This essay first appeared in Dot Dot Dot 18, fall 2009.

Either Or Or Or: How I Got Religion

Is there a word for something that exists only in its self-negation? A Möbius strip comes to mind; to exist it destroys its two constituent parts, back and front.

On October 23, 2008, I attended a public memorial for the writer David Foster Wallace. This essay, meager as it is, I dedicate to him. He was a hero of my youth.
The service was large: closer to two hundred attendees than one hundred, a dozen speakers. It lasted a little over two hours and was extremely moving. It took place in a theater at NYU that struck me as both solemn and stylish, vaguely Scandinavian in design—brownish-blond wood with dynamic patterns inset into the wall panels, with a broad expanse of seating rising up from the stage. Before the ceremony began, a still projection of a beaming Wallace resided where the perspectives converged, like a jewel ensconced in a cool yet tender jewel box.

Among the speakers, near the end, was a woman whose identity I could not remember afterward. It was Zadie Smith, I later discovered, someone who I’d never have guessed to be friends with Wallace. She told a story about him recommending to her Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and proceeded to read from his essay about being caught in a tornado as an adolescent. Or was that someone else? Overall my recollection of the event is fisheyed, much out of focus but a few details, by contrast, even sharper—Don DeLillo’s wild hair, Donald Antrim’s chilling confession of his own mental illness. Perhaps the theater was less grand than I remember. In memory the whole experience feels extra large and I quite small; it somehow etched itself on the scale of memories from childhood.

After the memorial was over, I walked to the nearby bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which I was relieved to find still existed, as I hadn’t set foot inside it for a couple of years. Books are doomed, bookstores dependent for their survival on greeting cards and children’s playrooms, and independent bookstores deserving of federal protection. The shop was quiet, with more staff than customers; but marvelously, in the basement, they had a healthy selection from the oeuvre of Søren Kierkegaard. I’d never read a word of it, though he’d been recommended to me on more than one occasion. Judging from my perusing, Fear and Trembling retold and interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac in a way that seemed to have to do with the idea of embracing or even claiming one’s fate. While its approach surprised me—I had been expected something “philosophical,” whatever that might mean, more abstract and resistant to narrative, I suppose—the style seemed thick, and the allegory exhausting.

On the shelf next to Fear and Trembling stood Either/Or. Unlike the former, which contained itself within a compact volume, Either/Or was fat. The bulk was daunting but the subtitle intriguing: A Fragment of Life. Like any creature of the contemporary art world, which I find myself to be, somewhat unexpectedly at age thirty-seven, I am a sucker for the blending of art and life.
Too, I am a sucker for direct entreaties to the reader, such as Kierkegaard (whom I soon came to think of as “K”) makes in the book’s opening passage, not to mention for the themes he summarily introduces: mystery, melancholy, and alienation: “Perhaps it has sometimes occurred to you, dear reader, to doubt the correctness of the familiar philosophical proposition that the outward is the inward, the inward the outward. You yourself have perhaps nursed a secret which, in its joy or pain, you felt was too precious for you to be able to initiate others into it” [27]. A few minutes of inspection (with help from the back-cover copy) revealed that the book’s gist is the conflict between the quote aesthetic and the quote ethical ways of being, and that it was divided against itself into two sections, with two different “authors,” both of course K. With his recommendation of Fear and Trembling, Wallace had been wanting perhaps to communicate to fellow prodigy Smith something about his own grappling with his senses of fate and talent—with greatness—or doling out a bit of advice to a peer, or simply propagating a book he loved. In my reading of Either/Or, however, which quickly ensued, I identified with the sprawling book’s internal conflict, with its mixed-upness. My sense of internal division is a problem I alternately frame as a disease of our culture and ascribe to my own personal weakness. It’s an uncertain perspective not so different from what emerges from Either/Or, or from Wallace’s oeuvre.

The Penguin Classics edition of Either/Or costs $18 US. Unlike many versions of the book, it comes in a single volume, of which the main text (including footnotes) occupies 632 pages, abridged, translated, and with an introduction and notes by a well-known Kierkegaard scholar, Alastair Hannay, © 1992.

