NEW YORK — David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” the year’s most awaited and complicated literary novel, has renewed a very old debate.
Published 2½ years after his suicide, “The Pale King” is a 547-page postmodern testament set in an IRS office that has been praised as a masterpiece and lamented as a mess, sometimes in the same review. Assembled from the author’s papers by his editor at Little, Brown and Company, Michael Pietsch, “The Pale King” has a back story Wallace himself might have devised: An exhilarating and baffling book by an author moved by exhilaration and bafflement.
“It’s potholed throughout by narrative false starts and dead ends,” critic Benjamin Alsup wrote in Esquire. “Characters appear without introduction and disappear without cause. I often found myself putting the novel down, and I didn’t always want to pick it up again. Then I did. Because ‘The Pale King’ … is one of the saddest and most lovely books I’ve ever read.”
Wallace, who suffered from depression for much of his life, had been working on “The Pale King” for more than a decade when he hanged himself at age 46. Little, Brown released it with the approval of his widow, Karen Green; his agent, Bonnie Nadel, and with the prolonged and personal involvement of Pietsch, who edited Wallace’s 1996 epic, “Infinite Jest.” In an editor’s note for the book, Pietsch recalls filling a duffel bag and two sacks from Trader Joe’s with hard drives, files, binders, notebooks, floppy disks and typed and handwritten pages. There was no set order of chapters or any clue to how, or whether, Wallace wanted the plot to develop.
“I believe that David was still exploring the world he had made and had not yet given it a final form,” Pietsch writes.
Writers rarely finish every project they begin in their lifetime, so posthumous works are an essential part of publishing history. They include canonical texts of Western literature, from Virgil’s “The Aeneid” to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” such 20th century releases as Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” poems and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and some of the more notable books of the past few years, among them Roberto Bolano’s “2666,” the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography and Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy.
“People want to know what those writers are writing,” Pietsch says. “They want that voice, any way they can get it.”
What to do with a dead writer’s work can lead to profound conflicts. Editors such as Pietsch find themselves changing a text without the author’s consent. Friends and family members decide whether a manuscript the writer wished destroyed might be too good — or too profitable — to keep secret.
Classics have been born out of defiance, most famously when a prolific novelist named Max Brod ignored the request of his dying friend Franz Kafka to burn his papers. Loyalty to Kafka would have deprived the world of “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika.”
“We’re in debt to Max Brod for doing that, because 20th century literature would not just be poorer, but would be really different if those books had not seen the light of day,” said Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday who worked with Wallace early in his career. Howard said he was happy about the release of “The Pale King” and found it “wonderful” to again encounter Wallace’s voice and “and the brilliance of his riffs.”
“Like everything in publishing, it’s a judgment call what to do with a book like that,” Howard said. “You want to know if the quality of the work that’s been left behind adds to the writer’s legacy. In this case, it seems to me it does.”
Subtitled “An Unfinished Novel,” Wallace’s book was in the top 10 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list before publication and has the “what if” quality that has kept scholars occupied for centuries over posthumous works. They question which passages of “The Aeneid” Virgil might have revised, and whether some of Chaucer’s more fragmented “Tales” meant he didn’t have time to finish them or were intended as commentary on the uncertainty of storytelling itself.
Some works require only minor revision, such as Michael Crichton’s “Pirate Latitudes,” which he had apparently completed before his death. Others are an editor’s construction, like Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” and Ralph Ellison’s “Juneteenth,” a drastically cut and highly criticized version of the manuscript Ellison worked on for 40 years after “Invisible Man.” Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Original of Laura,” published in 2009, is based on note cards that the author had asked his family to get rid of.
The posthumous release can be an argument without end. There is no consensus on the proper text for “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” or “A Moveable Feast” or James Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Agee, a journalist, film critic and screenwriter, had nearly finished his autobiographical story when he died of a heart attack at age 46, in 1955. “A Death in the Family,” published in 1957, was later named by Time magazine as one of the 20th century’s 100 best English-language novels.
But Agee scholar Michael A. Lofaro reviewed the original manuscript and concluded that the first edition was nothing like what Agee had written. Chapters had been rearranged, deleted and altered so that the narrative shifts between past and present. A new and lighter opening was inserted. Lofaro notes that editor David McDowell had been concerned about Agee’s widow and children, and may have wanted to publish a more commercial novel. Lofaro’s version was released in 2007.
“McDowell thought the manuscript Agee left behind was too old-fashioned, so he wanted to turn it into a piece of high modernism that would sell better,” said Lofaro, a professor of English at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Pietsch himself has handled other posthumous manuscripts. In the 1980s, he was an editor at Scribner when asked by the publisher to look at an unpublished Hemingway book about bullfighting. Based on a series of reports for Life magazine in the late 1950s, the original text was more than 100,000 words. Pietsch helped cut it to around 75,000 and “The Dangerous Summer” was released in 1985.
“It was fascinating,” Pietsch said. “You saw his great, mature writing style, these sentences that were long and flowing and muscular and beautiful, and he was writing about himself as a public figure, with a sense of humor, which was just delicious.
“It was also long and baggy in parts, and there were passages I felt you could cut out very cleanly. But you don’t change the author’s words. Not David Foster Wallace’s and not Ernest Hemingway’s. You either cut out a passage or you let it stand.”