13 June, 2011Issue 16.4FictionLiterature

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More Caterpillar Than Butterfly But, My, What A Cocoon

Tom Tracey

The Pale KingDavid Foster Wallace
The Pale King
Hamish Hamilton, 2011
560 Pages
ISBN 978-0241144800


David Foster Wallace once observed that “it’s next to impossible to get someone to think hard about why he’s not interested in something. The boredom itself pre-empts inquiry.” Maybe it’s just as hard to ask ourselves why we’re interested in something as to ask why something bores us. What transmutes our curiosity into patience? Look at yourself and ask: What are the limits of my interest, and what do those limits say about me as a person? If that seems like yet another tedious question, rest assured that it is not meant to solicit your personal response. But it turns out that this is what David Foster Wallace’s grandly ambitious yet (sadly) posthumous novel, The Pale King, seems to aim to do—seems because, it remaining unfinished, who can say for sure? It is not for this reason alone that the novel is worth your time, money, and potential accumulated interest, but I’d invite you to entertain the notion that it is reason enough.

The main action revolves around a Regional Examination Centre (REC) of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Peoria, Illinois. The novel’s broad theme is the boredom or tedium at the heart of modern life, epitomised by the mundane routines of government bureaucracy. Latent throughout is the old saw about certainty and its relation to mortality and taxation. The novel’s basic thesis proposes that honing one’s ability to pay attention to, and immerse oneself in, even the most monotonous trivia will eventually enable one to break through the tedium barrier and discover an acute bliss on the far side of boredom, a joyous recognition of the gift of being alive. Make of the method what you will, but its result is something few of us would quickly dismiss.

From what I can make out, it looks as though individual chapters recount the childhood or adolescent experiences (often traumatic) of several characters, suggesting that some of these experiences may have been vocational, ultimately informing their decision to join “the Service” (insider-speak for the IRS). In a meta-fictional flourish, the author David Wallace intrudes to narrate and feature in certain chapters; it is soon revealed that the whole book is in fact a memoir of time he spent as a short-term employee of the IRS—but a memoir framed as fiction, we are told, for legal reasons. Elaborate explanation is offered to persuade us that this is a credible scenario; one of the plot-lines involves a case of mistaken identity that confuses the ingenuous young author with a senior IRS official also named David Wallace.

With the exception of a couple of shorter episodes, there are two long chapters which stand out as the most entertaining and ultimately satisfying parts of the book. These are a 100-page first-person narration by a character we later come to know as “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle. Fogle recounts, in often humorous detail, his epiphanic conversion from the adopted pose of a nihilistic “wastoid” (ostensibly just to appear cool) into a man on whom it dawns that he is in fact a thoroughgoing nihilist (i.e., he really does not believe in anything whatsoever). This genuine nihilism is despair-inducing; moreover, having witnessed his father’s violent death in a freak subway accident, in addition to having wandered into the wrong classroom to hear a rousing speech on personal accountability by a stern, civic-minded Jesuit professor, Fogle undergoes an attitudinal turnaround that leads him toward a life in “the Service”. This section of the novel, charting the sea change of a solipsist, is closest to the kind of thing readers will think of as signature Wallace, and is virtuosic but familiar; many of the stylistic tics for which Wallace has sometimes been criticised in the past—exhaustingly cerebral, self-conscious characters, hyper-complex sentences that run on for pages—persist in The Pale King. Although other sections of the novel are less worked-on, less amusing, less “finished”, the work’s deeper value resides in its overall tone of artistic restraint; it is in the quieter sections, such as the early chapters about a character named Toni Ware, that Wallace seemed to be developing beyond the pleasures (or irritations, depending on your taste) characteristic of the Fogle narration.