For the Uninitiated

I’m going to assume, dear reader, that you have not read Kierkegaard, or not much of it, or not for some time. You may have glanced at a little here or there, in particular “The Seducer’s Diary,” an essay of some one hundred forty pages that is often sold as its own work; or perhaps, in the peregrinations of your soul, you like Wallace read Fear and Trembling, or else, The Sickness unto Death. For the record, I skipped parts of Either/Or, and so have only read about 80 percent of the book. Given the abridgement of the Hannay edition, the true figure is probably closer to 70.

Either/Or is a bastard work of post-Hegelian, post-Romantic philosophy delivered primarily by two fictional characters. The book’s first half comprises essays and musings by a young, but not too young, early-nineteenth-century version of a decadent, mildly construed. Known to us only as “A,” he moons about despair and fixates on girls and the cold voids of loneliness and death; he also pens elaborate, vivid, insightful, and often fannish criticism. Part two of the book comprises longer philosophical texts-cum-letters authored by an older, but not too much older, judge named Vilhelm, who is a friend of the anonymous first character. Vilhelm advocates explicitly to A that he should get a job, marry, and behave like a normal citizen, and offers lengthy disquisitions to prove he’s right about it all. The entire thing is introduced by yet a third character, a seeming bystander by the name of Victor Eremita who claims to have discovered the book’s contents as two sets of manuscripts stuffed inside an escritoire he purchased from a second-hand furniture dealer. It is he who sets up the works according to the back cover’s ready schematic: “A’s papers contain a variety of attempts at an aesthetic view of life. . . . [Vilhelm’s] papers contain an ethical life-view." In the end, Kierkegaard advances through Eremita a strange and teasing hypothesis: yes, the two sets of papers are clearly in two different hands, but they “could yield a new aspect if regarded as the work of one man” [36]—an aspect of progression through, or at least reflection on, the various stages of life.

Before the book is over, two more authorial voices will have been introduced, one for the last section of each half, including that of “The Seducer’s Diary,” whose existence Eremita describes in another tease as “an old short-story writer’s trick.” [32] Plunging into the book, then, is a bit like waking up in that favorite locale of essay writers, the hall of mirrors. It’s hard to know how to find one’s bearings with various narrators of unclear agenda, parodic name, and likely unreliability. And as in the hall of mirrors, one sees oneself, if distorted, no matter which way one turns.

K as Aphorist: Overture
To one discovering Kierkegaard—or perhaps I should just say, “to me”—what strikes first is what a good writer he is. The badge of this ability, and to a certain degree, what constitutes it, is his ability to turn a phrase. The book begins with a series of epigrammatic entries titled “Diapsalmata,” which means “refrains” in Greek, and the section brims with one provocative, newly minted adage after the next: “One should be an enigma not just to others but to oneself too” [47]; “The door of fortune does not open inwards so that one can force it by charging at it” [45]; “How the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke” [49]; and so on. They pepper “Either” throughout:
“The unhappy man is always absent from himself.” [214]
“The future is nearer the present than is the past.” [215]
“A person’s resilience can really be measured by the power to forget.” [235]
“A bad conscience can make life interesting.” [248]
And so on. Of course an aphorist is only as good as his translator, which limits judging too firmly. And it’s easy to forget, particularly on the first go-round with the book, that an entire, often plodding rebuttal, waits at the end of 300 pages: it’s not a given that K will write in a sharp style. But his ability and his willingness to do so underscores his strong interest in rhetoric that sets him apart from your Hegels, your Kants; he’s less interested in the production of knowledge per se than the promulgation of a point of view. Hence his readability and relative popularity, particularly in the twentieth century, when he influenced Sartre, et al.

K as Critic
In another surprise, I soon found that the essays in “Either” contain a wealth of writing about various art forms. “The Immediate Erotic Stages, or The Musical Erotic” kicks off A’s general obsession with Mozart, and in particular Don Giovanni; other of his pets include The Magic Flute and Faust. “Shadowgraphs” discusses Goethe’s Clavigo and Faust as well as Don Giovanni. “Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern” is, basically, about how the moderns will always fall short of Sophocles, et al. because today we believe that people are in some sense responsible for themselves and their fate in ways that the Greeks did not conceive, and so we cannot reach their tragic heights.
Throughout, K practices critical methods that we would call unorthodox. Some of these appear so simply because of changes over the years in what we think criticism should be. In “The Immediate Erotic Stages,” for example, he seeks to create grandiose hierarchies of greatness: “With his Don Giovanni,” he writes, “Mozart enters that small, immortal band of men whose names, whose works, time will not forget, for they are remembered in eternity.” [62] He ranks not only artists but also art forms, with music’s gaining an easy primacy thanks to its high degrees of abstraction of medium and idea. Such impulses stand out as archaic in context of so much else in Either/Or that seems fresh—and perhaps this element is an aspect of parody of A’s pompousness and naïveté; one cannot say for sure.

