Only after his death could David Foster Wallace be properly misunderstood. While he lived, the rap against him was that his work was all brains and pomo tricksiness with no heart, but in the years since his suicide in 2008, he’s been recast as paradoxical fusion of Kurt Cobain and Khalil Gibran, a dispenser of inspirational life lessons who was nonetheless too much the sensitive artist to go on living.
Maybe Wallace was a little of all of these things, though surely he’d have been the first to inform us he was no saint. On the other hand, one of his persistent themes was the self-deluding vanity of cleverness, which sneers at the truths encased in nostrums and mottos simply because they’re banal. What he left as the sole counterpoint to the various posthumous Cults of Dave was the unfinished manuscript of “The Pale King,” his third novel. His editor, Michael Pietsch (who, full disclosure, edited my own book), has assembled the completed portions and included some of Wallace’s notes on the narrative’s conclusion into a volume that has just been published.
Since Wallace never envisioned this novel as observing a conventional plot, “The Pale King” doesn’t seem especially incomplete. It was always hard to find the figure in the carpet of his fiction and very easy to enjoy the individual sections, so in a way the reader is let off the hook. You don’t feel obliged to get a handle on what it all means and are free to let the sum of the parts amount to more than their total.
This also turns out to be a fitting form for the novel’s subject, which is the lives of several men and women working at a regional Internal Revenue Service office in Peoria, Ill., in the mid-1980s. As a summary, this could not sound more tedious, but as a book it could hardly be more engaging. “The Pale King” is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing. It feels less intently worked than Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” and is much better ventilated than his last short story collection, “Oblivion.” (When talking to a friend, I once inadvertently referred to that collection as “Obsidian,” an understandable malaprop; it’s a stony book, if a darkly glossy one.)
One of the novel’s characters is a rookie named David Foster Wallace, who steps in with the occasional first-person chapter to explain that the book in the reader’s hands is “in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story,” although “more than this I am legally enjoined from telling you by the refusal of certain members of my family to sign the appropriate legal releases.” The veracity of such claims is made instantly suspect: Surely, the facade of the Peoria REC (regional examination center) is not covered with a gigantic mosaic resembling a 1040 form? The feckless “Wallace” gets mistaken for some far more exalted personage with the same name and as a result finds himself plunged into a “very high-level” presentation on “the Minimum Tax on Preferences, which evidently had its origin in the Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson.”
The “David Foster Wallace” chapters come amply footnoted and resemble the quintessential David Foster Wallace text, right down to the hilariously exhaustive explication of the traffic problems at the entrance to the REC’s parking lot and tirades against the “me-firsters” who try to circumvent the jam by driving on the shoulder (hilarious because it describes exactly the sort of thing many of us obsess about). There are also third-person accounts of first-day orientations, barroom confessions, vignettes from the childhoods of the other tax-form examiners (or “wigglers”), lore about the office ghosts, conversations whose participants and settings must be deduced by the reader, the adventures of one Claude Sylvanshine, a “fact psychic” whose mind is perpetually invaded by trivial information, and some transcribed interviews for a documentary about IRS workers whose ultimate purpose is a bit mysterious.
As has often been repeated, “The Pale King” is “about boredom,” although that is only where it starts. It’s also about the transformation of America from a stakeholder society in which citizens view themselves as active, responsible participants into a consumer market in which people simply demand value for money. (“Big Q,” Wallace’s notes read, “is whether IRS is to be essentially a corporate entity or a moral one.”) And it’s also about existential dread and loneliness, which “David Foster Wallace” suspects of being at the root of the human aversion to boredom, because humanity seeks “enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there … Right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.”
The wigglers respond to the “unbelievable tedium” of their work in several ways. Some simply endure. Others, like “David Foster Wallace,” dive so deeply into the arcana of “the Service” (as it calls itself) that they find drama in its hierarchies and the rare savants who can master them. Another, Shane Drinion, even appears to have achieved a state of serene, zen-like detachment.
But I like to think that the moral center of the book is the long narrative of Chris Fogle, who describes his transformation from a “nihilistic child” (aka, average wastrel college student) to a sort of ninja of the recondite. He’s nudged toward this transition (which amounts to a reconciliation with the stoic virtues of his once-disdained, quintessentially Midwestern father) when he enters the wrong classroom and hears a lecture intended for CPA candidates. The rivetingly self-possessed speaker galvanizes him by explaining that all familiar forms of heroism are empty because they are “all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. An audience.”
“Gentlemen,” the nameless lecturer goes on, “welcome to the world of reality — there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. … Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.” After receiving this revelation, Fogle embraces the motto of the Service — whose name takes on a quasi-religious quality as the book goes on — which translates to “He is the one doing a difficult, unpopular job.” (Need I add that this is not the real motto of the IRS?)
The work of the IRS is indeed all this: excruciatingly boring, absolutely necessary, completely uncelebrated and widely loathed. Wallace’s notes indicate that Chris Fogle supposedly possesses a magical number (shades of “Lost”!) that, once recited, gives the speaker the power to concentrate on anything, indefinitely. Attention is another of the novel’s themes. We struggle to make our minds do what they need and ought to do, and more often than not we fail. Surely Wallace — in his own long, doomed struggle with depression — knew this all too well. Yet, as Pietsch observes in an endnote, “nowhere in the chapters we have does Fogle display this power.”
Maybe Wallace thought better of the idea, or perhaps he meant for Fogle to renounce that magic number, to decide it’s better to do what needs to be done the hard way. If “Oblivion” described the struggle of human beings to find meaning in their suffering, the “The Pale King” seems intended to plumb the meaning of boredom, a phenomenon usually defined by its meaninglessness. In his notes, Wallace explains that Shane Drinion has found a way to “the other side of crushing, crushing boredom” where there awaits a state of “constant bliss in every atom.” But he doesn’t say how Drinion did it, and now he’s gone, leaving the world so much less meaningful. What is there left for the rest of us to do but follow the example of Chris Fogle and gut it out?