AT A MEMORIAL GATHERING held for David Foster Wallace at New York University a couple of months after his suicide in September 2008, his friend Jonathan Franzen recalled the talks he and Wallace used to have about fiction writing: why they did it, how to do it better, and, in a culture increasingly dismissive of serious fiction, what good it did anybody anyway. Whatever their disagreements — and they could be a combative, competitive pair; have a look at Franzen’s famously ill-advised meditation in The New Yorker, “Farther Away,” where he speculates that Wallace’s suicide was partly “a career move” — they agreed on one thing. Fiction was a way to speak the secrets of contemporary life that kept people distant from one another, afraid and alone. It was, Franzen said, “a way out of loneliness.”
It seemed like a homely formulation for two supremely ambitious writers who in the past were wont to throw down bold manifestoes about the state of their art like Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, or Franzen’s famous 1996 Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream.” But they’d both come to be convinced that the novel was one of the few places where it might be possible to listen to the manifold mysteries within and around us, where some protective circle could be drawn around a reader’s consciousness, where real subjectivity could still thrive. Both these grateful sons of postmodern master Don DeLillo have suggested that if you listen hard enough to America’s torrent of media and consumer madness — the “white noise” — you hear above it, below it, and even in it the sounds of fragile people negotiating a whole lot of cultural lunacy, frantically distracting themselves from their fears of mortality, and furiously trying to break through to one another, to connect.
In The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen brought his enormous talent to bear on delineating such desperate characters. But Wallace goes a step further, using fiction as a site where he enacts that desperation at the level of voice and style. The obsessive pressure of fictions like “The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon” don’t merely represent the hell of locked-in solitude: they’re clearly Wallace’s own wails from within his prison-house. The very attempt to escape and connect is probably what established such an intimate bond between him and his readers. (It’s a bond that I think is unrivaled in American fiction since the glory days of J.D. Salinger, whose fiction, especially the late Glass stories, Wallace’s work more than passably resembles in its combination of vulnerable charm, narrative virtuosity, and transparent reaching out to an ideal reader.) What Wallace’s works say over and over again is this: you’re not alone; don’t worry, I feel this too. Or, as Wallace puts it on the first page of his slyly hilarious, uncannily moving The Pale King, the novel he left unfinished at his death, “We are all of us brothers.”
All of which may seem like an unduly heavyweight way to introduce a novel about the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is, for most people, a fear-laden joke: just speak the initials at any public gathering and watch the smiles rise. (Why do we smile? Guilt and anxiety. Guilt at how we’ve, um, misrepresented our 1040s in the past. Anxiety that they’ll come after us one of these days.) I’m more than a little sensitive to this because, from 1980 till 1984, when I was a very young man, I worked for the IRS as a revenue officer: I was the guy who knocked on people’s doors, flashed my Treasury Department credentials, and demanded full and immediate payment, including penalties and interest, for delinquent 1040s, 941s, and 1120s. I was the guy who filed tax liens, levied people’s wages and bank accounts, seized people’s homes and assets when they refused to pay up. I mention this only because The Pale King deals with the IRS during a period (the late 1970s until the mid 1980s) which almost exactly coincides with my woeful tenure there, and I can verify that, however fictionalized Wallace’s IRS is, and however he gets things wrong — new IRS employees didn’t have to change their Social Security numbers to ones beginning with a 9; there was no such thing as the Spackman Initiative (more on this later), etc. — he’s spot on about the spirit of the place.
The spirit of the place was spiritless. The Pale King‘s IRS employees have faces the color of “wet lead.” They spend their 15-minute breaks staring at clocks ticking them back to the bondage of their desks. In one only slightly over-the-top segment, we read about an IRS guy who dies at his desk — and nobody notices for four days. This is an IRS that’s unrelentingly, remorselessly boring and unspeakably bureaucratized, heedless of the basic need of its employees: to exact from their work some small measure of human satisfaction.