Other of Kierkegaard’s approaches are, however, just plain odd. Most notably, he explicitly reimagines artworks, entering into them and rejiggering plot and character to see what the implication would have been if the author had done such-and-such—an implication that connects to whatever lesson he, A, would like to impart. “Ancient Tragedy” provides the best example, in the form of a vivisection of Antigone. K’s basic point, as noted, is as follows: “the more the subjectivity becomes reflected, the more one sees the individual . . . left to himself, the more guilt becomes ethical . . . [and] the tragic collision loses its power.” [TK] Rather than find examples from actual ancient works, let alone modern ones, he declares that he is going to refictionalize Antigone’s character. He leaves the set-up of Sophocles’s Antigone the same; it’s the Oedipus story—Sphinx’s prophecy, killing dad, fucking mom. But like a theater director liberally adapting a classic, K imagines new psyches for the characters, new situations, whole new acts. The new Antigone knows her father’s horrible secret, and as a result she suffers from a modern ailment par excellence, anxiety. As a result, even with her youth in full bloom, “Antigone’s life is . . . essentially over.” [154] She takes pride in keeping her secret “to save in so remarkable a manner the honor and esteem of the house of Oedipus.” [155] Sorrow becomes her élan vital; “her sorrow is her love.” [155]

K then leaps forward in the story. Oedipus dies, circumstances unspecified, and Antigone is left not having even spoken to her father about his secret. Thus she does not know if he knew the truth about himself. Now she is completely isolated, and her misery is sealed within her like “an arrow which life has driven constantly in deeper and deeper, without depriving her of life . . . but the moment it is drawn out she must die.” [161] The final act of the tragedy is honor’s collision with love: she falls for a guy. Of course she cannot tell her beloved of her secret. He senses her reserve and, misunderstanding, spends his life trying to convince her that he loves her. She cannot marry, since marrying would shift her loyalty from father to husband; death will be her only relief. How this occurs, and whether the beloved ever succeeds, even at the moment of Antigone’s death, in wresting the fatal arrow from her, K leaves us to imagine.

While this kind of revisionist fantasy—recasting the work under consideration—is not pervasive, the impulse rears up elsewhere; see “Shadowgraphs,” for example (“The individual traits Goethe has emphasized are naturally of great value, yet I believe that for the sake of completeness we must imagine a little modification.” [TK]) And, significantly, the impulse to overread, if not exactly rewrite, extends to the book’s second half, despite the fact that the character authoring the “Or” writes nary a word on a work of art. Rather, Vilhelm’s fodder for overinterpretation, wish fulfillment, and projection is the psyche and personality of his friend A, which he defines frequently and variously. “You are a hater of activity in life,” [503] he writes. “You are an observer”; [578] “You train yourself in the art of being a riddle to everyone” [480]; “You are living in an illusion and you accomplish nothing” [424]. He compares A to a jellyfish, a figure of “complete receptivity”; [402] he imagines in detail A’s hypothetical path through first love and his refusal to convert it into marriage. [406–10] If you got letters like these, you would likely be both impressed at your friend’s perspicacity and irritated at his telling you so monotonously--and with such accuracy--who you were.

I should note here that when I discovered Either/Or, I was having a bit of an identity crisis. Or a midlife crisis; having never experienced the latter, I was familiar with its symptoms only from popular culture, and there they entail young second wives and convertible red sports cars. I haven’t the means for either, which troubles diagnosis. But I was experiencing a vivid bewilderment, an incessant asking of the question, How did I get to this unsatisfactory place with so few of my years left to live? Kierkegaard died at forty-two, published Either/Or when he was thirty. Wallace hanged himself at forty-six.

