One can see that David Foster Wallace was thinking about the main problem of what would become his final work when he delivered his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005. Now regarded as a seminal piece on modern compassion, it proposed to reveal, as any small-college commencement address worth its speaker fee is wont to do, the “real purpose” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, it was this:
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
Wallace elaborates by applying this idea to a regular occurrence – a trip to the grocery store. Rather than lament our vice-tight schedules and the depressing lighting, or loathe the overfed customers in the overlong checkout line, we should look around, and imagine other people’s stories, realizing “the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.” More than a trite dictum on empathy, this idea is first and foremost about storytelling, about filling in for ourselves the unheard narratives that people tell themselves. And Wallace over the years was most interested in narratives of suffering. Boredom (so closely linked to the problem of addiction, which he addressed in Infinite Jest) is one such type, and it takes center stage in his last book, an unfinished project published under the title The Pale King.
Really, any book about the IRS that doesn’t talk at potentially tedious length about boredom would need to have its head checked. But Wallace makes it work in surprising and brilliant ways. Like Infinite Jest, the book establishes a central setting – this time a tax collection and processing center in Illinois – through which a wide variety of zany characters come and go. While the chapters that digress into the backgrounds of many of these characters constitute the type of attention to personal narratives Wallace spoke about in his address, there are other chapters, which go on for pages and pages about tax code, that deliberately test the reader’s ability to stick with it. We watch characters concoct more and more methods to cope with office tedia (the story takes place in the ‘80’s, pre-Internet), but we also watch characters experience supernatural effects of hyper-consciousness (one character floats when he’s really focused). Toward the end of the manuscript, our main protagonist (more on him later) comes to a final realization:
I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.
But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy…I discovered the key. The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for…The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.
This passage comprises nearly the entirety of one short chapter, which I don’t have a problem calling the book’s climax. The remainder of the book (there’s not much left after this chapter) is similarly hopeful. Amid the subplot (any sequence that one wants to label a “plot” in this book would do well to call it a subplot, in that it operates, always, beneath the surface of things. Emily Cooke said it well in The Millions when she affirmed, “events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation”) of the attempts to replace human workers at the IRS with computers, certain characters, as mentioned, discover that they have special abilities to focus, not just on tax-work, but on the lives of others. The penultimate chapter, in which Meredith Rand, a beautiful (and, thus, emotionally isolated) agent, tells the story of her stint in a psych ward to Shane Drinion, the man no one else pays attention to, is the best in the book. It is a story about listening, about paying attention with unmotivated empathy. To see Wallace’s notes in the appendix address some of how this storyline would play out filled me with sadness over the potential this book really had. Namely: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”
It’s fairly clear how preoccupied with boredom Wallace actually was in his final years. Jonathan Franzen asserted as much in his recent article in The New Yorker:
That [Wallace] was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil – was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it – is not inconsequential…When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.
Franzen spends a good deal of this article hashing out his anger over Wallace’s suicide. But if we put his observations of his dear friend’s decline alongside what Wallace came up with in The Pale King, we see the tragedy. In short, this book is as much about writing as it is about working at the IRS. Tom McCarthy made the right connection between the image of the service agent and of the novelist, hailing the book as “a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – properly and rigorously forward – in an age of data saturation.” Cooke agrees: “The question is whether, along with the data, [the agents] can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an ‘information society.’” It’s ultimately up to you to determine whether, like Franzen did, Wallace’s vocation and vision had left him, but, here, that struggle is valiantly dramatized.
Like addiction in Infinite Jest, boredom serves as a centripetal theme. Everything comes back to boredom. But, also like Infinite Jest, the theme is developed piecemeal, in a plotless tableau that is nonetheless filled with the delicious nuggets that we have come to love Wallace so much for. We have characters like the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, the compulsive and uncontrollable sweater David Cusk, the logorrheic and narratively expansive Chris “Irrelevant” Fogle, and the monastic Shane Drinion, who floats when he concentrates. Not to mention other chapters that tell of menacing infants, terrifying childhood shit stories, and life in the ‘60’s. They are digressive in that wonderful Wallacean way, becoming like legends, the way you can kick back with a friend and say, “Remember that part in Infinite Jest?” In that sense one feels that The Pale King could have been as long, as Rabelaisan, and almost as scriptural as its predecessor.
