David Foster Wallace’s ‘Pale King’: Plot takes back seat to mood and ideas

April 7, 2011

After David Foster Wallace took his life in 2008, his editor, Michael Pietsch, traveled to the author’s home in Claremont, Calif., to go through what remained of his unpublished writing and to see what kind of shape it was in. It would have been surprising had the prolific Wallace — who wrote essays, short stories and journalism in addition to novels, and whose previous novel, “Infinite Jest” (1996), was more than 1,000 pages long — not left something behind for his friend to retrieve.

As it happened, before he died Wallace had placed on his desk a neatly stacked manuscript: one dozen chapters of a work in progress called “The Pale King.” Pietsch took those chapters (along with others that were eventually discovered) back to New York, as well as hundreds of pages of “notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas” and other relevant material. Wallace’s publisher, Little, Brown, organized and edited it into a 548-page book that has now been released under the title “The Pale King” and is being billed as Wallace’s “unfinished novel.”

Given that Wallace was working on this material at the time of his suicide, it’s difficult for a reader to avoid indulging in what critics call “the biographical fallacy,” i.e., the unfounded conviction that the ideas, emotions and beliefs present in a literary work are necessarily held by the author. But it seems highly unlikely, to say the least, that a story set among Internal Revenue Service employees at a regional examination center in Peoria, Ill. — chronicling the tax-collecting agency’s shift from hand-processing data to increased automation in the mid-1980s — could offer anything resembling profound insight into the human condition, much less into the existential conundrums that have vexed thinkers from Augustine to Kierkegaard. In Wallace’s hands, however, this tale of nervous bureaucrats becomes a potent extended metaphor for how we’re able to withstand the crushing tedium of modern life and still derive meaning from it.

It’s a little unfair to speak of the “plot” of an unfinished novel whose action unfolds so disjointedly that the whole notion of story ends up taking a back seat to mood, tone and ideas. But based on what we have, we can deduce that “The Pale King” was to have followed the battle over control of the Peoria REC between two titanic and philosophically opposed senior bureaucrats. One views the IRS as a collection of virtuous public servants; the other wants to remake the agency in the mold of a value-neutral, for-profit corporation. These men make brief appearances, but for the most part their ideological battle is waged by subordinates, including a dutiful deputy whose lifelong policy of selflessness and generosity has made him a freakish pariah and a “fact psychic” whose paranormal flashes of insight are, alas, “ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting . . . like having someone sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in your ear while you’re trying to recite a poem for a prize.”

Chapters that may have been little more than extended character studies vary, unsurprisingly, in their effectiveness. The best of them tend to be self-contained vignettes that are, mostly, untethered to the underdeveloped main plot. In one, a mid-level employee who believes he is being interviewed for an IRS recruitment video basically relays the story of his entire adult life, including the death of his father, his mother’s discovery of her homosexuality and the bizarre classroom epiphany that compelled him to turn his dissolute life around and pursue a career reading other people’s tax forms. In another, a high school-age boy who suffers from excessive sweating gets trapped in an ontological feedback loop upon realizing that the fear of his condition is the cause of his condition. 

And then there are those chapters recounting the hilariously picaresque IRS adventures of the author, who pops in from time to time to assure readers that the book he has written is not a novel but a memoir — one that his timid publisher, for various legal reasons, has insisted be marketed as “fiction.” Here we find Wallace at his loosest and funniest, as he describes the year he worked at the Peoria REC during college. In the same chattily observational but erudite voice that made his essays on state fairs, cruise ships and lobsters so engaging, he writes of the unfortunate circumstances that got him kicked out of school and of his very strange first day on the job.

But even these broadly comic chapters are haunted by a poignant refrain, what must surely qualify as the whole point of this whole sadly unfinished business. Each of these characters operates in a workday universe of almost unbearable monotony; they are awash in a never-ending flood of data whose ultimate meaning is never made clear to them. Despair is an occupational hazard. At one point, an oracular professor suggests that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism.”

At the end of one of Wallace’s memoir chapters, he zeros in on how boredom can produce in us such fear and trembling as we go about — in the “confined space” of our bodies — managing life’s dullness. “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain,” he writes, “because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.”

The American author who will surely be remembered as one of our era’s most distinct literary voices knew that all the noise of modern life, including its literature, is really just our collective attempt to stave off “this terror of silence,” as he puts it — the same terror that tormented Beckett’s tramps, waiting there by the tree. “I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information,” David Foster Wallace wrote before he took his own life, in the last novel that would be published under his name. “Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”  

Turrentine is a writer in Los Angeles.

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