King of the Ghosts

Empty classroom, June 2008, Chicago, IL. From Max Kligensmith
  • David Foster Wallace. The Pale King. Little, Brown, April 2011.

Wednesday evening, early May, Claremont, California. Sunset, the last day of classes. My friend, Sara, drove the two of us on College Ave. toward campus with the six-pack we’d bought for our last class, an end-of-semester party that would have beer and wine and cookies and a sweet dark sangria with citrus in the pitcher, but no drugs, for obvious reasons, and no hard alcohol because some former student had thrown up the whiskey he’d drunk in his last class. I thought about making and bringing a beer bong, but when a friend told me that it would be in poor taste because our teacher was a recovered alcoholic, I reluctantly gave in.

Our teacher made small talk before class. Say, how did we do acid these days? Did we put it on scraps of paper and put the scraps under our eyelids, as he used to? The few of us who heard him laughed, nervous, narcotically conservative, and in the presence of a cool kid roundly out-embarrassed despite the beer and sangria we brandished. If only I’d had the beer bong.

He was an embarrassing man when he wanted to be, our teacher, deeply, deliberately, playfully so. He feigned lewd interest a week later in the lurid details of the pre-graduation party-trip the seniors had taken. They had set rules against sex in the shower, or so he let me know. (He had no ribald stories from his own pre-graduation week, since he “and some other terminally nerdy guys just drove up to Maine and discussed Reaganomics and ate lobster.”) It took a student a few seconds to answer when called on “Michael Watson, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

My own soft underbelly was spoken (if not written) politeness, a Midwestern habit of deference and sorrys and if-you-don’t-minds my Midwestern teacher invariably mentioned or mocked or prodded in a mild recursive torment, recursive because politeness tends to be polite about itself. After my tenth sorry he’d bar me from any more apologies or self-qualification or self-deprecation, which I’d apologize for making him do. He told me once that he worried that I dissembled with my politeness, so I promised him that I really would let him know if something he said bothered me, and he told me that he’d made nearly the same promise to his mother a few years before.

His polite moments, which were frequent if often implausible (he denied reading quickly, being widely read, being “an especially fluid writer”) were all the more absurd given how caustic he could be. Once, I offended some of the class with a not-too-polite satire of the misogyny of the then-emerging male-sex-help genre, and our teacher advocated for the Devil by asking whether anyone besides him thought that I’d shown some “balls.” After that he paused and solemnly told us, “I deeply regret saying that,” but I have my suspicions.

He lambasted an essay’s “methane,” at one point, and praised another for its “sheer sphincter-shattering beauty.” Writing a short essay to render something you loved endlessly was “trying to blow a watermelon through a straw.” Most writing was “written half-asleep and read half-asleep,” whereas his every sentence spoken or written confirmed his alertness and his comprehensive comprehension and his care. He was immaculately alive, which made you terribly eager to show that you were all there as well.

He was of course David Foster Wallace, whom I knew as Dave during the spring of my junior year at Pomona College, where he worked until his death that September. The class he taught that semester was The Literary Essay. The class was exciting and productively creative, and fostered abject terror. Wallace knew that he could drive us as hard as he could, and he did, even as he endured a mental hell we learned about only after his death. I knew nothing, suspected nothing. Perhaps we could’ve noticed his pain if the class had been less painful for us.

Half of the class brought up our anxiety to him, separately, myself included. Wallace himself hadn’t noticed the “ambient anxiety”; he praised our “esprit de corps.” He wondered whether there was something terrible on his face and invisible to him (this was a real, deep fear of his, he assured us: his acute social-anxiety disorder had been clinically diagnosed). “Dave,” I asked in his office, “how do you deal with anxiety?” He laughed, a little bemused. He told me not to keep all my problems in my head as he had in his youth. Yoga, he suggested. Meditation. He said he really wasn’t the person to ask.

