It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (438)
There were a couple of things I had to accept while reading this book. The first was that it wasn’t going to be as good as “Infinite Jest.” How could it be? It’s not even a completed novel; it’s more like a series of vaguely thematically linked short stories, anecdotes and memorable character sketches. There’s brief flashes that hint at how everything might link together, but ultimately, we’ll never know now. That was the second thing I had to accept, that this was not a finished work, so I had to give up any hope of seeing anything that vaguely resembled a traditional plot, or of feeling satisfied by the time I reached the book’s final page.
That being said, I still really enjoyed reading this book, and it was a tremendously valuable experience. Is it a “lesser” DFW work? Yes, because it is unedited and unfinished. As the editor astutely points out, the phrase “titty-pinching” occurs with more regularity that DFW would have allowed in a final, polished draft, and at least two characters (if not three) have Doberman hand puppets. In the notes for the novel that are included in the appendix, a character is hinted at having a supernatural power, that of knowing a string of numbers that when recited will grant him the power of complete concentration, but this isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the story. The title itself remains mysterious; one character refers to his supervisor as “the pale king,” but like I said before, we’ll never know why now.
At least everyone can agree on Wallace’s central goal for “The Pale King.” He even says it himself in the notes: “Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” In this way, the themes of “The Pale King” parallel those of “Infinite Jest.” While the central concerns in “IJ” were entertainment, desire and addiction, “The Pale King” focuses on the flip side of that coin: boredom, distraction, and attention.
At one point in the story, a character talks about a play that he went to go see. The play consists of a guy sitting at a desk on a stage, doing nothing, and eventually the audience got so angry, bored, and frustrated that they all walked out. It was only when the last audience member left that the play began. I feel like this is a key passage for “The Pale King” in terms of how it treats action: there are a lot of set-ups, but never any pay-offs, and I don’t think this just has to do with the novel being unfinished, either. Another note in the appendix says “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen.” There are references to a bomb going off, to a disaster in the tax office in Rome, but there’s no one key thing that links everything together the way the movie did for all the characters in “Jest.”
I’ve written before about books that try to create a narrative out of boredom, and how there is a dangerous trap that by writing about boredom, the story itself becomes, well, boring. There are several places in “King” where Wallace doesn’t successfully avoid this trap, specifically in the sections written in IRS tax code language. I understand what Wallace was trying to do with these chapters (immerse us in the same horribly tedious world as his characters) , but the thing is taxes are really, really, REALLY boring, and these chapters are definitely not very fun (and are in fact downright hard) to read. Dullness is a tricky subject for literature. As one character puts it:
Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful… 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… most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling directly or with our full attention… This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. (85)
There is nothing in “The Pale King” that is as thrilling or as over-the-top as some of the details in “Infinite Jest”: the ominous squeaks of the oncoming wheelchair army, for example, or the marauding bands of feral mutant hamsters in the nuclear wastelands that were once New Jersey. Still, it makes sense that we don’t have these surreal, fantastical details in this work, because one of Wallace’s central concerns in this novel is reality and how we deal with it.
These were my favorite parts of “The Pale King,” the ones that talked about attention, concentration, distraction and the ability to think about your attention as a choice you can make. What follows below is one of my favorite passages from the book:
“It had something to do with paying attention and the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, of the fact that it’s a choice. I’m not the smartest person, but even during that whole pathetic, directionless period, I think that deep down I know that there was more to my life and to myself that just the ordinary psychological impulses for pleasure and vanity that I let drive me. That there were depths to me that were not bullshit or childish but profound, and were not abstract but actually much realer than my clothes or self-image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way… and that these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness.” (187)
The best parts of “The Pale King” are the chapters that feel like they could stand alone by themselves, as short stories. The psychic who can only sense utterly useless and random details about people. The ghost who sits with potential IRS empolyees when they’re taking their final exams (a nice nod to the Hamlet-like ghost of “Infinite Jest”). A Christian boyfriend marries his girlfriend even though he doesn’t love her. A girl survives a horrible childhood in a trailer park. A boy has the lifelong dream of touching his lips to every part of his body, a mission that becomes almost religious in his devotion towards achieving this goal (this was one of my favorite chapters). Wallace’s characters suffer from horrifically bad skin, sweating attacks, insufferably hot bus rides, long waits in hallways, walking through a building while carrying their luggage, and intolerably boring jobs that make them want to kill themselves. These sections in particular, the ones about dealing with situations that cause us to suffer, made me think about his overtly-quoted college commencement speech, the one that’s since been published in its own book. A lot of that speech foreshadows the themes in “The Pale King,” especially about awareness and paying attention, and making choices (feeling stressed out in the supermarket line vs. feeling love and empathy for your fellow suffering man).
The happiest character in the book is an IRS employee who is only capable of focusing on one thing at a time, giving it all of his attention, who during moments of deep concentration is capable of levitating out of his seat from the ecstasy of being fully immersed in the moment and in what he was doing. Or as Wallace puts it in the notes, “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.” (546) Several characters talk about the ability to tolerate boredom as heroic:
“Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is… You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it… Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality. There is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.” (229)
There are a lot of great, deep, fascinating themes in “The Pale King” that I wish I had more time and energy to touch upon in this space. The struggle between the characters that see taxes as heroic work versus a way to maximize revenue, mysticism vs. capitalism. The authorial intrusions and comments in the text, and the way they relate with the book’s concern about realism (have I even mentioned yet that one of the main characters in the novel is called David Foster Wallace?). Being a heroic individual versus being part of a community. Humans as recipients of information and transmitters of raw data; man-as-machine doing mechanical tasks. Childhood vs. growing up. This book is like an undeveloped mine, full of rich veins to analyze.
I love this book. I’m so sad that it’ll never be finished. I’m sad that possible plot developments that Wallace hints at in the notes will never be written (namely the “Midwest meditation semifinals”—sounds AMAZING!). I’m sad that we’ll never find out why all these different characters were assembled in Peoria, Illinois. And I’m sad that someone who was able to write so powerfully and effectively about the importance of what you choose to pay attention to, ended up making a choice that is just so, so sad. If only he had listened to his own words:
“All that matters is to not do it. To cut it out. Nobody else can make me cut it out; only I can decide to stop it. Because whatever the institutional reason, it’s hurting myself, it’s me being mean to myself, which was childish. It was not treating yourself with any respect… it was my job to make sure to see myself and treat myself like I was really worthwhile. It’s called being responsible instead of childish.” (506)