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.