Attention without choice: David Foster Wallace's Adderall novel. Image 1.

Daniel Kolitz


Attention without choice: David Foster Wallace's Adderall novel. Image 2.

Andrey Smirny



If every generation has its defining substance—Boomers, weed; their parents, the polio vaccine—then on numbers alone, Adderall easily bests molly and that drug that rots your flesh as my cohorts' preferred form of neuron-hurting.

Which makes it all the more dispiriting to learn that David Foster Wallace, spokesman of Generation X, went and poached our rightful subject years before we were old enough to fictionalize it. And dispiriting, of course, because no one’s likely to do it better.

Obetrol as the original Adderall; The Pale King as the original Adderall novel


It seems Wallace wrote the first work of Adderall literature, a genre that has come to include Tao Lin’s Taipei, Stephen Elliot’s The Adderall Diaries, and (if tweets count as literature) about 30% of Twitter. Wallace’s piece never mentions Adderall, but it’s there, if you know where to look for it.

The piece in question comes early in The Pale King, Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously published novel-in-fragments. It’s a 98-page monologue (really, a novella) delivered by one ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle, a near-derangedly prolix IRS employee. Fogle tells us of his self-described “wastoid” adolescence spent drifting in the post-Watergate ‘70s, an apparent wasteland of drugs, divorce and daytime television. He says that he “had no motivation,” that “everything at that time was very fuzzy and abstract.”

Five minutes with Fogle and a contemporary psychiatrist would be reaching for her script-pad. With aimlessness a decade from medicalization, Fogle first comes to speed the old-fashioned way—i.e., as a means of getting extremely high. After dabbling with Ritalin, Fogle settles on a regular regimen of Obetrol; he describes it as “the prescription appetite suppressant of choice for overweight women.”

Fogle's semi-maddening repetitiveness, a joke elsewhere in the book, gives him a clear character-based justification for speaking in full, novelistically-detailed paragraphs. It also allows us to date his period of prime Obetrol usage to around 1975—a key period in that drug’s strange history.

The FDA approved Obetrol in 1960, as a diet drug. It was meth, mostly, with some dextroamphetamine tossed in to distinguish it from the competition. Obetrol was just one of many drugs then ushering in a kind of golden age of rampant speed abuse. Truckers, hippies, housewives: Collectively they popped, snorted and shot the country into an outright epidemic, as detailed in Nicholas Rasmussen’s On Speed.

excerpts from the pale king

"Snorting Obetrols burns the inside of the nose something terrible, though, so I tended to prefer the old fashioned way, when I took them, which I privately refer to as Obetrolling."

"Obetrolling didn't make me self-conscious. But it did make me much more self-aware. If I was in a room, and had taken an Obetrol or two with a glass of water and they'd taken effect, I was now not only in the room, but I was aware that I was in the room. In fact, I remember I would often think, or say to myself, quietly but very clearly, 'I am in this room.' It's difficult to explain this."

When the government cracked down, Obetrol was banned. That was in 1973. Rexar, manufacturers of Obetrol, could have let their product die with the early ‘70s. Instead, they ‘pivoted’: from a drug that wired you on a mixture of dextroamphetamine and methamphetamine to a drug that did the same thing, except with the meth swapped for amphetamine. Twenty years later it was bought and—formula intact—rebranded as Adderall. The man who purchased it, Roger Griggs, told me “They wanted to make a product that wasn’t abusive—that wasn’t going to create addiction.”

Did Wallace realize he was writing about Adderall? It’s not impossible: Anyone whose risked their vision reading Infinite Jest’s 8-print footnotes knows the guy had more than a passing interest in pharmacology. And by the time he started writing the Fogle section, in the mid-‘00s, Adderall was already a decade into its steep ascent, generating countless newspaper pieces on overmedication and undergraduate pill-slinging. Wallace—a well-informed adult working on a college campus—would likely have been aware of it.

But then it’s just as possible that Wallace chose Obetrol because he liked the way it sounded, or because he remembered a friend’s mother taking it in the ‘70s. We can’t know. Still, given the drug’s iconic stature (and continued popularity—more adults than ever are now taking it), it might be worth breaking the rules of good criticism to read the Fogle novella as a kind of literary case study, a work that might speak to the millions of people, myself included, currently trying to make sense of this drug’s effect on them.

Attention without choice: David Foster Wallace's Adderall novel. Image 3.

So what does Adderall do to Fogle? It turns him into David Foster Wallace.


Suddenly, Fogle is aware not just of his surroundings but also of his awareness of his surroundings, not just of his dislike for his vain roommate but also of what that dislike might suggest about him, etc. etc., on and on, in the kind of recursive self-critical loops which were Wallace’s trademark. (Also like Wallace, he can now wring startling observations out of dried paint. Literally: Of his dorm room’s wall, he remarks, “if you really look at something, you can almost always tell what type of wage structure the person who made it was on.”) Fogle is finally paying attention.

Attention and what we do with it were central to Wallace’s thinking in his last years.  Wised-up Wallace fans tend to dismiss “This is Water,” his widely-distributed Kenyon College commencement speech, as proselytizing pap. But its themes do resonate with those of the Fogle novella, composed around the same time.

In it Wallace writes of the “work of choosing,” and notes how “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline.” Fogle, on the benefits of Obetrol, sounds a similar note: “It had something to do with paying attention and the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it’s a choice.”

Monthly prescriptions for ADHD medication for people aged 20 to 39

2007: 5,6 million

2011: 14 million

US, source

Non-medical use of Adderall among American high school seniors:









- Source

Except, often, what Adderall does is eliminate choice.


One relevant example: Fogle pisses himself while stranded in an Obetrol/Adderall-induced “hall of mirrors of consciously felt sensations and thoughts and awareness.” Another relevant example: Me, reading about mid-century Tennesse Senator Estes C. Kefavuer for ten straight hours in preparation for this article. Tell me: Do you see any Kefauver in this article? Well, okay, now you do. But did you before? You didn’t. He has no place here. I was wasting my time. This is, as Fogle puts it, “attention without choice.” 

And yet incontinence aside, Fogle’s Obetrolling (as he calls it) is a model of responsible therapeutic drug use. To him, Obetrol/Adderall served as “a kind of signpost or directional sign, pointing to what might be possible if I could become more aware and alive in daily life.” An almost wistful notion, in 2015, when Adderall is generally dispensed as a solution, an end in and of itself, despite the fact that study after study has shown it to be of mostly short-term benefit—a fine method of powering through a day, or a year, at the office. But a whole life? Who knows. As it stands, we're as much in the dark now as we were in Fogle's era: The effects of long-term speed use remain clinically unexamined. What we have is unsystematic--anecdotes, short studies, case histories. And, if you can get over the fact that it's fiction, the story of 'Irrelevant' Chris Fogle.

“There are big cultural pressures to get these drugs. That’s because everyone is in an arms race of accomplishment.”

- Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, source

Daniel Kolitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has a Tumblr called The Printed Internet, and is currently working on some other stuff.