The Fascinating Face of Boredom: A Review of David Foster Wallace’s Unfinished Novel The Pale King

Published in: Cornell Book Review, Fall 2011

Shortly after David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, hundreds of pages of his writing were recovered, the constituents of a novel to which he mysteriously referred as “something long.” However, he refused to divulge any information on the subject matter of this novel to his agents and friends. Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch painstakingly organized the manuscript as best as he could according to existing notes that Wallace had written, and then published the result as The Pale King. There is no way of knowing how many more chapters Wallace planned to write. Characters’ names within the manuscript were inconsistent. Furthermore, always a perfectionist, there were many words Wallace had crossed out dozens of times and provided alternative choices for, making it unclear what his final choice would have been. Despite the fact that the present manuscript adds up to an impressive 550 pages, it is clear upon reading it that it is nowhere near finished. If anything, what we have in The Pale King is some basic exposition; Wallace’s notes indicate that he still had much development in mind for his characters and plot. In the wake of his last novel, Infinite Jest, which is roughly 900 pages, it should not come as surprising that The Pale King, had it been completed, would have easily reached this length, if not surpassed it.

Although the order of the chapters and even some of the word choice is a creation of the editor rather than the author, the style of the text remains distinctly Wallace’s. He chose to set his novel within the offices of the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS. Readers of Wallace have come to expect novels that defy the concept of summary, and The Pale King is no different. There is no real plot. Rather, the novel consists of a series of vignettes, which all concern either the nature of working for the IRS or the development of the characters, all of whom are IRS workers, both as adults and children. The novel is not, however, told in a chronological sequence, but jumps back and forth between past and present. Furthermore, each chapter, as in Infinite Jest, is stylistically very different. Some are told with a conventionally narrative style, either first-person or omniscient, but some are simply lines of dialogue, while others are transcripts of recorded interviews. Chapter 25 literally repeats some form of the sentence, “He turns a page” for three pages. Chapter 11, meanwhile, is an excerpt from a very dull office memo concerning health problems common among IRS workers. This kind of mixed style and perspective instills in the reader a complete sense of the world of the characters, seeing it as they would. In other words, it is a composite of the small elements of their daily lives, such as the memos they read, the idle conversations they have, and the work they perform. Were this novel to have been completed, perhaps these separate elements would have gradually combined to produce an overall storyline, but there is no way of knowing for sure.

The world that Wallace creates is a dazzling one, full of IRS “phantoms” who haunt the workers when they have concentrated on one of their mundane tax-related tasks for too long, characters who have chronic intense sweating problems, and many other unique, idiosyncratic elements that would take far too long to list. This world is nonetheless muted by the oppressive, undefeatable sense of boredom associated with a career in the Internal Revenue Service. The “pale king” mentioned in the title of the novel is only actually written about in one very short chapter of the book, where it seems that the title is a nickname for a character working in one of the higher administrative positions of the IRS. Had Wallace completed the novel, it is possible that the “pale king” and his nickname would have been further clarified, but as it stands now, we are forced to speculate about his identity and importance to the novel as a whole. Based on what is written of the text, it seems that “the pale king,” though it refers to a specific person, might easily symbolize Boredom personified, which, as one of Wallace’s characters explains, “…is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

Most novelists, even those who also focus on everyday life, aim to present the important moments in the lives of their characters, both in the events that play out in their day-to-day lives and within their thoughts. Even Joyce’s Ulysses, considered by many to be both the embodiment of the everyday novel and the epic of mankind’s condition in the twentieth century, focuses on the bubbling and sometimes transformative thoughts and associations of its characters as they go about their daily errands. Wallace’s novel, a kind of Ulysses for the twenty-first century, takes this focus on the mundane of the everyday a step further—in many of the segments of his book in which characters are performing uninteresting tasks, for instance, they do not even have an engaging train of thought to make up for what their actions lack in excitement. Whole chapters are devoted to describing activities as uninteresting and commonplace as sitting at one’s desk at work, concentrating. In one of the most compelling passages of the novel, the character Chris Fogle describes in great detail the meaning he saw in the way his father conducted the ordinary activity of boarding a subway train:

I now suspect that this deep, involuntary sense of anxiety about getting to idling trains just in time was especially bad for my father, who was a man of extreme organization and personal discipline and precise schedules who was always precisely on time for everything, and for whom the primal anxiety of just barely missing something was especially intense.

