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'The Pale King' Book Pre-review

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David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

A little back story

On September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace committed suicide at his home in Claremont, Calif., where he had been living since 2004, with his wife Karen Green. She found him on the patio, where he had hanged himself. Wallace had suffered from depression since his college days in the '80s and had been going through a particularly deep depression in the months leading up to his suicide.

Earlier that evening, Karen had left their home to prepare for an opening at her art gallery. While she was gone, Wallace wrote her a two-page note and arranged his unfinished novel (to be called "The Pale King") in the garage where he worked. The garage was brightly lit by the many vintage lamps Wallace kept there – a habit that first manifest itself when he lived in Bloomington, Ill. Around the unfinished novel – on pages, hard drives and floppy disks – were hundreds of pages related to the novel. After tidying the garage, he went to the patio, climbed onto a chair and hanged himself. Karen returned home at 9:30pm and found him dead. He was 46 years old.

An infinitely talented person

Wallace was born in 1962 in Ithaca, New York. When he was three, his family moved to Urbana, Ill., where his father, James, took a job in the philosophy department at the University of Illinois. His mother, Sally, was an English teacher. David and his younger sister Amy grew up in a home where language and philosophy were at the forefront of everyday life, e.g. on a family trip they decided to say "3.14159" instead of "pie" in their conversations.

He was a creative and exceptional child and became a minor tennis prodigy in the region. After high school, he attended Amherst, where he particularly enjoyed mathematics and philosophy. It was at college where he first experienced serious depression. He left school and returned home, surprising his family. He sought out psychiatric help and was prescribed antidepressants.

It was around this time he also became serious about fiction writing. A short story of his was published in the Amherst Review in 1984. After he returned to school, he took creative-writing courses and plunged into contemporary literature. His first novel, "The Broom of the System" (1987), was written during his junior year and was quickly snapped up by Penguin Books. The book received mixed – almost indifferent – reviews which, naturally, stung Wallace.

After Amherst, Wallace headed to the University of Arizona where he completed his M.F.A. in the summer of 1987. Wallace bounced back and forth between Amherst and Tucson, Ariz., but after having serious suicidal feelings moved back to Urbana – driving back with his mother, they took turns reading aloud a Dean Koontz novel.

While in Urbana, his depression worsened, resulting in a failed suicide attempt. He felt that writing might be affecting his mental health so he decided to focus on philosophy, which meant as much to him as literature. He was accepted as graduate student in philosophy at Harvard (on scholarship) and was happy for the opportunity it afforded him. But he continued to write – mental health be damned – and his second book "Girl with Curious Hair" which took the form of short stories was published in August, 1989. It was also met with a big "meh" by the literary world. This is what might have led to a stint in a psychiatric ward, where he was prescribed Nardil for the first time.

After his release, he was sent to a halfway house in the Brighton area of Boston. He took up writing again in notebooks – one with a Care Bears cover. He was learning a lot from the people he met at the home and, after his final release from a quarter-way house, settled down as a teacher at Emerson College. By this time, he had started working on something he called "the Project" which was going to be his second novel and by March, 1991, he was working on it daily.

After deciding he needed to put his Boston experiences behind him, Wallace moved to Syracuse and continued with "the Project". By May 1992, he felt confident enough with his new novel to send two hundred pages of it to publishing houses. He accepted an $80,000 offer from Little, Brown for his book, which was now titled "Infinite Jest", referring to a film in the book which, when viewed, is so completely addictive that viewers cannot pull themselves away from the film – not to eat, drink or even go to the bathroom – resulting ultimately in death.

"Infinite Jest" = Instant Validation

With the publication of "Infinite Jest" in 1996, David Foster Wallace was hailed as a great writer and perhaps the voice of his generation. The 1,200-page novel garnered international recognition (he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the "Genius Grant") and Wallace was compared to the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

At the time of its publication, Wallace was living on the outskirts of Bloomington, Ill., where he had moved in 1993 to take a job at Illinois State University. What made the book stand out, along with Wallace's unique, highly detailed style (and biting humor), was his use of endnotes which allowed him to create an "information-flood and data-triage" while making the main body of the novel easier to read.

Without going into too much detail (since this is not a review of "Infinite Jest"), the novel centered on two characters – Hal Incadenza, a tennis prodigy (much like Wallace), and Don Gately, a former addict (much like Wallace) who is a supervisor at a halfway house near the academy where Incadenza is training. The book also involves – get ready for it – Quebecois separatists and legless assassins, among others.

After a whirlwind of publicity tours, TV interviews and book readings, Wallace retreated back to his quiet home in Bloomington, with his dog Jeeves. Shortly after, he began research on what was to become "The Pale King", a novel about the bureaucracy, boredom and sadness. The setting: an I.R.S. regional office in Peoria, Ill. Because of his detail-oriented style, Wallace took accounting classes and studied I.R.S. publications.

In 2004, after marrying his girlfriend Karen in Urbana, he moved to Claremont, Calif., where he took a teaching job at Pomona College. Slowly, over the next three years the novel began to take shape but Wallace was never completely pleased with his progress. Another book of short stories was published, "Oblivion", in 2004 as he continued on "The Pale King".

A notoriously harsh self critic, Wallace experienced deep literary frustration and anxiety about his work. At the time of his death, Wallace was decidedly unhappy with his progress, though he made a lot of progress on the novel itself. He was adding page after page without an end in sight and was worried that he didn't have adequate pressure on him to complete it. He struggled between putting forth the effort to complete the effort and totally chucking it away. He was truly tormented – and it was around this time he decided to get off his depression medication.

Depression was nothing new for Wallace. He had been on medication for the better part of two decades, relying on Nardil for over 15 years. But he stopped taking the drug in the spring of 2007 as he felt it affected his writing (among other things). In the fall of 2007 he fell into a deep depression, was hospitalized and prescribed a variety of antidepressants.

By the spring of 2008, he had seemingly been stabilized by a new cocktail of antidepressants but a few months later things took a darker turn as Wallace attempted suicide (pill overdose). He switched doctors and tried some extreme measures – electroconvulsive therapy – which terrified him. He had previously undergone the treatment in Urbana, Ill., and it wiped away short-term memory. That summer he submitted to twelve sessions. And, again, his depression seemed to abate.

August came and went, and everything seemed fine the first few days of September. Around September 6, his wife noticed a downturn in his mood but considered his Monday trip to a chiropractor a positive sign – after all, why go to a chiropractor if you are going to kill yourself? On Friday, September 12, he was dead.

Read the entire interview in our print edition, available September 1. After September 1, the complete review will be on online as well.

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.