David Foster Wallace, the verbally hyperactive postmodern prophet-wunderkind of the nineties and noughties, died in 2008 at the age of 46 with two novels, three volumes of short stories, and two essay collections to his name. The Pale King, his last novel, cobbled together from notes by Wallace’s widow and editor, was posthumously published this past April to great media attention in the literary sector. The concept – a novel about IRS agents and boredom – did not promise bestsellerdom; but Wallace is a cult writer, especially with students. Especially now that he’s stopped writing.
It almost makes more sense to discuss The Pale King as an artefact, rather than literature. Not only is it a novel by someone widely regarded as a ‘genius’ (whatever that is), but it’s the last, unfinished (but how unfinished?) novel of a genius who committed suicide. It could have been a second Confederacy of Dunces, and earned Wallace the Pulitzer- John Kennedy Toole, the author, committed suicide before his manuscript was even published, and it’s only thanks to the efforts of his mother that he won the highest literary award America offers (Oprah Bookclub Choice notwithstanding).
Wallace’s vision for The Pale King can be summarized in material taken from his notes: ‘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. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in wave, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like…Constant bliss in every atom.’
The novel is a fragmented collection of the experiences of several oddball characters who work at the Peoria IRS processing centre in 1985. These characters are oddballs because they are a) tax agents, b) Midwestern Americans (having lived in the Midwest for four years, I can attest to the bizarre reality of living there and encountering the inhabitants), and c) creations of David Foster Wallace. These are characters which, the novel tells us through the partial narration of a character, David Wallace, are heroes because ‘Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.’ These accountants are our heroes because they do a thankless task that we’ll never recognize or be interested in, ‘…The quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care.’
This intriguing idea is submerged in a novel which forces the reader to practice the same heroic, precise kind of attention. Moments of revelation are hidden on the other side of a world of tax law, practice, sums, and hierarchies, petty rivalries, characters who levitate, who chew the fat, who sweat obscene amounts, who are Evangelical Christians, who make themselves disappear, who are pathologically nice.
I once heard Alain de Botton criticize contemporary fiction for ignoring what most people spend most of their week doing – working. Though David Foster Wallace is no proponent of relentlessly realistic fiction – his fiction is frequently realistically absurd – he defies popular fiction’s demarcation of what is interesting, and tries to interest his attention-deficient reader in work, in routine, boredom and concentration. While I admit I found my own attention straying at times, I wonder if this might be structurally intentional. Also, who knows what The Pale King could have been had it been finished? It can’t compare to the acrobatics and energy of Wallace’s second novel, Infinite Jest. But, then again, perhaps that’s the point.