Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review:
David Foster Wallace - "The Pale King"

The Pale King carries the subtitle "An Unfinished Novel." This is fair; after David Foster Wallace's tragic death in 2008, Michael Pietsch took up the difficult task of organizing the author's notes for this book, a project that Wallace had apparently been working on for years. As a result, The Pale King feels half-finished, is overly-detailed in some places, sadly lacking in detail in others, and feels like it was structured to deliberately confuse the reader.

Of course, anyone who read (or attempted to read) Wallace's previous novel, Infinite Jest, knows that these qualities are trademarks of the author's style. Add to that Wallace's own notes about the book-in-progress - he wanted to have a "tornadic" feel and indicated that the plot should be "a series of set-ups for things to happen but nothing ever happens." As a result, while the book is clearly unfinished, the result is still a thoroughly satisfying piece of literature. Wallace's style was such that reading half a book by him still feels like a complete thought. The plot may not go anywhere, but it's unclear the plot was meant to; what's important is delving into Wallace's ideas.

The Pale King is nominally about a group of eccentric workers at an IRS facility in the mid-1980s, and has been marketed as such; Little Brown even took the cute tactic of releasing the book on April 15th. But calling The Pale King a book about taxes is like calling Infinite Jest a book about a video tape; such a claim is technically true but doesn't really get at Wallace's method of writing. His true subject in this book is boredom, and The Pale King functions less as a straight-forward narrative than as a fugue on the subject - themes and subplots interact with each other and, through their conversations, form a larger whole.

Thus, while half the chapters don't have anything to do with taxes or the IRS, and the first dozen or so seem completely unrelated, a form starts to take shape around 150 pages in. Situating yourself can be difficult (even with Pietsch's excellent editorial notes), but once you've caught on to the style and pace of The Pale King, it's surprisingly hard to put down. (It took me months to finish Infinite Jest, but I breezed through The Pale King in less than two weeks). A young perfectionist is picked on at school. A group of accountants talk about politics in a stalled elevator. A religious couple contemplates an abortion. A few facts about the IRS Tax Code are listed (most erroneous, though generally strange enough to be believable, like the "fact" that all IRS employees receive a new Social Security number upon getting the job). Most of the chapters are short, but this pointillist style allows Wallace to take advantage of a number of writing techniques, and the result is a book that slowly comes together as a collection of smaller pieces about a larger subject.

That theme is boredom and self-awareness. Longtime DFW fans might recognize some of the motifs from the author's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College (including the references to water), as well as the struggles with depression and isolation Wallace combated throughout his life. How does one stay attentive and alert in the modern world? Are all these new-fangled devices really just a way to distract ourselves from the fact that we're alive? And once we realize we're self-aware, how do we deal with this? One minor but memorable character in the book starts sweating profusely whenever he thinks about sweating; he spends his life developing elaborate mental tricks to prevent this kind of conscious thought, and in many ways acts as a metaphor for most of the book - characters doing whatever they can to distract themselves from the overwhelming banality of their lives.

Admittedly, a book about a bunch of boring people trying to cope with boredom doesn't sound like the most fascinating reading. But it's a testament to Wallace's abilities that he's able to craft several fascinating stories out of this inactivity. One hundred pages near the middle of the book focus on a character dubbed "Irrelevant Chris," who spends hours narrating a shaggy-dog story about how he got his job at the IRS. The character is supposed to be insufferable, his story supposed to be boring, but it was one of the sections of the book I devoured in one sitting. In trying to write about a character immersed in recalling irrelevant details and unnecessary elaborations, Wallace has written a hundred-page novella in an interesting voice about a well-drawn character.

Other chapters focus on a character named "David Wallace," whose writing style lampoons Wallace's own Infinite Jest, dropping unwieldy sentences, piling on clause after clause, adding thoughts in footnotes that themselves have footnotes. This style not only allows the real DFW to make fun of himself, it also satirizes the fussy red-tape of government bureaucracy. These are the post-modern sections that literary theorists and English majors will eat up; David Wallace, the fictional character who supposedly wrote The Pale King, is different from the real David Foster Wallace. And there's another character named David Wallace whose identity is confused with the first David Wallace, both of whom are really just characters in a book by the other David Wallace, and, well, you either like this kind of thing or you don't, but the humor is so spot on that it makes for entertaining reading even aside from the literary games.

In many ways, the number of captivating passages might be the whole point of The Pale King. Wallace's writing style is such that a reader can find beauty in his stories about tedium, and Wallace himself wants to make the point that true happiness comes in finding this beauty in the banal. The book is stuffed with unimpressive imagery - stuffy office buildings, traffic jams, lessons on the tax code. But The Pale King is a testament that, if one develops the right way of looking at things, one can find beauty in the mundane. The first chapter of the book describes the barren Midwestern landscape in such breathtaking prose that one hardly notices it's a two page description of dead worms in a pile of horse shit.

The only way to combat boredom is to embrace the world around you, become hyperaware of the world. Wallace has no pretensions that this is a cure-all; the one character in the book who has this ability, the one character who is truly happy, is also the one incapable of engaging in any meaningful social interaction. And it's at this point that the novel's unfinished state is detrimental; one hardly knows where Wallace would have taken the text now that the foundational theme of ennui had been established. The notes indicate that Wallace himself seems unsure. 

Wallace's previous novel, Infinite Jest, tackled the theme of addiction, and underlying the whole novel was the conceit that modern media has addicted us to information, breeding short attention spans and cynicism. Infinite Jest was a novel that was brilliant in parts, but somehow failed to impress me as a whole; the structure was too clumsy, and the book's publication at the dawn of the Internet age gave it a quaint, dated quality (Wallace's videotape symbolism seems hokey in the era of smart phones and Twitter). But The Pale King, despite its unfinished state, works for me as a whole in a way that Infinite Jest never did. While Jest suffered from Wallace unable to decide if the book was about media or about drugs, The Pale King shows an author who has learned how to subtly weave a single theme through a myriad of different styles of writing.

So, even half-complete, The Pale King reads as a remarkably coherent address on boredom and the modern attention span. Most of the chapters could stand on their own, and even the supposedly "unedited" ones only suffer from very minor stylistic quibbles (Pietsch points out that Wallace uses the phrase "titty-twisting" twice in one chapter, as if this is worst style error he could find in the manuscript). The Pale King confirms Wallace's status as not just a writer, but an intellectual, whose life sadly ended far too soon.