Bureaucracy’s boredom emerges as one of the novel’s primary concerns, though to say The Pale King is “about” boredom is about as enlightening as to say that Infinite Jest is about addiction. Bureaucracy is the territory, and Wallace goes at it from multiple directions, always avoiding the well-worn path. He piles on the insufferable language of bureaucracy, flirting with the imitative fallacy – describing boredom by being boring – and it’s a strategy that not every reader will appreciate. He refrains from taking the Fight Club route, which is to claim that the only escape from boredom is sensational violence. He also eschews the Warhol trap, which sees boredom as this really interesting aesthetic that the artist studies from his fortress of irony. No, Wallace’s take on boredom is frankly ethical and existential – he reconsiders what boring work does to people’s souls in ways that hearken back to the great “business” or “office” narratives of the last century: Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment, Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road, Joseph Heller’sSomething Happened. He jumps right into the trenches of everyday middle-class ennui in a way that his fellow post-postmodernists abandoned long ago as way too lame and bourgeois to even touch.
Writing a long novel on the subject of droning dullness is a risky literary high-wire act, but “high-wire” was Wallace’s (other) middle name. Through a series of extraordinarily entertaining experiments — “Here and There,” “Westward the Course Of Empire Takes Its Way,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Infinite Jest, “The Depressed Person,” “Octet,” some of the “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” “Good Old Neon,” “Incarnations of Burned Children,” and the new book are my nominees for Wallace’s greatest hits — Wallace has shown he can make just about anything interesting. After all, he taught a generation of young writers how to look all over again: at cruise ships, at tennis, at porn conventions, at how it feels to be high and paranoid about it. And he developed a virtuoso style to pull it off, with its own immediately recognizable earmarks: 500-word sentences of staggering density designed to follow the “inbent spirals” of self-conscious people; the famous footnotes; the awkward phrase dropped amidst the meticulous description (an example from The Pale King: “There were fourteen new examiners in the room that sat 108, not counting the raised stage thing with the podium and rotary slide projector, which Cusk’s parents had one almost the like of”); his bizarre affection for possessives (“The station’s flagpole’s flag’s rope’s pulleys”); the intentional overarticulation; and those tour-de-force plunges into obsessive monologue.
But it’s not Wallace’s virtuosity that makes The Pale King‘s obsession with boredom extraordinary. It’s that he’s got something new to say about how we should deal with its inevitable encroachments upon daily life. It has to do with “paying attention.” “Paying attention,” in fact, not boredom, is the real theme of The Pale King. He genuflects to it in the brief opening chapter, with its direct call-out to the reader: “Look around you.” What’s there to look at? He describes a seemingly dull weedy Midwestern landscape, but then — pay attention:
The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail. Read these.
This sort of minute attentiveness to detail as a way of reconnecting to a life that’s been battered by the routines of modernity is, of course, the stock-in-trade of our lyrical poets, but Wallace doesn’t use it merely to deliver up the odd epiphany. It becomes the central insight of what amounts to the novel’s spiritual ethic, a compassionate concentration on the details of minute-to-minute experience that’s perhaps best limned by Simone Weil’s famous line: “Attention is the highest form of prayer” – studious awareness as the penetration of Being. One of the novel’s IRS men, Chris Fogle, puts it in a way that could stand as the whole novel’s mission statement:
It had something to do with paying attention … There were depths in me that were not bullshit or childish but profound, and were not abstract but much realer than my clothes or self-image, and that blazed in an almost sacred way — I’m being serious; I’m not just trying to make it more dramatic than it was — and that these realest, most profound parts of me involved not drives or appetites but simple attention, awareness.
Such attentiveness in itself is hardly an answer to boredom, and at the redemptive level Fogle is talking about, it’s never “simple.” The characters in The Pale King — IRS employees all — tend, to put it mildly, toward impermeable self-involvement: Claude Sylvanshine is worried about taking his CPA exam, but “knowing that internal stress could cause failure on the exam merely set up internal stress about the prospect of internal stress.” Poor David Cusk is a torrential perspirer, and his attention is often absorbed by his heroic attempts to not sweat, because if he sweats, he’ll draw attention to himself, which will make him sweat even more, which will … etc. Meredith Rand, a beautiful tax examiner, has been so bombarded by male desire over the years that she’s unable to see herself an anything but “pretty meat,” and so feels trapped in the self-imposed cocoon of female beauty.
