“David Foster Wallace’s writing sort of lends itself to being read aloud,” says actor Brian Elerding. He understates the case; at times, Wallace seems to have crafted his prose specifically to reflect and embody spoken language. He listened to the English actually used today, including all its tics, hitches, solecisms, and deliberate inarticulacies, with an observatory precision and rigor approaching the scientific. Actor-writer-director John Krasinski first put this quality of Wallace’s writing to a high-profile test with his 2009 film adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. In the above clip, we see the making of a similar project in a very different form: last April in Beverly Hills, the PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) Center USA put on a live reading where “eleven talented actors” performed David Foster Wallace monologues “to an enthusiastic crowd of 300.”
These monologues came adapted from The Pale King, Wallace’s famously posthumous novel about what, if anything, lays beyond the crushing veil of tedium at a Peoria IRS branch office. As we enter the throes of United States tax time, the book gears up for a paperback release featuring additional material, some of which appeared last month at The Millions. PEN’s reading, introduced by Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin, showcased interpretations of The Pale King‘s characters through the voices of actors like Nick Offerman and Josh Radnor, comedians like Rob Delaney and June Diane Raphael, and even former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins. Now best known as a spoken-word artist, Rollins understands well the power and depth of human speech. “It’s trying to reach you on every page,” he says of Wallace’s writing. “He’s trying to make a connection.” Struggling to pin down the exact nature of Wallace’s resonance, so strong with so many readers, literary scholars have used hundreds of thousands of their own words to draw the very same conclusion.