David Foster Wallace brought to his fiction a precocious intellectual authority. He double-majored in English and philosophy at Amherst, and his senior thesis in English turned into his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), while his philosophy thesis, “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality,” was published last year, buttressed by articles by academic philosophers, as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. His “jones for mathematics” led him to write Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003).
Most importantly, Infinite Jest (1996) showed Wallace as a walking encyclopedia on everything he touched—tennis, drugs, burglary, AA, halfway houses, hospital procedures, gang life in the streets of greater Boston, and much more. He seemed to know stuff beyond the ken of most novelists, and his knowledge spilled over into ninety-six close-printed pages of endnotes. It was said that the variously patterned bandannas in which he habitually wrapped his temples when he appeared in public were there to stop his prodigious brains from breaking out of his skull.
Readers have always looked to novelists as reality experts, possessed of a superior experience of contemporary society, who could instruct the bewildered neophyte in the manners and morals of the new order of things. Infinite Jest, densely packed with worldly expertise, gave Wallace the reputation of a polymathic genius who not only had the measure of present-day America in all its oppressive confusion, but could give it moral shape and meaning. For all its fragmentedness, its great length, its postmodernist machinery, its teeming multitude of characters, and its wearying longueurs, the book appeared to resolve into a homily as earnest and simple as a Sunday sermon in an old-fashioned country church.
Its compelling attraction was its bric-a-brac style. Wallace wrote in an idiom that to a legion of readers of his generation sounded uncannily like their own. It incorporated acronyms and text-messaging abbreviations, casual allusions to television, comics, and the movies, technical jargon, deadpan ironies, rare words, and stretches of thrillerlike writing that might have come from the pen of James M. Cain alongside immense, data-laden sentences that unspooled down the page in a welter of additions, subtractions, qualifications, and digressions, as seemingly spontaneous and in-the-moment as consciousness itself. These epic sentences are too long to quote, but they’re marvels of fluidity and invention, rich in metaphor and simile, and governed by what seems to me a faultless ear for how American English is spoken now (and the impressive ability to punctuate it accordingly). I am too old and too British to hear this idiom as anything like my own, but after twenty years of living in the US, I can recognize from a distance its absolute fidelity to the patterns of speech and thought I hear around me.
Wallace made a shrewd deal with his audience when he talked of the “hard labor” involved in reading Infinite Jest. We tend to value most what costs us most, and the investment of time and work required to finish the 1,079 pages of the book is close to exorbitant, with Wallace doing everything he can to slow his readers down and prevent them from consuming the novel as a work of passive entertainment. You find yourself performing a parody of scholarship as you shuttle between the text and the endnotes, and reach for the dictionary to look up “imbricate,” “annulation,” or whether “amonymous” is a misprint or a word in its own right. (It is, I think, the former—unless it’s a coinage deriving from Amon, the goetic demon and a marquis of Hell.) If you try to speed-read the long sentences, you’re lost; you have to listen to them in your head, clause by clause, at speaking pace. The diligent reader, obedient to Wallace’s cues and commands, who takes a month or more to reach the end is entitled to feel that he’s not just read Infinite Jest but passed a graduate course in it.
I’m not that diligent a reader, but many are, as the several fansites devoted to Wallace’s work, like www .thehowlingfantods.com, attest. Here, devoted readers mingle with literary academics, to share papers delivered at Wallace conferences, wall maps charting the relationships within the galaxy of characters in Infinite Jest, and tidbits of Wallace news. Before his suicide in 2008, he was a widely admired and increasingly studied writer; since then, he and his work have become so loved and revered (and denigrated, by the inevitable dissenting minority) that it’s hard to read him sensibly.
The Pale King is billed as an “unfinished novel.” It’s not. Edwin Drood, its best-known predecessor in this category, was an unfinished novel: Dickens had serially published the first five parts (Chapters 1 to 20), and had just put the final line to the sixth part (Chapters 21–23) when he retired to the sofa and suffered a fatal stroke, leaving six parts unwritten. What Wallace left was piles of papers—nearly three thousand pages of notes, scenes, tryouts, rough drafts, sketches. A few of these had appeared in magazines; all were related to what the author called the “long thing” and “the Project,” an undertaking that he usually described glumly. To his friend Jonathan Franzen, he wrote that he needed to compose
a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%, the very idea of which makes something in me wither and get really interested in my cuticle, or the angle of the light outside.
