'The Pale King': David Foster Wallace's Editor on the Book's Path to Print
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.
flickr/Claire Le Monde
After the first eight chapters, David Foster Wallace introduces himself into the novel as a character. The "Author's Prologue," Chapter 9, is written in Wallace's voice—the trademark, self-conscious style used in so many of his essays and stories. It's such a crystal-clear conjuration that it almost reads like a radio transmission—he even begins the section with the words "author here." How did you feel coming upon that section for the first time, while you were looking for clues in a dense and difficult work—and suddenly found yourself addressed by the very friend and colleague you were mourning?
In fact, that's the first chapter that I read. In the stack of material on his desk, the first words were the chapter that begins, "author here." And the second chapter I read also begins "author here." It was galvanic. It did feel like a transmission from David. In this period of great grief, suddenly, there was something—not just something David had created with great fullness—it was David he had created with great fullness. It was bewildering and exalting and thrilling.
The book posits itself as memoir, stating that the only untrue line in it is the "all persons fictional" disclaimer at the beginning. How is this conceit central to the novel?
I think David wanted his readers to think about the ways in which fiction can be true in our lives. I think that's his intent in a lot of his fiction, but much more directly here—by positing that this is a true story, even though it's clearly not a true story. David Wallace did not do the things that he says he does in those chapters [work for the IRS in the 1980s]. But he wanted us to think about how stories are real to us. How telling stories matters to us.
It's interesting that your process of assembling the multiple pieces of this book was a task as imposing as some of the bureaucratic processes in the book.
Except this was exhilarating. It was the challenge of a lifetime. For me, it was a grief-stricken challenge—but how lucky I am to have been given this opportunity. Even working through the page of David's smallest, most illegible handwriting, I was happy every second—attuned every second to reading what he had been working on. I felt privileged to be seeing, so intimately, the process of his writing.
Karen Green designed the book's striking cover art. How did this aspect of the publication come together?
Karen, David's wife, is a—brilliant—artist, and I asked her if she wanted to create something for the cover. She said yes.
She made this image by shredding one of David's actual tax returns and threading it through the pages of the card you see on the cover. So that's an actual David Wallace IRS document that she made into this beautiful cover image.
There's something so intimate about re-appropriating something of his for the cover—the whole book strikes me as intimate in that way. There's your very moving introduction about your editorial process, and her artwork, and of course, the writing itself—this book is a labor of love, a collaboration between people who had serious relationships. In that sense, I've never seen a book quite like it.
I'm really touched that you feel that way. It certainly was a labor of a love. And not just for me, and not just for Karen, but everyone around him, who worked with him and knew him, who's had any hand in this. People who worked with him came away feeling enormous affection towards him, and gratitude towards him, and wanted to spend more time with him. So that implored us all to do everything we could do to bring this book into the world as carefully and respectfully as possible, and with a sense of delight.
Maybe it's a sign that people miss Wallace's consciousness so much—I often hear people ask what he would have written about WikiLeaks, say, or Twitter. More than so many writers, his work embodies the Internet age with its stylistic variance, its nonlinear structure, its obsession with pop culture—and yet tragically he's going to miss out on so much of what develops. So what does it mean that we're moving forward into unknown cultural territory without one of our wisest and most generous interpreters? How would you describe what we've lost by losing his voice?
[long pause]. You've posited that question so incredibly well, I feel like you've answered it yourself. I think I'm not going to add anything to it. I'm sorry. I don't have the words.
All I'll say is I share your admiration for David Wallace's work. He was a once-in-a-lifetime writer. Once in many lifetimes.