The Real Pale King, R.I.P.

Nonfictional Techniques used:
-Developing the storm as a theme/symbol: Hurricane Ike, DFW’s suicide, recession
-interweaving literary analysis with personal essay


Seven years ago today, on September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace hung himself from the rafters of his porch in Claremont, California. He had left the unfinished manuscript of his final novel, The Pale King, piled in the garage where his wife could find it. He was forty-six.

I was twenty-three. That night, back east, in Houston, Texas, I had already dragged all the furniture from my porch, including a body-sized punching bag dangling from an enormous iron stand, inside the living room of my first post-college apartment. Now there was barely room to move.

I don’t know what time DFW did it, but I imagine that the outer edges of Hurricane Ike, having barreled in from the gulf, was just starting to lick at us when he kicked away the last solid thing he’d ever stand on. I don’t remember exactly when the storm started. I don’t even remember being all that worried about the fact that we lived on the first floor and that there was nothing but ten feet of flat ground between the complex pool and our sliding glass doors.

Three years earlier, when I was still in college, Hurricane Rita was, on the heels of Katrina, threatening to slam into Houston. The storm swerved at the last second, vindicating my decision to remain behind while most of the city fled, gridlocking a hundred and eighty miles of freeway, a traffic jam that killed one of my professor’s dogs (from heatstroke in her Honda) and convinced another to always carry a firearm. I was not about to get on the road.

My mother, worrying long-distance from Memphis, wanted me to sleep in the closet (an ironic literal manifestation of her figurative concerns at the time), the only space in the apartment without windows. In the middle of the night I woke in a sauna. The power was dead, the air-conditioning with it, and by this time, DFW must have been, too. Wallace’s Girl with Curious Hair was still fanned open on the futon (wedged against the punching bag now), where I’d been reading it earlier with my breakfast granola. The wind was howling but the stone wall in front of the glass doors blocked most of it, and the pool wasn’t seeping in. The precaution of taking the full-length mirror off the closet door had been utterly unnecessary. Despite the stuffiness and the ongoing storm, I didn’t have much trouble getting back to sleep. I was mainly excited I wouldn’t have to go to work the next day.

Though I had been reading and writing fiction a few years by then, I had not heard of DFW until the previous year, 2007, when, having just graduated from college and entered the work force full-time, my college friend-turned-office mate told me about Infinite Jest (1996), his magnum opus set in a dystopic near-future where corporations have bought the rights to name years, and different factions are battling for control of a video so entertaining its viewers immediately go catatonic. (According to some of the book’s references, some people identify The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, in which the majority of the novel’s action takes place, as 2008.) After finally getting through it, I opted to make my way through the rest of Wallace’s work, and when Ike hit, I was still slogging my way through the last one, the novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” Wallace’s metametafictional response to John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” The name is taken from Edward Gottlieb Leutze’s mural that hangs in the United States Capitol, a symbol of Manifest Destiny, the nation’s belief that it was destined to expand westward as far as possible. In the story, Wallace’s characters take a long, interminable journey to a destination they never quite get to, a Midwestern town that happens to be named Collision, where there’s a reunion for everyone who’s ever been in a McDonald’s commercial. Years later, I would torture a lit class dissecting the syntax of its near-concluding passage:

