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The Longest Sentence David Foster Wallace Ever Wrote

September 12, 2012

So it feels a little morbid to pay tribute to David on the anniversary of the day that he hung himself, but I think of the stories I’ll never be able to read and I miss him, and I feel like I should at least remind everyone that we (all of us, whether you’ve read Wallace or not) are indeed living in a world that is slightly dimmer without him in it.

All that I’ve read about him and his situation and what his life must have been like those last few months, this article being an excellent example, just makes me really sad, and I believe that he believed that suicide was not only reasonable, but preferable to continuing on in such pain and misery. Such is the hell of depression.

Anyway, sorry about the buzzkill. The point of this post was not to be remorseful, but to celebrate one of those Wallace-ish traits that many of his fans, including yours truly, have come to love and admire: The ultra-long sentence. As it happens, I believe I have identified the longest sentence David Foster Wallace ever wrote1. It occurs early in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, starting toward the end of Chapter 2, around the bottom ⅓ of page 21, and ending the chapter on page 24:

“Part of what kept him standing in the restive group of men waiting authorization to enter the airport was a kind of paralysis that resulted from Sylvanshine’s reflecting on the logistics of getting to the Peoria 047 REC – the issue of whether the REC sent a van for transfers or whether Sylvanshine would have to take a cab from the little airport had not been conclusively resolved – and then how to arrive and check in and where to store his three bags while he checked in and filled out his arrival and Post-code payroll and withholding forms and orientational materials then somehow get directions and proceed to the apartment that Systems had rented for him at government rates and get there in time to find someplace to eat that was either in walking distance or would require getting another cab – except the telephone in the alleged apartment wasn’t connected yet and he considered the prospects of being able to hail a cab from outside an apartment window complex were at best iffy, and if he told the original cab he’d taken to the apartment to wait for him, there would be difficulties because how exactly would he reassure the cabbie that he really was coming right back out after dropping his bags and doing a quick spot check of the apartment’s condition and suitability instead of it being a ruse designed to defraud the driver of his fare, Sylvanshine ducking out the back of the Angler’s Cove apartment complex or even conceivably barricading himself in the apartment and not responding to the driver’s knock, or his ring if the apartment had a doorbell, which his and Reynold’s current apartment in Martinsburg most assuredly did not, or the driver’s queries/threats through the apartment door, a scam that resided in Claude Sylvanshine’s awareness only because a number of independent Philadelphia commercial carriage operators had proposed heavy Schedule C losses under the provisio “Losses Through Theft of Service” and detailed this type of scam as prevalent on the poorly typed or sometimes even handwritten attachments required to explain unusual or specific C-deductions like this, whereas were Sylvanshine to pay the fare and tip and perhaps even a certain amount in advance on account so as to help assure the driver of his honorable intentions re the second leg of the sojourn there was no tangible guarantee that the average taxi driver – a cynical and ethically marginal species, hustlers, as even their sumdged returns’ very low tip-income-vs-number-of-fares-in-an-average-shift ratios in Philly had indicated – wouldn’t simply speed away with Sylvanshine’s money, creating enormous hassles in terms of filling out the internal forms for getting a percentage of his travel per diem reimbursed and also leaving Sylvanshine alone, famished (he was unable to eat before travel), phoneless, devoid of Reynold’s counsel and logistical savvy in the sterile new unfurnished apartment, his stomach roiling in on itself in such a way that it would be all Sylvanshine could to unpack in any kind of half-organized fashion and get to sleep on the nylon travel pallet on the unfinished floor in the possible presence of exotic Midwestern bugs, to say nothing of putting in the hour of CPA exam review he’d promised himself this morning when he’d overslept slightly and then encountered last-minute packing problems that had canceled out the firmly scheduled hour of morning CPA review before one of the unmarked Systems vans arrived to take him and his bags out through Harpers Ferry and Ball’s Bluff to the airport, to say even less about any kind of systematic organization and mastery of the voluminous Post, Duty, Personnel, and Systems Protocols materials he should be receiving promptly after check-in and forms processing at the Post, which any reasonable Personnel Director would expect a new examiner to have thoroughly internalized before reporting for the first actual day interacting with REC examiners, and which there was no way in any real world that Sylanshine could expect himself to try to review and internalize on either a sixteen-hour fast or a night on the pallet with his damp raincoat as a pillow – he had been unable to pack the special contoured orthotic pillow for his neck’s chronic pinched or inflamed nerve; it would have required its own suitcase and thereby exceeded the baggage limit and incurred an exorbitant surcharge which Reynolds refused to let Sylvanshine pay out of same principle – with the additional problem of securing any sort of substantive breakfast or return ride to the REC in the morning without a phone, or how without a phone one was supposed to even try to verify whether and when the apartment phone was going to be activated, plus of course the ominous probability of oversleeping the next morning due to both travel fatigue and his not having packed his traveler’s alarm clock – or at any rate not having been certain that he’d packed in instead of allowing it to go into one of the three large cartons that he had packed and labeled but done a hasty, slipshod job of writing out Contents Lists for the boxes to refer to when unpacking them in Peoria, and which Reynolds had pledged to insert into the Service’s Support Branch shipping mechanism at roughly the same time Sylvanshine’s flight was scheduled to depart from Dulles, which meant two or possibly even three days before the cartons with all the essentials Sylvanshine had not been able to fit into his bags arrived, and even then they would arrive at the REC and it was as yet unclear how Claude would then them home to the apartment – the realization about the traveler’s alarm having been the chief cause of Sylvanshine’s having to unlock and open all the carefully packed luggage that morning on arising already half an hour late, to try to locate or verify the inclusion of the portable alarm, which he had failed to do – the whole thing presenting such a cyclone of logistical problems and complexities that Sylvanshine was forced to some some Thought Stopping right there on the wet tarmac surrounded by restive breathers, turning 360-degrees several times and trying to merge his own awareness with the panoramic vista, which except for airport-related items was uniformly featureless and old-coin gray and so remarkably flat that it was as if the earth here had been stamped on with some cosmic boot, visibility in all directions limited only by the horizon, which was the same general color and texture as the sky and created the specular impression of being in the center of some huge and stagnant body of water, an oceanic impression so literally obliterating that Sylvanshine was cast or propelled back in on himself and felt again the edge of the shadow of the wing of Total Terror and Disqualification pass over him, the knowledge of his being surely and direly ill-suited for whatever lay ahead, and of its being only a matter of time before this fact emerged and was made manifest to all those present in the moment that Sylvanshine finally, and forever, lost it.”

