PEN 2011: Tidbits on David Foster Wallace



While I have gleefully immersed myself in his nonfiction and long-form essays, I have not read The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, or The Pale King. Post-event discussions revealed that I wasn’t the only one in the audience at PEN World Voices Festival’s Everything and More panel who had not dipped his toes into David Foster Wallace’s fiction. Such is the draw of the deceased writer-philosopher genius.


With my mind clean of experience in reading Wallace’s fiction,1 I was at a short remove from the discussion that revolved largely around The Pale King (published this month) and Infinite Jest (1996). Moderator Laura Miller and participants Rick Moody, Michael Pietsch (Wallace’s long-time editor), and Sandro Veronesi, however, were intimate with Wallace to varying degrees. Such familiarity by the participants resulted in a highly intelligent discussion—one of the best, if not the best, conversations on a single author I have ever attended.  


The disadvantage of not having read Wallace’s fiction is that I can’t relate much of the conversation points to my own experience with his work, let alone the text itself. Unlike Veronesi or Moody, reading Wallace’s maximalist work has not been a formative experience in my life or writing career. Not yet…


The advantage of not having read Wallace’s fiction was that I was able to put down my pen and simply enjoy an insightful discussion on an author I admire very much (his nonfiction is stellar and inspiring). The event was recorded and should be up on PEN’s website soon; I highly recommend that readers visit PEN’s site to listen in on the conversation, which includes Moody reading the opening chapter of The Pale King (as if he were reading an epic poem) and revelations from Pietsch into the process of editing Wallace’s unfinished novel.


My take away from the event, then, is minimal. A couple of notes: Miller began the discussion by asking if the discussants consider Wallace a political writer. Moody hazarded that because The Pale King is centered on an IRS agent, a figure of the monster of capitalism, that Wallace’s last novel must be seen as political. He didn’t go much deeper than this, leaving me unconvinced of his argument. One can extend this line of thinking to just about any protagonist that happens to hold a government job. I’d like to see Moody expand on his thoughts.


Veronesi  argued that Wallace is not so much a political writer, but rather that he is a moral writer. Here, again, I am disadvantaged for not having read his work, but from what I have read about Infinite Jest and The Pale King, this sounds about right. Veronesi said that more than any other American writer, he saw himself in the work of Wallace. Further, he said reading Wallace was like looking into a black mirror; black because of the sorrow that permeates Wallace’s work. Pietch picked up on the moral thread, noting that in Infinite Jest Wallace struggled with the moral problem of trying to define oneself in a rich and powerful country, where by all accounts its citizens should be happy, and yet Americans are often sad, disgruntled, anxious, and depressed.  


Lastly, Veronesi said that reading Wallace is an “experience of losing time.” Not wasting time, he underlined, but losing it… losing yourself in the immensity of the work, the abundance of details, and the moral arc which would take, if Wallace could have ever attempted so, 10,000 pages to complete.



1. Not entirely true. I did read the short story “Wiggle Room,” published in The New Yorker in 2009, which I don’t think made it into The Pale King.


UPDATE: From Twitter user @nick_maniatis: "Wiggle Room" is a version of chapter 33 in The Pale King.




David Foster Wallace, Laura Miller, Michael Pietsch, Morality, PEN 2011, Philosophy, Rick Moody, Sandro Veronesi