So, readers of this blog know that I am a huge David Foster Wallace fan, but that only this summer past did I turn from his brilliant essays to his fiction. A couple of months ago I posted here on Infinite Jest, which I think is one of the best American novels I’ve ever read. It was, therefore, with a bit of trepidation that I turned to DFW’s final novel, The Pale King. Trepidation not because it is set in 1985 at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois (although that is frightening enough on all counts). Trepidation, rather, because the novel was incomplete at the time of Wallace’s tragic death. Evidently, though, DFW had left extensive notes and portions of the manuscript, and his editor crafted what became The Pale King.
I put it down halfway through my first read. I didn’t like it, or at least not nearly so much as I liked Infinite Jest. It wasn’t so much that it took time to get going. Rather, there was no evident plot whatsoever. And there were some passages that annoyed me, that I thought had DFW lived to edit them, might not have been quite so glaring. (One in particular is a lengthy conversation among three agents in which the point seems to be to demonstrate DFW’s mastery of American culture from the ’60s through the early ’80s, including an anachronistic discussion of corporate purpose. Then there’s the conversation about, well, shit, which is just hilarious).
But I decided DFW was far too brilliant a writer for me to rest on first conclusions. So I put aside the Kindle edition and bought the book in paperback. I don’t have any problem with Kindle for the most part (and it has the advantage while reading DFW of allowing you to look up the two or three words per page you don’t know). But I suspected that the relative shortness of the pages mis-served a writer whose paragraphs can go on for pages. (I have only read Faulkner, Doestoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Bellow in print as well.)
I’m glad I did. The book is, as is all of DFW’s work, pure genius. There isn’t much of a plot at all. But that is part of the point. As I read it, The Pale King is the fictionalization of DFW’s Kenyon College commencement address, This is Water (and it’s worth noting that he gave that speech while working on the novel). As such, it is brilliant, funny, and deeply moving. Do not fail to read this book.
For those who haven’t yet read or heard This is Water (and you do both yourselves and the rest of the world a disservice by failing to do so), Wallace posits that a liberal arts education is designed primarily to empower students (and thus people) consciously and thoughtfully to choose what they think about, rather than reactively to accept whatever flows through their brains. Wallace is particularly effective and insightful in imaging our thoughts and reactions to other people in the most dreary and quondam situations of daily life. In his imagining, it is possible — not likely, he says, but possible — that our reactive interpretations are at least some of the time deeply unfair to those with whom we interact, and completely lacking in empathy. Indeed it seems that if we choose to think well, we will and must become more empathetic and understanding beings. We become far better people, or at least we can. Wallace of course puts it far better than I, but the truth of it is undeniable.
Much of The Pale King is a series of character sketches loosely based on the arrival and orientation at the Peoria Regional Examination Center of a new team of IRS agents, people who engage in some of the most mind-numbing and tedious work imaginable. And the characters are, like all DFW characters, quirky, strange, sometimes downright freaky, always challenging, and, ultimately, loveable, each in their own peculiar ways. For the most part, we see each of the main characters at some earlier point in their development and then at the time of their arrival at the IRS. (One exception to portraiture, per se, is the revelation of the character of Meredith Rand near the end of the book which occurs during her extended conversation with the obviously autistic Shane Drinion. This is an extraordinary passage– the pathos of the deeply emotional and tormented Rand finding solace and deep emotional connection with apparently the only person willing to listen to her is at turns amusing, irritating, and heartbreaking.) Claude Sylvanshine, whose ability somehow to know a seemingly endless number of barely knoweable and almost invariably useless facts plagues him constantly. David Foster Wallace, working at the IRS during a break from college due to his expulsion for writing papers for other students (and who hilariously arrives with great fanfare due to the system’s confusion of him with another arriving David Wallace whose reputation within the Service is legendary). David Cusk with an uncontrollable perspiration problem. “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle, whose role in the perhaps real, perhaps staged filming project caused his stultified interviewer to develop a tic. Leonard Stecyk, whose cheerful perfection since childhood has made almost everybody who’s known him want to strangle him (and who — spoiler alert — we later learn was brought into the service to have precisely this effect on people),
The point is that each of these people has a story. Each of these people has a history, a character, a life, each has loves and losses, each has ordinary concerns. The IRS seems to provide a place of peace and stability away from the torment, despite the price each pays in the dullness of the work. And that dullness, with many of the characters working in concert, is depicted in Chapter 25 to absolutely brilliant effect. Were the chapter music, it would be the worst chamber music ever written. As literature, however, first rate.
And yet, in a message worthy of Hannah Arendt, DFW lets us know that the work is ennobling. He makes the point explicitly in a speech delivered by a substitute accounting teacher in a class into which DFW (the character) mistakenly wanders at DePaul. But he makes the point throughout the book in many other subtle ways. It is, in fact, precisely the willingness of people to engage in such unsatisfying yet essential work that gives that work its greater glory. These are the same ordinary people we might be standing behind in the checkout line or driving behind in their SUV as DFW describes in This is Water, and the setting of the piece in the dullest and most anonymous of environments reinforces this. And yet there is dignity and nobility in service. (Rereading the opening short, poetic — even elegiac — chapter in light of these thoughts shows Wallace making the point from the very beginning, but of course it is far too early for the reader to understand this.)
This being DFW, it goes without saying, although I’ll say it, that his mastery both of the tax code and the workings of the IRS are nothing short of professional. In addition to his brilliance as a writer, the man was quite the polymath. Of course that leads to several rather dull passages, but I accept them as necessary to the integrity of the whole.
Only two writers have had profound impacts on the way I think and live. One is Adam Smith. The other is David Foster Wallace. Please. Read this book.