Author: David Foster Wallace

2011, Little, Brown

Filed under: Literary

Fans awaiting a new novel from David Foster Wallace need not look inside The Pale King because, as the foreword, afterword, and jacket copy make clear, the book is not a novel but an artifact, a kind of literary curio that belongs next to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Original of Laura, and The Last Tycoon—all interesting works, but hardly satisfying as novels. (The Pale King was unfinished at the time of Wallace’s suicide in 2008—in the intervening years, his editor turned a messy, sprawling manuscript into this novel.)

This is not to say there is not anything great, even brilliant, inside Pale King. There is plenty: the short, self-contained riffs are as good as anything Wallace has written, the throughlines he establishes are insidious. But there’s a lot of filler to wade through. Given the work’s subject, the maliciousness of everyday boredom, this might be exactly what the author had in mind. But in an unfinished form, this book might hold to its theme a little closer than intended.

The Pale King revolves around a group of IRS accountants in the mid-1980s working at a processing center in Peoria, Illinois. They are from backgrounds as diverse as they are average: a self-described “wastoid” who finds meaning in accounting after his father’s death, a former homeless teen whose early life was spent moving from town to town with her unbalanced mother, a man who sometime in adolescence began to suffer “shuddering sweat attacks,” the archetypal dweeb, a woman whose beauty keeps her from honestly interacting with nearly everyone she has ever met, and a man with a disfiguring skin condition named David Foster Wallace (the man, not the condition).

Like much of Wallace’s other work, Pale King is hugely digressive, and the digressions are the heart of the novel. No one would care if this book merely detailed the intracies of IRS tax laws and restructuring, or the banalities of inter-office posturing in one of the world’s largest bureaucracy. But the problem of overcoming these banalities may hit closest to home.

Anyone who has worked in an office might recognize in themselves that blank, glazed-over look they see in a friend while earnestly trying to explain the intricacies of their administrative assisting, or the way their coworker put them in hot water again by leaving key information off the shared spreadsheet until the TPS report was already overdue, or how their old supervisor Cheryl intentionally withheld the fact that she knew the restructuring was going into effect a week before the spring bonuses were due, not a week after, because her job would be safe under the merger and the desperate hustle to meet their expected deadline would—

Hey, wake up. Pay attention. I know this is boring, but dullness is Foster’s point, especially the kind of intricate boredom that shields us from the truth. His IRS restructuring is but one example.

“The real reason why U.S. citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes,” Wallace writes of the new tax laws, “is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.”

How often does boredom hide conflict? How often is the most important clause of a piece of proposed legislation buried 500 pages deep? How often will one long sentence in an insurance contract render the policy worthless when it’s needed most? Who reads all the fine print, ever? The student loan paperwork, the credit card contracts, the iPod user manuals… Who honestly understands these papers’ impact on our lives? Those who do are Wallace’s heroes, the ones who have mastered boredom and trudge on to the truth waiting at the end of a path too boring for most mortals to bear.

Consider another quote:

In early 2007, asset-backed commercial paper conduits, in structured investment vehicles, in auction-rate preferred securities, tender option bonds and variable rate demand notes, had a combined asset size of roughly $2.2 trillion.

This is part of Timothy Geithner’s quote in the Wikipedia article explaining why our economy tanked. I have no idea what it means. I could conceivably find out what an “asset-backed commercial paper conduit” is, and if I Googled long enough, I might discover what type of “investment vehicles” structure these things. Perhaps a smart friend might even explain how option bonds can be “tender.” But even if I somehow translated this entire sentence, it’s only one in a dissertation’s worth of inscrutable, unnecessary code words. More to the point, its banality masks the epic tragedy of so many lost jobs, homes, and life savings.

To a certain extent, the same can be said of The Pale King. How many readers will endure the one-hundred page account of a nihilist finding meaning in accounting (which could’ve been made bearable if spaced out, like the broken, alternating storylines of Infinite Jest)? How many people will reach the brilliance buried on the figurative 500th page: the office phantoms, the random-fact psychic, literature’s creepiest baby?

It’s important to remember that Pale King is more artifact than finished novel, and while it’s a testament to the huge scale the author was familiar working in, I’d say it’s only half complete.

In his closing chapter, Wallace writes:

The office could be any office. Cove fluorescent on a dimmer, modular shelving, the desks practically an abstraction.The whisper of sourceless ventilation… You open a can of Tab whose color seems lurid against the beige and white.

Anyone who has worked in an office, i.e. nearly everyone who reads this book, can recognize this bleak landscape. This is as close to a universal setting as one can get nowadays. Unfortunately, The Pale King falls short of what I believe to be the author’s intention: a monument to the latest turn of modernity, the all-encompassing contract we are caught up in, at the mercy not of Orwell’s doublespeak but instead what is put plainly in front of us every day, so important but too boring to stand.

Similar reads: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens; The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov; The Last Tycoon; by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace