A Few Thoughts on “Wiggle Room,” an Excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s Novel The Pale King

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this post on March 3rd, 2009. We run it again today in anticipation of  the publication of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, which is like, right around the corner].

The New Critics’ biggest contribution to literary criticism was the dictum that analysis was to be applied strictly to the text itself, without the muddying impurities of biography or any other outside knowledge influencing the reader. A context-free reading is pretty hard to come by, though, isn’t it? School syllabi are arranged around era or genre, or both; our teachers preface each novel or poem or story or essay with a nod to its relevance; a friend hands us a book because it’s “good.” We furtively flip through Tropic of Capricorn, knowing its rep; we look down our noses at abstinence vampire novels. In short, it’s hard to get to that pure reading the New Critics favor. Still, I’ve always thought it’s a pretty good strategy to put aside biographical/author psychology, and just stick to a good close reading of the text. Today, reading David Foster Wallace’s “Wiggle Room,” I was completely unable to do that.The context of Wallace’s recentish suicide hung over each page, each sentence. It was a distraction that led to a (necessary) rereading, a distraction that colored the reading–and then the rereading. A strange little voice popped into Wallace’s dense narration that kept whispering, “posthumous, unfinished novel.” But now that I’ve complicated and contextualized and complained, perhaps I should simply comment a bit on the story now.

In dense, thick sentences, Wallace relates a work morning for Lane Dean, an IRS rote examiner who detests his Sisyphean job. Like many cubicle-dwellers, Lane spends much of his day trying not to look at the clock. He also tries to use an inspirational photo of his son sparingly, so that the effect might be more intense. However, the boredom on this particular day overwhelms Lane and he “had the sensation of a great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor. Never before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide.” Trying to truck through it is no good: “Lane Dean summoned all his will and bore down and did three returns in a row, and began imagining different high places to jump off of.” These thoughts of suicide are mixed with a strange humor. As Lane’s depression becomes frantic, Wallace writes, “Unbidden came ways to kill himself with Jell-O.” As Lane becomes more and more anxious, it becomes apparent that–paradoxically–his boredom literally excites him. He gets all worked up about it, about the thought of having to devote a whole lifetime to such meaningless, boring work. The scene culminates in an horrific image:

When he started to see the baby’s photo face melting and lengthening and growing a long cleft jaw and aging years in just seconds and finally caving in from old age and falling away from the grinning yellow skull underneath, he knew he was half asleep and dreaming but did not know his own face was in his hands until he heard a human voice and opened his eyes but couldn’t see who it went with and then smelled the pinkie’s rubber right under his nose.

The “human voice” that wakes up Lane is a strange cyclopean figure, an older man who delivers a weird lecture on the origins of the word “bore.” The scene is pure Wallacian, filled with plenty of erudite references and jostling with a love for etymology. It literally zaps life-force back into the text, and punctuates Lane’s boring day–which Wallace has so expertly made the reader suffer as well–with some strange, frightening fun. Wallace’s narration makes clear that the appearance of this strange man is not simply Lane going crazy from his boredom–Lane clearly cannot understand half of what the man refers to. Instead, we are given this nugget: “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.” After philosophical reflection on why the need for a word for a condition like boredom might have arisen, the episode ends with the phantom leaving and Lane looking up to see that “no time had passed at all, again.”

The emphasis on the ways a person’s soul might be bored into, how one might become bored, and what that might mean, proliferates the short text, and perhaps evokes some of the themes we’ll find in the whole of The Pale King. As the quotes I pulled suggest, the idea that boredom might feed a suicidal impulse resonates strongly in light of Wallace’s unfortunate death. But there I go again, letting context color my analysis. But if we’re only left fragments, isn’t it natural to want to pull them together, to frame them–to give them order–context? It’s hard to say and probably not worth guessing if Lane Dean and the phantom will be major parts of The Pale King or not, but as the text progressed, I found myself more and more interested. Apparently, The Pale King will be published with notes and outlines–some bits of context–perhaps giving readers a clue as to how the text was meant to progress. Who knows. A lot of readers felt thatInfinite Jest didn’t have a proper ending (not me, though). While I think that the “Wiggle Room” episode stands well on its own, I’d certainly be happy to read more about the phantom. Still, Infinite Jest was larded with lots of little vignettes that added to the whole, but it’s important to point out that there was a whole to be added to–not just a series of vignettes. I’m really hoping that, even unfinished, Wallace has left us something of substance and depth, something that narrativizes—contextualizes—its themes into a meaningful work of art.