‘Is it possible to wonder just how much David Foster Wallace might have NOT wanted us to read THE PALE KING?’ – Preliminary unease about Michael Pietsch’s version of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

A few days ago, in reaction to a number of tweets I kept seeing in which various people clucked over beautiful lines from David Foster Wallace’s unfinished posthumous novel fragment, The Pale King, I felt compelled to tweet:  

Is it possible to wonder just how much David Foster Wallace might have NOT wanted us to read THE PALE KING?

This has continued to bother me since and reading the Editor’s Note to the book (which appeared in article form in The Guardian) written by Michael Pietsch, DFW’s literary executor and the person who compiled The Pale King from ‘hard drives, folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks and floppy disks contain[ing] printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages and notes’, has further consolidated that preliminary unease for a number of reasons.

First. Listen to this. It is November 2008. Some two months after David Foster Wallace’s death by suicide. DFW’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell and David’s widow, Karen Green, are going through his office.

‘On the desk Bonnie found a neat stack of manuscript, totalling nearly 250 pages. On the label of a disk containing those chapters he had written ‘For LB advance?’ Bonnie had talked with David about pulling together a few chapters of his novel to send to Little, Brown in order to commence negotiations for a new contract and advance against royalties. Here was that partial manuscript, unsent.’

I have to wonder, am I alone in thinking that the ‘neat stack’ is somewhat disingenuous. It was a neat stack, we’re being told. Why, the words sing, it was practically in an envelope waiting to be posted! If we look at David’s own contribution, I’d suggest the jury cast their eyes over ‘For LB advance?’ and do no more than note the question mark.

‘Nowhere in all these pages was there an outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters,’ Pietsch writes. And yet, still, ‘Karen and Bonnie asked me to assemble from these pages the best version of The Pale King that I could find.’

For me, there is a question implicit in that second statement (Why?) that Pietsch doesn’t really satisfactorily answer (‘I wanted those who appreciated David’s work to be able to see what he had created – to be allowed to look once more inside that extraordinary mind’). Holier than thou much?

Pietsch asks: ‘The Pale King’s central story does not have a clear ending, and the question inevitably arises: how unfinished is this novel?’ and then answers, ‘This is unknowable in the absence of a detailed outline.’ The answer to the other elephant in the room (what would David have thought of us doing what we’ve done?) is again, to a fan, deeply unsettling:

‘Everyone who worked with David knows well how 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.’

David. Alas. Isn’t. Here. To. Stop. Us.

Pietsch reiterates, for those who don’t know:

‘David was a perfectionist of the highest order, and there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had he survived to finish it.’

And yet, ridiculously, picking on notes that David wrote that say things like the novel is ‘a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens’, Pietsch claims, ‘These lines could support a contention that the novel’s apparent incompleteness is in fact intentional.’

It seems to me that a lot of this takes some swallowing. The David Foster Wallace special that aired on To The Best of Our Knowledge in May 2009 included an interview with Michael Pietsch by Anne Strainchamps in which he described the editing process for Infinite Jest as ‘thumb-wrestling’. We know, of course (of course) that no such thumb wrestling occurred with The Pale King. When you juxtapose the Editor’s Note alongside an article written by DT Max’s article, The Unfinished those ‘screaming fantods’ get a whole lot worse:

‘Pietsch remembers being on a car ride with Wallace and hearing him compare writing the novel to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.” On another occasion, Wallace told him that he had completed “two hundred pages, of which maybe forty are usable.” He had created some good characters, but the shape of the book evaded him. In 2004, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen that to get the book done he would have to write “a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%, the very idea of which makes something in me wither and get really interested in my cuticle, or the angle of the light outside.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly only the line about how the book was like plywood in a windstorm appears to be making the cut in the mainstream press. And the disingenuity and the outright idiocy abounds. One review claims ‘In a prefatory note, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s long-time editor, says that most of the work he did to the manuscript was keeping character names consistent.’ A cursory read of the Editor’s note clearly demonstrates that this was not the case.

Wah, wah, wah, you might say. So DFW wouldn’t have ever wanted us to see this. Too late. The book is out there now. Get over it. Read it or don’t read it. All of which is fair enough. But shouldn’t those people who claim to have loved the man and his books at least feel an iota of shame for jumping in and splashing about in words DFW would not have wanted us to see. There were 250 manuscript pages DFW had left with a question mark over them (itself somewhat disingenuous – people pick up the book and think ‘well, about half of this was what DFW wanted’ – but a manuscript page is not a finished book page – something like a quarter of The Pale King may have been what he wanted – and I emphasise again the ‘may’).  What we should have got, what Pietsch should have done (imho) was write a book of nonfiction in which he talked about the editing process required to put a book like The Pale King together – and then he should have published that and not the book that has been published. The question mark pages could have been included as an appendix together with other fragments and questions but, it would seem to me, this would have been a far fairer, more just, overview of something DFW was struggling with to the day he died.

The Pale King isn’t David Foster Wallace’s last novel. The Pale King is a dream of a David Foster Wallace novel by Michael Pietsch.

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