In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen's character is devastated when the philosophy professor he's making a documentary about, Louis Levy, unexpectedly commits suicide. Allen based Professor Levy on Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and author who jumped to his death in 1987. Levi endured the Holocaust and yet was unable to endure everyday life. What do you do when a person you relied on to make sense of the world decides life is no longer worth living?
That's a question I've been mulling over ever since David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008. This month sees the release of his unfinished novel The Pale King. The book concerns IRS agents trying to deal with the tedium of their work and still find meaning in their lives. In other words, a book about how to endure life's unpleasantness written by a man who has killed himself.
Friends of Wallace have already expressed worry that the author's suicide will affect how readers experience the book. I agree that it will. But is that really the reader's fault? And is it necessarily a bad thing?
It is only natural that our feelings for an artist get mixed up with the works they create. We can't help it. A good artist forges a connection with his or her audience, one that feels personal. It's hardly shocking that audiences are tempted to use what we know about characters to fill in the gaps of what we don't know about their creators. It's naïve for artists to think we can divorce our feelings about them from feelings about their work.
And yet J.D. Salinger became frustrated by readers who thought he was Holden. Philip Roth gets testy about philistine readers who dare mistake him for a fictional character he creates who just happens to be named "Philip Roth." And I'm sure Woody Allen wouldn't be happy to learn that Crimes and Misdemeanors was one of the last of his films I could enjoy unencumbered by thoughts about his personal life.
Too often authors act vaguely distant towards the audience. Salinger spending 40 years writing novels he would never allow his fans to read seems almost vindictive. Wallace, on the other hand, never lost sight of the fact that the purpose of literature was to connect.
He recognized that great writing establishes a bridge between two souls that the world doesn't normally allow. It lets you know that someone else out there shares some of the same thoughts you do. That is the magic of literature.
And if you do it well enough, you become someone's favorite author and their feeling for you coalesces with their feeling for your work. Wallace's novel Infinite Jest is over 1,000 pages. I've read it a few times. I've spent more time alone with Wallace than I have with many of my closest friends.
Though I didn't know Wallace, I can't help projecting my thoughts about him onto his work. In his short story "Good Old Neon" Wallace writes about a man driven to suicide because he's consumed with self-consciousness to the point that as he writes his suicide note, he obsesses over how he'll come across in the note. And then he obsesses about what it means that he's the kind of guy who worries about how he comes across in his suicide note. How can Wallace's suicide not affect how I read that story now? How could Wallace himself not think of that scene as he wrote his own suicide note?
Wallace also discusses suicide in Infinite Jest:
The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise....nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling "Don't!" and "Hang on!", can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
I am safely on the sidewalk, far from the flames. But I believe Wallace's writing gives me some empathy for what he was going through. And that's what makes The Pale King even more special to me.
I keep wondering what Wallace was thinking as he printed out the draft of The Pale King that he left on his desk for his wife to find. Even at his most distraught, with the flames drawing closer, he chose to print the book, the book he'd never live to see published. I imagine he did it simply in the hope that it would mean something to someone out there. That it would allow one last communion between souls. Yes, I will be thinking of Wallace's suicide as I read The Pale King, but I will be thinking about how at the end he made one final attempt to make us feel less alone.