of this piece is a really big deal, it’ll be okay.”
Of course said author published the piece under a pseudonym, or, to be more specific, two pseudonyms, and wrote in the first person plural. The initial reason for wanting to use (one) pseudonym had to do with Dave’s disinclination to lie, or be caught in a lie, or something. As much as he had wanted to attend the AVN Awards and write about them he had told his agent to tell any editors trying to get him to do magazine work that he was laying off that stuff for a couple of years to complete a book. He figured that if he did a magazine piece and that magazine advertised it by putting his name on the cover he’d then “look like a douchebag” as far as all the mag editors he’d been turning down were concerned. That it would likely be evident almost immediately that this was an article by David Foster Wallace had not…well, I can’t say whether it really had not occurred to him, but there you have it. In any event right now to me the salient question is why he chose to write under a dual pseudonym. I think it has something to do what’s in fact a major theme in The Pale King and in much of Wallace’s other work.
The epigraph to The Pale King is from a text called “Borges and I,” but not the famed Jorge Luis Borges ultra short story of that name. Still, I will quote what I consider a pertinent section of the Borges story first:
I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’, or in the tedious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself of him, and I moved on from the mythologies of the slums and outskirts of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now, and I shall have to think up other things. So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away—and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.
I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.
“If, indeed, I am anybody at all.” Another short phrase full of implications.
As for the epigraph for The Pale King, it is from “Borges and I,” a prose poem by Frank Bidart to be found in his 1997 collection Desire. The epigraph is “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed” which is straightforward enough and relates in a straightforward enough way to The Pale King’s IRS milieu. But let’s have a look at some of the matter around that sentence. This is the opening passage of the poem:
We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.
The desolating landscape in Borges’ “Borges and I”—in which the voice of “I” tells us that its other self, Borges, is the self who makes literature falsifies and exaggerates, while the self that is speaking to us now must go on living so that Borges may continue to fashion literature—is seductive and even oddly comforting, but, I think, false.
And this is the concluding passage of the poem:
We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.
Everything in art is a formal question, so he tried to do it in prose with much blank white space.
Many of the characters in The Pale King are afflicted with what you might call crippling self-consciousness. There are what “David Wallace” considers to be his horrible facial disfigurements, which are such that in all of his initial meetings with heretofore-unfamiliar people he’s perpetually gauging their reactions to them. A fellow named Cusk sweats too much, which leads to such paroxysms as the one described in this passage:
The worse it got, the colder the air from the overhead vent should have felt, by contrast. But perversely it didn’t—the hotter Cusk’s internal temperature got, the warmer the downdraft felt, until at a certain point it was like a scirocco or the air from an opened oven—positively hot. Cusk was not exactly having an attack, which in certain ways was worse because it could go either was. He had broken a light sweat, but this was not the problem—the nearby girl was behind him, and as long as the heat and sweat didn’t escalate into a full-fledged attack, his haircut’s rear would disguise any droplets of sweat. Only if it escalated into a real attack where the bits of sweat on his scalp beneath his hair grew and accreted into a density where they became actual droplets and followed gravity down over his exposed neck was there any real chance of the woman behind him noticing and seeing him as repulsive or weird. There was, by way of prophylaxis, the option of looking back and determining the age and attractiveness of the female examiner whose perfume and the faint leather scent of what was probably a purse enveloped Cusk. Since the room’s clock was on the room’s rear wall, there was an obvious excuse for turning quickly and looking backward.