This scene is the quintessential example of a pattern that Wallace repeats throughout the novel, where the manner in which a character performs a task as ordinary as trying to catch an idling subway train is probed to such a depth that it reveals a vast amount of information about the character in question and the forces and anxieties that most affect his or her innermost self. In other words, Wallace shows us that these mundane moments of existence are ignored despite, or perhaps because of, their ability to reveal our core thoughts and driving motivations without us even consciously being aware of them. Immediately after Fogle describes the manner in which his father tries to catch idling subway trains, the older man actually snags his arm in the door of a moving train and tragically dies as a result. Wallace’s connection of an ordinary occurrence with the downright bizarre provides an exaggerated example of the importance these events, which are often neglected in our thoughts, nevertheless hold in our lives.

For this reason, the IRS workers in the novel are cast as heroes despite their many faults, largely because of their ability to spend long hours concentrating on mind-numbingly dull tasks that most of the world cringes at the thought of. In a sense, just as an explorer is respected because he treads unknown territory where nobody else has dared travel, the IRS worker is revered in this novel as a person who is able to dive headfirst into the sea of boredom that most of us go to extremes to avoid. At one point in the novel, Fogle describes the event that convinces him to transform from a “wastoid,” used in the novel to describe free spirits of the 1970s with no sense of direction, into a man with a calling to work as a tax accountant. Instead of attending his final review class for political science in college, he accidentally goes to an identical room in an identical building that is actually the location of a final review for an extremely advanced accounting class, at the end of which the teacher gives a motivational speech in which he proclaims:

Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Gentleman, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience…No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.

Because they revel in that very feeling that makes the rest of us antsy, IRS officers are a kind of hero. Wallace clearly feels that the key to understanding our consciousness lies not in our thoughts and associations while doing certain tasks, but rather in the underlying, subconscious forces and feelings that motivate the way we act and react in everyday circumstances. Furthermore, not just any everyday circumstance is vital, but rather those occurrences so banal that they are rarely spoken of, such as the scene where Wallace chronicles in detail the anxious tangle of thoughts running through character Sylvanshine’s mind as he sits on a plane doing nothing.

Of course, the IRS is far from glorified—Wallace’s narration makes it clear that the IRS does not methodically audit every single tax return that has a problem, but rather carefully chooses to audit only those that will yield the greatest amount of revenue. In other words, the heroes of the twenty-first century are not only boring, but also imperfect.

Despite the monotony of many of the themes tackled in the novel, Wallace manages to maintain an air of levity throughout the text that prevents it from becoming overly dry, with many quips like “The air-conditioning was more like a vague gesture toward the abstract idea of air-conditioning” that aptly and humorously reinforce many of the complaints we internalize throughout the course of an ordinary day. Furthermore, certain segments of his novel are hilarious, such as some that describe the bumbling younger IRS workers and the situations they get into on their very first day in orientation. For example, one of the characters, who is actually named David Foster Wallace and claims to be the author, but bears no resemblance to the real author, gets mixed up with another David Foster Wallace, who is a high-level administrator in the IRS system. He finds it pleasantly surprising that while all of the other low-level orientation workers must wait in grueling lines and sit in hot classrooms listening to dull presentations, he is whisked about to conference rooms and various men who treat him with great deference. Meanwhile, the other David Foster Wallace is unable to be checked in, due to a computer glitch in IRS software that has effectively eliminated his identity and given his social security number to the other, low-level Wallace. Perhaps Wallace (the real author, now) wanted to use humor to highlight much of the absurdity inherent in the banal red-tape processes that take up so much of our daily lives, which often gets overlooked because it is so widespread as to have become accepted.

Because of his commitment to glorifying boredom and giving it its long overdue moment in the spotlight, many of Wallace’s chapters seem to be intentionally written in a dull manner, often using extremely long, winding Dickensian sentences and lots of redundancy. However, these chapters are a fascinating display of his skill, a fine balance of text that could conceivably be boring and yet is placed within a context that actually renders it interesting. Another aspect of the book that makes it sometimes difficult to read is that several of the chapters are completely unrelated to the rest of the content of the novel, thus leaving many undeveloped threads strewn throughout. The reader does not have the gratifying sense of completion that usually marks reaching the end of such a long work, but rather feels that something is missing; that more needs to happen. Of course, these problems are due to the fact that the novel is unfinished. Despite this lack of overall coherency, however, the novel is an extremely original and well-written look at the importance of boredom in the twenty-first century.

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