IN THE THREE MONTHS since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s third, unfinished novel, The Pale King — an eternity in the world of professional reviews — plenty of opinions have been offered, but no consensus has yet formed about how it relates to the author’s career or aesthetic priorities. The novel, which follows a host of troubled characters that work or have recently arrived at the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL, in 1985, remains elusive. Everywhere in these fifty busy chapters, there are ominous signs of an ongoing organizational restructuring of the Service known as the “Spackman Initiative” or sometimes just “the Initiative.” One gets only a vague sense of the contours of the Initiative and the high-level plotting that gave rise to it over the course of The Pale King‘s five-hundred-and-forty pages. Despite multiple dialogues about civics and shadowy background plots, what Wallace seems to care most about is describing how his characters survive the mind-numbing boredom of their IRS jobs and telling the varied, often brilliantly funny and inventive stories of how they came to work there in the first place. But what exactly was Wallace attempting to do with these characters, and more generally with this “long thing,” as he described the book to his editor, Michael Pietsch? How would The Pale King, had it been finished, have advanced the plot of Wallace’s career?
There are clear signs from what we have that Wallace was himself concerned about the novel’s reception, and with its effects on his authorial identity. Indeed, among the novel’s large cast we find a character named David Wallace, an alternate version of the author, who suddenly announces in the book’s ninth chapter (a belated “Author’s Foreword”) that what we thought was a work of fiction is in fact “a kind of vocational memoir.” “This book is really true,” David explains, and the disclaimer on the copyright page declaring everything herein to be a work of fiction or a product of the author’s imagination is designed to provide “special legal protection” for reasons that remain mysterious.
The perplexing description of The Pale King as a “vocational memoir” unveils the paradox at the heart of the novel. Wallace’s fictionalized doppelganger is clearly not the book’s protagonist; by burying the foreword nine chapters and sixty-six pages into the text (a structural decision that Pietsch stresses was clear from what Wallace left behind), Wallace signals that “David Wallace” is someone whom we should not confuse with the author. Unlike the author, the “David Wallace” of The Pale King was drummed out of Amherst College for selling his writing services to his fellow undergrads, though he seems in time to have become a fiction writer, albeit one who has been forced to write this “vocational memoir” as a way of making a buck. This mercenary “David Wallace” is an object of fun, an emblem of what Wallace came to dislike most about his own literary style (tellingly, almost the only footnotes in the novel appear in David’s chapters). Wallace’s working notes, some of which are printed in the back of the book, indicate that “David Wallace” the character would eventually disappear from view: “David Wallace disappears — becomes creature of the system,” reads one note, with Pynchonian undertones (Tyrone Slothrop makes a similar disappearance in the final pages of Gravity’s Rainbow). It seems Wallace cared less about dramatizing his fictional self than about understanding “the system” of the IRS.
And yet, though he arguably demoted David to the second rank of the novel’s huge ensemble, the novel itself is in many ways an actual vocational memoir, in the sense that Wallace’s struggle to complete the book was very much a struggle against himself and his own highly characteristic style of writing (perhaps even his style of being; Wallace’s prose style and personal affect were a lot closer than are most writers’). Across his essays and journalism, Wallace repeatedly insisted that the purpose of fiction was “to communicate,” to subsume the self in the service of something greater. And yet his highly individual style always seemed to transcend the content of whatever he was communicating; whether writing about cruise ships or tennis academies or conservative talk radio, it was often the form of his writing that his fans — and his critics — noticed and cherished most. No one was fooled, for example, when he published the story “Mr. Squishy” in the fifth issue of McSweeney’s under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm. Moreover, Wallace feared that subsuming the self could become just another kind of egotism, that in adapting what we say and do to serve someone else we might in fact only be trying to win validation and prestige, to gain approval at any cost. In the wake of his suicide, how can we avoid reading much of Wallace’s fiction — which dwelt so often on depression, compulsion, and loneliness — as a kind of memoir of a life filled with psychic pain? For this very reason, don’t Wallace’s strenuous efforts at self-effacement and service always leave behind the photonegative of a tortured soul?
The Pale King approaches these questions through the theme of boredom. Whereas Infinite Jest was concerned with the ways we use addictive substances and entertainment to paper over our pain, to alternately extinguish and maintain ourselves, The Pale King attempts to confront directly whatever it was we were so desperate to avoid in the first place. What boredom forces us to face, in the words of one IRS employee who finds himself engaged in a Platonic dialogue on a stalled, blacked out elevator, is
[o]ur smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back […]
Such passages tempt us to read Wallace’s fiction as if it were a species of philosophy, or an extension of the concerns he so vividly explored in his nonfiction. This interpretive impulse would not be entirely misguided; his stories, like his essays, are studded with theses, arguments, and polemics. The thesis of The Pale King, if it has one, is more or less this: that modern boredom is a mask, and that we amuse ourselves endlessly to avoid confronting a dread truth that is always right in front of us: that the universe is a Very Sad Place indeed, that we are always working extremely hard to conceal our fear of death and oblivion from ourselves. Behind that boredom, though, we can find not only terror but also an almost religious ecstasy. In his working notes, Wallace wrote: “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 … Constant bliss in every atom.” Another character in The Pale King suggests that “[t]he key [to surviving modern life] is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.”
We can summarize the book’s arguments in this way, and we would not be mistaken to do so, but Wallace’s fiction, though informed by argument, is always also about the process of discovering these views. The reason Wallace’s arguments require the form of fiction is that they’re arguments about how to live. As in the writing of Wittgenstein or Hegel or Plato, how we arrive at the truth is as important as the particular content of that truth.