The only answer, unfortunately, was that I had spent my adulthood “iffing”—proliferating options, fantasizing, pretending, half-doing, all with the hubristic idea lying behind it that, hey, I’m smart, I can do anything I want. I suppose that, having escaped the comfortable but inert context of my childhood and adolescence, and the barren social milieu surrounding it, I assumed I could do no wrong, and that a positive outcome was preordained. Certainly I could, and it was not. The mental disorder I’d been suffering was a variation on the Hamlet problem, with indecision trumping action; with Antigone’s anxiety and isolation, it forms the modernity trinity, the tripartite god we worship and fear. Of course in 2009 we are beyond modernity, and to be still suffering from its most clichéd discontents when others have moved on to god knows what makes one feel even more obsolete.

I should also note, if you hadn’t surmised, that I am a critic, one who sometimes has trouble figuring out where the subject at hand stops and where I begin.
“You have become what you despise most of all—a critic,” Vilhelm writes to A, “a universal critic in all departments. . . . It is sad that your truly excellent intellectual gifts are dissipated in this way.” [485] You can see how Either/Or might get me hooked.

K as Novelist
So he turns a phrase like a motherfucker. But does Kierkegaard rate as a novelist? Novels are inescapably rooted in character and plot, and all but the most radical examples of the genre preserve these elements in some form. With regard to plot, Either/Or accomplishes little; there is no Pale Fire–ish nesting of story within the commentary here, and the scenario develops with little more detail than what I have outlined. With regard to character, however, K’s peculiar persona-based philosophizing comes closer to crossing over. The young, moony dilettante and the older, responsible householder form a vivid odd couple, neither as extreme in their positions as their rhetoric might suggest, well able to remain friends. Their relationship is left vague: they seem to eat dinner together sometimes, but beyond that? One suspects that Vilhelm is a bit obsessed with his young friend; perhaps they are not so much friends at all. In an extreme interpretation, one wonders whether A exists at all, or is solely a fictive opposite number Vilhelm has conjured, an alter ego symbolizing possibilities he has either left behind or never had at all. All these possibilities are enhanced by the fact that, in “Either,” A displays no awareness of, let alone interest in, his counterpart. When Vilhelm describes A as “the epitome of all possibility,” [391] the line reads less like a compliment and more like an inadvertent double entendre. The indistinction on K’s part about the pair’s relationship is a stratagem, luring the reader to fill in the large gaps and engage in the kind of overinterpretation, or outright invention, that Either/Or’s protagonists do in their “critical” analyses.

K’s use of fake authorial personages is hardly limited to Either/Or: he used pseudonyms extensively. His other works are “written” by kookily named personages inlcuding Johannes Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Johannes de Silentio, H. H., and Constantin Constantius. Historically, pseudonyms reflect practical/political concerns: the Bronte sisters’ Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell come to mind; Brian O’Nolan created two personas, Myles na Gopaleen and Flann O’Brian, because his job as a civil servant muzzled him. Kierkegaard, however, had no clear reason to avoid publishing under his own name—he published under it often—and he was generally known to have been the author of his books. The use of the pseudonym then becomes a distinctly literary concern, a textual effect. The book-within-book conceit produces dramatic irony and elicits extra labor on the part of the reader who seeks to determine what substrate exists “below” the book’s fictional worlds. Too, the interplay between the various levels of fictionality might have intriguing thematic aspects—about the nature of reality, to cite the broadest possible example—and the juxtaposition of elements in counterpoint and variation can open up rich veins of reflection, not to mention pleasure.

In Either/Or, however, these effects are all a bit muted. Not much of a world exists “outside” the two sets of manuscripts Eremita has found. The couple of winks he throws at the reader do little to advance any thematic ends or greater “novelistic” ones, and he never reappears. Nor do the intertextual games grow any more intricate, despite their remaining elusive in terms of overall import. The research I did—admittedly limited—suggests that there is no definitive interpretation of the book and its nesting of philosophy within multiple characters. There’s only to decide for oneself—which is of course in keeping with the book’s motifs of self-extension and projection.

As a writer of fiction, the only novel I ever came close to finishing failed because it was too sketchy: I wanted to test the limits of the reader’s ability and willingness to fill in what’s absent from the text. I was heavily under the influence of Donald Barthelme at the time, and other 70s ’experimentalists. Apparently my stratagems resulted only in frustration and boredom on the part of the reader. I quit the book after a woman I was wooing told me it sucked. It was only the first time she would break my heart.

