Fit for a ‘King’

David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published novel is an epitaph for a brilliant writer who had a curiosity about "the gift of being alive."

David Foster Wallace 521 (photo credit: Hachette Book Group via Bloomberg)
David Foster Wallace 521
(photo credit: Hachette Book Group via Bloomberg)
When he killed himself in September 2008, after a lifelong struggle with depression, David Foster Wallace left behind hundreds of pages of a novelin- progress. Set in an Internal Revenue Service examination center in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985, the novel, like most of Wallace’s work, is full of footnotes, multiple narrators, shifting points of view, structural diffusion, ambiguities, inconsistencies and incongruities. As it describes mind-numbing, unpopular jobs – and the threat of replacing “distractible” and ethical agents with revenue-maximizing computers – The Pale King seeks to examine nothing less than modern consciousness and human connection.
Clearly the manuscript was not yet in final form. Wallace had not developed a clearly delineated plot, nor had he settled on his other option, a “series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens.”
Realizing, perhaps, that like its characters, The Pale King “founders in extraneous details,” he labeled some chapters “Zero drafts,” intending to return and cut as much as 50 percent from them. He also left no indication of the order he intended for the chapters, some of which are self-contained and not manifestly part of the chronology.
Nonetheless, there is enough – far more than enough – to merit publication.
Assembled masterfully by Michael Pietsch, the editor of Wallace’s opus, Infinite Jest (1996), The Pale King is an ambitious and audacious, funny and philosophical novel, an appropriate epitaph for a brilliant writer who had an abiding curiosity about “the gift of being alive.”
Explored microscopically, with the perfect cast of characters (IRS agents) in an almost infinite regress of permutations and combinations, and a tone that is at once serious and satiric, Wallace’s theme is that happiness – a second-by-second awareness of being conscious – “lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”
For anyone who can somehow ride out the tidal waves of tedium, Wallace wrote in a note to himself, “it’s like stepping from black and white into color.”
An epiphany of this sort, Chris Fogle explains (in a tour-de-force chapter that salutes – and subverts – religious conversion experiences), brought him to the IRS. A student at DePaul University, Fogle was sitting “slumped and unmotivated” in his dorm room in the middle of the afternoon, spinning a soccer ball, with the TV turned to a soap opera. When the announcer said, “You’re watching As The World Turns,” Fogle was only vaguely aware of the double entendre: He was, indeed, a passive observer, “choosing to have nothing matter,” while “people with direction and initiative were taking care of business.”
But then he wandered, by mistake, into the final session of an advanced tax class and listened, in rapt attention, as the instructor, a Jesuit priest, addressed the “dread and doubt” students felt about a career in accountancy. Though exacting and at times prosaic, he informed them, the profession “is, in fact, heroic.”
Because “it is you, alone, in a designated work space… in the quiet, precise judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer.”
“Gentlemen,” he concluded, “you are called to account.” With one term left – and nine courses short of the requirements for a major in accounting – Fogle answered the call.
Just as compelling is The Pale King’s tête-à-tête, over drinks, between Shane Drinion – a smart and socially maladroit agent with an extraordinary memory, a peculiar manner of paying attention and an unintentional tendency to be brutally candid – and Meredith Rand, a “yammerer of the most dire kind,” who works in Problem Resolution. Presented in Wallace’s signature style, their exchange is packed with insights about conversation and communion, suppressed and expressed meanings, feelings and signals, lust and love, loneliness and longing.
Convinced that she’s attractive to men only because she’s pretty, Rand, a self-mutilator, wonders whether “in reality everything is the surface.” Drinion, the consummate IRS man, has learned to “function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human,” to breathe while under water by concentrating on one thing only – his work. Anything but self-reflective, he doesn’t think he’s ever had “what you mean by a sexual attraction.” But as Rand tells her story (in what may be the first emotionally laden conversation he has ever had), it becomes clear that Drinion’s “expressionlessness” does not reflect a lack of interest. He is actually levitating slightly, with his bottom “floating slightly above the seat of his chair.” As if he is scrutinizing a complex tax return.
The Pale King is not for the faint hearted, the action-oriented, the foes of clever self-referential paradoxes or postmodern metaphysical fiction. Although they are essential to a novel about boredom, Wallace’s digressions and ostentatious displays of knowledge, are, at times, boring.
But make no mistake: In The Pale King, Wallace addresses head-on one of the most pressing and perplexing subjects in our contemporary world: the fate and the future of those of us who “fill pre-existing forms.” And he pulls it off – imperfectly, to be sure, but in a work that is thought-provoking, side-splitting, terribly honest and deeply moving.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.