7,015 characters (with spaces), 1,185 words. One sentence.

Recognize that so far as I’m aware, The Pale King isn’t available as a text file or Word document, which means this sentence was transcribed word-for-word, for you, by me.

You’re welcome.

  1. It’d be more accurate to state that this (the aforementioned “longest sentence”) is the “longest sentence DFW ever published“, as I haven’t read everything DFW ever wrote.2
  2. Thus, I christen this postulate (again, that the aforementioned “longest sentence” is, in fact, the longest sentence DFW ever published) as the MSP Conjecture. Because things like this sound cooler when they have names.

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9 Responses to “ The Longest Sentence David Foster Wallace Ever Wrote ”

  1. Jane on September 12, 2012 at 7:57 am

    an excellent reminder Mr. Smartypants…and I couldn’t make it through the sentence before my brain collapsed on itself and started oozing grey goop out my ear and eyeholes :)

  2. John on September 12, 2012 at 9:45 am

    How will people view this kind of prose a hundred years from now compared to, let’s say, the stark simplicity of Cormac McCarthy, or the analytical intensity of Don Delillo’s best work? Honestly, I don’t think the answer is very favorable.

  3. Mr. Smarty Pants on September 12, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Perhaps (John), but it’s not as if Wallace was a one trick pony either. The ultra-long sentence, while a bit unwieldy, was just something that he was capable of, just as he was capable of writing with stark simplicity ( : “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.”) or with analytical intensity (e.g., How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart: “Those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it — and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”)

  4. Mr. Smarty Pants on September 12, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Then again, trying to imagine what people will think of DFW 100 years from now is a significant exercise in speculation which neither of us will ever know the answer to. [shrugs]

  5. Laurie the Ghost on September 12, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Thank you for this. We all miss DFW. I have no doubt the world will still be reading him in a hundred years. He was a great writer and I have noticed a lot of the naysayers have not actually read him. IJ is a true work of art.

  6. Jeff on September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    I can vouch for your conjecture, insofar as there’s nothing as long as this humdinger anywhere else in The Pale King. FYI: I’ve read it straight through several times already, it’s my favorite among all of Wallace’s books and this particular sentence thrills me like few others. All told, a nice tribute.

  7. Bill Salot on September 12, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    You picked the wrong sentence to showcase! The very first sentence of “Pale King” has been described as one of the finest introductions to a novel ever written. Go read it!

  8. Mr. Smarty Pants on September 12, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Jane, Laurie, Jeff: Thank you!

    Bill, the first sentence is indeed beautiful, and would arguably qualify as one of the finest sentences DFW ever wrote, but that wasn’t the focus/purpose of this post. I actually looked for the longest sentence, thinking surely somebody else had already answered the question, and when I wasn’t able to find anything even close to a definitive answer, I figured I had a good niche for a blog post.

    Anyway, thanks for reading, and contributing!


  9. DFDub on September 18, 2012 at 3:25 am

    “I hereby christen this as the “MSP Conjecture”, for mostly-obvious reasons.”
    and humble to boot…