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Divine Drudgery

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.

Letters

Paying Attention October 13, 2011

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