A ferociously gifted novelist's posthumous, unfinished last work is fanatically devoted to the brain-deadening routine of modern work - and, by extension, American life.
The Pale King: A spellbinding book about mind-numbing boredom
"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming along the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'" What does water mean to a fish? It isn't a Buddhist koan, but the question raised by novelist David Foster Wallace in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, now transformed into the motivating force of his posthumously published novel, which quixotically, near-heroically attempts to describe the water we all swim in.
Spoiler alert - here is the plot of Wallace's The Pale King, in something like its entirety: a man flies to Peoria, Illinois. A boy gets his girlfriend pregnant. A guy named David Wallace, newly hired by the IRS, gets confused with another, more senior David Wallace. A teenager confronts a nightmarish sweating problem. A college "wastoid" has a quasi-spiritual encounter with an accounting professor. A man dies in a freak public transportation accident. A man gets stuck in an endless traffic jam. A shop teacher accidentally slices his thumb off. A beautiful woman talks to a co-worker about her time in a mental hospital.
If a plot summary can itself be soporific, what can that possibly say about a 550-page book hung on these slim tendrils of action? Wallace is intentionally stacking the deck against himself, and by extension, his readers, with this relay race of bores, long-winded storytellers drowning us in the minutiae of their relentlessly mundane experiences. To make dull matters worse, the bores are all employed by the Internal Revenue Service in its Peoria, Illinois, office, working at the most soul-killing job in the most boring city in the United States. Excited yet?
You should be. For Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, leaving American letters tragically bereft of its most ferociously gifted novelist, has, with his uncompleted third novel, achieved the near-impossible: he has written a spellbinding book about mind-numbing boredom. Where his 1996 novel Infinite Jest revolved around a film so thrilling it eventually killed its viewers, the unfinished, posthumously compiled The Pale King is its precise inverse, fanatically devoted to the brain-deadening monotony of work - and, by extension, American life.
Wallace's stature has only grown in death - two of the most acclaimed novels of 2010, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, are both written under the immense shadow of his influence - and The Pale King is both rambling run-on and injunction to break through our boredom and acknowledge the very fabric of our mundane lives. Call it "Lengthy Interviews with Terminally Uninteresting Men".The Pale King demands that we drink in the water of our daily lives, feeling its texture, its tang, in our mouths. It smacks of boredom, to be sure, but Wallace demands that we quaff deeply, tasting the solipsism and hunger for distraction that have, in his estimation, rendered America a nation of helpless infants, powerless before hulking institutions like the IRS, and bitter about their passivity. If this sounds like a quixotic project for a novel, it is. That it is nonetheless so thoroughly successful is testament to Wallace's once-in-a-generation gifts as a writer.
Insofar as its plot, such as it is, bears only the minutest resemblance to the experience of reading the book, The Pale King must be sampled at length in order to be fully comprehended. For our purposes, it is perhaps best to begin on page 125. An IRS worker on break tells a co-worker about his weekend, narrating in minute detail his snap decision to barbecue salmon on the grill instead of poaching it - a decision of which he is demonstrably proud. The book exhibits a Nicholson Baker-esque intensity of concentration on drivel, of which the salmon story, so breathtakingly devoid of interest, is only the opening salvo. Wallace passes us from one chatterbox to the next, each narrating their lives in unbearably minute detail, even as they comically insist they are doing anything but: "At this point, it's probably best to keep the explanations as terse and compressed as possible, for realism's sake," one narrator tells us, more than forty pages into a story about a traffic jam and employee-intake snafu, before rambling on for 15 more pages in much the same vein. This is an infinitely dense novel with no payoff; or, as Wallace puts it in one of the notes appended to the book's end, "Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens." Water, water everywhere, and not a drop for a reader to drink ...
In lieu of a plot, then, what we have instead are a series of formative experiences, compressed together to form a collective encyclopaedia of workaday transformations.
Wallace's characters are scarred by miseries both entirely their own and eminently similar to everyone else's, and are enjoined to share at inordinate length about their travails with dead fathers, uncontrollable perspiration, "severe/disfiguring" skin conditions, and stints in the loony bin. Each is endlessly compelling, and deathly boring, all at once. "I would say almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting," one character observes, and The Pale King is intent, above all, on paying close, direct attention to everything.
The point is not the uniqueness of each metamorphosis, but their utter similarity. "Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality - there is no audience," an accounting professor tells his students, in what could stand as the author's own declaration. "No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth - actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested." In this grown-up world, people drag their pain behind them like luggage they cannot bear to leave behind, and boredom is the humdrum analogue to the private shame of social and bodily discomfort.
This is a novel whose musical beat is pegged to the metronome of the ticking clock, slicing each minute, each hour, each day, into ever-smaller intervals of stupefaction. (Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, with its quirky-comic depiction of office life, is trifling in comparison.) Wallace is intent for us to feel the burn of dazed numbness. To wit, this depiction of the thudding rhythm of boredom: "Lane Dean Jr traces his jaw's outline with his ring finger. Ed Shackleford turns a page. Elpidia Carter turns a page. Ken Wax attaches a Memo 20 to a file. Anand Singh turns a page. Jay Landauer and Ann Williams turn a page almost precisely in sync although they are in different rows and cannot see each other. Boris Kratz bobs with a slight Hassidic motion as he crosschecks a page with a column of figures." (And this is the most exciting part of the relevant section, which stretches on for a number of pages in similar fashion.)
After Infinite Jest, Wallace acquired a patently undeserved reputation as literature's autistic savant, thoroughly brilliant and incapable of human feeling. One can only surmise that the Wallace-as-antiseptic-technician meme stemmed from stymied readers, because The Pale King is consumed, above all, with the private pain of its characters. Furthermore, given the tragic circumstances of Wallace's death, it is impossible to read this book other than as a prismatic reflection of self, dispersing the white-hot light of his own suffering into the lesser vessels of his half-built characters.
The Pale King demands of its characters a blunt facing up to the mundane terrors of adulthood that its own author could not manage to live up to himself. "The only way you can be mean to yourself," remarks a former mental patient, in a statement that can only be read autobiographically, "is if you deep down expect somebody else is going to gallop up and save you, which is a child's fantasy. Reality meant nobody else was for sure going to be nice to me or treat me with any respect ... and nobody else was for sure going to see me or treat me the way I wanted to be seen, so it was my job to make sure to see myself and treat myself like I was really worthwhile. It's called being responsible instead of childish."
Wallace had not edited his novel before his suicide, nor had he settled on a final order for the disjointed bits of his manuscript. Infelicities inevitably remain, as the book's editor, Michael Pietsch, points out, including the near-obsessive use of the phrase "squeezing my shoes". More troubling than any minor solecisms, however, is the nagging sense that the famously perfectionist Wallace would have hated our reading the book in its unfinished state - something Pietsch acknowledges in his introduction: "Everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exacting standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn't here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to."
Reading The Pale King feels intrusive, like poking through Wallace's e-mails, or reading his diary. But the novel has something crucial to tell us, something worth this violation of the writer's right to the privacy of his unfinished work. "Gentlemen, you are called to account," the accounting professor tells his students, in the closing summation he gives to his class. Wield the ledger they may, but all of The Pale King's characters are also called to account for their lives, and by extension, boring, crass, infinitely rich contemporary American existence. What result do we arrive at once the numbers are all totted up? Only we are left to provide the answer now.
Saul Austerlitz's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and other publications.