“Turgid,” he wrote to me about the first essay I wrote for him. I hadn’t known the word; it sounded like “rigid” and “turd.” Prolix, he elaborated—abstract, clunky, unclear, obfuscatory, “evincing all the worst qualities of academic writing.” My essay had been written for professors, which was like writing for no audience, or worse. I should ideally write my second essay with an eight-word sentence limit and for an audience of 10-year-olds. Unless I were to change my writing drastically, I’d “spend the rest of my life producing only academic essays,” he wrote, before in green pen he changed “essays” to “prose” and added “middling” before “academic,” to be perfectly clear.

My workshop that evening was as brutal as his comments, which he passed to me at the end. He guided the discussion toward the range of problems in my essay, qualified students’ occasional praise, reiterated criticisms, and pointed to a parody he’d written of one of my byzantine sentences. He did say a nice thing or two, but the felt effect of the class was still a fusillade of criticisms I couldn’t respond to, personal criticisms, since I’d written a personal essay. The class was like a bad dream in which you heard the worst things people thought about you, doubly bad because the students and professor’s intelligence made these thoughts feel true. My writing was turgid, my ideas were incoherent, my argument was impossible to follow. My style was inconsistent, my grammar was sloppy and incompetent. My sentences showed no humanity. When Wallace entered discussions he often taught in maxims, critical or moral, and in this case it wasn’t clear which. I’d failed to show “empathy for the reader,” and my public failure sent me back to my dorm room in shame.

I went to his office hours the next afternoon. When I apologized for the typos, he pointed at me and said, “Never fail to proofread something you turn in to me,” to which I nodded as convincingly as I could. He worried that he hadn’t gotten through to me, and, confused, he asked, “I mean, did you cry?” “Yes.” “Good. I would’ve cried.” He knew the criticism had been hard to hear, but thought that I had to learn how people feel when they think and care about thoughtless, careless writing. “I don’t feel bad for you,” he said, and he looked me in the eyes a little uneasily as he paused and slowed his speech and unfurled his right hand as if to offer me something. “But, I feel for you”—a gesture of empathy.

His principle of empathy governed all that he taught us, even when he taught with tough love. Make your comments maximally helpful. Never sacrifice clarity. Don’t make the reader work unnecessarily—parse unnecessary clauses, wade through unnecessary data. He wrote on the syllabus that the purpose of good writing wasn’t self-expression, “or whatever your teacher told you in high school,” but communication, meaningful communication between two human beings. He taught with the empathy he preached, about everything from our grammar to our values to our personal lives. In an avuncular aside, he told us once that with each decade our sex lives of the decade before would grow to seem strange and sad to us, “for what it’s worth.” He spent hours teaching us grammar and style and usage, sometimes after class, sometimes in class with half-sheet illustrative mini-lessons with titles like “Learning: The Adventure of a Lifetime!” He gave so much of himself, convinced that he could teach us writing’s minutiae and that our knowing the minutiae would help us to communicate meaningfully and that meaningful communication would help us to feel for and so to care for other human beings. So there he was, his generation’s literary genius, teaching undergrads how not to split infinitives. I loved him—love him, if it still makes sense to say that—as I think more or less all of us did, do.

“You’re like a bunch of 8-year-old tennis-players out there,” Wallace told me in his office, swinging an invisible, minuscule racket. He meant that he didn’t know who’d make it, how good we could be when we hit our “plateaus,” but he did all he could to lift us up to them. He taught us how to criticize each other: to expound the writer’s goals and how she could meet them better. Wallace knew his students in this way. He knew us, our passions, our ambitions, and he told us with unfailing honesty how and why we fell short of them. He made us account for ourselves. This gave us a grim look at the insoluble conflicts our desires gave rise to, and led me to doubt myself constantly. Did I really want to communicate meaningfully, or did I just want to indulge and project my sense of myself as a meaningful communicator? Was I polite out of earnest respect or out of a drive to seem respectful? The more Wallace got to know me and the more I got to know myself, the more anxious I became that I was just performing, a fraud.