But the most interesting move Wallace makes is a vexing narrative divergence from the structure of Infinite Jest (by the way, I am happy to talk about Wallace’s shorter fiction, or his first novel The Broom of the System, but there really is no other analog, in a holistic sense). Namely, everything reads along just fine, until you hit Chapter 9, titled “Author’s Foreword.” The first line may evoke that familiar postmodern groan. Oh. This again. It begins:
Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, Dave Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.
The rest of the chapter recounts his suspension from university (rich students paid him to write their papers) and subsequent employment at the IRS. In a later chapter we learn how he was confused for a higher-ranking David Wallace and was thus given a job well above his pay grade. All of this is fictional, of course. Wallace wasn’t even forty in 2005. He was 43. Not to mention the fictional home address and social security number (“Wallace” claims he was issued a new one when he joined the Service). But this is not the point. In short, this whole sequence is a blatant ploy at the idea of fictionality in general. There are other first-person narrators, some identified, some not. Other chapters refer to Wallace only in passing, as merely a tangential character. He is both focalized protagonist and wallflower. But there is more to it than what “Wallace” himself calls “postmodern titty-pinching.” The real point here, broadly, is that Wallace seems to be writing a counterfactual life. If we take Franzen at his word, we might partly read this book as a dramatization of Wallace’s own despair. Many characters share famous Wallacean traits (excessive sweating, precocious “data mysticism,” penchants for storytelling), and we find that their lives in the Service have a Plan-B quality. Sylvanshine wants to become a CPA but can’t; Cusk has unnatural processing abilities but is too paralyzed by his condition to live a public life; Fogle shifts life paths after he stumbled into the wrong review session in college; Lane Dean signs up after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Across these characters Wallace depicts the tragedy of what could have been, condemning characters to lives of tedium. The saddest thing about it, though, is the hopeful note it ends on, as these seemingly doomed characters become friends and begin to rise to the challenge of remaining relevant in the dawning digital age. At any rate, we see Wallace here searching, an activity that maybe occurs most often when we are bored, for greener pastures.
If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that I have refrained to this point from calling The Pale King a novel. This was essentially my way of broaching the rabbit-hole debate over the book’s textual status. A particularly snarky article (and that’s saying something) from Slate’s Tom Scocca took to task Michiko Kakutani’s review. He writes:
Evaluation is beside the point. Kakutani, gamely taking things at face value, wrote that the book was “lumpy but often stirring” – well, why wouldn’t it have lumps? It’s not a finished novel.
And: “this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity.” But why would it be continuous? It’s not a finished novel.
“The Pale King is less inventive and exuberantly imagined than Wallace’s previous novels.” But it is not a finished novel.
It is “[t]old in fragmented, strobe-lighted chapters” – but it is not a finished novel!
And so on. Scocca accuses Kakutani of over-harshly mistreating The Pale King as a finished, polished product, when it is really just a draft. He’s looking for his “Gotcha!” moment, but his qualms, in form and content, are more reductive than Kakutani’s claims by far. She’s doing her job of evaluating what’s there. Scocca drops the ball by assuming that what’s there is somehow worse than what could have been there. In other words, he dodges the idea that a fundamental characteristic of any novel is its unfinishedness. This is an idea as old as Bakhtin and central to deconstruction, as well as to novel theory in general. The Pale King offers a rare glimpse into process in a raw state. As Emily Cooke concluded, “the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive [Wallace’s] questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t…As much sense as it settles into, it will escape us. It escaped him.” If ever a novel was going to be patently unfinished, it should be this one. Wallace has created an open-ended counterfactual existence, where he was free to imagine possibilities bleak and hopeful. That he couldn’t give us a final answer was the great tragedy of his life, but perhaps his most novelistic quality.