David Foster Wallace’s Final Attempt to Make Art Moral

Before David Foster Wallace died by suicide at his California home, in 2008, he left a pile of papers, spiral notebooks, three-ring binders, and floppy disks on a table in his garage. The collection of notes, outlines, prose fragments, character sketches, and partial chapters reportedly ran to hundreds of thousands of words, most of them circling a group of accountants at an office for the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois, circa 1985. According to David Hering, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool who has visited Wallace’s archives in Austin, Texas, the material went back more than a decade, to the period immediately after the publication of Wallace’s second novel, the career-making “Infinite Jest” (1996). Over the years, Wallace had often referred to the project as the “long thing,” and worried that it was becoming unmanageable. The editor Michael Pietsch, who assembled some of the pages into the book that would become “The Pale King,” published in 2011, says Wallace compared writing the novel to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.” In an e-mail to his friend and sometimes rival Jonathan Franzen, Wallace wrote, “The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t.”

As usual, Wallace’s choice of words was not casual. The ability to see what’s useful and what isn’t wasn’t just what Wallace believed that he needed to complete his final novel; it was also the virtue of mind he hoped it would cultivate in his readers. The most common rhetorical mode of “The Pale King” is commotion recollected in tranquility. “I was like a piece of paper on the street in the wind, thinking, ‘Now I think I’ll blow this way, now I think I’ll blow that way. My essential response to everything was ‘Whatever.’ ” This is from the first page of the monologue of the tax auditor Chris Fogle, who, in the longest continuous portion of the novel, explains to an offstage interviewer the path that brought him to the “Service.” The past tense is to the point: Fogle’s is a conversion narrative that begins with an adolescence during which he “had trouble just paying attention,” and that concludes, following a kind of religious experience in an accounting class at DePaul University, in Chicago, with his deliverance unto his mission as an accountant for the I.R.S.

Fogle’s monologue has now been published as a freestanding novella, christened “Something to Do with Paying Attention” (McNally Editions). In the introduction, the bookseller and editor Sarah McNally calls these pages “not just a complete story, but the best concrete example we have of Wallace’s late style, where calm and poise replace the pyrotechnics of Infinite Jest and other early works.” McNally is right to underscore the story’s relatively serene narration, which stands out even more now that it can be encountered independently from the larger book. For much of his career, Wallace was known for interminable footnotes, self-reflexive marginalia, and clause-heavy sentences that doubled back on themselves in an effort to represent the convolutions of the American mind—a mind jammed full of bureaucratic jargon, commercial slogans, and therapeutic pseudo-concepts, then wrapped in the trip wire of postmodern self-consciousness. He did not always want to write like this, though. And Fogle’s monologue offers, as McNally indicates, Wallace’s most sustained effort to adopt the plainspoken frankness that he admired in the “morally passionate, passionately moral” fiction of his Russian heroes, especially Dostoyevsky.

McNally has less to say about how the novella answers a perhaps more urgent question for Wallace, whose stylistic choices were always connected to moral-philosophical ones: what to use this newly frank moral authority for. Learning to “see what’s useful and what isn’t” may appear to be predominantly a matter of self-discipline or character, and at times this was how Wallace treated it. But Wallace’s late works reveal an increasing awareness that separating the useful and the useless also requires an ethical judgment: it means determining what is, or should be, worthy of our committed attention. Is public accountancy, as some of the characters in the novel insist, a moral vocation? What does it mean to be “useful,” whether as an employee of the federal government or as an artist, in the America shaped by Ronald Reagan? Although Wallace’s final work of fiction raises these questions, it does not exactly answer them, and perhaps for good reason.

Since the publication of D. T. Max’s essay “The Unfinished,” in 2009, in this magazine, discussions about Wallace in non-scholarly venues have taken a sharply biographical turn. Subsequent first-person accounts came from Wallace’s friends (including Franzen, in his long-form eulogy for this magazine), his former romantic partners (among them the writer Mary Karr, who reported that Wallace kicked her, stalked her, and threatened to kill her husband), and his editors (the latter two categories combined in the former Esquire editor Adrienne Miller’s 2020 memoir “In the Land of Men”). These accounts filled in important blanks in Wallace’s personal history, including aspects of his decades-long battle with addiction and depression, and the grim details of his final weeks in California. They also produced a fairly consistent picture of a selfish friend, a manipulative—and likely abusive—boyfriend, and a jealous and self-mythologizing writer. Even were we to desire to do so, there is no way to read Wallace today without knowing these things about him.