To his editor at Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, he said that working on the novel was “like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind.”
Pietsch has now made a selection of these fragments, put them in a plausible chronological order, edited them lightly, and assembled them into a book that reads a lot like a David Foster Wallace novel, though it’s impossible to guess how closely or distantly it resembles the novel that Wallace was trying to write. The narrative momentum that propels the reader through Infinite Jest is not a very powerful engine, but it’s just about sufficient to the task; here it is painfully absent, yet many of the fragments are so engaging and well done that it’s surprisingly hard to put the book down.
In a commencement address delivered to the newly minted graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, Wallace warned them of their forthcoming enlistment as soldiers in “the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” of the “petty, frustrating crap” that awaited them there, and the “dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines” in which they’d soon be immersed. He argued that the “default setting” of the human being is self-centeredness verging on solipsism, and that the value of a liberal arts education is that it supplies the means to escape “our tiny, skull-sized kingdoms” by exercising a disciplined, nonstop attention to the unexamined details of our lives, and so transcend the selfishness of our frustration and boredom. This could lead, he said, to “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” The speech, which strikes me as pretty unpersuasive, is nevertheless the best available synopsis of what Wallace was attempting to do in The Pale King.
The “trenches” of the book are the rows and rows of desks, each equipped with a stack of wire baskets and known as “Tingles,” where entry-level employees of the Internal Revenue Service (“GS-9s” or “wigglers”) go through 1040 tax returns at the Regional Examination Center (“REC”) on Self-Storage Parkway, Peoria, Illinois. This building, exhaustively described, is the supreme palace of adult boredom, of work so monotonous and repetitious that it drives even the devout Christian Lane Dean Jr., recently married and the father of a baby boy, to seductive thoughts of killing himself. Chapter 25 consists of around 1,300 words, set in unparagraphed double columns, in which a host of named people simply turn pages: “…Olive Borden turns a page. Sandra Pounder turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page and then almost instantly turns another page. Latrice Theakston turns a page….”
The Pale King reads as a determined renunciation of the easy pleasures of Infinite Jest, reminding one at every turn of how frenziedly eventful the earlier book was, with its fights, chases, murders, overdoses, tennis matches, and the show-off jokey surrealism of its postmodern frame (O.N.A.N., the commercially sponsored new calendar, the Québécois guerrillas, the quest for the lethal movie that gives the novel its title). By contrast, The Pale King is a Lenten exercise in self-denial, as Wallace focuses on the utterly ordinary, in microscopic detail, rather in the manner of Nicholson Baker’s early books like The Mezzanine and Room Temperature.
The basic tone of the novel is nicely set in Chapter 2, where Claude Sylvanshine (Pynchonesque names are a recurrent feature of Wallace’s fiction), a GS-9, is aboard a thirty-seat commuter plane, on the final leg of his journey as he transfers from the Rome (N.Y.) REC to Peoria. In his window seat on an exit row, as the plane rides “the updrafts and downdrafts like a dinghy in a gale,” Sylvanshine is multitasking, his consciousness slipping and sliding between the instructions on the emergency card; the scary motion of the aircraft; the CPA exam for which he’s mugging up; the elderly woman in the seat beside him, who is trying and failing to open a miniature foil bag of nuts; an unsatisfactory first date with a banjo-playing woman in Rome; the shifting view from the plane window; isometric buttocks-flexing exercises; old people’s hands; the philosophy of the IRS (otherwise “the Service”); entropy; stress; “the neurology of failure”; and his hat.
On the ground at Peoria, waiting for his checked bags to emerge from the hold, Sylvanshine embarks on a sentence nearly three pages long, in which he contemplates the paralyzing logistics of getting to Self-Storage Parkway and, when there, whether to stop first at the REC or at the IRS apartment complex known as Angler’s Cove. This chapter is a polished and dazzling set piece, with Wallace doing what he did best: showing a mind struggling to survive a gale-force bit-storm of information and sensations, and arriving at the edge of terminal meltdown—the natural, if not inevitable, fate of most of his characters.
