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.