“The Pale King”
This was boredom beyond any boredom he’d ever felt. This made the routing desk at UPS look like a day at Six Flags.
Tackling a David Foster Wallace novel is like sitting in the middle of Times Square observing the the minutia of all the activity while simultaneously watching an episode of Seinfeld and feeling like a part of a Don Delillo novel. At times hilarious, the scene is also overwhelming with the details of what we all know to be true about life: often boring, repetitious, and anxiety provoking but also entertaining and sprinkled with fun and joy.
When David Foster Wallace killed himself in September, 2008, he left thousands of pages of written material for a novel that was to be called The Pale King. Written over an 8-year period, The Pale King was unfinished and in pieces (the largest portion was a manuscript containing twelve chapters totaling 250 pages) to which his long-time editor, Michael Pietsch pulled together without an outline or instructions from Wallace. Pietsch admits that had Wallace survived to finish the novel, “there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different” and, yet the unfinished novel still provides the reader with a brilliant, hilarious and thought-provoking piece of work by a genius writer.
The Pale King – a 540 page book spread among 50 chapters – was published in 2011, three years after the author’s death. In 2012, the novel was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with no award given that year because none of the three finalists received the majority of votes. In true Wallace style, it has to be pointed out that 2012 was the 7th time the Pulitzer for Fiction was not given out since its inception in 1948 after the “Novel” category was renamed “Fiction.”
The novel begins with a group of newly arrived trainees to the IRS REC (Regional Examination Center ) in Peoria, Illinois on the same day in 1985. Most of the central story line is about the sadness and dullness that goes with a career at the IRS and specifically the mind crushing boredom that results from a tedious job defined by rigid guidelines with no room for creativity. In the author’s words, there are two types of people in this world: the rebels and the soldiers. The IRS – “with over one hundred thousand employees in more than one thousand national, regional, district, and local offices…is the largest law enforcement agency in the nation” – attracts the solders, “the type that believes in order and power and respects authority and aligns themselves with power and authority and the side of order” – an insidious circle that perpetuates misery.
The author (who is a character in the novel) discovers the real skill to succeed as a bureaucrat is
not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breath and pump blood underlies all thought and action. The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes every thing vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. ….It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
And, that is the central point of the novel: boredom.
David Foster Wallace struggled with depression and understood all too well the role boredom plays in our lives – our morning rituals, traveling, taking a test, standing in line, or doing the repetitive tasks we all have to do to get through the day. None of us wants a boring life but boredom and the interior pain (i.e. anxiety) that goes along with it is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about because, honestly the subject is dull. How ironic that Wallace chose to tackle boredom in his last novel and discontinue the medication that kept his depression at bay but that also sapped him of the creativity he thought he needed to finish the novel.
At times cohesive, the novel also contains many chapters that stand alone, address a social issue (abortion, entitlement, beauty, narcissism, rape, murder, cheating, parenting, teenage angst, mental health, the role of government, and personal responsibility), or flashback to a character’s childhood or adolescence leaving readers facilitating between laughter, horror, and frustration but Wallace has never been known to give his readers a clear path because he wants you to think about the underlying themes.
Wallace didn’t shy away from autobiographical details (excessive perspiration is discussed at length in Chapter 13 which is painful to read) or the ironies in plain view: an old woman unable to open a bag of peanuts assigned to a seat in the emergency aisle on a plane, a Compliance Office at 666 Independence, and a reference to children as Little Line 40’s. But, Chapters 9 and 22 stand out for the glimpse the reader is able to see into the author’s skill in telling a story.
Chapter 9 is the Author’s Forward which could have conceivably been placed at the beginning of the book (why it isn’t becomes clear as the reader progresses through the novel). In this chapter, Wallace proclaims The Pale King is a work of non-fiction and that he was a former employee of the IRS (after getting kicked out of college for writing papers for other students) for 13 months before resuming his education (a reader could almost believe the author if Wallace’s personal history is unknown). Considered with Chapter 22, where an IRS employee explains how he came to choose the IRS as a career (after unsuccessfully managing boredom) or rather, how the IRS chose him provide the reader with an understanding of what Foster claims to be true: “The pie has been made. The contest is in the slicing.”
To know Foster’s work is to understand who he was as a person and a writer. He possessed an incredible consciousness of the minutia of day-to-day life (nowhere else will a better synopsis of the 80’s culture be found than in The Pale King) and a deep belief in considering others. In a commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, he didn’t tell them to follow their passions but instead told them to think of others. In the short story Consider the Lobster (which is also the name of the short story collection), Wallace asks the reader to consider the ethics of boiling an animal alive to enhance eating pleasure. And, in The Pale King, the reader is asked to consider the boredom, sadness, anxiety, and frustration that people must endure every single day of their lives. The importance lies with what the character is experiencing and in your ability to empathize. In other words: to consider others.
Everybody looks pale in the dark, man.