THE PALE KING by David Foster Wallace

Book Quote:

“It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (MAY 11, 2011)

If a book has received more ink or been more anticipated in recent times I can’t recall it. So much has already been written about The Pale King that it seems arbitrary and irrelevant to add to the chatter. A quick Google search–”the pale king”–reports over 29 million hits. Twenty-nine million! A similar search of War and Peace, less than six million. It is, sadly, a fact that the David Foster Wallace industry is cranking along to a tune the author never realized. Indeed, his untimely demise has fed the engine of that industry in a way no living author can expect to enjoy. If for no other reason but my cynicism regarding exploitative posthumous money making I wanted to dislike this book. That was not the case. I did not dislike it. To the contrary, I liked it very much. But not without reservation.

In case you’ve been living in a cave or lost on a Pacific island, let me summarize how this book came to be. At the time of Wallace’s death in the fall of 2008, it was known that he was working on a novel. “I’m deep into something long…” Wallace told his editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch. A couple of the book’s chapters had been published in magazines, and his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, sent word that Wallace was taking accounting classes and that the novel was set at an IRS tax return processing center. After Wallace’s death, Nadell and Pietsch, along with his widow, Karen Green, went “through his office, a garage with one small window at their home in Claremont, California.” Pietsch continues: “On David’s desk Bonnie found a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages. On the label of a disk containing those chapters he had written ‘For LB advance?’” As they combed his office, they discovered “hundreds and hundreds of pages of his novel in progress, designated with the title ‘The Pale King.’ Hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks contained printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes, and more.” In the months that followed, Pietsch, who also edited Infinite Jest, pieced together the work. “Doing so has been a challenge like none I’ve ever encountered,” he writes.

Consequently, a plot summary of the book is for all practical purposes, irrelevant. Indeed, referring to the hundreds of notes Wallace left behind, Pietsch comments “Some of these asides suggest where the plot of the novel might have headed.” Let me repeat that: where the plot of the novel might have been headed. So in picking up The Pale King, the reader must be prepared for five hundred and thirty-eight pages of brilliant writing which at times seems purposeless and disjointed. That does not mean one cannot explore the ideas at work here–that reading pleasure is not to be found. Nor does it imply that themes, the vehicles upon which the ideas are transported, are absent. Indeed, the book is rich in ideas and themes are abundant.

As has been widely reported, The Pale King is a meditation on boredom and the effects of boredom. It is not as simple as all that, but that is a starting point. As one character, a new IRS examiner, observes, “Try as he might he could not this last week help envisioning the inward lives of the older men to either side of him, doing this day after day….This was boredom beyond any boredom he’d ever felt.” Lest there be any question, the book is not boring–at least most of the time it is not boring. Granted, there are stretches which are punishing. They serve to remind the reader that this is, as the sub-title declares, “An Unfinished Novel.” Presumably, Wallace would have spared us the problematic stretches. He was, after all, a perfectionist.

Among the themes of Wallace’s previous novel, Infinite Jest, is the notion that modern society is addicted to entertainment. In that book a film exists which is so entertaining as to be literally deadly. The Pale King picks up the opposing side of that coin. That is, should entertainment be beyond reach, how does one survive? There is a minor character in The Pale King, an IRS examiner, who is writing a play in his spare time. “The setting is very bare and minimalistic,” he says, “–there’s nothing to look at except this wiggler [an examiner], who doesn’t move except for every so often turning a page or making a note on his pad.” He continues his description: “He sits there longer and longer until the audience gets more and more bored and restless, and finally they start leaving, first just a few and then the whole audience, whispering to each other how boring and terrible the play is. Then, once the audience have all left, the real action of the play can start.” Ironically, he confesses, “…I could never decide on the action…” That life is boring, a Beckettian experience spent waiting for something to happen, is evident. But the it never arrives, the action is lacking. Elsewhere, in perhaps the most profoundly idea-laden chapter, IRS examiners and management talk while trapped in a stalled elevator. One offers the following observation: “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment…”

If, as Nietzsche observed, meaningfulness cannot be achieved without self-knowledge, Wallace seems to argue that that knowledge is to be found after entertainment is proved false and boredom is redeemed. However, as the playwright discovers, there is a twist. How does one penetrate to the (meaningful) action? Where is self-knowledge to be found? The book does not contain the answer. (Or, if it does, it escaped me.) There are clues, however. Perhaps the most articulate hint is not found in the book at all, but in a collection of Wallace’s notes the editor has included at book’s end. I quote at length:

Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss–a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious–lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in wave, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

This end note mirrors directly a comment Wallace made in his Kenyon College commencement address, collected and published as This is Water. There he says:

If you really learn how to [ay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

The empathetic reader cannot help but wonder if–and how–this knowledge, the ability to find “bliss in every atom,” was to be integrated into the work. If there is to be found a path to the sacred in modern existence, Wallace seems to be say, it cannot be meaningfully articulated; but perhaps can be shown. The trouble is, not only is existence threatened by crushing boredom, but we cannot even focus long enough to realize it. Even the most gifted of artists might fail in the showing. “The most obvious, important realities,” he said at Kenyon, “are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Can individuals who are subject to immutable boredom find redemption and meaning; in short, can a meaningful modern spiritual journey be realized? It is a tall order and answers are in short supply. But at least one examiner apparently succeeds: “Drinion is happy,” Wallace wrote in a notebook.

I cannot but read this and reflect on Wallace’s demise. He was obsessed by the challenges of modern existence. Even the word “boredom” is a tell-tale marker, a modern word, not used until Dickens’s Bleak House in 1852. Profound boredom, Heidegger observed, “reveals being as a whole.” Wallace was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard before dropping out and his love of ideas are very close to the surface in this book. Yet, as his best friend Jonathan Franzen recently wrote in the New Yorker, “…it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels.” No doubt, Wallace knew his Heidegger, but nonetheless seems not to have escaped the pulsing super nova of boredom, despite his emphatic notes otherwise.

The Pale King is, because of the circumstances surrounding it, an emotionally laden book. The author is absent, yet he is not. For readers who care about what the man wrote and how he wrote it, there is no escaping the fact that the man no longer exists outside the writing. I will leave it at that. It is not natural for me to skip down this turning path of interpretation. Suffice it to say, that the ideas contained in this book are timely and portentous, but open-ended. They are conveyed in a fashion that, while still masterly, does not overwhelm the reader such as the pyrotechnics found in Wallace’s previous work often does. As a reading experience, it is rewarding beyond that of other important posthumously published works, such as, Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream; certainly more so than Nabokov’s skeletal The Original of Laura. As noted above, this is not accomplished in full bloom. This work is not whole, yet it is not, oddly, lacking. The struggle is apparent and that is something altogether insightful. But, so as not to be carried away, it is good to recall that, as one character in the book declares, “Telling the truth is, of course, a great deal trickier than most regular people understand.” Tricky indeed.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 57 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company (April 15, 2011)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns


EXTRAS: Reading Guide
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May 11, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Contemporary, Literary, Reading Guide

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