On October 12, 1968, Barthelme, or “Don B.” published in The New Yorker the story “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel.” I had forgotten completely about it until I began writing this essay. It’s a form I’ve tried many times myself, the fake interview, or self-interview: two voices in a void, talking about sex and books, including Kirkegaard’s The Concept of Irony. Wallace used a similar structure in the titular pieces in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the book for which he was touring on the only time he and I ever spoke. It was a telephone interview, me goldbricking at my day-job office in SoHo, him implausibly parked at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. He was at the height of his name-recognition then—fame, if you prefer—and I was calling on behalf of the quarterly book supplement of a Philadelphia alternative weekly. While he was patient, he was also combative, and the interview was bizarrely interrupted by a telephone outage, but in the end, thanks to a good editor, the small piece turned out reasonably well. As usual, I got tangled in a couple of needless metaphors: Wallace “pokes around the fence that separates conventional narrative from ‘experimental’ writing,” I declared. What was he supposed to be, a dog? But I also got in some nice analysis and managed to elicit the following from the author: "What this kind of fiction needs to do is not just be difficult and weird but to be seductive and kind of fun enough to seduce the reader into doing the weird work."

At the time of the interview, ten years ago this summer, Wallace was the age I am today.

K as Lover
I didn’t finish reading “The Seducer’s Diary,” didn’t even come close. By the time I got to it, at the end of A’s half of the book, I was a little sick of the guy—sick of the pretension, sick of the obsessiveness, sick of the all-talk-no-action program. I was sick, obviously, of a certain version of myself.

K as Post-Modernist and Anti-Modernist
As is the way with most nonspecialists, I’ve lavished more attention on “Either,” with its virtuosic writing and its tantalizing contemporaneaity. As the book’s translator points out in his introduction, Kierkegaard himself anticipated such a focus and rejected it: “If someone starts by saying ‘either’ . . . you owe it to him either to ask him not to begin or to listen also to his ‘or’.” [3] And in fact I did spend more or less equal amounts of time reading and thinking about the “Or,” wending through its sometimes apt, sometimes convoluted arguments in favor of marriage and in favor of choosing a course in life and acting on it. Either/Or is nothing without the internal contradiction this second half of the book provides—its dramatic irony, its irresolution.

A component of this irresolution, and a kind of lens the book interposes between reader and text, is Kierkegaard’s use of the fragment. This figure of disunion is branded on Either/Or by its subtitle and its introductory selection of fragments, the diapsalmata. Only a little further on, in a passage in “Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern,” K propounds “the fragmentary endeavour” [150] and links it to his theory that all writing should be done as if left unfinished by the author’s death: “A fully completed work has no relation to the poetic personality; with posthumous papers one constantly feels, because of their broken-off, desultory character, a need to imagine the personality as being a part.” [151] K’s imagining of a reader’s imagining an author remarkably ties together not only mortality—parcel of K’s typical gloom—and a bit of phenomenology but also his theatricality and his love of contradiction (“The art is to produce an enjoyment which never actually becomes present, but always has in it an element of the past, so that it is present in the past” [151]). Together with the other effects of personae, these elements form a foundation for K’s ultimate desire for heightened engagement by the reader. Certainly this book, composed a bit like a collage, follows K’s own prescripts. Even Vilhelm, who praises unity as a virtue (in opposition to the scattered behavior that results from embracing both this and that, from not choosing), tacitly endorses the disjunctive in his ventriloquizing A’s objections to his arguments in favor of marriage, in his flights into allegory [407–8], and in the “Or” section’s inclusion of yet another voice to close the entire work.

The fragment is, of course, a hallmark meme of poststructuralism, and K’s advocacy of it made a plum if modest place for him at the intellectual banquet in the second half of the twentieth century. It marks his opposition to the emergent modernism of his time. Indeed, while the two main authors of Either/Or disagree on much, they share a discontent with modernity. Vilhelm, the traditionalist conservative, makes explicit complaints about the times, on points large—the pernicious effects of the contemporary interpretation of romantic love, for example—and small: “Have you noticed that . . . [t]here are people so weak that they need proper noise and distracting surroundings to be able to work?” [466] In a characteristically cranky jab at Hegel—which sounds an awful lot like conservatives as current as the twenty-first century—Vilhelm attacks the idea that conflict between opposites can actually be resolved, seeing the idea of agreement as a construct of history or philosophy and nothing real. Kids nowadays, he goes on, have taken book learnin’ and applied it to living their lives, with paralyzing effects: “In our age it is part of the order of the day to be confronted with the distasteful sight of young men able to mediate Christianity and paganism . . . yet who are unable to tell a plain man what he has to do here in life, and who do not know any better what they themselves have to do.” [487–88] Hence recourse to that ultimate know-it-all, God, in an aspect of K’s writing that, nascent in Either/Or, ends up causing the most problems for his cachet in recent intellectual history. At the banquet, he slides a few seats away from the head of the table.

