Reconstructing David Foster Wallace

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In his New York Times review of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Tom McCarthy, author of C, writes that the novel's subtitle, "An Unfinished Novel," is just as significant as the title itself.

It seems that the reconstruction of The Pale King by Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch, from an assortment of boxes, disks and printed or handwritten papers, is not unlike Wallace's own fans' attempts to construct an image of the author himself. Just as The Pale King is "An Unfinished Novel," Wallace, since his suicide in 2008, appears an unfinished, contradictory image of an author and human being. This is by no means due to a lack of information on him, quite the reverse; Wallace was not only prolific, he embodied the self-disclosive non-fiction style that has spawned so many imitations among writers today. But the difficulty remains as to how to fit the many pieces he has left into a coherent whole.

In the last week, strange, fascinating details from Wallace's life have emerged throughout the literary scene, all accompanied with a significant amount of analysis. But compelling as these finds, such as those listed below, might be to Wallace completists, they serve to show that the author remains as inscrutable as ever.

  • Wallace's widow describes her first artwork after his suicide. Guardian interviewed Wallace's widow Karen Green on her first artwork after his suicide, which was a "Forgiveness Machine." Green explained:

"The forgiveness machine was seven-feet long," she says, "with lots of weird plastic bits and pieces. Heavy as hell." The idea was that you wrote down the thing that you wanted to forgive, or to be forgiven for, and a vacuum sucked your piece of paper in one end...

"[But] The machine was overwhelmed, too; it couldn't process all the requests and was eventually dismantled. "Forgiving is never as easy as we would like," she says. "Apparently quite a lot of people cried."

  • The discovery of a childhood poem. At the David Foster Wallace archives at the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center, author and editor Justine Tal Goldberg stumbled across a bleak poem written by David Foster Wallace, "presumably for a grade school class", she speculates, when he was nine "at the youngest".

"My mother works so hard / so hard and for bread. She needs some lard. / She bakes the bread. And makes / the bed. And when she's / threw she feels she's dayd," wrote the young Wallace, in a piece which Goldberg says is "already exhibiting the masterful grasp of language for which he would later become famous".

  • The self-help archives. Maria Bustillos recently spent three days at the Harry Ransom Center, where she uncovered a surprising number of "popular self-help books" in Wallace's collection.

I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace's library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully...

The paradox of Wallace's humor and good-natured candor, the qualities so many of his readers enjoyed most, set against the many secrets there have always been around his private life, is laid bare in the Ransom Center documents.

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