In one of the notes at the end of David Foster Wallace’s incomplete novel The Pale King, the author writes, “Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” This is a fairly precise summary of The Pale King—if you take “nothing actually happens” to mean an absence of recognizable character arcs defined through readily identifiable conflicts progressing along a linear narrative. The Pale King is not a traditional novel. Hell, it’s not even really a novel, unless you decide to really stretch your definition of what a novel is. Which is all fine and good and dandy. Infinite Jest is not a traditional novel either, but it is, I believe, clearly identifiable as a novel: it coheres; it completes; it concludes—which The Pale King does not.
You know the context of The Pale King, and if you don’t you can look it up—there’s a glut of hand-wringing and buzz and backlash out there (out there=internet) that I’ve spent the past three or four months doing my best to ignore. And while I haven’t read a review of The Pale King yet (I’ll read Tom McCarthy’ s write up in The New York Times as soon as I finish my piece), I would have to be deaf dumb blind not to have missed all the headlines, the links, the tweets, the weight people have sought to attach to this book. Anyway, I’m approaching hand-wringing here myself, which is not my aim. I want to try to review the book. But, like I said, there’s all that context. It’s unfinished. Incomplete. Posthumous.
We know the context. You know it’s incomplete, I know it’s incomplete, we know that going in. Which is why it’s a far more satisfying read, I believe, to treat The Pale King as a fragmentary piece, a novel-in-stories, a collection of themes, riffs, dialogues and monologues, vignettes, bits and pieces. It’s closer in many ways to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or Oblivion than it is to Infinite Jest, although there are plenty of novelly-novel elements. There’s a setting: mostly a sweaty Peoria, Illinois in the mid 1980s, and although much of the novel centers around an IRS regional center there, there are also bits in Chicago, various college classrooms, suburban homes, sad motels, crowded highways, fringe communities, surveillance vans, bars, psych wards, etc. There are recurring characters, all of them IRS employees.
Perhaps a bit on those characters: Some of the best moments of the book center on the bizarre mind of Claude Sylvanshine, a fact psychic who can’t control the flow of data that surges into his mind. Sylvanshine works with his partner and sometime rival Reynolds to help lay the groundwork for the arrival of Merrill Errol Lehrl in Peoria, where Lehrl will continue to machinize the IRS or something like that. There’s Toni Ware, easily the coolest character in the book. There’s not enough Toni Ware in The Pale King. There’s Leonard Stecyk, a person so impossibly good that he drives everyone to despair. There’s Lane Dean, a Christian who may or may not be slowly losing faith. There’s Chris Fogle, who tells us basically his life story in a 100 page novella that may or may not be the center of the book (there is no center though). There’s David Wallace, who claims to be writing a memoir, who claims to be, like, the David Foster Wallace, the author, who claims that he worked for the IRS for a few years between other gigs. As if to prove he’s the real David Wallace, his sections are crammed with diverting, annoying footnotes that repeatedly interrupt any rhythm the reader (or this reader anyway) could get going. It’s difficult to summarize or even describe the relations between the characters, who are defined repeatedly not just through their own telling, but through each others’ eyes, which makes it even more difficult to unpack the plot of The Pale King.
The conflict of the book, or at least the surface conflict, the plot-level conflict, seems to be (or seems to have intended to have been) about a movement within the IRS to essentially change its mission from one of service, of doing a job that no one wants to do that nevertheless has to be done for the greater good of democracy, to a more nefarious and machine-like agency bent on generating revenue—like a corporation. Thus humanity vs. bureaucracy, religious-type calling vs. mercenary machinery, selfless duty vs. selfish will, etc. etc. etc. Chapter 19 (§19, in the book’s terms) lays out these themes beautifully in a civics lesson (the chapter is set in a stuck elevator, I think). The civics lesson has even more resonance in these times of rampant Teabaggery. Here’s a taste—-
Corporations aren’t citizens or neighbors or parents. They can’t vote or serve in combat. They don’t learn the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t have souls. They’re revenue machines. I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s absurd to lay moral or civic obligations on them. Their only obligations are strategic, and while they can get very complex, at root they’re not civic entities. With corporations, I have no problem with the government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function. What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is okay.
