I have cried three times because of David Foster Wallace. The first was while reading “Infinite Jest” as a high school junior, when I was so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time. I got to the passage where he compares suicidal depression with the impulse to jump from a burning building, and I burst into tears. I had been standing on that ledge with the flames licking at my back for months, hating myself for wanting to jump. The fact that Wallace understood that feeling well enough to put it into words meant that he had been standing up there with me.
Wallace tends to inspire fanatical devotion in a demographic that I’m very much a part of: depressed people who are certain that they’re smarter than everyone else. He is caustic and funny and brilliant, deliberately pretentious, purposely obtuse, pop culture-savvy and sometimes overwhelmingly imaginative. He makes his readers feel like they’re understood, like they’re in on the joke. Reading his fiction is intoxicating — you can immediately tell that you’re in the presence of a master.
There’s no doubt that Wallace was an incredible, once-in-a-generation literary genius. His final novel, “The Pale King,” was unfinished at the time of his suicide in 2008, but it’s exceptional even in its current form — a collection of bits and pieces assembled by his longtime editor Michael Pietsch. There’s an oft-circulated, strangely cruel theory that Wallace committed suicide because he was certain “The Pale King” couldn’t meet the standard set by “Infinite Jest,” but anyone who reads it will find that rumor impossible to believe.
The novel certainly feels unfinished, unrefined. The chronology is even more confused than that of a standard Wallace plot; characters appear for a single, fascinating chapter and then vanish, never to appear again; and hints at a larger conspiracy hover behind the text, never fully realized. But Wallace is at his best when he’s describing physical horrors — vicious assaults, gruesome shop-class accidents — that are completely different from the slow-burning psychological agonies that populate “Infinite Jest.” His writing here is undeniably more mature, even though at times it is palpably not in its final form. The sheen of feigned indifference that sometimes dulled his earlier work has been wiped away, exposing something rawer, more open and more universal than the quasi-biographical descriptions of addiction and depression in “Infinite Jest.” When I finished the book, I wept for a second time, sitting on my kitchen floor. I was mourning the loss of an incredible talent, and empathizing with the pain he so clearly felt.
But there was something in “The Pale King” that I couldn’t relate to: a troubling thread of misogyny. His female characters flatten easily into damaging, occasionally racist caricatures: the emotionally damaged, self-absorbed woman who is too beautiful for her own good, the steely survivor of sexual and domestic abuse, the “visibly ethnic” Iranian woman who misinterprets an instruction to “extend every courtesy” to someone as an order to perform fellatio on him in a closet.
That last woman, Wallace writes in a lengthy footnote, “had to basically ‘trade’ or ‘barter’ sexual activities with high-level functionaries in order to get herself and two or three other members of her family out of Iran.” Her sexual exploitation and desperation are played off as a joke. It’s supposed to be funny that she can be so easily coerced into performing sexual acts, even now that her family isn’t in danger.
The light-hearted style of this passage stands in contrast to the passages describing Toni Ware, the only fleshed-out female character in the novel, to whom Wallace dedicates stunningly elegiac writing. But even here, within some of his most thoughtful and mature work, are the unmistakable traces of misogyny. Maybe he drops a mention of Ware’s rape in casually because he’s trying to represent the brutal unfairness of life. Or maybe those sentences lack the appropriate weight because it’s a weight Wallace refused to contemplate.
David Foster Wallace did terrible things to Mary Karr, his addiction-recovery partner and eventual romantic partner. He refused to hear her rejection of his romantic attentions, over and over again. He exploded into violent rages, once throwing a coffee table so hard that it shattered against the wall behind her. He lied to her friends, insisting that he and Karr were in a relationship even though she was still married to another man. He showed up at family gatherings, at her office, at her home. He pushed her out of a moving car. “Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no,” his biographer wrote, but to me it sounds like he refused to hear no at all.
Reading “The Pale King” forced me to confront the fact that my adulation and respect were directed toward a violent man who not only stalked and abused someone, but also openly objectified his female fans, describing them to Jonathan Franzen as “audience pussy,” and once had sex with an underage girl while on tour.
And that’s what made me cry the third and final time. I want to look at Wallace and see a better version of myself — someone who turned their pain into something beautiful, someone who could look at the world and really, truly see it. But to do that, and to admire him unreservedly, is to ignore the fact that when I look at him, I also see the men who’ve hurt me.
I don’t yet know how to reconcile Wallace’s deeply troubling personal life with the fact that he somehow saw into the depths of my messed-up, chemically-imbalanced brain and convinced me I wasn’t alone. I don’t know how to reconcile the undeniable literary merits of “The Pale King” with its casual disregard for the effects of sexual violence. Maybe if he was still here and still writing, he could help me figure it out.