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.”