If you haven’t before had the keen pleasure of reading David Foster Wallace, THE PALE KING is a fine gateway drug. Its 550 pages are broken into 50 sections, each digestible on its own without reference to the larger work
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown, 560 pages, $29.99
By Michael de Zayas
David Foster Wallace (DFW) has all the marks of literary immortality about him: a bizarre vision, raw originality of voice, a deep and continuous wrestling match with human nature, and a lingering strangeness, the latter an acquired aftertaste. Once you acquire it, there’s no other writer who can duplicate or replace it. Oh, and that suicide, let’s deal with it up front: that companion ghost that plays through his words as you read them—not meretriciously but as a necessary component of his characters’ piercing forays through existence.
If you haven’t before had the keen pleasure of reading DFW, The Pale King is a fine gateway drug. Its 550 pages are broken into 50 sections, each digestible on its own without reference to the larger work. In some respects, it’s the fragmentation that makes the book powerful, and why, in the end, I think his short stories show him at his best.
This nugget-like digestibility makes The Pale King, unlike the giant known as Infinite Jest, relatively unintimidating. And its joys—deep literary highs—are on par with the best of Wallace’s writing. Still, I’m guessing the ratio of The Pale King copies sold to copies actually read will likely be is 3:1. Wallace will never be a truly popular writer, in the same way that Melville or Proust can’t be. This book is further proof of what the cowed 75% are missing out on.
It is almost fitting that The Pale King is literally an unfinished book; a posthumous, edited assemblage of a monster tome that revolves around the coming together and the life of a dozen or so employees of an IRS tax center. (Had DWF not killed himself, I imagine the finished work could have reached 2,000 pages. Imagine that glory.) The novel was edited from about a decade of work Wallace had put into the manuscript.
If you remain unconvinced about diving into Wallace for the first time, read section five at a bookstore: here is a section that could stand alone in one of his short story collections, a seven-page section that packs the wallop of many longer passages (and most other books). It’s the story of Leonard Stecyk, a goodie-goodie par excellence. We see Leonard here in childhood, already braving trauma despite a universal (and, despite ourselves, shared) hatred of him. The sadness and humiliation is devastating.
The truth is, though, that this book is largely a collection of character studies (or a collection of contending angles on human existence through the stories of these figures (Wallace doesn’t fool around; the aim is always to answer the most profound questions). Thus the book’s force comes in waves. The fact that the sections come in alternations of, say, 30-pages and one- and two-page interludes, makes the reading easy.
We meet Stecyk in 1985, as we do a handful of other characters who will become employees of the Peoria IRS Tax Processing Center. They are assembled with cinematic flair, as in the opening montage from Ocean’s 11, each odd genius plucked for a particular mission.
The main man here is named Sylvanshine, whose mission is to build a crew strong enough to withstand the painful drudgery of processing of tax forms. The introductory scenes in and of themselves are full of dazzle and profundity. Wallace writes not to move a plot along (which is why saying that the novel is about a tax processing center in Illinois in the mid 1980s is like saying that Melville’s Moby-Dick is abut whaling. Wallace uses fiction to confront the meaning of being alive, the emotion and frustration and confusion and, perhaps, ultimate sadness.
Take the end of section six, where teenager and future IRS agent Lane A Dean Jr. sits lakeside with his pregnant girlfriend, builds into a dazzling and profound epiphany after just a few pages. Wallace dramatizes the couple’s delicate moment without the use of traditional dialogue or action, just a resonant frieze and whirl of language that touches on the essence of love.
One difficulty of DFW’s fiction is that he largely abandons statement for suggestion. He is nothing if not elliptical. That makes it difficult for readers who yearn for graphic depictions of a scene’s devastation or sadness, but the truth glows more brightly because DFW hangs back, perhaps out of respect or wonder.
It is not that DFW can’t be crass. In The Pale King, there is a blowjob. But it takes awhile to piece that together. Indeed, the ejaculation is the most circuitousness cum shot in the history of literature (or, for that matter, porn). And it’s not that DFW doesn’t play meta-fiction games, such putting himself in the book. There is character named David F. Wallace. At one point he says: “I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”
But we’ve been fooled again because the character DFW, the self-styled artist and writer, loves to make fun of “irrelevant” and “logorrheic” Chris Fogle, who has, I think, the closest thing to DFW’s true and natural voice, whereas the character DFW is petulant, narcissistic, and needlessly combative. Fogle has the longest section in the book, 100 pages, and his narration is a traditional first-person story.
