DFW as Bartleby


It seems to me there are two ways of understanding the document assembled from a jumble of boxes, disks and printed or handwritten papers that, at the time of David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008, ran into the high hundreds of pages — a document that, conscientiously and intelligently whittled down by Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch to 500-odd pages, is now being published under the title “The Pale King,” and, just as significantly, the subtitle “An Unfinished Novel.” The first is as a coherent, if incomplete, portrayal of our age unfolding on an epic scale: a grand parable of postindustrial culture or “late capitalism,” and an anguished examination of the lot of the poor (that is, white-collar) individual who finds himself caught in this system’s mesh. The setting that Wallace has chosen as his background (and foreground, and pretty much everything in between) could not be more systematic: the innards of the Internal Revenue Service — the sheer, overwhelming heft of its protocols and procedures. If, as one of Wallace’s characters asserts, “the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy,” then the I.R.S., “a system composed of many systems,” not only represents that world but also furnishes the ultimate stage on which its moral dramas are enacted. In the words of Midwest Regional Examination Center Director DeWitt Glendenning Jr., one of the more shadowy (or pale) presences in this ­multicharactered and multivoiced book, “The tax code, once you get to know it, embodies all the essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, charity.”

More from Tom McCarthy at the NYT here.