Tuesday, April 15, 2014

15 Random, Belated Thoughts on The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King is boring.

The Pale King is funny, inventive, brilliant, engrossing.

The Pale King is both I. and II.  But not at the same time.

I started writing this "review" two years ago shortly after I finished reading The Pale King.  Why I never followed through and put all my initial thoughts down on paper at that time, I don't know.  Distraction, I guess.  Maybe I was on sweaty, bowel-cramping deadline to finish filing my taxes.  Maybe I got bored with my own words of conflicted praise about The Pale King.  Whatever.  But now I'm trying one more time because....well, because it's April 15--Tax Day here in the U.S.--and that is the fulcrum of The Pale King.  It seemed fitting to resurrect my fading memories of DFW's last book today of all days.

For those of you not in the know: RIP, David Foster Wallace.

The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace.  But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling.  And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has. (These words are not my own.  They were written by a person or persons working at, or hired by, Little, Brown whose job it is to write short paragraphs of condensed descriptions which will fit on the cramped real estate of the inside fold of the dust jacket, an abbreviation of plot designed to entice and persuade a casual, perhaps bored, bookstore browser or internet shopper or library patron to take an interest in and a gamble on the 548 pages bound between the covers and lightly hugged by the aforementioned dust jacket.  Jacket flap copy should be a nice, neat summation of tens of thousands of words.)

There is nothing nice, neat or easily-summarized about David Foster Wallace's work.  I can only imagine that poor, beleagured jacket-copy-writer faced with a task akin to stuffing greased, wriggling eels into a soup can.

But, yes, The Pale King is a novel about the I.R.S. and the tedium of white-collar labor.

Among other things.

David Foster Wallace wrote a novel about boredom by writing long paragraphs--huge, multi-page affairs which turn into a grey blur if you fan through the book, flipbook-style--and this is either brilliant or wrong-headed.  I'm still trying to decide.  I tend to think it was a deliberate choice on DFW's part--to lull us with dullness to make his point.  On page 85, he writes:
To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excrutiatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.

A world with David Foster Wallace was a world with a great capacity to know itself and understand itself.  It was a better world than the one in which we now live, and yet there is a certain propriety to the fact that Wallace’s great work can now only be Infinite Jest.  His personal writings make clear that his era was that of television, creeping corporatism, addiction, and the decline of the welfare state—in other words, an era that ended sometime around when Infinite Jest began.  Infinite Jest is the great novel of that moment, it is the one Wallace could write as a native surveying his native land in his native tongue.  Anything else he wrote would have either been an elegy for those times or an investigation made by an outsider looking in on the lives of the next generations.  That is not to say that great work would not have been in Wallace’s future; it is only to say that any future great work would have been of a qualitative difference from the work he did from within his own era.  A similar sort of effect can be seen in the work of Wallace’s great idol, Don DeLillo, a writer who shares with Wallace the rare distinction of living into a world that he helped invent.  One imagines that, like DeLillo’s post-9/11 writing, Wallace’s post-Infinite Jest works would have been of considerable merit, but without a certain vitality that characterized the works that helped create the world in which he lives.  With the flood of personal information that has come out after Wallace’s suicide, it has become ever clearer exactly what a conjunction of personal circumstance, inspirational calling, and pure luck went into the creation of Infinite Jest.  It was a rare, perhaps even miraculous moment for American letters.  The fact of Wallace’s untimely demise will forever color our approaches to his career, the what-ifs will never completely cease to draw shadows over the books.  But none of that does a thing to change the fact that we cannot know how fortunate we are to have gotten from Wallace what we did.

The words in X are not mine.  They come from the rousing crescendo of Scott Esposito's contribution to the "Who Was David Foster Wallace?" symposium at The Quarterly Conversation.  If you have even a gnat's hair of interest in the life, work and critical reverberations of DFW, you will probably want to set aside an hour or three to dive into all the symposium offers.  Mr. Esposito maintains that Infinite Jest is Wallace's masterpiece--a claim which will be Amen'ed by a hundred-thousand fanboys and fangirls--and while I liked-bordering-on-loved IJ, I think Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is the essential pinnacle of all his career strove for: the stinging humor, the determinedly caustic criticism of American materialism, the fascinating self-deprecation, the corporate takedown.  It is everything The Pale King reaches for, going up on its soft tiptoes at the end of its stubby infant legs.  "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" also happens to be the first thing of Wallace's I ever read and like all other my cultural firsts--Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together," Season 1 of Twin Peaks, and the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup circa 1968--nothing else can top that initial experience.  I yearned for just half-a-gigawatt of ASFTINDA's vibrancy while working my way through The Pale King.  It was, I'll admit, an unfair mirror to hold up against the pages.

