So, on Tax Day (US) The Pale King was finally, belatedly, officially launched, more than a week after it had first started appearing in bookshops. Foyles in Charing Cross Road hosted an event featuring Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, and his agent, Bonnie Nadell, in an event chaired by New Statesman Culture Editor Jonathan Derbyshire and featuring short reading from Wallace’s work by Paul Murray and Catherine O’Flynn.
The room was packed, and the conversation enlightening in places, but the atmosphere was no doubt far less fervid than it would have been had we all been clutching our copies of the book for the first time, riffling through the pages as we listened.
Paul Murray (author of Skippy Dies – reviewed by me for the Independent here) read the opening section of the novel (well, though a little fast) followed by Catherine O’Flynn (author of What Was Lost), who rather bizarrely read an excerpt from the videophone section of Infinite Jest. It got some laughs, and stopped proceedings getting off to a too-gloomy start, but seemed a bit strange all the same. Surely she could have found some funny passages from the book we were supposed to be celebrating?
Then Jonathan Derbyshire began his intelligent questioning of the two main guests. He was an excellent chair, steering the discussion where it needed to go in terms of the life of the book following Wallace’s death, without ever pushing too many personal or private buttons.
Much of what was said was not new, having been aired either in Pietsch’s introduction to the novel (excerpted in The Guardian), in Wallace’s memorial service or elsewhere, so I’ll restrict my notes here largely to things that were new to me – if they’re not to you I can only apologise.
First off, Nadell talked about starting out as an agent in 1985, aged 23, when Wallace, two years older, became her first client on the strength of one chapter from Broom of the System. The novel was turned down by everyone she sent it to (she didn’t say how many) until it was accepted by an editor – not Pietsch at this point; he only came on board with Infinite Jest.
Pietsch talked a little about the process of editing that book, mentioning in an aside that one of the sections he had suggested Wallace cut was the videophone riff we had all just heard and enjoyed. Beyond sentence-level editing and some compression, he said that he had succeeded in getting Wallace to do some major expansion and clarification work on the scenes involving the Quebecois separatist terrorists Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, which he had initially found “really complicated” and “opaque.”
Nadell talked about the necessity of acting as a shield for Wallace following the depression that he experienced following (or after?) the lukewarm critical reception of his first story collection, Girl With Curious Hair. She talked about his generosity, how he wrote back to everyone who ever wrote to him, often on postcards, but never had a mobile phone, and, although he had secret email addresses, he rarely gave them out, and indeed rarely read them.
Again talking about his relationship with publicity, Pietsch said that Wallace tried not to read reviews, and once told him only to call him “if there’s a really bad one in a really public place, so that he could understand why people were looking at him pityingly.”
The discussion then moved onto The Pale King, which Pietsch had Wallace characterising as “a novel about the bits [of life] that other great writers have left out” and concerned above all with the problem of solipsism, of how to get beyond yourself, when your own self is so fatally interesting, towards the possibility of actually reaching out to another person.
Nadell recalled trying to convince Wallace to set the novel in the present day, rather than in the 1980s, but he said he wanted to “write about now, but from a 1980s perspective.” Pietsch talked about it being set “at the cusp of the Reagan/Bush era.”
Much of what was said about the job of constructing the “unfinished novel” The Pale King out of the various elements found in Wallace’s office is covered elsewhere. However, I was certainly interested to hear Pietsch clarify that the 200 pages left in the “neat stack of manuscript” on Wallace’s desk were not the opening of the novel; rather they were the sections that Wallace had polished enough to feel comfortable sending out to editors to try and get an advance. The first section in the office stack was in fact the ‘Author here’ section that currently makes up Chapter 9.
He, Nadell and Wallace’s widow Karen Green considered 3,000 pages of material. Some sections were eighth drafts. Some were handwritten first drafts. Pietsch said that roughly 20% of The Pale King as we have it is taken from such handwritten first drafts.
