Michael Pietsch describes how he turned Wallace's unfinished manuscript into a publishable novel after the author's 2008 suicide
Little, Brown and Company
If David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest explored the upper registers of amusement—the novel concerns a film so entertaining that it literally enthralls audiences to death—his new, posthumously published novel probes the depths of boredom and stupor. It's set in what's considered one of the dullest places on earth, the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. The book's official release day is America's most hated anti-holiday—April 15th, tax day.
The Pale King's narrator is a version of Wallace, a fictionalized ex-IRS doppelganger that shares the author's name and much of his biographical history. He whispers that he witnessed a sinister takeover in Peoria; during his tenure, towards the end of the Reagan '80s, a shadowy contingent of bureaucrats called "The New IRS" took control of the agency. But in order to understand the massive political, financial, and philosophical implications of this coup, we must wade, with Wallace, through vast amounts of extremely user-unfriendly information. Truth—the quarry hunted through a vast, pale ocean of memos, ledgers, and fine print—is this novel's alluring, ungraspable Moby Dick.
Michael Pietsch, an editor at the publishing house Little, Brown, edited Infinite Jest—and each of Wallace's subsequent books since that novel's publication in 1996. When Wallace committed suicide in 2008, he left Pietsch with the daunting task of assembling a book from thousands of type- and hand-written manuscript pages, produced over the course of more than a decade. Though Pietsch was struck by the completeness and polish of The Pale King's many individual pieces, Wallace had not indicated a plan for the book's overall structure. The author wanted the book to be non-linear and challenging; there was no obvious or straightforward way to order the manuscript.
The Pale King's chapters are written in a dazzling array of registers and modes, and Wallace, in one note, said he wanted to create a "tornadic" experience—a narrative that moves like a twister whirling around an unreachable, secret center. So Pietsch, still mourning his friend, threw himself into the storm.
Pietsch and I spoke about the strange, tragic, and exhilarating process of preparing the book for publication. During our conversation, it became clear that The Pale King, for him, is cause for celebration and great sadness—it's a testament to Wallace's enormous talents, a crucial addition to his body of work, and his too-soon epitaph. At times, the editor's voice filled with emotion and trailed off into silence. But he braved his own sadness to share the story of the book's path to print—which he called the greatest editorial challenge of his career.
What was your reaction when you first heard Wallace was taking accounting classes for research on his new novel?
I thought, "That's unexpected!" [laughs.] Beyond that, I thought that anything David wants to do, anything David thinks is worthy of his attention, is something I'll want to read. So I had no feelings except a pleasurable expectation.
In the introduction, you describe flying out to Wallace's Claremont home after his death to pick up the pieces of his manuscript. How would you describe the book's state as you first saw it—then, in November 2008?
When I first saw it, it was ... literally thousands of pages, of many types. Typewritten pages. Handwritten pages. Pages in workbooks. They'd been assembled in his living room by his wife, Karen Green, and his agent, Bonnie Nadell, in wire baskets, in plastic tubs. They had gone through his office and pulled everything they could find in a file with the name Pale King on it, and anything else that seemed to be part of the book he'd been working on for all these many, many years.
First, they gave me a stack of pages—a 200-page stack of about 12 chapters he had, that was on his desk when he died. This neatly typed section he left. They asked me first to read that, and then to come look at everything else had, and to come up with a plan.
How did you go about ordering a novel that, by its own design, seeks to be non-linear, seeks to challenge, seeks to strain the limits of a reader's expectations?
I had the extraordinary guidepost of Infinite Jest, which I think the reader is something like 350 pages into before they've met all the characters and have all the elements of the story up in their heads. I think one of David's methods was flood the reader with pleasure with many different kinds of stories that were so entertaining and so funny and so interesting and so beautiful that they kept opening up, and taking more and more—and then he'd work with that enormous assemblage to create something even larger.
So I read again and took notes, and read again and took notes, and read again and took notes. I tracked everything I read in terms of whether it was a unique piece, or whether it was a version that existed in other forms. If other versions existed, I'd look at all the multiple versions to find what appeared to be the last version. Once I had all of the distinct pieces, I read them again to try to understand the story that was within them. And gradually, I saw that there was a chronological sequence and spine to the novel. There were characters who arrived at a particular date, and things happened in a particular order.
So the main work of assembling the novel was finding those things that needed to happen an order for the reader to make sense of what was happening—and then arraying the other pieces, which are less time-specific, around those in a way that creates what I hope will be a pleasurable flow of David Wallace—of his brilliant, brilliant range of voices, and narrative techniques, and ideas.
One thing Wallace is known for is a kind of super-inclusion. You once described the painstaking process of cutting Infinite Jest for length and manageability, in which Wallace half-jokingly presented himself as a kind of bear mother, snarling protectively over paragraphs and whole pages ("My canines are bared on this one," he said of one of your proposed edits). How did you edit material out of this book without Wallace's help—and protestations? What kind of material did you decide not to include?
Well, that is the enormous and heartbreaking aspect of editing a book posthumously. Editing with a writer is a joyous collaboration—not even a collaboration, but a conversation, a colloquy, a back-and-forth. The editor makes suggestions and proposes and points things out and acts as a sort of super-reader for the author—and the author chooses what if any of that advice he or she wants to take. That interplay with David was one of the most joyous I've had in my life as an editor.
Without David there to respond, my goal was to include everything that made sense. Everything seemed that it fit with all the other things to make a novel. And to change as little as possible. I didn't feel like I had the liberty to edit his words without him there to respond to them. So I restricted myself, and restricted my editing, to making names consistent, and places consistent, and ranks—achieving a kind of consistency so the story made sense. Because as he wrote this, over these many, many years, he was constantly trying out new character names, but it would be clear that this character that he's writing with one name now is the same character who had a different name in an earlier chapter.
So I edited mostly for consistency. In a very, very small number of chapters that were in really rough state, and were clearly unpolished and unrevised by him, I excised a small number of paragraphs that kind of wandered off, or made the chapter confusing because there were unfinished ideas. But my basic guiding principle was to keep this as much as possible as he had written it. I think my work was more assembly and sequencing.
The book's cover page reads The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel; certainly, the novel doesn't take the final form it would have reached under Wallace's hand. But in what respects is this novel, as it stands, complete?
I think it's inarguable that it's complete. It's possible that David had written all the scenes and chapters that he wanted to write, and had just not revising and assembling them—but that would just be speculation. There are notes at the end, as you see, that suggest directions he might have taken.