“Something to Do with Paying Attention”: David Foster Wallace’s Final Work, the Public Good, and a “Wastoid” Nation

David Foster Wallace captured a palpable truth almost indescribably profound about contemporary American life. In her endorsement in the newly published Wallace novella, Something To Do With Paying Attention, Zadie Smith identifies the insight of Wallace’s work as “an attention to the secret, battered, deflated spiritual existence of America and Americans.” While it is certainly correct that Wallace, like few of his peers and few living writers, managed to depict the emptiness at the center of American culture, there is more to his novels, stories, and essays than sorrow. There is also overwhelming weirdness – perhaps, the intensity of weirdness that can arise only out of sadness. The line separating comedy and tragedy, as everyone from Aristotle to Larry David has explained, is microscopically thin, and it was out of his sensitivity to the oddity of American life that Wallace was able to inject laugh-out-loud humor into the scenes of his writing, whether fictional or, as in his underrated journalism, actually observed. The strange interactions, awkward conversations, and surreal interpersonal moments that populate Wallace’s work complement the heartbreaking alienation to form a holistic depiction of loneliness. The dejection and amusement both emanate out of disconnection, making Wallace’s assertion that literature should “make us feel less alone” all the more relevant.

His appraisal of the emotional utility of literature has become a cliché, quoted endlessly in essays about Wallace (like this one), and articles about literature more broadly. Even though this will also traverse into cliché territory, it seems that the “less alone” function of literature is impossible to actually achieve as a social mechanism. Instead, literature can offer the cold comfort of allowing a person to feel that his or her own sense of separation from the dominant community or culture is not unique. It sounds simple, but when reading David Foster Wallace, I often think, “Someone else gets/got it” – the “it” being a feeling that I cannot fully describe.

Wallace was not a preacher or politician, even if the borderline worshipful community of admirers that has developed since his 2008 suicide has turned him into a guru. He was an artist. Like most great artists, he made it impossible to separate the substance from the form of his work.

The new publication of Something To Do With Paying Attention, a novella that originally appeared in complete form as part of the posthumously published novel, The Pale King, presents the perfect opportunity to revisit Wallace’s major ideas, his stylistic choices, and the largely neglected political implications of his work.

The 1996 publication of Infinite Jest made Wallace into a literary sensation, and the massive novel, totaling over 1,000 pages, attracted attention for its aesthetic wizardry. Underneath the surface of postmodern flourish and metafictional touches, there beats a traditional heart. Combining the stories of a juvenile tennis academy, a residential treatment center for alcoholics and drug addicts, and futuristic geopolitical quarrels, the novel prophesizes the dangers of an all-encompassing entertainment ethos. For example, a film actually called “The Entertainment” is so mesmerizing that it, essentially, renders viewers catatonic – destroying their motivation to do anything other than watch on repeat. Infinite Jest owes as much to the late cultural critic Neil Postman’s prescient polemic, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, as it does to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. After enduring the dominance of shallow social media gimmicks over political debate and pop culture, the suicidal spectacle of cable news breathlessly covering every utterance of a fascist reality television star as he ran for president in 2016, and the steady demolition of the humanities and social sciences in universities across the country, it is pretty difficult to argue with much of Infinite Jest.

Wallace would continue to explore the menace of the entertainment ethos, along with narcissistic individualism and the transformation of everything into commerce, in literature and many journalistic essays, most memorably and brilliantly, those about the pornography industry, right wing talk radio, traveling by cruise ship, and the US Open tennis tournament. In his essays, and many of the short stories that appear in his final collection, Oblivion, Wallace was offering a devastating condemnation of free market fundamentalism – that is the insistence that there is no value higher or meaning deeper than that which the market measures. Unlike a political theorist or economist, he examined the destructive effects of corporate capitalism from the side angle of its debilitation of human relationships and ambition. The porn star and right wing radio rant machine are both selling an amplified version of themselves in the interest of profit maximization to a salivating audience, hooked on the rush that the product gives them, and indifferent to the damage it is inflicting on something as elemental as human sexuality or political discussion.

As much as Wallace’s storytelling focus sharpened and remained the same, his style radically transformed. Imagine Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet like Miles Davis on Kind of Blue, and you can begin to appreciate how much ornamentation and trickery Wallace stripped away from his prose and technique when he wrote The Pale King. Preference for the pyrotechnics of his early work or the understated intimacy and intensity of his later work is, ultimately, subjective, but I would argue that deceptive simplicity served his subjects more powerfully. Although Something To Do With Paying Attention loses some of its impact when removed from the surrounding context of The Pale King, it does possess its own energy and even intellectual independence – something Wallace himself must have sensed, given that he considered publishing it as a stand-alone novella.