It’s worth noting, though, that for attentive readers of Wallace’s fiction, little of the news about his personal life could come as a surprise. Wallace’s great subject was the morass of selfishness, self-rationalization, and intellectualized narcissism into which his cohort of educated, relatively privileged Americans would sink—and were sinking—unless they could find something to love more than they loved themselves. A difference between Wallace and many of his contemporaries—one that sometimes opened him to charges of hypocrisy and self-delusion, not to mention cringeworthy sentimentalism—was his commitment to doing more than merely cataloguing the traps of modern alienation. This did not mean that he claimed to have escaped those traps himself. It did mean, as reflected by his attraction to conversion narratives like Fogle’s, that he hoped he could spring his readers free.

“Something to Do with Paying Attention,” like any worthwhile conversion narrative, begins with the unconverted self. With shame, Fogle recounts being an unfocussed child of the seventies who drifted between jobs and schools in Libertyville, a suburb of Chicago, where he and his “wastoid” friends smoked pot, traded interpretations of what Pink Floyd “truly” meant, and romanticized their “weird kind of narcissistic despair.” In another convention of the genre, part of Fogle’s problem, he sees now, was that he was not aware he had a problem. That starts to change after a sequence that could only have been written by Wallace—the last major American novelist to be fluent in popular television—in which Fogle, watching soap operas in his dorm room at DePaul, in 1978, is struck by a return-from-commercial tagline. The tagline is “You’re watching As the World Turns”—emphasis Fogle’s. Fogle begins to apprehend, however foggily, “that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better.” Beneath the theatrical performance of wastoid anomie, that is, lies the real thing.

The transition, for Fogle and for the reader, is from seeing Fogle’s aimlessness as a generic product of adolescent apathy to understanding it as a symptom of a broader social and spiritual deficit. Wallace was an uncommonly philosophical novelist in part because he believed that cultural life was oriented by a set of dominant ideas and pictures, which were both older and more entrenched than any specific trend or technology. The wasteland in which the wastoids live is, then, not merely attributable to the influence of popular media in seventies America; it emerges from the rocky soil of secular, modern ideals. The invocation of “nihilism”—a word that Fogle uses to describe himself five different times—connects his condition to the skepticism so often targeted by modern philosophers, from Kant to Simone de Beauvoir, in their attempt to secure a rational basis for morality after the death of God. Where Wallace believed that this effort had led is indicated by Fogle’s frustration with his humanities courses, which reflect the exhaustion of the search for a moral order and, in its place, the emergence of a postmodern project that tends to reinforce his nihilistic priors. “The whole point of the classes,” Fogle recalls, “was that nothing meant anything, that everything was abstract and endlessly interpretable.”

It is consistent with Wallace’s long quest for countercultural forces in the places his readers might least expect to find them—the role is played most convincingly by Alcoholics Anonymous in “Infinite Jest”—that Fogle’s conversion experience takes place neither in one of these literature or philosophy courses, nor in a traditional religious setting. Rather, it occurs when he wanders absent-mindedly, still thinking about his dorm-room epiphany, into the wrong classroom on the final day of a semester at DePaul. Instead of American Political Thought, he has arrived just in time for the final lecture in Advanced Tax.

If the soap-opera tagline has primed Fogle for his conversion, the accounting class completes the job. The course is taught by a Jesuit professor who immediately impresses Fogle with his authoritative bearing. (In a parallel to McNally’s judgment of Wallace’s late writing, the professor expresses a “zealous integrity that manifested not as style but as the lack of it.”) Fogle knows nothing about progressive marginal tax rates and adjusted gross income, but he does note a series of remarks the Jesuit makes in support of his conviction that “the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic.” On one of the professor’s transparencies appears a quotation: “What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war.” (Seeing the attribution to “James,” Fogle assumes the reference is to the “biblical apostle.”) At the end of class, stepping away from his charts for a final flourish, the Jesuit invokes the Kierkegaardian “leap outward” that will be required of the students if they wish to transcend the affectations of their youth and embrace a vocation worthy of an adult. The lecture ends with a corny pun that Fogle registers as a command: “Gentlemen, you are called to account.”

On the level of narrative, all that is left is for Fogle to buy a wool suit and make his way to the I.R.S. regional recruiting office in southwest Chicago—a task that he completes in a subtly haunting scene set amid dazzlingly bright snowbanks left over from the infamous blizzard of 1979, and overlaid with heavy-handed comparisons between entering the Service and signing up for war. The novella ends with Fogle being accepted into a vocation that, based on his comments in the present, has fulfilled all his expectations for it. But to regard Fogle’s conversion as straightforward in this way—that is, in the way it looks to him, post-conversion—is to tell only half the story in “Something to Do with Paying Attention.” For, unlike most of Wallace’s previous works of fiction, which take place either in some fictional future or in intimate settings with little social scaffolding, “The Pale King” is a historical novel.

