Or, Et in Acedia Ego
The New Yorker piece "The Unfinished" provides a very thorough introduction to what will be David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King, part of which is excerpted in the same issue. The article is constructed around the conceit that Wallace's attempts to write The Pale King constituted a culmination of all the events and passions of his life, that The Pale King is, in effect, his valedictory address. I'm a little uncomfortable with such a smooth narrative arc for a life that was quite obviously sundered frequently; the implication which can be gleaned from the article that Wallace's fight against depression was conducted in parallel to his wrestling with this novel is deeply unsettling, as is the further implication, noted by Garth Risk Hallberg that "one wouldn't want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge."
The lurid romanticism of such a notion dissipates a bit when Wallace's life is plotted according to his personal geography, rather than according to his creative output. Wallace's writing career can be made to conform to an obligingly tidy narrative, excellent for journalism, as Max so capably demonstrates. But despite the neatness of its overall architecture, Max's article is actually extremely good at connecting the different conditions of Wallace's life to the places he lived or sought refuge in; this Rolling Stone article published late last October, just a little over a month after Wallace's suicide, also narrates his peregrinations well. I find the story of Wallace's life more illuminating of his fiction when this geographical complexity is foregrounded; when his fiction assumes the foreground, it is so much more difficult to get behind its monumentality to reach anything else.
Wallace's personal geography is distinct largely because, as a product of the Midwest, his life's itinerary seems largely absent of the kind of conflict so many other Midwestern boys (and some girls) manifest: Wallace's friend Franzen is a great deal more typical of the Midwestern emigré. Unlike Franzen, Wallace never has shown in his writings any impulse to 'escape' the Midwest and attach himself to another region or locale; Franzen, notably, assumed for himself the role of New York State's representative in the recent (and very good) collection State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Wallace obviously did leave the Midwest, but I was sort of touched by the way Max narrates it in The New Yorker: "During this time, David applied to Amherst, where his father had gone, and was accepted. Before Wallace left for college, he took a long walk through the cornfields, to say goodbye to the Midwest." That's certainly not an escape or a good riddance.
Wallace went many places after Amherst: Boston; Syracuse; Arizona; Claremont, California; and at one dark point, back to Urbana, Illinois. Because of the deep clefts that his depression created, each location has its own considerable importance. Few American writers seem to have such multi-axial personal geographies; most, it seems, have at best a single axis, from their peripheral youth to their metropolitan career. Wallace's path is scattered, chaotic, irregular, clearly accidental, so different from the regularized two-step of his trademark formal tic, the footnote.1
But Wallace also seems to have been one of America's few writers who apparently could go home again. One of the crucial details about The Pale King that has come out is that it is set in Illinois, in an IRS office. And it is said to be in many ways harmonious with Wallace's Kenyon College commencement speech, in the sense that it too stresses the preeminent value of mindfulness, the "this is water" admonishment from Gambier, Ohio.
Maybe I'm being a little silly emphasizing geography here, and the Midwest in particular like it's some sort of conspiracy, and beating around the bush doesn't really help things, so I'll just say what I think and then we'll think about it or talk about it or not. I think Wallace was blown like a leaf around the country largely because of his illness, but I also think that he was enabled to do so because he lacked the kind of cultural anxiety exhibited by many Midwesterners and this lack meant that he wasn't pushed toward New York like Franzen was and is, or like many writers have been. I think Wallace's geographical chaos and openness is one of the things that makes him so interesting to read, especially in his non-fiction; his view of the whole country is unobscured by any specific geographic attachment, whether to the country or the city.
Yet Wallace also clearly found something vital in the Midwest, and I think the way "mindfulness" and "boredom" are handled in his work is extremely dependent on what he found. It's an irony that Wallace would have been proud of that one of his many recoveries took place in Normal, Illinois, but from so many quotes we have from Wallace and from much of what he wrote, "normal" meant something important to him, and I think the "normal" he was reaching for was deeply influenced by towns like that one in Illinois.
1 Actually, I don't know why "footnotes" are always the preferred way of referring to Wallace's habit of annotating his own text; wouldn't it be just as accurate to talk about his "trademark formal tic, the endnote" when that is actually what we get in Infinite Jest?