Part 3: The Author is Dead; Office Work Remains
David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel about office work self-consciously bores. This point was put as a question in one online article entitled “Will David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King Be the Most Boring Book Ever?” To get at the complexity of this unfinished work, let us consider an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker shortly after Wallace’s suicide; the excerpt was called “Wiggle Room.”
This is perhaps the strongest (if strangest) office space story yet, because it tunnels unflinchingly into the boredom, tedium, and inner-subjective torment of one Lane Dean Jr., I.R.S. tax return office worker. The subject explains why certain readers might have been either afraid of or titillated by the prospect of a very potent dose of boring prose provided by Wallace. Unlike the novels Personal Days and Then We Came to the End, Wallace’s writing does not make wry comedy out of the day-to-day dramas, debacles, and tangential tales of office workers. Rather, “Wiggle Room” presents the reader with an understated mind/set of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts that bore in a double sense. Here is Lane Dean Jr.:
He did another return; again, the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and I.D. number that some part of him still refused to quite get memorized so he had to unclip his badge and check it each time and then stapled the 402 to the return and put the file in the top tier’s rightmost tray for 402s Out and refused to let himself count the number in the trays yet, and then unbidden came the thought that “boring” also meant something that drilled in and made a hole.
This sentence is representative of the entire excerpt (and much of the larger 'novel' from which it is drawn), which moves between contemplation and hallucination, all under a clock on the wall whose second hand’s “job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow, unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t already been a million times before….”
Wallace does not animate the workspace so much as he uses the bored (and possibly boring) subject to dissolve distinctions between the world of work and the life of the mind. “Wiggle Room” includes a drawn-out meditation on the etymology of the word "boredom," and this is a meditation that is meta-reflective and self-referential in many regards: for the reader afraid of being bored by the text, a text puts that boredom under an analytical lens; for Lane Dean Jr., his story of boredom is also a story about boredom; for David Foster Wallace, the novel story reflects not only a fictitious character’s struggle with boredom, but also the author’s own long struggle with a subject that finally consumed him in a final end—i.e., the very subject of subjectivity. The lonely, quiet office cubicle becomes a literary figure for phenomenological bracketing and tunneling introspection, a type of work that can “bore” endlessly, as in tunnel down, but also as in evacuate—this is the kind of work that no Work can finally (or ever) fully encompass.
“Wiggle Room” did not appear on its own when it was originally published posthumously in the New Yorker. A long article preceded this excerpt, in which D.T. Max reviews Wallace’s life and his struggle to write The Pale King. Max writes about the unfinished novel:
It is about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter, and centers on a group of several dozen I.R.S. agents working in the Midwest. Their job is tedious, but dullness, “The Pale King” suggests, ultimately sets them free. …The problem was how to dramatize the idea… Wallace’s solution was to overwhelm his seemingly inert subject with the full movement of his thought. His characters might be low-level bureaucrats, but the robust sincerity of his writing—his willingness to die for the reader—would keep you from condescending to them.
These final words are heavy, given Wallace’s suicide—and yet these words familiar, too. One cannot help but hearing echoes of Roland Barthes, who famously pronounced “The Death of the Author” in his eponymous essay from 1968.
Given Max’s assessment of Wallace’s writing of The Pale King, Barthes’s words take on fresh significance: “we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”
Of course Barthes did not mean this in a literal sense, but in the case of Wallace and The Pale King, this theoretical position has been carried out in “real time,” as it were: the author is dead; office work remains. This might be an unofficial slogan for editors after David Foster Wallace’s death, faced as they were with thousands of pages of dense, ruminative, unfinished prose—about a subject—office work—that has no end.
As D.T. Max’s article “The Unfinished” seems to make clear, the text requires commentary in place of the author. The author is dead; but office work remains. First, there is D.T. Max’s article, written presumably on a computer screen (that minimal case of 'office space' par excellence), and fortified by ample research, interviews, and editing along the way to publication. Then, Wallace's publishing editors have to figure out—in their offices, pushing paper and entering text into computers—what to include, what to omit, and how to format an unfinished Work about work.
As a later article in the Guardian reported, The Pale King “is set for publication in the UK next year following an intensely contested auction between six British publishers.” The article quotes Simon Prosser, publishing director of Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, as saying: “[Wallace’s] challenge was to write about something so big you could hardly comprehend it—a world of mind-numbingly boring work.” The article goes on to explain:
[Prosser] was adamant that although the work is unfinished, nothing would be added to it. “You’ll get literally 50 pages of a perfect section, then a note to himself saying ‘insert X here’. In a lot of cases, the X exists, but there will be some parts that don’t. The challenge will be to remain as true as possible to what is there,” he said. “Personally I think that if ‘notes to self’ are included, it’ll be fine. We’ll obviously present it as an unfinished novel—he himself thought he hadn’t finished it. What’s so tragic is that he didn’t realise how close he was.”
Prosser’s adamant claim that “nothing” will be added to Wallace’s text encounters friction on the turf of the potential allowance of the “notes to self.” This begs the question of whether the literary fragment is sufficient on its own, or whether it would benefit from the author’s “notes to self”—yet if so, where would one draw the line? It is precisely this line of questioning that spurs one of Michel Foucault’s queries in his essay “What is an Author?”:
Assuming that we are dealing with an author, is everything he wrote and said, everything he left behind, to be included in his work? This problem is both theoretical and practical. If we wish to publish the complete works of Nietzsche, for example, where do we draw the line? Certainly, everything must be published, but can we agree on what “everything” means? We will, of course, include everything that Nietzsche himself published, along with the drafts of his works, his plans for aphorisms, his marginal notations and corrections. But what if, in a notebook filled with aphorisms, we find a reference, a reminder of an appointment, an address, or a laundry bill, should this be included in his works? Why not? These practical considerations are endless once we consider how a work can be extracted from the millions of traces left by an individual after his death.
This looming imperative for “everything” to be published is exactly what Wallace was writing about in The Pale King: how to catalog without dressing up the endlessly boring contents of the human mind put to rote work. At the same time, it is the inability to delimit “everything” that makes the editorial work difficult, if not outright impossible: everything written in Wallace’s last years could never be finally recovered for the sake of the book, because writing (as Jacques Derrida would put it in another context), disseminates.
In “What is an Author?” Foucault goes on to argue that, “Plainly, we lack a theory to encompass the questions generated by a work and the empirical activity of those who naively undertake the publication of the complete works of an author often suffers from the absence of this framework.” Here again, one cannot help but be drawn back into Wallace’s in-principle (at least in the scope of human temporality, if not cosmically so) endless subject of tax form filing, of which “W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441” is a truly infinitesimal sampling.
One can never be certain about just how exhaustively boring Wallace was planning to be in the novel, because the complete Work could never encompass the endless work. And once we accept this fundamental uncertainty, how could one ever arrive at a conclusion as to The Pale King’s proximity to completion, as Prosser (the publishing director of Penguin) seems to intuit? On the one hand, Prosser admits that Wallace himself “thought he hadn’t finished it”; but on the other hand, Prosser, from the vantage point of the publishing office, is apparently able to see the real tragedy: just how close the novel was to being finished. This little snippet of reportage around Wallace’s unfinished Work reveals a tangle of theoretical complexities. To rephrase Foucault, we especially lack a theory to encompass the questions generated by the unfinished Work about unfinishable office work.