Until I saw “Wickedness,” I did not know that Wallace had ever left a stand-alone story unfinished. He tended to recycle what he wrote, and so stories became sections of novels and sections of novels were calved off into stories. But “Wickedness” (also “Wickeder”) appears to connect to no other Wallace project. Maybe it was the start of a new novel, maybe it was meant to be a short story, maybe it was an exercise in voice or a response to the noir novels he enjoyed. In its pages, he returns to the great theme of “Infinite Jest”: the lethal power of media. Only this time, he posits that the locus of our self-annihilation has moved online.
The plot of “Wickedness” centers on a tabloid reporter named Skyles who, dying of cancer of the mouth, is trying to shoot pictures of Ronald Reagan beset by Alzheimer’s for the Web site Wicked.com. Reagan’s privacy at the San Placido Institute—“the Betty Ford of nursing homes,” Wallace calls it—is a matter of not just his own security but also the nation’s: we need to remember him as he was, powerful and in command. “The nation’s morale could be affected, the integrity of the social order,” Wallace writes. “At a certain point their lives are no longer their own.” Skyles’s motive seems to be revenge: a pair of old tabloid buddies have visited him on his boat The Rodent, and revived in him the outlaw pleasures of transgressive photography. (Though Wallace voted for him twice, his choice of Reagan as Skyles’s target seems more plot than emotion driven, but he does get in a few digs in at various public figures: Nancy Reagan’s secret service name, for instance, is Mantis.)
The issue of the media’s increasingly ferocious invasions of privacy was one that Wallace felt acutely after the publication of “Infinite Jest.” In “Wickedness,” the old tabloids—The Star, The News of the World—repulsive as they were, are depicted as playing by rules, but the new ones do not. “Despite all the hoopla about populism and information,” Wallace writes of the Web, “what it really was was the bathroom wall of the U.S. psyche.” He invented for the story the sites Latrine.com, 10footpoll.com, and filth.com, which will stop at nothing to publish humiliating photos of celebrities: “Of this Senator’s penile implant (his pacemaker interdicted Viagra, the RN they’d bought off confided). Of the aging TV actress’s horror and seclusions since the plastic surgery she had to repair the botched face-lift itself was botched and left her with eyes 6” high…. Of William Shatner toupeless.”
What has changed? When Wallace wrote a long piece on the adult-entertainment awards, in 1998, he asked Premiere to order the videos in competition and ship them to him in Bloomington, Illinois. But in the era of the Internet, such shame is removed. Public vices have become private obsessions. The porn theatre has disappeared and the porn video flourishes. “ ‘Title of movie not shown on bill’ tripled hotels’ in-room porn revenues,” Wallace writes at one point. So, too, the Web’s appetite for destructive journalism: we are no longer ashamed to read tabloid news, because it just comes to us on the computer. We don’t choose it; it infiltrates our air. It’s not that these ideas were so new, even in 2000, but in a Wallace story, the statement is conveyed with such intensity that it feels discovered anew. One can see in the margins of the story example after example added of privacy shredded. You sense that Wallace is genuinely mad about it—and intrigued, taking on the persona of the guilty “ogler” he describes in his own essays. “Wickedness” is prescient—one thinks of the blandly shameless mix of crime and sex stories on the AOL home page—but, most of all, it is powerfully wrought.