Before reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, back in February, I had to enter into a nondisclosure agreement: I would not “advertise that [I had] a copy” or “share the galley (or any part of it)” or emit so much as a tweet in advance of its publication. It was the kind of thing more often associated with the Jay-Zs and Gagas of the world … and in the end, maybe best left to them. By March 30, when Amazon began shipping The Pale King to customers, Little, Brown’s attempt to control the book’s rollout would look downright laughable. Still, the results were the same. Practically every media organ in America was scrambling to cover Wallace. And one sort of has to wonder: at what point did an unfinished manuscript by a writer of avant-garde commitments and Rogetian prolixity and high Heideggerian seriousness (and footnotes) become a genuine pop-cultural event?
The answer surely has something to do with the grim fact of Wallace’s 2008 suicide, at age 46. It’s worth noting, though, that he already commanded national name recognition and a devoted following, having cracked best-seller lists and dorm rooms alike with his mid-nineties megalith, Infinite Jest. It was a novel that not only forecast the rise of the web; it practically demanded it. MetaCrawling and AltaVista-ing its “anticonfluential” plot threads and pharmacological arcana became a rite of passage for the literary young. Well into the age of Google, beflanneled undergraduates could be seen listing slightly to port under the weight of the big book in their messenger bags. And though no follow-up novel was forthcoming, Wallace continued to produce volumes of short fiction and shaggily brilliant journalism.
What his death did, then, is not so much spawn a Cult of Wallace as wrest it from the petri dishes of the Internet and turn it viral. There he was again, suddenly, in Entertainment Weekly and on network news. Graffiti to the effect of Yeah, David Foster Wallace!!! began to bloom around the East Village. Bird Lives it wasn’t, but it seemed to confirm the transformation of DFW into totem, guru, rock star—floating signifier and secular saint.
The convergence of longstanding esteem and speedy beatification subjects the 550-page novel now before us to some unusually stiff countercurrents: Is it a fragment of the true cross or just evidence that, to quote a recent headline, “Dead Author Breeds Big Business”? I think I can now safely disclose that I’m casting my lot with the cult. The Pale King is, for great swaths, an astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka’s Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And it reduces chatter about the provenance of its author’s late renown to background noise. The book demands our attention precisely because while we’re reading it, David Foster Wallace is again the most alive prose writer of our time—and the one who speaks most directly to our condition.
This latter point needs some unpacking; directness was rather notoriously not a major component of Wallace’s pre-humous rep. Indeed, part of the seduction of Infinite Jest—particularly for readers too young for time constraints like career or family or dry-cleaning—was the work it manifestly demanded. Finishing it was a badge of honor, a proclamation of one’s intelligence (or, at least, patience). To detractors, however, the fetish made of Jest’s complexity suggested the limits of the pleasures it afforded. “Uproarious and mindboggling,” wrote the Times’ Michiko Kakutani, “but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.”
It’s therefore tempting to frame The Pale King as a recantation. The novel is conspicuously lacking in intracontinental intrigue, dystopian marketing schemes, and even, by and large, the famous footnotes. And where Infinite Jest took its title from a “lethally entertaining” video cartridge, The Pale King explicitly concerns itself with “those parts of life that are and must be dull … Massively, spectacularly dull.”
Under the hood, though, what’s remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace’s earlier ambitions. Recent generations of Americans have, with a few notable exceptions, been allergic to what used to be called “the novel of ideas.” Information we love, and the more the better. Memes? By all means. But inquiries into ontology and ethics and epistemology we’ve mostly ceded to the science-fiction, self-help, and Malcolm Gladwell sections of the bookstore. A philosophy-grad-school dropout, Wallace meant to reclaim them. Infinite Jest discovered in its unlikely milieu of child prodigies and recovering addicts less a source of status details than a window onto (in Wallace’s words) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” And The Pale King treats its central subject—boredom itself—not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale.
In dramaturgical terms, of course, boredom poses problems whale hunts just don’t. The Pale King’s setting—a Peoria-area IRS outpost—is going to sound, to most Americans, about as “uproarious” as a tax audit. Nor can the members of its ensemble cast claim even the relative glamour of the auditor. They’re lowly rote examiners, self-identified “wigglers,” the GS-9s on the other end of our W-2s.
As Wallace writes at one point, though, in what amounts to an ars poetica, “almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting.” Here, he’s unearthed a whole ecosystem, its shibboleths and sumptuary codes, its acoustic-tile ceilings and hideous industrial carpets. He’s also invented a minor genre: IRS vaudeville. Wigglers get carted around in Mr. Squishee ice-cream trucks seized from delinquent franchisees. It’s 1985, but, like Hoover’s G-Men, they all wear hats. Their workplace’s façade is “some kind of tile or mosaic representation” of a blank 1040; even the parking lot is impossible to puzzle out.