But these almost helplessly hermetic characters, victims of the inbent spirals of neurotic self-consciousness — lonely siblings of the addicts in Infinite Jest or of Wallace’s well-known “Depressed Person” — are supplemented in The Pale King by a new kind of Wallace character, one who struggles mightily to emerge from the fortress of her own self-regard into an attentive compassion that does feel redemptive. There is Fogle who, in his 99-page monologue, tells us of his journey from directionless bong-hitting “wastoid” through the divorce of his parents and the death of his father to, finally, his newly directed life as a dedicated, attentive IRS employee. There is Leonard Stecyk, one of Wallace’s sweetest creations: an altogether loving and compassionate man who as a child endured all manner of humiliation and ridicule: “Three sixth graders accost the boy in the southeast restroom after fourth period and do unspeakable things to him, leaving him hanging from a stall’s hook by his underpants’ elastic; and after being treated and released from the hospital (a different one than his mother is a patient in the long-term convalescent ward of), the boy refuses to identify his assailants and later circumspectly delivers to them individualized notes detailing his renunciation of any and all hard feelings about the incident…” There is Shane Drinion, an examiner who, possessing none of the normal accoutrements of selfhood (sexual desire, selfish interest, narcissism, etc.), makes of himself a kind of perfect listener at an IRS Happy Hour, attending to the thoughts of Meredith Rand as she struggles to explain her plight. (In fact, his selfless listening literally makes him levitate.)
That these “attentive” characters work for the IRS sounds bizarre, given the excruciating tedium to which they are subjected in their work lives. But this is where Wallace twists his theme, because in The Pale King the IRS’s status as bureaucratic soul-deadener of the first water makes it the perfect place for his characters to practice the kind of sacred attention the novel encourages. For example, there is a group of tax auditors in the novel called “immersives,” examiners who deal with complex, tedious details of thick corporate returns that require steady, almost “heroic” concentration if one is to do a good job. Wallace more than hints at this as a model for consciousness in general: immerse yourself in the details of things that have nothing to do with you. Look around you. Read these.
There’s more to the novel than I can suggest here: this unfinished book’s plot trajectories, barely adumbrated in what we have so far, point to a novel that would probably have been as long as Infinite Jest‘s 1,079 pages. There’s a “David Wallace” who introduces himself, seventy pages in, as “author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil,” who claims The Pale King is “all … true. This book is really true,” though we quickly discover that David Wallace is as fictional as anyone else, and has at least partly been brought into the book to skewer the memoir genre that has swept the publishing industry in the last decade, and toward which Wallace evidently held a most-intense animus. There is also a rather major plot line that involves the (totally fictional) Spackman Initiative, a movement within certain shadowy corners of the audit division of the Service to shift its emphasis away from “compliance” (making sure people honestly file and pay their taxes) and toward “profit” (examining mostly big dollar taxpayers so as to maximize the “return” the IRS gets from its workers). The Spackman Initiative turns out to be part of a related theme that gets explored in a typically Wallacian highbrow/lowbrow colloquy, held by several IRS employees who are trapped inside a stalled elevator. Their discussion, which braids The Federalist Papers, de Tocqueville, and the argument of Thomas Frank’s The Culture of Cool into a bracing and very funny Platonic dialogue, is about America’s descent from a nation dedicated to civic duty to one committed to selfishness. That the argument’s conclusion is conservative and a little boring is, it turns out, much to the point.
In both style and substance, Wallace’s novel — what we have of it anyway — challenges readers to pay attention with a selflessness that will allow the world to “[blaze] in an almost sacred way,” starting with a challenge to pay attention to the minute details of IRS regulations and to his characters’ lives in the same way that his heroic IRS immersives listen and sympathize. To read this way is to practice letting the world in; it’s to let other people in. The Pale King is a long, incomplete howl against the peculiar alienations of postmodern life, a distress call to connect and alleviate its pandemic loneliness. It might be a measure of both the book’s ambition and the severity of the problem it addresses that the book remains unfinished: in any event the book solved nothing for Wallace. How do we emerge from solitude? How do we connect? You might remember E.M. Forster’s famous “only connect,” that stately appeal inHowards End to connect the inner and outer selves, and to connect the self to others. I can just imagine Wallace’s painful grimace, even though he’s more than two years gone. “Only connect?” he’d be saying, “Only? Is he kidding? There’s nothing harder. But connection is everything.”