The Pale King is a historical novel set in 1985, when the “Information Age” was still in its early adolescence, and life on Self-Storage Parkway now looks oddly quaint. Computers are mainframe (and feared for their likely capacity to put GS-9s out of work). Laptops and desktops don’t appear in the book. Mobile phones—heavy, ugly, and expensive instruments—are in their infancy. Men wear hats, smokers are not yet social outcasts, and cable TV channels are just beginning to multiply. For most work purposes, we’re still in the pen-and-paper age, and the toiling workers at their Tingles in the Peoria REC might as well be lines of Dickensian clerks quietly scratching across foolscap pages with their quills.
Wallace made himself as dauntingly knowledgeable about the work of the IRS as he was about drugs in Infinite Jest. In 1998, when he was teaching at Illinois State University in Normal, he talked over the phone about his research to Gus Van Sant, the movie director, who transcribed the conversation:
GVS: Um, well, so, um, how’s your class?
DFW: I’m on leave this year. I’m auditing a class but I’m not teaching. The class I’m auditing is a real bitch but somehow I’m holding on at a high C or low B.
GVS: What’s the class?
DFW: It’s ah, it’s advanced tax accounting, which is a long story and you probably don’t want to know about it but it’s wa-a-a-y over my little noggin’. It’s a Will Hunting class.
GVS: Oh my God.
DFW: 35 pages of incredibly dense, you know, CPA stuff at night and then you get tested on it the next day.
Saturated in tax law and lore, The Pale King turns the IRS into a self-contained society with its own history (marked by congressional changes to the tax code), command structure, mystifyingly arcane language, and cherished customs and traditions. Only readers who are employed by the real-life IRS will confidently see the difference between what Wallace freely invented and what he researched, and the novel, which goes out of its way to ambiguate its own status in every aspect, is nowhere trickier than on this point. However, the IRS’s official stamp does not—as he writes—represent Bellerophon slaying the Hydra, its Latin motto is not “Alicui tamen faciendum est” (which does not translate as “He is the one doing a difficult, unpopular job”), and IRS agents are not issued new Social Security numbers, all beginning with the number 9, which they carry with them for the rest of their lives. Most of the easily checkable “facts” of the book turn out to be creative moonshine, but the playfulness that obviously went into these constructions does little or nothing to lighten the gloom and drudgery that suffuses the building over whose front entrance stands a giant 1040 form, picked out in terra-cotta tiling.
Much of the most readable sections of the book relate the lives of individual characters before they are inducted into the Peoria REC—Sylvanshine on his commuter flight; Lane Dean with his just-pregnant girlfriend; Chris Fogle, the garrulous Chicagoan student who dabbles in drugs; the profusely sweaty David Cusk; Leonard Stecyk, who will go far in the IRS, and is first met as an obnoxious do-gooder at his elementary school; Toni Ware, self-educated, ingeniously vindictive on a grand scale, her personality irreparably warped by her wild and violent trailer-park underclass childhood; and one David Wallace (“Author here”), equipped with a biography similar to, but importantly different from, the author’s own. Except for Toni Ware, whose rigid psychopathology renders her immune to change, these people, lavishly and precisely depicted as children and in their college years, will become obedient drones when they enter the Service.
Not that they see themselves as drones; rather, they’re heroes who sacrifice themselves for a higher calling. Chris Fogle finds his true vocation when, at the Catholic DePaul University in Chicago, he mistakes the building where he’s meant to attend an American political thought class on The Federalist Papers for its mirror-image twin, where he finds himself listening to a lecture on advanced accounting, delivered by a magnificently phony substitute teacher:
True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.
The man retrieves his hat (“a dark-gray business fedora, old but very well cared for”) from the stand and waves it high:
Gentlemen, prepare to wear the hat. You have wondered, perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats? They are today’s cowboys. As will you be. Riding the American range. Riding herd on the unending torrent of financial data. The eddies, cataracts, arranged variations, fractious minutiae. You order the data, shepherd it, direct its flow, lead it where it’s needed, in the codified form in which it’s apposite. You deal in facts, gentlemen, for which there has been a market since man first crept from the primeval slurry. It is you—tell them that. Who ride, man the walls, define the pie, serve.