Claude Sylvanshine’s psychic abilities cause him not-untold (to the readers, at least, for what would be the point) agonies. Lane Dean, Jr.’s obsession with being a “good” person is also a problem. And so on. One character who is utterly unselfconscious, Leonard Steyck Stecyk, is continually undone and subjected to horribly cruel humiliations because of this quality. But the joke is, because he’s THAT unselfconscious, he does not perceive the humiliations as such. And so on. But the most fascinatingly self-conscious character is Fogle, whose monologue takes up a full 98 pages of this 538-page text and whose “voice” is more like David Foster Wallace’s than the voice of the “David Wallace” who speaks as the “Author” of this novel which he insists is a memoir. Fogle, whose penchant for going into things in incredible termite detail earns him the nickname “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle from his colleagues, is the double of Wallace in The Pale King. In the lengthy passage below, Fogle describes the state of consciousness/being he experienced in college while abusing the drug Obetrol. I think there’s a lot here that’s key to not just Wallace’s themes throughout his work but to the particularly phenomenological perspective his writing takes, its struggle through all of its convolutions to finally get to something really “real” in spite of or maybe because of all the layers and convolutions pertaining to one’s impossible and often impossibly painful relation to one’s self:
And nor was it just good or pleasurable things you were aware of, on Obetrol or Cylert. Some of the stuff it brought into awareness wasn’t pleasant, it was just reality. Like sitting in the UIC dorm room’s little living room and listening to the roommate-slash-social-rebel from Naperville in his bedroom talking on his phone—this so-called nonconformist had his own phone line, paid for by guess who—talking to some coed, which if there was no music or TV on, you couldn’t help overhearing through the walls, which were notoriously easy to put your fist through if you were the type that punched walls, and listening to his rap of ingratiating patter to some coed, and not only sort of disliking him and feeling embarrassed for him at the affected way he talked to girls—as if anybody who was paying attention could miss seeing how hard he was trying to project his idea of himself as hip and radical without being the slightest bit aware of how he really looked, which was spoiled, insecure and vain—and listening and feeling all this, but also being uncomfortably aware that I was, meaning having to consciously feel and be aware of these inner reactions instead of just having them operate in me without quite admitting them to myself. I don’t think I’m explaining it very well. Like having to be able to say to yourself, ‘I am pretending to sit here reading Albert Camus’s The Fall for the Literature of Alienation midterm, but actually I’m really concentrating on Steve trying to impress this girl over the phone, and I am feeling embarrassment and contempt for him, and am thinking he’s a poser, and at the same time I am also uncomfortably aware of times that I’ve also tried to project the idea of myself as hip and cynical so as to impress someone, meaning that not only do I sort of dislike Steve, which in all honesty I do, but part of the reason I dislike him is that when I listen to him on the phone it makes me see similarities and realize things about myself that embarrass me, but I don’t know how to quit doing them—like, if I quit trying to seem nihilistic, even just to myself, then what would happen, what would I be like? And will I even remember this when I’m not Obetrolling, or will I just go back to being irritated by Steve Edwards without quite letting myself be aware of it, or why?’ Does this make sense? It could be frightening because I could see all this with uncomfortable clarity, although I would not have used a word like nihilism during that period without trying to make it sound cool or like an allusion, which to myself, in the clarity of doubling, I wouldn’t have been tempted to do, as I did things like this only when I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing or what my real agenda was, but rather on some kind of strange, robotic autopilot. Which, when I did Obetrol—or once, at DePaul, a variant called Cylert, which only came in 10 mg. tablets, and was only available one time in a very special situation that never repeated—I tended to realize again that I wasn’t even really aware of what was going on, most of the time. Like taking the train instead of actually driving yourself somewhere and having to know where you were and make decisions about where to turn. On the train, one can merely space out and ride along, which is what it felt as though I was doing most of the time. And I’d be aware of this too, on these stimulants, and aware of the fact that I was aware. The awareness was fleeting, though, and after I came off of the Obetrol—which usually involved a bad headache—afterward, it felt as though I barely remembered any of the things I’d become aware of. The memory of the feeling of suddenly coming awake and being aware felt vague and diffuse, like something you think you see at the outer periphery of your vision but then can’t see when you try to look directly at it. Or like a fragment of memory which you’re not sure whether it was real or part of a dream. Just as I’d predicted and been afraid of when I’d been doubled, of course. So it wasn’t all fun and games, which was one reason why Obetrolling felt true and important instead of just goofy and pleasurable like pot. Some of it was uncomfortably vivid. As in not merely waking up to an awareness of my dislike of the roommate and his denim workshirts and guitar and all of the so-called friend who came around and had to pretend to like him and find him cool in order to get a gram of hash from him or whatever, and not just disliking the whole rooming situation