“All this was in the Chicagoland area in the 1970s, a period that now seems as abstract and unfocused as I was myself,” Fogle recalls. “I seem to remember in 1976 my father openly predicting a Ronald Reagan presidency and even sending their campaign a donation.” Fogle remembers, too, the subtle marks of distinction that make adolescents such reliable guides to a given era: “Girls wore caps or dungaree hats, but most guys were essentially uncool if they wore a hat”; “I remember everyone pretending to be a samurai or saying ‘Excuse me!’ in all sorts of different contexts—this was cool”; “The smell of Brylcreem in my father’s hatband, Deep Throat, Howard Cosell . . .” Details like these are scattered throughout the first half of the novella, partly so Wallace can establish a generational caesura between Fogle and his father, the Reagan-campaign contributor. Fogle’s father is a “cost systems supervisor” for the city of Chicago, who never misses a day of work before dying in a gruesome subway accident in 1977. (Fogle, due to his “dawdling” behind his father on the platform, is partly responsible.) Only after his encounter with the Jesuit professor does Fogle recognize that his rebellion against what he had considered his father’s mindless conformism had itself been a product of mindless conformism. The father and son were “acting out typical roles . . . like machines going through their programmed motions.”

By choosing to follow in his father’s footsteps and devote his life to public service, Fogle seeks to break with his programming and live what he calls a “human” life. The problem is that public service, in the generation separating Fogle from his father, has itself come to be perceived as less and less human. Fogle’s father is part of the Depression-era Silent Generation, a group often associated with values like thrift, patriotism, and respect for authority. Fogle’s generation, by contrast, came of age during the Vietnam War and Watergate, events that created a breach in trust between citizens and their government. (Fogle recalls this being indicated by the ambient phrase “credibility gap.”) As the scholar Marshall Boswell has pointed out, Fogle’s monologue also contains echoes from a long debate about tax policy and ethics, which Pietsch places right before it in “The Pale King.” The debate is between veteran I.R.S. agents who see the agency as a repository of civic virtue and moral responsibility—the “nation’s beating heart”—and a new guard who seek to transform it into “a business—a going, for-profit concern type of thing.” As Boswell notes, the disagreement pits Fogle’s father’s dutiful civic-mindedness against the ascendent corporatist ethos of Fogle’s generation, which believes that “their highest actual duty was to themselves.”

The whole point of Fogle’s monologue, from his perspective, is that the Service has allowed him to subsume his self-interest in some larger purpose. And neither the novella nor “The Pale King” undermines the Jesuit’s teaching that public accountancy can be a noble calling, capable of inculcating virtues—duty, accountability, the ability to complete repetitive work with no expectation of applause—that run counter to the nihilism of the age. But it is no accident that Wallace also sets the story’s events on the cusp of the Reagan revolution, which, largely through tax policy, would hollow out America’s already ailing public institutions, exacerbating the pessimism about government and collective causes that informs Fogle’s initial “malaise.” The story is simultaneously about the life-saving necessity of sincere, moral commitment and about the impossibility of finding a worthy object for that commitment in the historical period that immediately precedes our own.

Wallace could never have guessed that his final novel, written in the midst of neoliberal disinvestment and end-of-history disenchantment, would appear at the outset of a decade that marked a return to the ethics of conviction. Only one of several artists in his generation to call for a “new sincerity” (a term that he never actually used, though he is justly associated with the tendency) in culture, he was virtually alone in suggesting, with anything like a straight face, that American civic and political life might offer a proper receptacle for that sincerity. Remarkably, in the years that followed the publication of “The Pale King”—years that included events such as Occupy Wall Street, nationwide social movements for racial and gender equality, and the rise of Trumpism—the notion that American artists should make their work subserve political movements became prominent and then virtually inescapable. At times, these causes tempted artists into a kind of grandstanding that was at odds with the valorization, in Fogle’s monologue, of acts undertaken for “no audience.” Still, it is possible that Wallace’s most meaningful influence on the writers and literary commentators that followed him came neither from his stylistic innovations nor his broadsides against postmodern self-consciousness but, rather, from his insistence that literature should aim at a moral purpose that was higher than itself.

Yet the difficulty that Wallace had in finding an object for this purpose proved predictive in a different sense. His inability to locate institutions not already corrupted in near-fatal ways, nor causes dignified enough to hold his skepticism at bay, hinted at the fickle, fugitive quality that would attend so many of the public passions of the ensuing decade. It also suggested why our artists and intellectuals cycle so reliably between utopian evangelism and ironic anti-politics. If Wallace believed that we should pursue the “moral equivalent of war” in the social realm, as James (the pragmatist philosopher, not the apostle) put it, he was also alive to the possibility that our moral wars would be about as decisive, and lead to just as much disillusionment and cynicism, as our military ones. We might read Fogle’s story today as an allegory for Wallace’s attempt to write passionately moral fiction for a society that had lost not only the will but also the capacity to make shared judgments about what’s useful and what isn’t. Wallace was like a man trying to build a new attic on a house whose foundation he knows has collapsed. It’s a kind of dark miracle that he stayed up there so long. ♦

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