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The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
If boredom is a sin, does that make it interesting?
A great deal has already been said1 about The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, “unfinished” (according to its own title page) novel and the follow-up to the manic-depressive masterpiece Infinite Jest. For that reason, I’ll stick to the thing that I consider to be the single strangest part of this strange novel: its opening chapter.
By way of context, you should know that The Pale King is about, or happens around, people who work in a Midwestern regional exam center for the Internal Revenue Service. After writing the definitive novel about entertainment, addiction and over-stimulation, Wallace took up the subject of boredom, in his next novel2. Turned in his hands, crushing monotony and no-stimulation is made interesting, becoming the forum for tedium-induced hallucinations, bureaucratic excavations, debates about Americans’ relationship to the government, comic meta-fiction, one man who sweats profusely, one man who levitates when he concentrates on any single subject, and one man whose mind is invaded with an irrelevant and unavoidable stream of random facts, such as the “middle name of a childhood friend of a stranger they pass in a hallway. The fact that someone they sit near in a movie was once sixteen cars behind them on I-5 near McKittrick CA on a warm, rainy October day in 1971.”
But Chapter 1 has none of these elements. It uses just over a page to sweep through and drop down into an open field: “Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver…” There are no people in sight, aside from a “you” that appears in places like “a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek” and “Your shoes’ brand incised in the dew.” The writing is uncharacteristically lush, what you might call overwritten if you didn’t know what kind of overwriting David Foster Wallace was capable of. It’s so strangely beautiful that it’s almost possible to overlook how it closes, with a description of worm-worn lines on the bottom of a patty of dried cow shit, and the command/appeal to “Read these.”
This is not Wallace’s first venture into this territory. He grew up in the midwest, and wrote lyrically about the “boxed townships of Illinois farmland” in a 1990 essay that opens the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. One of his more famous short (relatively speaking) stories “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” has scenes set in rural, cornfield roads. The difference here in The Pale King is the absence of any person. In the thousands of pages he wrote, David Foster Wallace most often composed from his characters’ lonely insides, making art of the distance between individuals and the constant onslaught of the external world. This is almost the exact opposite. Where Infinite Jest opened with Hal unable to communicate with five different people standing in a closed room with him, The Pale King opens with “Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”
The effect is both jarring and orienting. Jarring because, encountering this strangeness, one is given to wonder whether it was Wallace or Michael Pietsch (the Little, Brown editor who arranged the notes and manuscript into a publishable product) who decided to start the book this way. We can’t proceed with certainty of David Foster Wallace’s deliberate hand. There are parts of this novel that he didn’t have total control over, and we don’t know what he would have really wanted, because he didn’t live to tell us. From the very start, The Pale King reminds us that it is “unfinished.”
But whether Wallace chose to this starting point or not, it’s an appropriate course correction, orienting readers to the fact that this is a different kind of Wallace novel. The Pale King is an adult book, not about teenage genius tennis stars or twenty-something drug addicts, but middle-aged middle-income middle managers in the middle of the United States — all in the mid-1980s, which offers no opportunities for any near-future speculation. Chapter 2 even begins “From Midway…” (the airport)3. This opening shows Wallace as a more relaxed, arguably more mature writer at this stage, someone more at ease with his gifts. As it turns out, he was not at ease with much of anything , and like the rest of The Pale King, it is just a glimpse of what might have been.
– Michael Moats
1. Among the best commentaries is an essay in GQ in which John Jeremiah Sullivan obliquely reviews the book while trying to suss out what it means in the context of Wallace’s suicide and the loss that readers are facing. Like most of Sullivan’s work, it’s pretty much what I wish I could have said. There have been the run of more conventional reviews as well: the NY Times; the NY Times Sunday Book Review (by Tom McCarthy, see our review of his latest book); the Guardian UK; the LA Times; even Entertainment Weekly, which found The Pale King worthy of an A-. A “Pale Spring” reading group has also sprouted, mirroring the “Infinite Summer” reading group, though no word on any Pale King Liveblogs. Jonathan Franzen has not, to my knowledge, published anything about The Pale King, but when it and two other novels were denied a Pulitzer prize it was the biggest deal in the literary world since Franzenfreude. Some have even gone so far as to audit The Pale King’s audits, comparing Wallace’s work against actual tax law.
2. On both ends of the spectrum that Wallace explores in his two novels, he remains fixated on the central idea of what may be his actual most famous work, the Kenyon University Commencement Address, or This is Water, in which he said, “‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” With regards to addiction, the willful focus on something other than substances seems pretty obvious. And here in Chapter 2 of The Pale King we have a character telling himself “It was true: The entire ballgame, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself not to.” This particular maxim had, I’m sure, special resonance for Wallace as a fiction writer with such a gift/curse for digression and expansiveness.
3. The whole book is not like Chapter 1. Chapter 2 returns us to familiar ground, in this case the prolix internal dialogue of Claude Sylvanshine, a worried, unhappily anxious man flying on a cramped and uncomfortable airplane. This would have been a perfectly reasonable starting point as well, but not, to my mind, the best one. That’s because it’s a veiled chronicle of the difficulties Wallace had writing this book. Along with the “choosing to pay attention” thing above, Sylvanshine is ultimately paralyzed by the task ahead of him — in his case, studying for the CPA exam, which Wallace himself did quite a bit of while researching The Pale King. Claude struggles because “studying any one thing would set off a storm in his head about all the other things he hadn’t studied and felt he was still weak on, making it almost impossible to concentrate, causing him to fall ever further behind.” Then: “It was like trying to build a model in a high wind,” which echoes something Wallace said to Pietsch about the process of writing this novel, which Pietsch mentions in the book’s Editor’s Note. Many of the questions Sylvanshine studies “were like little stories with all the human mean left out,” and he struggles to “just take a book off the stack and study instead of sitting there noodling impotently about how best to study.” The chapter closes with a three-page sentence (longer than the entirety of Chapter 1 itself) in which Sylvanshine is “in a kind of paralysis” over “the logistics” of getting from one place to another. The details spiral and pile on each other until “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 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.”