A born talker, he reminds my classmate of various obvious facts. That they have left the East Coast, have left the world’s busiest airport, have left the world’s least busy C.I.A. and its inevitable pay lot; that they’ve driven here and there and but are now not lost but only stalled, idled too high by a fearsome plastic nose, on the last road, one whose in-sight curve Westward leads straight to Collision. That the storm’s worst has, once more, taken itself off East, where they’ve been. That they’ve left some awfully sore folks in a machine that’s now dead-level in mud, but are returning via the path they’ve taken from them who sit bunched tight in a clown’s car washed clean of plea or foreign brand, a homemade machine, attached even now by a length of chain to the chestnut mare of a big old farmer, harvester down, who’d wanted to hitch a lift only to the curve’s third shanty, since his eldest kid’s got the rented car; who has a surplus slicker, a flat-faced brood, a way with physics and chains, and the bare animal charity to pull a malevolent car from the earth and set it back on the road. That here’s the public representative of McDonald’s, pastel hips jutting and legs bowed atop the foaming mare, which heaves and steams and gallops, muscles in bunches moving like whole corn-fed waves under a tight hide. That it all looks at once mythic and familiar, set against the new same sun’s dripping green noon: J.D.’s perfect profile at the furry wheel, under hanging dice, cigar unlit, his window clean and down, while those of Stern-berg and D.L. are up, since they like to feel what they look through, four hands on two panes; and the laboring horse game, galloping without purchase in the glassy mud, the enormous farmer pushing at the mare’s ass, except without any friction for his big boots, so he is, yes, OK, in a way, walking in place; the car, J.D. Steelritter’s accelerator pushed flat, the big car’s idle screaming, higher and higher, its big rear Goodyears’ hubs popped and spokes awhirl as the soaked earth, by not holding on, will not let them go.

Here we have, in short, an image of a horse trying to tow a car out of mud, of industrial progress brought to a halt by its own mechanisms, requiring the aid of older ways to continue in the direction it was going. In typical young-Wallace-linguistic-gag fashion, this image seems to have been extrapolated from an inversion of the term “horsepower.” Reading the novella as a commentary on the function of fiction and metafiction, the image perhaps allegorizes the necessity of a challenging path to reach a significant goal: nowhere worthwhile is gotten to by coasting. (God knows the sentences in this passage don’t coast.) The pull of chains will be required. (An oversimplification of a Wallace principle: TV makes us dumb, while reading fortifies.) The text elevates journey above destination. Here these characters are, so close to where they want to go after so many pages, and yet they cannot get there. There is the ironic oxymoron of traction: a car can only “let go” of the mud if its tires “hold on.” The more you try to escape, the deeper you dig yourself in, and even the old ways can’t save you.

DFW was declaring that literature had to forge a new path to meaning, and he made it his personal project to do so. Whether or not this is what killed him, he never quite got there. As John Jeremiah Sullivan puts it,

He was ambivalent and conflicted, about, among other things, the difference between the kinds of writing in [The Pale King]. He wasn’t sure which he preferred, or how they might go together. And what if the one he wound up valuing most wasn’t the one he was best at, by nature?

To give up these contradictions would’ve been to give up his source of power.

In Houston, the power at our complex stayed out through the weekend, but we were luckier than many, who’d go without it for weeks. With no electricity, news of DFW’s death was delayed. It was two days later, when I returned to my college campus to charge my phone at the student center, that I received a friend’s text with the news. This would have been a neater essay if this was the same friend as the one who’d told me about DFW in the first place, but sometimes things aren’t so neat. Back when Rita hit, the friend who would in two years tell me he existed drove out of town and straight into the storm’s altered path, parking her truck in a Beaumont garage that a felled tree would split down the middle.

Of course, it is reductive to think that Wallace’s literary project is what killed him, even if his good friend Jonathan Franzen gives the theory some credence:

Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels.

Wallace himself becomes the image of westward progress halted. Sullivan again:

Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That’s what Wallace’s suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn’t just a sad thing, it was a blow.

But chemical depression was involved; the source of his power was also the source of his eventually overwhelming need to escape his own head. Perhaps it is equally reductive and fantastical to think that, no matter how prescient both about himself and society certain passages like the horse-pulling-car one could make him seem, he bowed out because he knew that shit was about to hit the global fan, like Ike battering the shit out of Galveston’s sea wall.

But it is true that three days after his suicide, on September 15, the gigantic investment banking firm Lehman Brothers collapsed, an event that, for those who weren’t paying terribly close attention to these things, indicated that something was rotten in Denmark. At my office, where I was used to in-house massages, expensed lunches, and getting roughly half the day to work on whatever I wanted, purse strings would be tightened, layoffs executed, workloads increased. With Sarah Palin’s face plastering the news, DFW’s dystopic vision of a country that had aggressively absorbed its neighbors to the north and south to become the Organization of North American Nations, or ONAN (onanism = masturbation), was becoming less far-fetched every day. After the catastrophe had struck, it was easy to look back and see the storm was coming all along.


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