The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company, 2011
560 pp., $27.99
David J. Michael
The Pale King, Take 2
Allow me to steal a page from David Foster Wallace's playbook and offer you two prolegomenous quotations. The first is from a 4th-century monk, the desert father Evagrius:
When he reads, the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep, but not a very deep sleep, for hunger then rouses his soul and has him show concern for its needs.
The second is from an interview Wallace did with Larry McCaffery:
Fiction's about what it is to be a f______ human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still "are" human beings, now. Or can be.
By now you've likely come across one of the myriad pieces recently penned on David Foster Wallace and his posthumously published unfinished novel The Pale King. The hype surrounding the book has been so relentless that one critic, exasperated, remarked that he was writing an essay called "On not writing about David Foster Wallace." Wallace, who hated the "hype-machine," offered the best diagnosis of the danger of such hype in an essay on Dostoevsky: "To make someone an icon is to make him an abstraction, and abstractions are incapable of vital communication with living people."
Wallace has become something of an icon, and his story is by now famous. But some quick backstory: He grew up in central Illinois, the son of a U of I philosophy professor and an English teacher. He attended Amherst, where he wrote both philosophy and English theses, both of which were lauded and eventually published as books. His first book, The Broom of the System, catapulted him into literary stardom while he was still working on his MFA at Arizona. He enrolled in a PhD program in philosophy at Harvard but dropped out after one year. All the while, Wallace suffered from drug and alcohol dependency and severe depression. He was hospitalized and eventually institutionalized, finally finding his way into a recovery home in Boston. His time there, along with his experience as a competitive youth tennis player, were the basis for Infinite Jest, a staggering work of 1,079 pages that is something akin to a complex mathematical proof—maddening, frustrating, elegant, beautiful, and ultimately breathtaking in the simplicity of the truth it conveys.
Infinite Jest is about America's obsession with entertainment and the hunger for distraction. The plot revolves around a film so enthralling that people lose all desire to do anything but watch it. After the success of Infinite Jest Wallace set out to write a book about boredom, which is the logical progression from entertainment in his attempt to capture the American experience. Speaking of his generation, Wallace told David Lipsky, "we're either gonna have to put away childish things and discipline ourself about how much time do I spend being passively entertained? And how much time do I spend doing stuff that actually isn't all that much fun minute by minute, but that builds certain muscles in me as a grown-up and a human being?"
Wallace chose as his new book's overt subject that which children associate with adults, and adults with boredom: taxes. Wallace wanted to write a book in which "something big threatens to happen but doesn't actually happen." Not surprisingly, Wallace had difficulty writing the book; it was like trying to "wrestle sheets of balsa wood in a high wind." He worked on the manuscript for years, even taking accounting classes as research, in the meantime publishing several books of nonfiction and short stories. He never finished the novel. When he lost his battle with depression and committed suicide in 2008, Wallace's wife, Karen, and his agent found the manuscript in his garage office, about 250 pages neatly polished, ready to be submitted to his publisher for an advance. And then there were notebooks, loose papers, disks, and hard drives—hundreds of pages. Infinite Jest editor Michael Pietsch returned from Wallace's house with two grocery sacks of materials. What he assembled is The Pale King.
Wallace couches the book as a memoir, telling readers that in 1985 he was suspended from college for writing essays for other students and subsequently spent several months working at a Regional IRS Examination office in Peoria, IL (where, thanks to a bureaucratic snafu, he's initially mistaken for another David Wallace, a high level accountant). "Author here," he reassures the reader. "Meaning the real author, the living human being holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona." But Wallace's character only narrates a few of the chapters. The book follows a group of IRS examiners tasked with examining what returns should be audited.