That’s why it’s so significant that The Pale King is both the culmination of Wallace’s life’s work and also the germ of a powerful new literary style. As early as 1993, in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace pined to find or invent a new group of literary “anti-rebels” who could withstand what he saw as a virulently ironic U.S. pop and high culture in order to address
plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere.
All his life Wallace was deeply concerned with the nature of contemporary heroism. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, he expanded upon his conception of what American culture most needed, explaining that “[m]y guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes.” These heroes would
evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very … You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.”
It’s important to note not merely the content of the heroism that Wallace imagined in this 1996 conversation with Lipsky — that his hero explains the need for higher taxes cannot help but resonate with the themes of The Pale King — but also its form. The hero of contemporary middle-class American life doesn’t merely tell the truth but does so in an unadorned fashion. Like many of the characters who populate The Pale King, he’s stylistically “dead on the page” and may come across as “very banal.” The hero we most need, the hero whose existence Wallace wished to dramatize and invoke, offers us no bells, no whistles, no wry winks at the listener or reader, no entertainment to sugarcoat the bitter truth. Our hero is, if anything, anti-charismatic.
It is the quietly decent Chris Fogle who most resembles the hero Wallace is looking for. Fogle is only one of the many characters Wallace assembles at Peoria’s IRS Midwest REC who seems like a potential protagonist — the peaceful and highly attentive Shane Drinion is another candidate, as is the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, who appears early in the novel but soon fades from view — but Fogle’s chapter runs over a hundred pages and is the most compelling piece of writing Wallace produced since Infinite Jest. At the level of the sentence, Fogle’s epic monologue, which is framed as part of a documentary being produced about the so-called New IRS, is something like the antithesis of the sclerotic sentences that defined some of the more alienating stories in Wallace’s often bleak final story collection, Oblivion. Any passage, selected at random, will give a flavor of how different the prose in Fogle’s chapter is from anything Wallace has produced before:
What I really was was naive. For instance, I knew I lied, but I hardly ever assumed that anybody else around me might be lying. I realize now how conceited that is, and how unfocused that lets actual reality be. I was a child, really. The truth is that most of what I really know about myself I learned in the Service. That may sound too much like sucking up, but it’s the truth. I’ve been here five years, and I’ve learned an incredible amount.
This passage, like the rest of Fogle’s monologue, shows only the barest traces of Wallace’s characteristic style: if this chapter had been published in McSweeney’s under a pseudonym there would have been very few clues that Wallace had written it. There is the doubling of “was” in the first sentence and the word “incredible” (a Wallace favorite) but few other telltales. If anything reveals Chris Fogle’s chapter as a Wallace creation, it is the section’s tremendous length and the morbid humor that stalks Fogle’s sad life. Fogle’s hardworking, reserved, and long-suffering father dies, after enduring all sorts of abuse at the hands of his disrespectful son, in a manner that is both horrific and uncomfortably hilarious, recalling James Incandenza’s suicide by microwave oven in Infinite Jest. Fogle’s ultimate conversion from drug-using “wastoid” to IRS Examiner is, we are meant to understand, a true conversion experience. While in college, Fogle accidentally sits in on a review session for an Advanced Tax course, led by a “substitute Jesuit.” “We are called to account,” this substitute father instructs his students at the end of the session, and Fogle poignantly hears “a genuine calling to pursue tax accounting and systems administration and organizational behavior.”
Here and elsewhere in The Pale King, Wallace is attempting to wrestle his own signature style to the ground, to still a mind so famous for its hip, syntactic acrobatics. Which isn’t to say the Wallace we know is gone from the page. Far from it. And yet, despite the novel’s many characteristic chapters, I think we now have the key to understanding why he inserted himself into The Pale King as a memoir-writing character. Memoir is the antipode of the book Wallace was trying to write. Whereas memoirs are marketable, the book Wallace eventually would have written, if he had finished it, might not have received as much mainstream attention as the incomplete Pale King, with the publicity hook of Wallace’s suicide to sell it, has (though anything Wallace published would certainly have had an impact in literary circles). Whereas the memoir is by definition personal, The Pale King is concerned with a decentralized network of characters, none of which bears the classical features of a protagonist. The book would have been, and largely is, a memoir of Wallace’s vocation as a writer, the product of his lifelong struggle to efface himself or at least to efface what seemed to him to be the negative entailments of his style.
Would the full novel have succeeded? In the days since I’ve read the unfinished Pale King, I have taken to imaging what the completed novel might have looked like. In my imagination, the book would be a phonebook-sized encyclopedic work, a text that used the IRS to look on all of American life. It would be printed on tissue-thin paper, filled with reams of data, perhaps double columned (as one of the novel’s most inventive chapters is), utterly compelling but overwhelmingly challenging, a book you need to read very slowly and attend to. One imagines the book would have been reviewed, usually favorably, but often tepidly and with barely disguised frustration, much as Infinite Jest was (which had a much more mixed reception than is commonly remembered these days). After all, where are our relatable characters? Where are the addictive themes that keep book clubs up late at night with wine-stained lips? Who has the time to read so many pages? This David Foster Wallace guy has had such a hard life — why doesn’t he write a real memoir? Now that would sell. And how on earth are we going to make a movie out of this kind of book?
But of course such responses would only underscore Wallace’s claims, the need for his book in the first place. As another prominent character in The Pale King, Meredith Rand, is told late in the novel by a psych ward attendant who she will later marry and who is dying of a rare heart condition: “because he [the attendant] was a walking dead man and not really part of the institution of the nut ward he felt like maybe he was the only person there who’d really tell me the truth about my problem, which he said was basically that I needed to grow up.” We best remember Wallace, a walking dead man in our psych ward of a world, by looking past his own life and personality and looking instead at our fallen American condition with the heightened senses and iron-willed focus he did some part in helping cultivate in us. As readers and as citizens, we best honor what he argued for by growing up.