The net effect is to reimagine the IRS as an esoteric, even monastic order. And notwithstanding the proto-tea-party sentiment sweeping across Reaganite America, these wigglers are doing God’s work, braving “soul murdering” tedium to keep our Pell Grants granted and our trains on time. “Welcome to the world of reality,” an accounting professor announces, in a come-to-Jesus moment. “There is no audience … Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.”
It might be useful to approach The Pale King not as a novel but as Lost, only upside-down.
The plot, such as it is, hews to this principle. There’s some conspiratorial rumbling off in the remote spheres of the Treasury Department, but down in the “Wiggle Room,” nothing ever quite precipitates. The Pale King gets its drive, instead, from long interstitial chapters that trace the personal histories of a dozen or so lead characters. The question, “How’d nice folks like you end up in a place like this?” turns out to have lost none of its fascination since Dante deployed it 700 years ago; in the purgatorio of institutional bureaucracy, we likewise encounter the lustful (Lane Dean Jr., an accidental father), the wrathful (hard-ass Toni Ware), and the proud (pulchritudinous Meredith Rand). Filling the poet’s role is one “David Wallace,” who, in wry first-person segments, insists that for a brief time in his twenties, he, too, “wore the hat” of a wiggler.
The real Wallace was obviously still trying out formal conceits for his novel (experimental memoir? Brief interviews with hideous accountants?), and aside from one continuous 250-page chunk, he left little indication of how he would have arranged it. The other chapters are not of uniform quality. Moreover, a complete draft would have included more of them, and the version his executors have stitched together doesn’t so much end as stop. It might be useful to approach The Pale King not as a novel at all but as a collection of linked stories and extraordinary novellas.
Or as Lost, only upside-down. There, it was the island craziness earning our indulgence for the tedious backstories; here, it’s the past that ripens and ramifies. Take, for example, that accounting professor. He arrives late in the hundred-page history of “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle, an adolescent “wastoid” from the Chicago suburbs. Fogle’s been at odds with his straitlaced dad, whose death leaves him complexly bereft. (“I can remember my father’s hat,” he tells us, “almost better than his face under it.”) And so the professor’s pitch for the “effacement, perdurance, [and] sacrifice” of the C.P.A. lands like a voice from beyond the grave, rousing Fogle from his bong-watery past and propelling him toward Peoria. Even wastoids, it seems, are hungry to connect.
I’d like to advance the idea that the true heart of Wallace’s enduring appeal is that we share that hunger, and that, unlike his more purely diagnostic contemporaries, he gratifies it, often at great length. The critic James Wood’s declaration that “surely no one has ever claimed to be moved by him. Amused, impressed, challenged, even finely tormented; but not involved, quickened, raised, imparadised” strikes me finally as serenely obtuse. We may come to DFW for the Pynchonian bells and whistles, but we stay for just that sense of being “involved, quickened, raised”—moved to compassion by the divine tragicomedies his characters find themselves in. Infinite Jest’s prophecies of a “teleputing” future now look quaint, but no one who’s read it will ever forget the image of poor Don Gately hitting bottom on a cold Massachusetts beach.
Gately’s problem is also the wigglers’, and ours. Empirically, the self is “a kind of box … or prison,” and in our compulsion to escape—via drugs or TV or idol worship—we box ourselves in emotionally, spiritually, rhetorically, and civically, as well.
What’s new in The Pale King is that Wallace thinks he’s onto a solution. “The entire ball game,” one character decides, “was what you gave your attention to vs. willed yourself to not.” Boredom, in this analysis, is nothing more or less than the urge to wiggle away when there’s nothing left to entertain us. And if we could somehow ride it out, attend to our inattention, we might find ourselves in the presence of what connects us: longings, loneliness, mortality, and maybe even, one of Wallace’s notes says, “gratitude at the gift of being alive.”
I’m not 100 percent sure Wallace hasn’t muddled his phenomenology with his ethics here, his How do we? with his How should we? The endless dilations that earn “Irrelevant” Chris his nickname suggest that attention isn’t really subject to the will at all. At any rate, The Pale King isn’t telling us, I don’t think, to sing hosannas to the fluorescent-lit drudgery of our day-jobs. Rather, it’s showing us, phrase by phrase, an act of long, hard, loving attention: “Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”
In the end, Wallace’s body of work amounts to an extended philosophical experiment. Can “morally passionate, passionately moral” fiction help free us from the prisons we make? To judge solely by his suicide, the experiment would seem to have failed. Then again, watching him loosed one last time upon the fields of language, we’re apt to feel the way he felt at the end of his celebrated essay on Federer at Wimbledon: called to attention, called out of ourselves. Jesus, just look at him out there.
The Pale King
By David Foster Wallace.
548 pages. $27.99.