If Wallace worried that you were bullshitting him, he’d sometimes blink hard, pause, and look angry and anxious at once, as though you’d stolen from him and hidden what you stole. He once supplied three ulterior motives for what he thought I meant to say before I finished my sentence. He expressed some of the most meaningful things he said to me in some of his sentences most likely to seem meaningless. “It means a lot that it means a lot,” “I feel for you.”

He worried about whom and what to trust—this was clear before his suicide revealed the desperate loneliness with which he must have felt his mistrust. We had no idea (so much for empathy), but in retrospect there were clear signs of his pain. He hated our confusing “complementary” with “complimentary,” loathed it. We were good students about to graduate from college, so he couldn’t dock our grades for the error, but he pledged to cut himself if we committed it, nowhere visible but a cut nonetheless so we’d know that we’d caused him real pain. “Dave, that’s really uncomfortable,” I said, with the impoliteness I’d promised him. He said, “I’m not kidding.” “I know,” I said. “That’s what makes it so uncomfortable.”

None of us knew in our last class, with our dark sangria and uncharacteristic calm, that our teacher would never teach again. We finished discussing the semester’s last essay, on small talk. He said some official words about year-end portfolios and paused for a second before he slouched in his chair. “If you’ve learned,” he said, “a quarter of what I learned from this class”—and I don’t remember how he finished his sentence. I’d never heard his voice so high before, or seen him cry. “Dave, that’s really meaningful,” I said. He blinked hard, anxious and even afraid but also not angry—and without his anger he was softened—and his voice quavered when he said “thanks.”

After he died, in September 2008, I memorized a poem he had mentioned the last time I saw him, at a bakery on College Ave. in Claremont, Wallace Stevens’s bizarre elegy “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” Wallace wondered whether my last essay alluded to the poem—it didn’t—and asked me whether I’d heard of the poem—I hadn’t—and waved his arms around as if to puff himself up as he imitated the rabbit’s megalomania, which turns into as perfect a selflessness as the rabbit’s world allows. He becomes “a self that touches all edges,” a line I found in Infinite Jest when I finally finished it the next year. I knew the poem by heart by Wallace’s memorial service that October, when I read the quotation from Wallace’s Dostoevsky essay put on the back of the program by whoever ran the service. “His concern was always what it is to be a human being—that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.” I heard for the first time in my life the whole of 1 Corinthians 13, and wept as I sat by myself in a pew. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” “Then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

The service was in a small, church-like concert hall on the south end of campus, on a Saturday I remember light rain in. The organist played Bach. A few people gave speeches, including Wallace’s friend Jonathan Franzen, whose speech ended sadly, mid-sentence, with confusion. He admitted that he couldn’t make sense of Wallace’s suicide, and had the courage to urge that we couldn’t either. “One good, simple, modern story would go like this,” Franzen said, “‘There was the person of Dave, and then there was the disease, and the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.’ This story is at once sort of true and totally inadequate. If you’re satisfied with this story, you don’t need the stories that Dave wrote—particularly not those many, many stories in which the duality, the separateness, of person and disease is problematized or outright mocked.” The chemical story wouldn’t suffice, and any story that would had to acknowledge that this man, our friend, teacher, storyteller, mythmaker, idol, chose to die.

The chemical story broke the day after Wallace’s death, when the Times reported the clinical depression his father had divulged to the paper. The story let us begin to make sense of Wallace’s death—he’d been depressed, he’d switched medications, the pain was too much—and I hoped for a couple of nights that this would be the end of my explanation. But I knew that it couldn’t be. Wallace’s death was premeditated, intentional. He left a two-page note. But without the chemical story his death was an open question I couldn’t make sense of. For the few weeks after his death I walked across campus in the evenings to a quiet, empty courtyard beside the English building. I’d light a candle on the rim of the fountain and stare at the gray stone rim, at the candle, at the water as it fell into the pool and at its reflection against the fountain’s blue center by white lights in the water, a kind of cross-section of cloud, and hear the endless rush of the fountain as I recited “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” and waited for meaning, hugged my knees, closed my eyes.

