The narrator of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King assures us at one point that “phantoms are not the same as real ghosts.”
So what’s a phantom then, at least in the universe of The Pale King?
Phantom refers to a particular kind of hallucination that can afflict rote examiners at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom.
The “rote examiners” are IRS agents who perform Sisyphean tasks of boredom. They are also placeholders for anyone who works a boring, repetitive job.
(We might even wax a bit here on the phrase rote examiner—the paradox in it—that to examine should require looking at the examined with fresh eyes, a fresh spirit—a spirit canceled out by the modifier rote).
In The Pale King, phantoms visit the rote examiners who toil in wiggle rooms. The “phantoms are always deeply, diametrically different from the examiners they visit,” suggesting two simultaneous outcomes: 1) an injection of life-force, a disruption of stasis that serves to balance out the examiner’s personality and 2) in the novel’s own language, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.”
In one scene, desperate Lane Dean contemplates suicide on the job, until he’s visited by a phantom.
“Yes but now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. You know the one.”
The word is boredom, and the phantom proceeds to give a lecture on its etymology:
Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn’t cast a shadow, but that didn’t mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course had malaise, ennui. See Pascal’s fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy.
(Thank you, narrator—who are you?!—for mediating the phantom’s speech and Dean’s misauditing of that speech).
See La Rochefoucauld’s or the Marquise du Deffand’s well-known letters to Horace Walpole, specifically I believe Letter 96. But nothing in English prior to March, Earl of. This means a good five hundred years of no word for it you see, yes? He rotated slightly away. In no way was this a vision or moment. Lane Dean had heard of the phantom but never seen it. The phantom of the hallucination of repetitive concentration held for too long a time, like saying a word over and over until it kind of melted and got foreign. Mr. Wax’s high hard gray hair was just visible four Tingles down. No word for the Latin accidia made so much of by monks under Benedict. Also the hermits of third-century Egypt, the so-called daemon meridianus, when their prayers were stultified by pointlessness and tedium and a longing for violent death. Now Lane Dean was looking openly around as in like who is this fellow?
When the phantom ends his lecture and leaves, Dean “let himself look up and saw that no time had passed at all, again.”
This apparent phantom, it seems, if we believe Dean’s disbelief, is not merely a psychological manifestation, a projection of interiority arriving to, like, save the examiner, but rather, y’know, a metaphysical entity. A ghost.
Most examiners of any experience believe in the phantom; few know or believe in actual ghosts. This is understandable. Ghosts can be taken for phantoms, after all. In certain ways, phantoms serve as distracting background or camouflage from which it can be difficult to pick up the fact-pattern of actual ghosts. It’s like the old cinematic gag of someone on Halloween being visited by a real ghost and complimenting what he thinks is a kid in a really great costume.
Is the phantom that visits Dean actually a ghost?
If so—and I think, yes, so—if so, I think it’s Garrity, one of the two ghosts who haunts Post 047’s wiggle room.
Garrity “had apparently hanged himself from a steam pipe in what is now the north hallway off the REC Annex’s wiggle room.” Garrity then might identify or empathize with Lane Dean, with his boredom, with his suicidal impulses.
Garrity was also a rote examiner. He was rotely examining something different from tax returns:
His job was to examine each one of a certain model of decorative mirror that came off the final production line, for flaws. A flaw was usually a bubble or unevenness in the mirror’s aluminum backing that caused the reflected image to distend or distort in some way. Garrity had twenty seconds to check each mirror. Industrial psychology was a primitive discipline then, and there was little understanding of non-physical types of stress. In essence, Garrity sat on a stool next to a slow-moving belt and moved his upper body in a complex system of squares and butterfly shapes, examining his face’s reflection at very close range. He did this three times a minute, 1,440 times per day, 356 days a year, for eighteen years.
Yeah, that sounds awful. The mirror part is so symbolically over-determined that I’ll withhold commentary.
Another clue that Dean’s phantom is actually ghost Garrity:
Garrity is the easier of the wiggle room’s two ghosts to mistake for a phantom because he’s extremely chatty and distracting and thus is often taken by wigglers straining to maintain concentration as the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side.
It’s fairly clear that Dean’s inner yammering mind-monkey does not know the linguistic history of the word boredom. Does Garrity mean well? Or is he just bored?
The other ghost Blumquist was an IRS examiner who died at his desk. He shows up by name in at least two other episodes in the novel. He is silent and sad and sympathetic.
In the chapter before we meet these two ghosts, §25, Wallace shows off his ability to reproduce the astounding boredom of rote examination. The IRS workers work their work, examine rotely. The phrase “turns a page” occurs 97 times in the chapter. Near the very end though, this:
Ed Shackleford turns a page. Two clocks, two ghosts, one square acre of hidden mirror. Ken Wax turns a page. Jay Landauer feels absently at his face. Every love story is a ghost story. Ryne Hobratschk turns a page.
Embedded in the mundane page-turning appears first a series of strange clues—“Two clocks, two ghosts, one square acre of hidden mirror”—and then, perhaps, a reading rule: “Every love story is a ghost story”.
What does “every love story is a ghost story” mean?
In a 2012 essay for , D.T. Max, who used the phrase as the title of his biography of Wallace, asked the question and then immediately offered his own vague answer:
What does “every love story is a ghost story” mean? It captures, I think, the futility of Wallace’s quest.
Max traces the phrase throughout Wallace’s writing. It first shows up in a 1986 letter, where Wallace attributes it to Virginia Woolf. In 1971. On an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show.
(She would have to have been a ghost, of course, Woolf having filled her pockets with stones and walked in the River Ouse in 1941).
Wallace also scribbled the phrase in his notebook, and it ended up in his story “Tri-Stan, I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” (the weakest jam, in my opinion, in his best short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men). And then again, as we’ve seen, in The Pale King.
The phrase then, like some phantom, slips through his work, threads it, unites it. But again: What does it mean?
The Pale King is about death and taxes. It’s about boredom and futility and despair. It’s also very much about civics and civic responsibility. And it’s a ghost story, sure, sort of. But it is not easily identifiable as a love story.
But Wallace wants it to be a love story. There’s not really enough there to tie it all together—that’s the easy criticism for this novel in fragments—that there’s no connective tissue.
But there are some clues, some reading rules—clocks and ghosts, time and spirit. Mirrors as traps, maybe—a need for empathy that surpasses the self, a kind of empathy in commitment to boredom, to shared costs, to the taxes that tax us together.
Is this what Wallace wanted to see? Couldn’t find?—that, through taxing oneself, boring into oneself, a kind of connection with the metaphysical might occur? That there might be some transcendence?
Is that the ghost? Is that love?
[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in October of 2014; we run it again in the spooky spirit of Halloween].