He ends his peroration with “Gentlemen, you are called to account.” Wallace was both satirist and preacher in the same breath, and the idea that the IRS, imagined as a quasi-religious foundation in which the burdensome and egotistic self might find redemption in the service of a greater good, could be both a comic conceit and a heartfelt belief seems to have been central to his conception of The Pale King.
Wallace’s intellectual sophistication and prowess were entwined with a moral and social simplicity that feels almost childlike and that’s a crucial part of his fiction. When Infinite Jest came out in 1996, interviewers who made their way out to Illinois were surprised that his closest friends there were an older couple, Doug and Erin Poag, whom Wallace had met at a Mennonite church he was attending. Frank Bruni of The New York Times found himself in the Poags’ sitting room while Wallace and the couple sat around the television, watching The X-Files and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and Italian heroes. Wallace paid for Mrs. Poag to fly with him to New York, where she attended his readings and sat in on his interviews.
His other close attachments were his two dogs, adopted mutts, called (in a salute to Wodehouse) Jeeves and Drone, later succeeded by Bella and Warner. Not long before he hanged himself, Wallace talked with his wife, Karen Green (whom he married in 2004), about abandoning writing altogether in order to open a dog shelter.* This churchgoing, dog-loving Wallace, faithful to the rural Illinois landscape of his boyhood, imbued with the conviction that fiction exists to make readers feel less alone in the world and thereby improve their lives, is a ghostly but constant presence in The Pale King.
In his notes about the book (too few of these are included in the skimpy nine-page appendix), Wallace made clear what he was hoping to do. He would take the most boring and repetitive job imaginable, apply to it the same formula about heightened attention and awareness that he offered to the Kenyon College graduates, and demonstrate how tedious, irksome labor could yield a path to grace and the salvation of the soul:
Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.
This is a variant on the old and familiar Christian theme of how to ennoble lowly toil by doing it in the service of Christ. Milton touches on it in “On His Blindness” (“They also serve who only stand and wait”), and George Herbert explores it in “The Elixir”:
…All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold…
But the Christians, with their supernatural god and his promise of an individual life beyond the grave, had weaponry at their disposal superior to that of Wallace, who at Kenyon insisted that “the capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death,” and, though he went to church, doesn’t appear to have been a believer. In his notes, Wallace’s instances of bliss-through-attention are somewhat tepid: an “Asian kid” in a library, maintaining the exact same posture in his chair for eighty minutes, as he studies and annotates a textbook on statistics; a security guard at a credit union, continuously alert to small variations of movement among the incoming and outgoing crowds; or a “woman on assembly line counting number of visible loops of twine on outside of bale of twine”:
Counting, over and over. When the whistle blows, every other worker practically runs for the door. She stays briefly, immersed in her work. It’s the ability to be immersed.
In the pages that we have of The Pale King, only Chapter 46 really tries to put Wallace’s alchemical theory into action. On Friday afternoons a regular coterie of IRS employees gathers at Meibeyer’s cocktail bar, which “features drink specials that are indexed to the approximate cost of gasoline and vehicle depreciation involved in the 2.3-mile drive from the REC to the Southport-474 interchange.”
Here, Meredith Rand, a GS-10, sits down with Shane Drinion, a GS-9, a colleague in her work group, or “pod.” She is drop-dead beautiful, known as a “fox” at her Catholic high school; his looks are so nondescript that a paragraph of detailed description ends with “He’s the sort of person you’d have to look at very intently even to be able to describe.” She smokes; he doesn’t. She drinks gin and tonics with a twist of lime; he drinks Michelob. Over the course of sixty-five pages, she engages him in what she calls a “tête-à-tête” and tells him of how she spent three and a half weeks in “The bin. The mental Marriott. A nut ward” when she was seventeen and a compulsive self-mutilator, and how she was rescued by a thirty-two-year-old ward attendant there named Ed Rand, who later became her husband and is now slowly dying of cardiomyopathy.
Meredith Rand’s story is wholly absorbing, with Wallace showing his ventriloquial ability to find for his characters voices that sound startlingly exact and true. Rand is the single most interesting person in the book. Her epic, self-absorbed monologue has her confiding in Drinion and mocking him by turns; clever, impatient, flirtatious, and angry, she’s like a cat toying with a cornered mouse. In a note, Wallace wrote of her:
IRS rap on Meredith Rand: she’s pretty but a yammerer of the most dire kind, on and on, excruciating to be around—they speculate that her husband must have some kind of hearing aid that he can turn off at will.