The final part of this discussion covered the sense of Wallace as a moral writer, and the importance of civics in The Pale King, with taxation being “the lifeblood of the nation” and the centrality of the stuck-in-the-elevator scene, in which IRS employees discuss whether they should act according to moral considerations – i.e. chase down the biggest tax defaulters so as to punish them – or simple financial ones – i.e. follow those cases that will deliver the highest revenue.
Then Derbyshire opened the talk to questions from the floor, though he did move the conversation on himself at times, also, for it must be said, the questions weren’t exactly overabundant. It looked for scary moments that nobody had anything to ask. Certainly, nobody that wanted to ask a question didn’t get to.
The first question (from me, as it happens: I hate silence at these kinds of things) was about choosing the beginning and end sections of the novel. Pietsch said that the final opening (“Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs…”) was one of “various designated openings”, i.e. Wallace had marked various sections at various times as possible openings. Conversely, no section was marked in any way as being a possible ending, and Pietsch had chosen the beginning and ending sections because they were the only two that are specifically addressed to “you”, i.e. the reader – although obviously Chapter 9 (“Author here”) fits that criterion too.
In discussing how they chose what to cut (a topic that has been covered elsewhere) Pietsch said that some of the drafts were 15 years apart, which Nadell corrected to 10 years. Pietsch also gave an example of the difficulty presented by Wallace renaming characters during the writing process: he didn’t realise until quite late that the penultimate chapter was about Chris Fogle under a different name.
Pietsch had said earlier that a lot of the material he cut simply repeated other sections, whether specifically as redrafts, or more generally, and someone asked how much cut material was not repetitive, but was cut for another reason. Pietsch said that if the finished novel was made up of 50 chapters or sections, then these were culled from 90 unique (ie non-repetitive) sections, and that those 40 sections were cut because he thought they didn’t cohere with the general themes of the book, or specifically contradicted other sections, in terms of what characters did or would do. He mentioned chapters on Claude Sylvanshine in this regard, but gave no concrete examples; and he repeated that all this cut material was available for scholarly access at The Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas, where, for example, all five drafts of Chapter 9 (“Author here”) are currently available online.
A question as to whether (or in what way) they had considered not publishing at all – for whatever reason – was met by Nadell with the response that “it was very clear he had left it to be found, and published,” and by Pietsch that, once he had read the material, “the idea of not making it available was inconceivable.”
Someone asked if there was further posthumous material that we might see at some point in the future. This was met with something of a loaded pause, as if this was not something the two of them were prepared to fully answer at this point (which, if true, is probably forgivable, all things considered).
Nadell then said that there was “no trunk in an attic” (i.e. with significant unknown works in it), but that “there may be some things down the line.” She said for example that there were some uncollected early pieces in obscure magazines that weren’t even available on the internet. Pietsch talked about his desire to see a Collected Stories, bringing together Wallace’s three published collections with uncollected stories from elsewhere.
A question about Wallace’s heroes didn’t throw up any new names, although Pietsch did make the interesting comment, with regards to Don DeLillo, that he saw an echo in The Pale King’s opening section of “some passages in The Names.” The questioner then responded with the comment that he had been reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and saw a double connection, in that the two writers, although very different in many ways, were both Mid-Westerners (something that had been discussed earlier) and were both highly interested in civics. Pietsch said it was certainly a hugely interesting comparison but that, as he had managed to get through the US education system without reading any Steinbeck he couldn’t comment further. (Which, to be frank, is a pretty startling admission: how many UK editors would admit to not having read, for instance, Orwell?)
Things wrapped up with Pietsch rehearsing the idea that Wallace had spent much of his career working through his own anxiety with regards to the influence of Thomas Pynchon, and then noting again the tragedy of the situation we all found ourselves in. That was all. It was not groundbreaking. It was enlightening in parts. It was more about a book than a person. Which, for when and where and who we were, felt right.