From the Mixed-Up Files of David Foster Wallace
Walls, Seth Colter, Newsweek
Byline: Seth Colter Walls
Exclusive: NEWSWEEK takes a tour through the late writer's just-released archives. It was an infinitely fascinating quest.
On Feb. 7, 1972, when David Foster Wallace was 9 years old, he began work on a creative-writing assignment--a one-page story narrated by a tea kettle. "Hi I am a kettle," his protagonist says, by way of introduction, adding: "Ouch! Listen I come to you for advice. This flame is real hot but I love my job." Never mind the lack of commas throughout--the sort of flub Wallace's later, grammar-obsessed characters might have fussed over. The earnest voice of this anthropomorphized appliance, which heats up water for the cruel Oomp family, quickly seems familiar. As it informs us of abuses suffered at the hands of the Oomps--who "kick me, scratch me, throw me -- Mrs. Oomp even uses me for [the family] to throw up in. But I can't leave them"--we can already recognize a Wallace archetype.
While many children are capable of conjuring imaginative tales, the grade-school Wallace has an unusual empathy for the adult double-bind of finding purpose in a job that also brings misery. The kettle hopes that a solution ("I come to you for advice") may be found through the act of writing. All of this, heartbreakingly, is reminiscent of Wallace himself, the MacArthur-winning author of complex but emotionally gripping fictions such as Infinite Jest, who, after a lifetime spent battling depression, committed suicide in 2008.
Along with a complete Gutenberg Bible, some letters of James Joyce's, and collections of Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer, this tale of a tea kettle in extremis now rests in the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center, as do more than 20,000 of Wallace's other papers and books. The extended drafts of Jest and his already quite long magazine essays are all present and accounted for in Austin as well. But unlike, say, DeLillo's papers, there's next to no personal correspondence in the Wallace archive. "He just didn't keep much of that," says Bonnie Nadell, Wallace's agent throughout his career and now the executor of his literary estate. She says Wallace resisted communicating much over e-mail until the 2000s, and even then only allowed himself a dial-up connection. "I'm sure [Jonathan] Franzen, being organized, has his letters from David all boxed up and organized, but David didn't work that way," Nadell says. Perhaps more than any other single page in the just-opened collection, it's the kettle story that conjures Wallace's formidable demons most concretely, by suggesting the painful joy he experienced as a writer.
Wallace's archive was bound to be unusual, given that it took shape during an emergency sort-and-salvage operation. After his suicide, Nadell drove out to join Wallace's widow, Karen Green, who was eager to move out of a haunted house. Together, the two began pawing through the writer's papers stacked in the garage where he had worked. It did not take them long to uncover something valuable, in the form of the unfinished novel The Pale King (set to be published next spring). Less-obvious gems followed, such as Wallace's teaching materials, and more than 300 heavily annotated books from his personal library.
Because he taught creative nonfiction and entry-level literature classes at Pomona College up until the spring before his death, Wallace was always revisiting the basics of prose and how to read it. His class materials take up a couple of boxes in the Ransom archive, providing readers with the opportunity to see which essays and stories Wallace assigned, and then read the professor's own marked copies of the works. You can see the lines of Lorrie Moore's short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" that Wallace thought were either funny or "bad"--as well as how Wallace saw that Stephen King made the potentially stock character of Carrie into a fuller portrait. (When Wallace assigned genre fiction to his students, he warned them against slacking off. …