and even the nihilistic ritual of the foot and the Hat, which we pretended was a lot cooler and funnier than it was—as it wasn’t as though we did it just once or twice but basically all the time, it was really just an excuse not to study or do our work and instead be wastoids while our parents paid our tuition, room , and board—but also being aware, when I really looked at it, that part of me had chosen to room with Steve Edwards because part of me actually sort of enjoyed disliking him and cataloguing things about him that were hypocritical and made me feel a sort of embarrassed distaste, and that there must be certain psychological reasons why I lived, ate, partied, and hung out with a person I didn’t even really like or respect very much…which probably meant that I didn’t respect myself very much, either, and that was why I was such a conformist. And the point is that, sitting there overhearing Steve tell the girl on the phone that he’d always felt today’s women had to be seen as more than just sex objects if there was going to be any hope for the human race, I would be articulating all this to myself, very clearly and consciously, instead of just drifting around having all these sensations and reactions about him without ever being quite aware of them. So it basically meant waking up to how unaware I normally was, and knowing that I’d be going back to sleep like that when the artificial effect of the speed wore off. Meaning it all wasn’t fun and games. But it did feel alive, and that’s probably why I liked it. It felt like I actually owned myself. Instead of renting or whatever—I don’t know. But that analogy sounds too cheap, like a cheap witticism. It’s hard to explain, and this is probably more time than I should take to explain it. Nor am I obviously trying to give any pro-drug-abuse message here. But it was important. I like now to think of the Obetrol and other subtypes of speed as more a kind of signpost or directional sign, pointing to what might be possible if I could become more aware and alive in daily life. In that sense, I think that abusing these drugs was a valuable experience for me, as I was basically so feckless and unfocused during this period that I needed a very clear, blunt type of hint that there was much more to being an alive, responsible, autonomous adult than I had any idea of at the time.
Consider for a moment the phrase “if I quit trying to seem nihilistic, even just to myself, then what would happen, what would I be like?” Think about “trying” to “seem” “nihilistic.” This isn’t just the hesitancy of an unreliable narrator here. This is very much in keeping with how Dave worked things out mentally/philosophically, and also wrote; as in, for example, his description of onetime porn magnate Al Goldstein in “Big Red Son:” “Goldstein is a porn icon. He was distributing NYC’s Screw on Photostat when most of the people in this room were still playing with their toes. He’s been a First Amendment ninja. He drinks in the applause and loves it and is hard not to sort of almost actually like.” Again: “hard not to sort of almost actually like.” “[Q]uit trying to seem nihilistic.” And when reading Fogle’s complaints on roommate Steve, I flash to Dave’s description in “Big Red Son” of the Vegas dinner with onetime child actor Scotty Schwartz.
Anyway, the point is that yr. corresps. were on Thursday night lured to this supper meeting by Hecuba’s reports that S. Schwartz had become sort of the unofficial mascot of the adult industry, and knew absolutely everybody, and was a near-manic chatterbox: We figured that he’d be a good source of background and context and gossip. H.H. had already prepared us for Schwartz’s personal manner (which is ticcy and breathless and neurally irritating in the same way that a musical note held much too long is irritating) but what Hecuba neglected to mention was that Scotty Schwartz is also totally incapable of talking about anything but himself. Two course and half an hour are spent on Scotty’s mainstream résumé and the fucking-over he got from fate’s fickle finger (alliteration and anatomically mixed metaphor Schwartz’s) and the comparative injustice of the arcs of his and C. Feldman’s careers, and then another 20 minutes on Schwartz’s budding and allegedly platonic relationship with a born-again Christian girl he met on the Internet (during which whole initial 50 minutes one of yr. corresps. kept having to put his napkin in his mouth). Nor did Schwartz seem able or disposed to tell any story of which he himself was not the hero. Here—as close to verbatim as stupefaction permitted—is Scotty’s tale of his introduction to Mr. Russ Hampshire, head of VCA Inc. and what Scotty terms “a very big fish: like this if you know what I’m saying to you here” in the adult industry:
“So I’m at this part and hanging and schmoozing up the girls and there across the room is Russ Hampshire and Russ catches my like eye if you know what I’m saying and goes, like, you know, ‘Hey kid, c’mere’ and so I do I go over I mean this is Russ fucking Hampshire you know what I’m saying here and I do I like go on over to where Russ is at and Russ comes over to me and goes, ‘Scotty, I been watching you. I like your style. I’m a good judge of people, and Scotty, you’re good people. I never heard one person say one bad thing about you.’ [Keep in mind that this is Scotty telling this story. Note how verbatim he gets Hampshire’s dialogue. Note the altered timbre and perfectly timed delivery. Note the way it never even occurs to Scotty that a normal US citizen might be bored or repelled by Scotty’s lengthy recitation of someone else’s praise of him. Schwartz knows only that this interchange occurred and that it signifies that a big fish approves of him and that it redounds to Scotty’s credit and that he wants it widely, widely known.] ‘Kid, I just want you to know that you’re fucking OK in my book, and if there’s anything I can do to, you know, help you, anything at all, I just want you to say the word.’”