If you’re reading Wallace for the first time, you’re likely to ask yourself, Can he write straight? Could he move me if he wrote a traditional narrative? Oh, yes. If you needed it, Fogle’s long section is your proof, a coming-of-age story that involves civics, drug abuse, gruesome death, endearing gradual father-son rapprochement, a cultural assessment of the 1970s, a fascinating Malcom Gladwell-style assessment of train litigation, Christian fundamentalism, college hijinks and stonerism, soap operas, contrasts between (and heroic portraits of) the organized accounting students versus the slackers in literature classes, portraits of heroism in unlikely places, and his recruitment into the IRS, all so masterfully assembled and filled with insight into that you can only ooh in awe.
And then, again, in the subsequent section, DFW the character pops up to say what a doofus the long-winded Fogle is and that “a 100 percent accurate, comprehensive list of the exact size and shape of every blade of grass in my front lawn is ‘true’ but it not a truth that anyone will have an interest in.” And so the relationships between the IRS employees, of course, provide another layer of intrigue beyond the truth of the taxpayer returns.
Yes, there is a certain robotic quality to the way Wallace processes information, something of the idiot savant—it’s what makes the reading seem intimidating or even boring if you’re not hypnotized by it; but ultimately you realize this is not a weakness but a skill, a trick in a house of mirrors, as in the phrase “Re the human element:” or “. . . his head covered by a Busch hat pushed back to communicate relaxation and formality.” What could seem less informal than that stiff phrasing of that final phrase? But the telling detail is the Busch hat itself (one of a thousand precise observations in the book), and the way it’s worn.
One of Wallace’s most enduring legacies will be this wryly (ironic?) holistic perception that the 21st century is far more complicated than we can process. “I was there in the main waiting area for what felt like a very long time, and had all sorts of rapid, fragmentary impressions and reactions, of which I will include here only a few examples,” says one stiff but ultimately engrossing character. Indeed, any given moment may be too complex for us. Wallace’s gift was slowing these moments down and processing them. Never condescending (that would be to laugh), always a step ahead, but making sense of them, elaborating the multi-hued richness everywhere, the extraordinary deep down in the most matted and muted gray.
Part of this ability to intensify the mundane springs from his vocabulary. The quantity of obscure words Wallace uses is matched by few other authors of note; it’s an outrageous arsenal. (Unlike Jonathan Franzen, another friend of the dictionary who is compulsively page turning, Wallace’s words operate as hurdles, as elevating layers of difficulty, though less in The Pale King than his other books). The arcane diction works against the cliche that lyricism is based on a poetic simplify. Instead, here we’re confronted with troublesome jargon, avatar of the daily tedium that he oars us through.
For example, the novel’s first page is a dense and striking description of a natural scene, as lyrical and serene as a page of Cormac McCarthy. Then, in the next section, on the very next page, the more accustomed “difficulty” of DFW begins; we’re hit with accounting equations and product names and technical jargon. Wallace confronts the woolly complexities of our world — consumerist, science-bound, strenuously monotonous and multifaceted.
DFW also likes to stir up linguistic complexity by rudely stitching together sentences about different ideas, alternating clashing colors of thought and levels of concentration. This crazy-quilt A-B-A-B stream of consciousness provides an ingenious duplication of how we think today, processing multiple phenomena simultaneously, the way we gaze up in distraction while we’re reading something interesting but are unexpectantly assaulted by another important thing invading our mind. In this sense, DFW is the artistic master of distraction — no one else catches the ersatz cerebral activity of checking emails constantly, a ping a minute.
Still, DFW doesn’t count his characters out, patronizingly leaving them adrift in a technological fog. He lets us straight into what characters think of themselves. This is unusual, a friendly move — and his figures are surprisingly hard on themselves: “At root, Sylvanshine saw himself as a dithering ninny with at most a marginal talent whose connection to him was itself marginal.”
What Wallace has done again in The Pale King—and done, alas, for the last time—is to let us live many different lives, to use fiction to explore and answer fundamental questions at a time of information overload when so many other writers feel as if they are doomed to grapple with tertiary queries.