I tried out a number of feelings, told a number of stories. That he was an asshole, an egotist, a bullshitter, a bully, a fraud. That he was terminally lonely, incapable of trust. That he was terminally loving, brought down by the pain he meant to heal as the rest of us would be if we didn’t choose to deflect it with irony, humor, bullshit self-interest. That he was, to quote T. S. Eliot, “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”

He died either from self-driven pain or from the larger pain he felt so acutely and described so well, I thought, so I believed I faced two dilemmas. Blame him and have to forego his teachings and denounce him, lose him somehow; or vindicate him and face the dilemma he faced: bullshit away from obligations or suffer the despair their fulfillment entailed. Either he was at fault and I somehow had to renounce him, or he was a victim and I risked bullshit or despair, death of the spirit, or, well, the sickness unto death, the spiritual anguish in which death seems the only escape.

I deliberated in absolutes, as if I had to accept or reject the whole person, all of Wallace, all of Dave, as if I either could have kept him or could have let him go. This was a story he would have told: the actions that would make you happy depend on moral choices that are intensely hard to carry out or even to make. I felt my grief on his terms, which turned to grief about the terms he’d set.  

Leonard Stecyk, as a boy, was a crossing guard, a hall monitor, a student eager to raise his hand in the classroom (but only when he was sure he could express the answer in a way maximally helpful to the discussion), a calligrapher, an origamist, and a victim of his teacher’s violent threats and a gang of older kids’ unspeakable physical abuse. He wrote personal notes to all his aggressors, assuring them that he has no hard feelings, honestly.

Shane Drinion understands sexual and social drives in the abstract but seems mechanically devoid of them. He betrays little emotion and no insincerity, and is able to pay near-perfect attention to his work. Sometimes he levitates.

Claude Sylvanshine knows “the percentage of Egyptian deities that have animal faces instead of human faces. The length and average circumference of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s small intestine. The exact (not estimated) height of Mount Erebus, though not what or where Mount Erebus is.” He has the dubious gift of effortlessly intuiting data that’s utterly useless, that distracts him and makes him anxious, which itself makes him anxious and unable to attend to anything except his anxiety.

David Cusk lives with the constant fear that he’ll sweat, which makes him sweat, which makes him afraid.

Lane Dean decides on Christian principle to stay with his girlfriend, whom he unintentionally impregnated.

Chris Fogle, after years of drug-addled rebellion and painful soul-searching and deliberation, convinces himself that true heroism consists of necessary work undertaken without the usual rewards of recognition or respect or lucrative remuneration or even intrinsic interest, and makes a principled commitment to the Internal Revenue Service, where he meets David Wallace.

The character David Wallace, whom I’ll refer to as “David,” is the faux-author of The Pale King, which he purportedly wrote as a “substantially true and accurate” memoir of a year he spent working in the IRS as a precocious, pimple-ridden 20-year-old after his bourgeois New England college suspended him for forging term papers. Like Wallace, David dreamed he’d become “an immortally great fiction writer,” but after he spent a year at IRS Regional Examination Center 047 in Peoria, Illinois, his dreams changed. He had learned about boredom from his IRS co-workers. How boredom is a fact of bureaucratic life, and how bureaucracy is a fact of American life. How boredom can be not just the beginning of distraction but the end of it. How boredom can lead to fulfillment, even happiness. The co-workers Wallace imagines model different ways boredom could help different people, the pathologically awkward and rule-following, the vicious-cyclical neurotics, the pious devotees, and their work at the Service shows ways it could help the country it serves.

The Pale King is a thematic sequel to Wallace’s opus, Infinite Jest, which shows how our personally pleasing entertainments addict us and make us depressed, despairing, unfree to live meaningfully, with real selflessness and empathy and dialogue and love. Infinite Jest depicts a hell of selfish pleasures, characters addicted to drugs and athletic greatness and fame, and the institutions that produce these addictions. The only hope Jest offers for true relief are the mindless mantras and dogma of Alcoholics Anonymous, but the novel leaves open the possibility of other selfless principles and ways to live selflessly, and these are what The Pale King takes up, antidotes to addiction and entertainment, models of dedicated, boring lives and institutions that could structure them. The Pale King follows the form of Infinite Jest to show a moral world in which people haven’t failed, in which people avoid abject addiction and struggle to attend to what they should—a world in which people could live meaningfully and be happy. The Pale King is purgatory to the hell of Infinite Jest.