A, meanwhile, embodies the tack seen full bloom later in the nineteenth century in the dandy: he vacillates, ruminates, critiques, champions despair, plunges himself into that odd existence known the aesthetic life. As a tactic for resisting the deindividualizing aspects of modernity, it retains currency to this day. A’s way of being, and the form and content of his writings, protest against the modern even if at times he wallows in what he deplores: drama fallen to a low state, eroticism reduced to voyeurism with sadistic overtones, all of us Antigones wracked and isolated by our inability to communicate. He rejects life in favor of art, rejects hidebound and flagging institutions of church and societal tradition. In one of the book’s most famous passages, itself titled “Either/Or: An Ecstatic Lecture,” A embraces rejection as a life axiom: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies and you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it . . .” and so it goes, through sex (“Believe a girl, you will regret it”) and death (“If you hang yourself, you will regret it”). [54] The passage recalls Samuel Beckett; but the significant difference between them is that Beckett draws on an inexplicable power to persist in the creative act—I can’t go on, I’ll go; or, if you prefer, Fail again, fall better—whereas K’s A gets stricken with a paradigmatic modern affliction, indecision, and the only escape route for the author is the aforementioned peculiar Christianity.

To a reader in the years 2008 and 2009—and to this one in particular—the book feels extravagant, perhaps more so than it did at the time, beholden as we can be in Anglo-American circles to concision, and used as we are to the idea that, in literature, donning mask after mask is a kind of experimentation, a snatching away of our safety-blanket identity. K wrote during the emergence of codified rules for both identity as we know it and for novelistic realism. But the book undeniably feels mad and manic at times—the writing varying between the stunning and the unedited, strong on phrasing and sometimes wobbly when it comes to structure, the micro often winning out over the macro. Of course the overall structure is what makes the book remarkable: the two halves do truly refuse to resolve into one thing with one coherent message.

Even this set-up I can imagine as more or less incidental, in the way that many good ideas are. One wee hour of a jag, stars peeking through clouds peeking through greasy windowpane, K spread out his blotted reams of foolscap to see what he’d been doing for the past few weeks and decided that he sounded like a caricature of himself, fucking idiot, a teenager. Someone should have talked some sense to him. And so he did sat down and did it himself. The result is uncommonly effective. No, it’s not as if you feel you’re reading two or three or five different writers; but neither the aesthetic nor the ethical carries the day, nor is there a synthetic, Hegelian third term to which Either/Or clearly resolves. The book is permanently wedged open: you can rest there but not stay, there’s always a breeze blowing through it.


In a coincidence notable to no one except me, Wallace cites Either/Or in The Pale King, the novel he was working on when he died. “Strange that boredom, in itself so staid and solid, should have such power to set in motion,” he quotes, in an excerpt that appeared posthumously in The New Yorker magazine. The line is from an essay in “Either” titled “Crop Rotation,” which shows author A at his most caustic, advocating that one never marry or take a job, joking that Denmark ransom the Persian Shah to fund the Copenhagen arts scene. In The Pale King it appears in a pocket etymology of boredom, which the book takes as its subject. The plot, such as it seems to be, tracks the struggles of a group of IRS agents with their soul-crushing work.

Boredom, of course, is another modern problem, the benumbed flipside of entertaining ourselves to death, which Wallace famously anatomized in Infinite Jest. In The Pale King, he seems to propound that the solution to modernity’s excess of disorderly stimulation is to dissolve one’s consciousness: to approach, in a meditative way, the infinite. We turn to the infinite in times of crisis, personal or societal, the first inklings of modernity and what feel like the last. Kierkegaard’s narrators find it in the lofty: God and art. I’ve tried to find it in a few thick books. Wallace, by contrast, remembered that the infinite lies not just in the grandiose but in the little things. Bogged down in The Pale King, he wrote to a friend about quitting writing and opening a dog shelter. “Who knows?” he said. “Life sure is short though.” The Pale King, left in fragments, with no Kierkegaardian affectation necessary, appears next spring.