The IRS gives Wallace a perfect backdrop to explore the tension between civic virtue and the American right to be a selfish asshole, but it’s the book’s themes of boredom and attention that have been remarked upon the most. Simply put, the theme is pervasive, perhaps overdetermined within the narrative, and at once both obvious and complex. Infinite Jest explored the consequences and existential fallout of a society conditioned to believe that it had to be entertained at all times; The Pale King seems to respond to the same existential problem in kind, only from a different angle. There’s so much of this theme of boredom and attention throughout the book that I’ll lazily go to Wallace’s end notes again, where he concisely lays it bare for us (or not for us really but probably for himself)—
It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.
Wallace finds a kind of transcendental out in the ability to concentrate attention on tasks of despair-invoking boredom. This type of attention obviously recalls the intensity of fervent, even monastic prayer (indeed, the IRS agents are often implicitly compared to monks), yet the Midwest America of The Pale King is deeply desacralized. Although Lane Dean provides a figure of religion in crisis (underexplored for the perhaps obvious reason that the book is unfinished), for the most part The Pale King presents a post-Nietzschean world without an authorizing center. Wallace’s work then is to find some kind of metaphysical solace in a world where God seems absent at best, and he finds it in paying close attention to the tedium of life. For me, it’s The Pale King’s strange metaphysical moments that are the most intriguing (and frustrating) then. We have the aforementioned Sylvanshine, a fact psychic who can parse data, but cannot glean real meaning from it—
The fact psychic lives part-time in the world of fractious, boiling minutiae that no one knows or could be bothered to know even if they had the chance to know. The population of Brunei. The difference between mucus and sputum. How long a piece of gum has resided on the underside of the third-row fourth-from-left-seat of the Virginia Theater, Cranston, RI, but not who put it there or why. Impossible to predict what facts will intrude. Constant headaches.
In a world of information-overload, attending deeply and meaningfully to data becomes prohibitively difficult, if not impossible. Sylvanshine’s blessing/curse dramatizes the paralyzing post-20th century crisis of too much information (and therefore too many choices). The Pale King’s metaphysical elements manifest again in the ghosts Garrity and Blumquist, who kinda-sorta haunt the IRS center in Peoria; one of them shows up to explain the etymology of the word “boring” to Lane Dean. There’s a boy whose devotion to kissing every square inch of his body (clearly an impossible feat) takes on a spiritual dimension. There’s Chris Fogle, who experiences a religious-type epiphany in an accounting class. There’s also a “fierce infant” who seems to have some metaphysical powers, although I don’t know why I’m lumping him in here. Like I said, (didn’t I say?) I don’t really know how to review this book (I’ve also had a few beers at this point). The infant is one of those threads that goes nowhere, that fails to cohere, that might have a missing piece somewhere else, somewhere unwritten. A more complete picture of the transcendental bliss that prolonged attention might hold comes late in the book, in a longish piece (§46) that details a tête-à-tête between Meredith Rand, who is too-pretty, a little crazy, and ultimately both boring and alienating to almost any guy she actually talks to, and Drinion, an asexual man I take to be autistic. Drinion pays absolute, intense, true, human attention to Meredith Rand’s story of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in her teens for cutting herself; there she meets her future husband. During their conversation, Drinion begins to levitate—via his attention, he literally transcends gravity. And yet the catch of it all is that Drinion’s autism and aesexuality somehow make it easier for him to attend others, to truly connect to this beautiful woman who simultaneously bores and alienates most of the men she bothers to speak with.
Still, Wallace posits in Drinion—and elsewhere in the book, but hey, let’s face it, this is getting pretty long for a blog review—Wallace posits some kind of answer to existential despair and boredom, an answer that goes beyond a trite commonplace like “empathy,” in that empathy is ultimately about self-identification: the answer in The Pale King seems to be selfless identification, in the most literal sense. There’s no cheat here—the narrative bits with Toni Ware especially dramatize the brutal ugliness of life, its essential Darwinian unfairness, the random cruelty that might be there. This is a book about death and taxes, and Wallace works to sanctify these costs of life, to make them count in a in a world that has largely abandoned the sacred, in a society where many people are incapable or unwilling to think empathetically about their relation to (via taxes and social institutions) other humans whom they do not personally know.
The Pale King is not as rich or funny or sad as Infinite Jest; it has nothing to match Don Gately nor does it have a Prince Hal Incandenza. But why hold that against it? It is, after all, an unfinished thing, but as incomplete as it may be, its ends not just loose but frayed, it is still a marvel of heart and intellect. Highly recommended.