Hell is hopeless, and Purgatory hopes against hope. The locus of hope in The Pale King is boredom, the main, crushing feature of IRS life but an emotion that could we tolerate it could inure us to entertainment-cravings. For Wallace addiction is idolatry, and dedication is worship, but because the novel was left unfinished it shows us almost nothing of worship’s effects. We may suspect that the novel’s plot would pit boring policy against a sexier alternative (whether to run the IRS as a traditional, boring, bumbling bureaucracy or as a for-profit corporation, as a guardian of civic virtue or a wealth-generating enterprise), but we don’t know how this plot would resolve and how its resolution would affect the boredom or virtue of anyone. Unfinished, the novel only leaves us with a question. Its characters need to worship—but how?

Wallace’s view of worship is a major part of his most accessible and widely read work, the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in May 2005 (published as This is Water in 2009). The speech condenses some of the main concerns of his work—freedom, meaningfulness, happiness—and elegantly connects them, arguing that you won’t be lastingly, meaningfully happy unless you establish and exercise the freedom to live meaningfully, which involves choosing principles that impose obligations to act ethically. You have to worship the right thing.

You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship . . . Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J. C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

(Worship a God who imposes ethical standards it’s impossible to know that you’re meeting and who damns to Hell at least some of the people who don’t meet them, and feel like a sinner and a wretch. That’s not a minor omission.)

Wallace’s rhetoric is unmistakably religious, powerful, and problematic. His view of worship is classically religious in that it frames the question as what or whom to worship rather than whether to worship anything at all. This runs together two concepts of worship, a weaker concept, something like “to care a lot about and invest a lot of time in,” and a stronger one, “to have faith in,” whatever that amounts to. The power of the speech’s rhetoric is in its persuasively conflating the first definition with the second, which is a problem not least because it frames relative questions in absolute terms. The second is absolute (either you believe in Christ or you don’t) but the first is a matter of degree, of how much money matters to you, which, since it clearly must a bit, would lead to relentless guilt about “worshipping” money at all. This is the power of his rhetoric, which also shoehorns his argument. If you have to choose God or money, it’s not hard to know what you should do, but it’s much harder to know whether to choose God or a secular life of various relatively important values.

Regardless, worship is in Wallace’s view to “pay attention,” to “know how to think,” to “consciously decide what has meaning,” and to “decide how you’re going to try to see.” Many readers from these cues take “worship” to comprise only second-by-second willed choices about how to attend to the world. This is clearly part of what Wallace means by “worship,” but not all. The second-by-second struggles follow from steady commitments. That’s what the bulk of his writing is about—the difficulties of maintaining those commitments and of knowing what to commit to. Worship consists both of instantaneous principled decisions about what to think and to do and of commitment to principles that shape the range of your decisions. To “choose what to worship” is to choose those principles and to choose to live by them, to leap into a sea of faith and to swim.

So what could The Pale King’s characters worship, and how could it help them?

The vicious-cyclical neurotics, Sylvanshine and Cusk, could learn through the rigor of their work the mental discipline of what to attend to and how to attend to it. Rand and Ware, who suffer from psychosexual traumas and the mistrust and isolation these problems create, could through their work gain senses of themselves that have nothing to do with their sex appeal. Drinion and Stecyk, pathologically awkward and rule following, were made for the Service, one of the few places where their natural anality and lack of emotional or social distraction allows them to fit in. And those dedicated in principle but distracted in practice, the pious Fogle and Dean, could if they were to truly dedicate themselves reap the dual rewards of concentrated minute-by-minute applications of principles and of that principled concentration being meaningful for them—the two parts of worship.