I read The Pale King in hardcover.  The paperback version, however, has four "previously unpublished scenes."  I've only read one of them, thanks to the good people at The Millions.  It's typical of the chattering, run-on nature of the rest of the novel, which you will either love or hate, depending on your tolerance of run-on chatter-lit.  Several nice things in this "scene," though: it describes Charles Lehrl's upbringing in Decatur, "a city of such relentless uninteresting squalor and poverty that Peorians point with genuine pride at their city’s failure to be as bad as Decatur, whose air stank either of hog processing or burnt corn depending on the wind, whose patrician class distinguished itself by chewing gum with their front teeth."  From an airplane, DFW shows us "the flannel plains and alphabets of irrigation pipes laid down in the bean fields."  And then there's the moment when Lehrl and his siblings climb the backside of a billboard advertising a Bob's Big Boy restaurant in order to spy on albino children throwing rocks and shards of glass at soon-to-be-slaughtered cows.  Lehrl's spyhole is the Big Boy's front left incisor.  See, it's that specificity of detail which makes David Foster Wallace's work burn alive for me.

That mention of "flannel plains" is an echo back to the novel's opening paragraph:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapelesss. We are all of us brothers.
In my copy of The Pale King, there is a star inked in the margin, indicating my love for that opening paragraph.  I loved it then, and I love it now.  Except maybe that last sentence.  It feels out of place to me.

Another ink-starred passage comes less than 20 pages later when Claude Sylvanshine stands in the aisle of a plane (a thirty-seater from something called Consolidated Thrust Regional Lines) ready to de-plane.  This paragraph is genius:
And stood—having squeezed by the powdery older lady, she being the type that waits in her seat until all others have deplaned and then exits alone, with a counterfeit dignity —holding his effects in an aisle whose crammed front portion was all regional business travelers, men of business, willfully homely midwestern men on downstate sales calls or returning from the Chicago HQs of companies whose names end with '‑co,' men for whom landings like this yaw‑wobbled horror just past are business as usual. Paunched and blotchy men in double‑knit brown suits and tan suits with attaché cases ordered from in‑flight catalogues. Men whose soft faces fit their jobs like sausage in its meaty casing. Men who instruct pocket recorders to take a memo, men who look at their watches out of reflex, men with red foreheads all mashed standing in a metal chute as the props' hum descends the tonal scale and ventilation ceases, this the type of commuter airplane whose stairs must be rolled up alongside before the door opens, for legal reasons. The glazed impatience of businessmen standing closer to strangers than they would ever choose to, chests and backs nearly touching, suit bags slung over shoulders, briefcases knocking together, more scalp than hair, breathing one another's smells. Men who cannot bear to wait or stand still forced to stand still all together and wait, men with calfskin Day‑Timers and Franklin Quest Time Management certificates and the classic look of unwilled tight confinement, the look of a local merchant on the verge of an SSI‑withholding lapse, undercapitalized, illiquid, trying to cover the monthly nut, fish thrashing in the nets of their own obligations.

In his Editor's Note to The Pale King, Michael Pietsch said DFW once told him, while working on the novel, it was "like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind."

I was going to limit this to just 15 random thoughts about The Pale King--because, you know, April 15--but now that I'm into it, it's hard for me to stop.

The Pale King is sometimes, but not frequently, laugh-out-loud funny.  To wit, this opening paragraph to a news story in the Peoria Journal Star: "Supervisors at the IRS's regional complex in Lake James township are trying to determine why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for four days before anyone asked if he was feeling all right."

I like to think that was the IRS agent who processed my tax return two years ago.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the most enjoyable reviews of DFW ever. Quirky and quick!