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David Foster Wallace's Final, Unfinished Novel

Mar 4, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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When writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide last September, he left behind hundreds of pages of an unfinished novel that he'd been working on for years. (Read an excerpt on The New Yorker's Web site.)

Little, Brown plans to publish the incomplete manuscript next year under the title The Pale King, but as author D.T. Max tells All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block, Wallace had started to call the work in progress by a different name — The Long Thing.

Max writes about Wallace's years of mental illness and his novel in progress in the March 9 New Yorker article "The Unfinished."

Wallace's works of fiction and nonfiction are famous for their layered complexity and intellectual agility. But, says Max, the author longed to break from that style. After Infinite Jest was published in 1996 — a novel Max describes as a "long, elaborate, maximalist, stemwinding, huge monster of a novel" — Wallace decided that he didn't want to write "that way" anymore. Wallace, says Max, felt that his trademark style was getting in the way of what he really wanted to say. Max believes that the author's decadelong struggle, which ended with his suicide, was, in part, about trying to tone down his language and get closer to his thoughts and emotions.

But, says Max, "style runs so deep, you think you can change how you write. But to change how you write, you really have to change how you think. ... What made [Wallace] an amazing conversationalist, an amazing thinker and a remarkable writer was that his mind was always going so fast."

Though Wallace struggled with his writing, Max says it's wrong to say that it was despair over his unfinished novel that drove him to suicide.

"It was more subtle and much more complicated," he says. "I think Jonathan Franzen at a memorial service for David put it very well. He said, 'People who believe that David's death is the story of a biochemical imbalance don't need the kinds of stories David told.' "

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