The “novella” tells the story of a young man living and studying in Chicago* during the 1970s who describes himself as a “wastoid.” Unable to commit to anything beyond his own whims and desires for entertainment, he causes quiet stress to his divorced parents. His mother, running an independent bookstore with her live-in girlfriend, coddles him, while his father, an accountant for the City of Chicago, attempts soft discipline, all while communicating a largely unspoken feeling of shame and embarrassment. The latter becomes particularly palpable as a consequence of “the incident.” Having already enrolled and dropped out of several colleges, the “wastoid” is living in his father’s suburban home. Believing that his father won’t return for a few hours, he invites over a couple of “equally wastoid” friends. They get high on bong hits, play records loudly, make a mess with Taco Bell wrappers scattered all over the living room floor and furniture, and rest their feet on the father’s prized antique coffee table. The father returns home, coldly stares at his son and the other stoners, and recites the famous line from British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The father then slamming his bedroom door shut is like the detonation of an internal bomb of humiliation deep within the soul of the wastoid.

The incident, and most significantly, the sudden and horrific death of the father on a train platform, which the wastoid witnesses, along with several other key events serve as the loose plot, explaining how the young man transformed from an apathetic burnout into an accountant for the IRS. There is an afternoon in his dorm room when under the influence of Obetrol – a drug that the narrator explains enabled him to pay close attention to things – he hears a CBS voiceover announce before commercial break, “You’re watching As the World Turns.” The reference to the popular soap opera becomes an existential double entendre, taunting him for his perpetual passivity. There is also the conversion story of his obnoxious Christian roommate’s girlfriend (the Christians have chapters of their own in The Pale King) – a story that he, in the moment, dismisses as pious arrogance, but eventually grows to respect when he has his own experience of secular redemption.

While an aimless student at DePaul University, the wastoid stumbles into the wrong classroom. Looking for his political science course, he finds himself in a tax accounting lecture with a substitute instructor – a Jesuit priest who immediately mesmerizes the wastoid with his eloquence, confidence, and seriousness. He especially appreciates how the priest makes no effort to “appear cool” to the students, but instead is fully invested in the topic of his lecture. Despite the boring nature of that topic – tax law and performing accounting services for the IRS – the wastoid is riveted.

The priest’s philosophical thesis doubles as an anchor for the novella: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined pace is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism.” The reformed wastoid, who begins to study accounting after the lecture and eventually goes to work for the IRS, explains, “Part of what was so galvanizing was the substitute’s diagnosis of the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the world’s constituent’s info generated, and that now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling, and organizing that torrential flow of info.”

An emphasis on the moral dimension of attention, especially in an “age of distraction,” smoothly interlocks with Wallace’s famous commencement address, “This is Water.” In the speech at Kenyon College, Wallace told graduates that the purpose of a good education is not to tell students what to think, but also not to condescend to tell them “how to think.” It is to help them determine “what to think about.” Attention is particularly important, Wallace argues in the speech, in an increasingly mindless and destructive consumer culture, which is the “water” that the fish cannot see. Consumer culture thrives on convincing its inhabitants to focus on the frivolous and self-indulgent, while neglecting anything socially and ethically urgent.

Beyond the psychological aspects of Something To Do With Paying Attention, there is a subtle, but subversively political message. The IRS isn’t exactly a popular US institution, and yet Wallace chose to glorify it in what would become his final, even if unfinished, novel.

The glorification of the IRS as an epicenter of discipline, commitment to the public good, and antithesis of crude and harmful market metrics comes not through analysis of tax policy, but through a celebration of the characters, like the reformed “wastoid,” who devote their attention to the important, but inescapably dull work of tax accounting.

The Pale King, published in 2011, shot through thirty years of austerity, deregulation, privatization, and tax cut policies from the federal government, all of which helped to cause the 2008 financial crisis, but also create the most unequal American social conditions since the Great Depression. Even after the improvements of the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans, especially the poor and disabled, die prematurely and suffer pain and bankruptcy due to lack of access to medicine. Public schools are in a perpetual struggle to provide adequate education, while teachers purchase their own supplies and administrators, out of necessity, cut programs in the arts. The wealthy have lower tax bills, as percentage of their income, than ever in recorded American history, but cities still toil to fund public transportation, libraries, and social services.

With the publication of Something To Do With Paying Attention little has changed, and if anything, the extreme culture of individualism, riding high on the scaffold of endless entertainment, has only worsened.

Some commentators have confused Wallace’s exhaustion and derision toward excessive irony, individualism, and frivolous entertainment as a form of conservatism, but it reads more like old fashioned liberalism in the service social democracy – a belief that public institutions, even like the loathsome Internal Revenue Service, with the support of a social compact should balance the avaricious impulses of human nature – impulses that capitalism will inevitably encourage.

The transformation of Something To Do With Paying Attention’s protagonist should serve as conversion testimony for a country that has become something of one big “wastoid.”

*Forgive the Wallace-like footnote. It is not an attempt to be cute, but rather a genuine endorsement of Wallace’s ability to uncannily capture the geographical dynamics and emotional quality of Chicago and its suburbs. Wallace grew up in Central Illinois, and spent many years teaching at Illinois State University. His familiarity with the Midwest, and his knack for describing it, adds a certain pleasure to his work for someone like me, who was born, raised, and lives in the Chicagoland area.

David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (Bloomsbury, 2020).