The Pale King

By David Foster Wallace

When American author David Foster Wallace, best known for his hefty magnum opus Infinite Jest and frequently acclaimed with such labels as “genius” and “most important writer of his generation,” committed suicide at the age of 46 in September 2008, it marked both an end and a beginning. As the recent examples of Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, and Roberto Bolaño, all of whom have had books posthumously published in just the last year, prove, the literary afterlife has its own long tail.

At the time of his death Wallace left behind a pile of notes for a work in progress that editor Michael Pietsch has assembled into The Pale King: an “unfinished novel” that has the form of a mix tape. That it holds together as well as it does is a tribute to Pietsch’s skill, as there was no outline or plan for how the various fragments were to be put together. Still, the effect is of too much and not enough. Some of The Pale King is very funny, some very interesting, and a lot of it very, very dull.

The dullness is at least partly intentional. Wallace’s theme is boredom. In developing that theme the plot focuses, naturally enough, on an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. Now that’s dull! Flattening things out even more, there is no coherent story and, according to one of Wallace’s notes (included in an appendix), the plot is one where “nothing actually happens.” Instead, what we get is a series of introductions to the lives of various IRS employees.

Some of the people we meet are interesting. One, announcing himself as the “author,” is David Wallace. Another has the ability to levitate. Another can’t stop sweating. But once absorbed into the bureaucracy of the Service their lives are taken over by the tedium and monotony of soulless routine. They get stuck in slow-moving traffic on the way to work. They sit in their cubicles turning pages (like so: “Harrie Candelaria turns a page. R. Jarvis Brown turns a page. Paul Howe turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Jor Biron-Maint turns a page. Ann Williams turns a page”). They flex their buttock muscles to keep their asses from falling asleep. They pick their noses.

They feel trapped in a “kind of caul of boredom. Boredom past boredom.” They experience “boredom beyond any boredom” they’ve ever felt. They meditate on the etymology of the word “boredom” (and “banal”). The more advanced among them sense that the key to surviving such an environment is to become “unborable,” to reach a zen of boredom on “the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the pointlessly complex.” Yes, on “the other side of crushing, crushing boredom” is bliss. But this is a nirvana very few attain.

The style helps to wear the reader down, allowing us to share the pain of a “tsunami of sensuous input, technical data, and bureaucratic complication.” Wallace has a tendency to go on (and on), through run-on sentences and run-on paragraphs, and parentheses that end long after we’ve forgotten where they began. Footnotes, often pointless, puddle at the bottom of the page, some of them even dripping down into their own sub-footnotes. Characters talk too much, are aware they talk too much, are upbraided for talking too much, and continue to talk.

How all of this raw data, the sensual minutiae, the reams of code, is to be processed – whether through better technology, the psychic powers of “data mystics,” or the efforts of editors attempting to reconstruct unfinished manuscripts – is one of the novel’s main concerns. How does one “Boil it down. Reduce to fact-pattern, relevance”? Or is such a task misguided? There are some interesting, undeveloped asides in this respect that point toward ideas in information theory, especially the suggestion that boredom is a kind of entropy. Which in turn suggests that our rage for order, or meaning, is only paddling upstream.

As a work in progress some of the structural elements, like the various doublings, stand out as being especially suggestive. Also of some significance is the fact that the novel is set in the mid-1980s. Wallace makes this decade out to be a watershed both for the Service and the wider culture, marking the shift from an industrial to an information economy, a turning inward away from civic involvement, and a growing paranoia over the power of the federal government (represented by the IRS). But as with most of the threads in the book, these are all left as loose ends.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that if Wallace had been able to finish The Pale King it would, much like Infinite Jest, have simply gone on for another four or five hundred pages without really ending. Its current state suits it better. What makes death and taxes the only sure things in life is the fact that there is no end to either.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 17, 2011.

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