But it’s Shane Drinion who is the real center of the chapter. He speaks in short, pedantic questions and interpolations, with an exaggerated lack of affect, like someone with an autism-spectrum disorder. His answers to her are dispassionately factual: no, he’s never been out on a date; no, he doesn’t fear being mistaken for a homosexual. She asks him, “Is this boring?”
Drinion responds: “The major part of it isn’t, no.”
“What part of it is boring?”
“Boring isn’t a very good term. Certain parts you tend to repeat, or say over again only in a slightly different way. These parts add no new information, so these parts require more work to pay attention to…”
Drinion’s capacity to pay attention is rewarded by Wallace with another gift, the unconscious ability to levitate. As the conversation lengthens, he is seen to rise from his seat, at first almost invisibly, “one or two millimeters at most,” then he slowly gains altitude:
Drinion is actually levitating slightly, which is what happens when he is completely immersed; it’s very slight, and no one can see that his bottom is floating slightly above the seat of the chair. One night someone comes into the office and sees Drinion floating upside down over his desk with his eyes glued to a complex return, Drinion himself unaware of the levitating thing by definition, since it is only when his attention is completely on something else that the levitation happens.
Soon, he’s one and three-quarter inches above his chair, and his “work shoes’ gumlike soles, darkened at the perimeter by the same process that darkens pencils’ erasers, swing slightly just above the tile floor.”
It’s disheartening that Wallace, trying to press home his point—a major animating theme of the book—resorts to a supernatural trick, and rather a banal one at that. The secular bliss of concentration and hyperawareness is a fata morgana, glimpsed dimly in the far distance of The Pale King, but unattained and probably unattainable.
We get the boredom all right (and a few sections of the book are so tedious to read that it would be a lot more interesting to be sifting through piles of other people’s tax returns). But Wallace’s basic idea of penetrating the drudgery of the grown-up world and emerging on its far side in possession of transcendent revelation is here so unrealized that the reader can hardly see how it might have been otherwise. The best one can do is to imagine The Pale King as half a book, at most, and believe its author to have been capable of pulling off the miracle in its unwritten pages—which isn’t inconceivable. He did it in Infinite Jest, where the central connecting thread is the story of Don W. Gately, first met in a Halloween clown-mask, an addict, burglar, and third-degree murderer, whose redemptive progress through the book gives it a “moral” that’s on kissing terms with Margaret Schlegel’s “Only connect!” in Howards End. Wallace loved ambiguity and teasing irony, but when it came to morals he had a deep fundamentalist streak in his makeup, a disconcertingly innocent thirst for the “capital-T Truth.”
The Pale King sits unhappily in the long shadow of Wallace’s death and the peculiarly memorable awfulness of its manner (the belt, the duct tape, the lawn chair, the overhead beam of the patio at the back of the Wallaces’ house). His unresolved ambition to find meaning in ordinary, adult lives, to explore boredom and frustration as a necessary and interesting human condition, has great vitality in these pages, even in their doldrums and dead ends. This was clearly meant to be a transitional, mid-career novel that would take Wallace from writing with youthful extravagance and showmanship about the extravagant pursuits and demons of the young to a more sober and mature style in which he could take on Peoria, the city long known (however unjustly) as a synonym (“Will it play in Peoria?”) for everything low-key and average in American life.
Or one might just settle for seeing him as the philosophically inclined proprietor of a dog shelter, once a celebrated novelist, like Henry Roth during his sixty-year silence between Call It Sleep and Mercy of a Rude Stream, much of it spent running a duck farm in Maine. That Wallace cut off both options one random September late afternoon in Claremont, California, seems both unspeakably sad (to use one of his favorite words) and a brute denial of all that he intended The Pale King to stand for.
Paying Attention October 13, 2011
See D.T. Max’s “The Unfinished,” The New Yorker, March 9, 2009—a valuable posthumous profile. Max’s full-length book on Wallace was slated to be published in 2011 by Viking, but hasn’t so far appeared. ↩