…End of vignette, and now Scotty—like Max, like Jasmin, like Jenna and Randy and Tom and Caressa—looks around the table, examining his auditors’ faces for the admiration that cannot possibly fail to appear. What is the socially appropriate response to an anecdote like this—a contextless anecdote, apropos nothing, with its smugly unsubtle (and yet not unmoving, finally, in its naked insecurity) agenda of getting you to admire the teller? The few seconds after, with the vignette hanging there and Scotty’s eyes on your correspondents’ faces like fingers, were the first of countless such moment over the AAVNA’s weekend. How is one expected to respond? It was very uncomfortable. One of yr. corresps. opted for “Gosh. Wow.” The other pretended to have a brussels sprout go down the wrong way.
Now despite the statement fact that the person who "lured" “Willem de Groot and Matt Rundlet” to this dinner is said to be one Harold Hecuba, and Hecuba was the name that Dave had deliberately bestowed on Evan Wright as a way of assuring him that he, Wright, would someday get off the island (I’m sure all of you know your Gilligan lore, right?) it was in fact I, represented in the piece as Dick Filth, who arranged the supper with Scotty (as you can imagine, my relationship with the fellow suffered a fatal blow once the piece saw print), at one of the then-two Ruth’s Chris steak houses in Vegas (and of course I initially went to the wrong one) and so can tell you that I’m not even sure whether the singular David Foster Wallace had Brussels sprouts with is meal, let alone choked on one. But I can tell you that the David Foster Wallace who suffered through that weekend in early ’98 battling the flu and absolutely unable to take any kind of medicine to deal with it or its symptoms, the Wallace whose preoccupations with porn were very humane and had a moral dimension that was genuinely profound and not cheesy, this Wallace also developed a pretty much immediate dislike of Scotty Schwartz and kind of relished the idea of needling him a bit over the weekend. “I noticed that Scotty Schwartz really didn’t like my bandana, I think I’m gonna wear it tonight,” I recall Dave saying as we separated to change into our “good” (such as they were) clothes for the awards ceremony.
So I think that The Pale King is ABOUT…apart from the IRS…that it is very much about one’s relationship to one’s self, to the different aspects of one’s self, and to the abject self-torture that can come of that relationship. Just as in Infinite Jest Dave’s selves are divided between Hal and Gately, here they’re divided not just between Fogle and David Wallace but also apportioned out in bits to the other self-conscious characters. In one of the “Notes and Asides” editor Michael Pietsch supplies at the end of what is, after all, Pietsch’s own assembly of a David Foster Wallace book, there’s this line: “David Wallace disappears—becomes creature of the system.” One is reminded of Kafka, or of that old Ultravox song “I Want To Be A Machine.” Because, among other things, being a machine will likely remove you from the pain of being human. One knows that The Pale King is unfinished, and the more I look into it the more I do have to wonder whether or not it was, in fact, by its very design unfinishable.