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Festival of Books: 'Pale King' and the lost voice of David Foster Wallace

May 2, 2011 | 10:58 am

Davidfosterwallace_ettlinge On the L.A. Times Festival of Books panel about the late author David Foster Wallace, editor and publisher Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown wore the expression of a man who’s been near greatness, but at a harrowing cost. When he wasn’t talking, he faced forward and intently scanned the crowd, his face a concentrated mask.

When he was talking Saturday, Pietsch conveyed utter conviction that Wallace’s posthumous novel, “Pale King,” was nothing less than a masterpiece, and one that seeks to explore the nature of what Pietsch called the “dark matter” of our lives: the boredom, the routines, the repetitious tasks that actually occupy the majority of our time.

Like his fellow panelists, Wallace’s longtime agent, Bonnie Nadell, and biographer and New Yorker writer D.T. Max, Pietsch seemed to radiate a kind of frustrated sadness in certain moments in the discussion led by moderator David Ulin.

On one hand, all three were present to share the process of shepherding Wallace’s tome centered on an IRS office in the '80s into publication, as well as contextualize the book in Wallace’s extensive oeuvre and in terms of his magnetic, perfectionist personality. On the other hand, the conspicuous absence of the book’s ultimate creator only emphasized the fact that Wallace is gone, leaving behind scraps of his voice –- kinetic, philosophically roving and heartbreakingly funny -- captured on paper.

It was a voice, Nadell said, that was “a little painful” to hear for a while. A couple of months after Wallace’s suicide in 2008, Nadell and Wallace's widow, Karen Green, were finally ready to look at the manuscript that the prolific writer had left stacked on his desk. It turned out to be part of “Pale King” but not the entirety of the book that includes Wallace as a character.

After taking home thousands of pages -- some with the author’s notes in the margin, some handwritten -- in a Trader Joe’s bag, Pietsch, who had worked with Wallace since “Infinite Jest,” spent two years building the particular puzzle that is “Pale King.” “It could’ve been constructed in a variety of ways,” Pietsch said, noting that the book eschews traditional ideas of linear plot.

Instead, “Pale King” has bigger fish to fry: “This is a book about terror … staring into the furnace of mortality,” Pietsch said. “It’s also a very deeply felt book … and hilariously fun.” In constructing “Pale King” with Nadell’s feedback, Pietsch said the two sought to create a satisfying reader experience, not a scholarly document of Wallace’s last vessel.

Max, who said that Wallace was never pleased with his own writing process, wondered what standards the famously competitive writer was setting for himself with “Pale King.” At the time of his death, it had been more than 10 years since the publication of “Infinite Jest." Max posited that Wallace felt pressure to top it.

“He was an extraordinary listener,” Max said. “He could take that big brain and totally focus it on another person.” That delicate art is reflected in “Pale King,” which Max described as a book about mindfulness, about being present in every moment, even ones drowning in the fugue of mindless work.

But, Max asked, for whatever it accomplishes, is “Pale King” the novel that Wallace hoped to write when he started it in 1997? Is it even close?

" ‘Pale King’ marks a moment in our grief,” Max said. It will have to do as imperfect placeholder, the best recording of a lost voice that we’ve got.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo: An early David Foster Wallace publicity photo from Little, Brown. Credit: Marion Ettlinger

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