Likewise, near the end of the novel, we witness a 50-page tête-à-tête between two characters; the exceptionally attractive but somewhat tiresome Meredith Rand and the almost catatonically attentive Shane Drinion. Drinion functions like an empty vessel into which Rand can pour her traumatic backstory; this is facilitated by the fact that Drinion, unlike most men in Rand’s company, listens to her attentively not because he has a romantic agenda but because attentiveness is simply his modus operandi. Bemused, a little irked, and yet intrigued by this neutral treatment, Rand tells the story of her admission to a psychiatric hospital for self-harming during adolescence, and of how her future husband helped her to get back on the straight and narrow. Again, the story of Rand’s psychological roller coaster is replete with the kind of self-conscious involutions with which Wallace’s writing has become synonymous.1 And yet at its heart lies a straightforward moral tale about putting away childhood things and accepting responsibility for oneself in a grownup manner. Overall, the high contrast between the effusive, self-conscious, button-holing Rand and the placid, unruffled Drinion makes for a thoroughly diverting, richly imagined set piece.

Such pleasures are arguably few, and at some distance apart, but they stand as oases that slake one’s thirst in the mundane desert of the real; and perhaps that is the point. The novel challenges us to re-evaluate our default settings which equate “being bored”, a subjective impression, with what is “boring”, a purportedly objective quality. Part of the novel’s aim is to induce an immersive attentiveness; Drinion seems to be a paragon of this virtue. To perfect this technique, Wallace seems to suggest, might be our salvation in a culture of information inundation, distraction, and total noise.

One other, tantalising chapter concerns a young boy whose ambition is to touch every part of his body with his lips. In a sense, the boy’s bizarre ambition serves as a serendipitous metaphor for what Wallace seemed to be essaying; rendering boredom interesting is an almost impossible feat of contortionism.

Wallace’s long-time editor, Michael Pietsch, tells us in his editor’s note that “David referred to the novel as ‘tornadic’ or having a ‘tornado feeling’—suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high-speed swirl”. This is a pretty accurate description of the novel’s effects and somewhat reminiscent of the complex fractal structure of Infinite Jest, which was modelled on a Sierpinski gasket. One feels pulled into a series of centripetal narrative vectors that propel you in great swerving orbits. The question to ask yourself is: is this mind-altering process something I am willing to experience?

Wallace had been intermittently working on The Pale King in the ten or so years between the publication of Infinite Jest (1996) and his suicide in 2008. The fact that he managed to write such a considerable amount of work of such patent ambition while publishing such highly accomplished collections such as Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), Oblivion (2004), and Consider the Lobster (2005) leaves one a little breathless, to say the least. These works alone are worthy testament to an author of epochal importance.

Since The Pale King stands unfinished, and given Wallace’s well-known multi-draft work ethic, it seems reasonable to grant that the novel’s prose will necessarily be sometimes more polished, sometimes less so. But in general it is fair to say that, in places, the novel’s prose is also some of the finest that Wallace ever wrote. By which I do not mean the most snazzy and pyrotechnical in the way of his early works. Here we find an artist consciously pushing himself toward a more measured, tempered prose, the voice of one well-poised, not well-posed. It sounds a little facile when stated flatly, but The Pale King feels like the novel that was carrying Wallace into a fuller, deeper artistic maturity. After such a promising early career, and in the knowledge of the author’s exceptional talents, it is saddening to think that we will never see the outcome of that process.

What is beautiful2 about The Pale King (and I choose this word in spite of its hackneyed meaning) is the calm eye of its tornado—a twister that sweeps you off your feet, despite yourself, with its disorienting power, and draws you deep inside it, wholly immersed in something that seems like nothing you’ve ever before encountered: “The very air at attention”. In the “Notes and Asides” that were editorially appended to the book, we find one of Wallace’s working notes-to-self about further narrative threads to be developed. The note reads: “Steyck tells David Wallace the story of the butterfly—if you let it out of the cocoon when it seems to be struggling and dying, then its wings don’t get strengthened and it can’t survive.” In some respect it is easy to imagine this novel as just such a butterfly, tragically entombed in its own cyclonic cocoon. The marvel is that the real David Wallace bravely released this fragile creature even as he dispatched himself. We can only hope that it will survive.

1. Similarly, elsewhere we are amused but not surprised to encounter a character whose profuse sweating is only exacerbated by his heightened self-consciousness about others noticing it.
2. And if you’re wondering what I mean by “beautiful”, just peruse the novel’s first, page-long chapter.

Tom Tracey is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St John’s College, Oxford.