“Almost anything that you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting.”
In honour of the recent publication of Bough Down by Karen Green, the widow of David Foster Wallace, let us look back at the final, unfinished, posthumous novel of one of the foremost writers of recent times. Most widely known for his lengthy and complex 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, Foster Wallace is in the peculiar position that so many great authors are of having widespread acclaim with a cult-like status. He is one of those authors who, from personal experience at least, is a lot easier to simply pretend to have read whilst smiling and nodding along jovially in a discussion of his works. Some may call his writing genius, whilst others have remained far less enthused. Nonetheless, few can deny the skill and ingenuity of Foster Wallace’s prose (except, of course, Bret Easton Ellis, who still feeds fuel to the fire of that gloriously compelling rivalry between the two writers).
The Pale King remained unfinished as of Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, meaning that it was up to his editor to transform the stacks of manuscript left by Foster Wallace into a workable novel. A task that Michael Pietsch, the editor, succeeds in. The narrative crux of The Pale King deals with the everyday lives of various workers at a North American IRS Regional Office in the 1980’s – modern man’s ultimate bureaucratic nightmare. The Internal Revenue Service in this novel is known simply as ‘The Service’, an institution that, in Foster Wallace’s world at least and in contrary to popular opinion, has a profound magnetism attracting its numerous agents to employment. From the strange to the remarkably ordinary, there is nary a miss in his eclectic cast of character. Perhaps my favourite is the man who sweats profusely and uncontrollably for no apparent reason, or maybe it’s current senior IRS worker who, we are shown, as a young boy was so ingratiatingly helpful and nice he actually repelled his friends, teachers and colleagues in his manic efforts to do good.
In terms of character then, Foster Wallace has an eye for the interestingly oddball; as for event, Wallace decides to forego all strictures of contemporary entertainment. Instead of glossing over unexciting moments in an elliptical dart to the nearest amusing event, Foster Wallace collects those easily ignored tedious intricacies into his masterful exploration of the mundane. This is perhaps why a novel and voice such as Foster Wallace’s deserves all the attention and adoration it has already garnered and will continue to gather in many years to come. In a cultural landscape flooded with the readily offered drama of high-octane explosives, sexual escapades and violent bloodbaths (not that there’s anything wrong with this, it is pure entertainment and don’t get me wrong, it’s great fun!) there is still a thrill to be found in the mundane and banal: in the ordinary world we all inhabit. This book is a study in boredom that ironically enough never truly becomes boring. Even when Foster Wallace dedicates a whole chapter to describing the actions of the various worker bees: ‘Chris Fogle turns a page. Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page. “Groovy” Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file’, he never pities the characters, and his seemingly monotonous writing in fact satisfies and gratifies in equal measure. Despite the mechanistic and dull routine adhered to by the various IRS employees, there is an endearing quality attributed to these seemingly gormless individuals. Precisely this, Foster Wallace ensures that they are not the nameless workers in the mill, but in fact heroes embarking on an epic quest. As a University Professor exclaims midway through one character’s reminiscences, any commitment to the ‘sheer drudgery’ of modern life is classifiable as heroic: ‘Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what courage is’ – an apt way to inspire any unsatisfied soul in modern times to a career in accountancy.
In coming to write about this, I started thinking about that other more recent cinematic study of heroic bureaucracy, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The hero of this film works, studies, analyses, and remains left out of the dramatic showdown that ultimately resolves the conflict that defines her life. The quiet solicitude with which she heroically goes about her work reflects similarly the principles examined by Foster Wallace. Nonetheless, Wallace takes this a step further by adding hints of magical realism to the mix. The Pale King shows readers a glimpse of the would-be superhero. The guy who can levitate a few feet in the air whilst concentrating too hard, or the man who, like a telepathic compendium of useless trivia, can obtain the most inconsequential of facts of a person or object from simply being in the same vicinity as them. Such abilities would usually tip the reader off to the fantastical and mystical; an intimation that for the contemporary reader, a hero requires that extra, super, or special power to elevate him above the masses. Foster Wallace chooses however to leave his heroes’ abilities lacking – he titillates the readers with suggestions of the wondrous and gives them instead the most insignificant and pointless of skills. Foster Wallace’s story argues for the boring and the banal and the insignificant and the pointless – because this is where true bravery originates. If readers can contend against the boredom they face in the novel, reading through it and coming to the end, they are themselves experiencing the heroism Foster Wallace is shining a light upon.
The novel itself may flummox readers. Those reading The Pale King in expectation of some light-hearted fare will have been sorely mis-led. There is both beauty and humour bubbling beneath the surface here, waiting to surge over and explode. Yet the anticipation gathered remains just that, a stilled and expectant piece of prose fiction that declines to provide anything resembling the conventionally satisfying. This novel may not be explosive, exciting and elating in the typical sense, but readers should not be deterred from experiencing this delightfully bizarre and, well, rather odd tale of society’s compulsive need for escapism.