The Service could just as soon fail them. The psychosexually traumatized could just isolate themselves further, and so loathe themselves more for not having to care for people who might just desire their bodies, for not risking human love. The pathologically awkward could permanently remove themselves from contexts in which they’d have to learn how to understand other ways of living. The vicious-cyclical nut jobs could wilt under the pressure to change their habits of thought and so lose even more control over them. And the pious could act for the wrong reasons or misunderstand the reasons they act or chose misleadingly meaningless pieties, after the wrong gods.

I imagine that The Pale King, if finished, would show at least some of these characters’ successes and failures. At least the novel as it is presents their problems, the great problems of Wallace’s fiction. How to trust people after you’ve been deceived or mistreated. How to reconcile personal ideals with social reality, if your ideals lead you to extreme detachment or extreme kindness, in a society that fears the former and loathes the latter. How to free yourself to confront problems. How to choose principles to live by when you can’t know that the principles or their foundations are true or that you follow them for the right reasons. These are the torments that led to his triumphs: his faith in other people and his doubt about humanity.

But I have doubts about his doubt. Why hold standards you know you could never reach, for trust, self-perfection, sense of self, and authenticity? The impossibility of his ideals must have helped his writing, as they called for projects nearly impossible and so worthy of his genius. But there are other ways to guide genius than to subscribe to a set of values that will reinforce and even encourage an innate extremism whose obvious conclusion is perpetual failure you’d hate yourself for. His problem was neurotic: Wallace would rationalize a desperate fear of failure by setting standards he could never attain, and his eventual failure would give him reason to fear. His desperation reinforced his despair. He longed for certainty and couldn’t live with doubt. This neurosis gives us one reason, among others, to doubt his views, since he could’ve come to them through psychological error rather than personal insight.

So here’s the psychological story of how Wallace chose his ideals for being with other people and for living with himself. He had a clinically diagnosed social-anxiety disorder, he told our class, and his doubt was so corrosive and so total that he longed for relationships it made no sense to doubt. He wanted to know with certainty that he and others were trustworthy, that no one bullshitted or lied about whether they acted for self-interest or for real good reason. He wanted full empathy, full meaning, full care—the pure have no reason to doubt. Without all of this he’d feel lonely.

But these are ideals you can’t realize, since you can’t in any meaningful sense be certain of what others think or that they’ll follow their promises; of whether you acted out of altruism or out of self-interest; of whether others will know that you said what you meant. Full empathy is an impossible nightmare, since in the wildly unlikely case in which you were to feel the whole of someone’s pain you’d be harmed by what you meant to heal. No one wants a wounded doctor. Wallace’s skeptical solutions to his social skepticism often seem more plausible than they are because they’re Christian in origin and therefore feel familiar and intuitive. Not to be an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal. That love is not self-seeking. That if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. That when I’ll die I’ll know fully, even as I am fully known. Wallace’s is a harsh and uncompromising Christianity in which sin is everywhere, real as Hell.

A calmer man, more trusting, more boring, more joyful—we can only imagine how Wallace would’ve been had he lived by different principles or worshipped differently. This is also what The Pale King would imagine. The Service-workers whom David, the Pilgrim, works with and learns from are personifications of Wallace’s conflicts who have a number of Wallace’s qualities: his awkwardness, his anxiety, his self-sacrifice, his tendency to sweat profusely, his Midwestern Christian piety, his trust of and love for dogs. It’s as if David would’ve taken on their traits and been recognizably like Wallace but redeemably different. David wouldn’t have become “an immortally great fiction writer,” and so wouldn’t have faced the worries that people cared about him only for his virtuosity, and that his real gift was rhetorical persuasion rather than any special insight into truth, as a mysterious accounting professor in The Pale King warns his students against. David wouldn’t have had to appeal to his audience’s desires to make them laugh. He would’ve been boring, even resented. But perhaps he would’ve trusted himself more for the certainty of his serving and for its humbleness and humorlessness, trusted others when they liked him even if he didn’t please them. David would have fulfilled ideals he could live with, would have been a self that touches all edges without losing its center. But we don’t know how David ends up, since Wallace never finished the story. We have to work with what he left us.

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