The Pale King
by David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
When David Foster Wallace writes about boredom, it's anything but boring. This is a good thing, as coping with acute ennui is the main theme of his posthumously published, unfinished novel The Pale King. If I told you the book consists of 500+ pages detailing the inner workings of the massive bureaucracy that is the Internal Revenue Service and the interior lives of the people who work there, you'd probably tell me it sounds like a great way to cure insomnia. But Wallace successfully invests his characters and their surroundings with an almost mystical air, suggesting that what lies on the other side of utter dullness is brilliant transcendence -- and I would argue that the book itself performs the same trick for the reader.
Wallace spends a lot of time outlining the overwhelmingly complicated organizational structures of the IRS over the course of The Pale King, with quick one- to two-page rundowns of branches, divisions, and subdivisions contained within the Service hierarchy (along with brief flashbacks to characters' pasts that aren't tied to any particular chronological order). We see characters performing the same mundane tasks every day, for to excel at one's rote job as an IRS rote examiner means digging through massive amounts of filed returns, looking for those few containing mistakes that would justify the cost of an IRS audit by their promise of collecting additional funds. One memorable chapter consists solely of passages like the following:
Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page. 'Groovy' Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file. Ann Williams turns a page. Anand Singh turns two pages at once by mistake and turns one back which makes a slightly different sound.
But Wallace devotes a much larger part of the book to individual workers' histories, alternating those bureaucratic descriptions with 100-page explanations of what led an employee to work for the IRS, or episodes from character's childhoods that serve to illuminate other facets of their personalities. In this way, the dull outer shells of what at first seem faceless workers are punctured, revealing actual human beings who lead actual lives and think actual thoughts. My favorite chapter in the book comes near the end, when two rote examiners are having a long conversation at a bar on a Friday after work. Shane Drinion is extremely good at his job -- he churns through the most returns of anybody in a given month and posts the largest returns on the audits he recommends pursuing -- but hasn't found much outside of work to devote the same amount of focus to (including other people). Meredith Rand is an extremely good-looking married woman who is serviceable at her job, but has every guy at the office (with the exception of Drinion) doing double-takes when she walks by.
Their conversation consists largely of Rand explaining how she met her husband, and as her story goes on and on (punctuated by the standard "You're finding this boring, aren't you?"-type questions on her part), Drinion becomes more and more focused on what she is saying, to the point that he begins to actually levitate ever-so-slightly in his chair at the table. It's as if he's finally figured out that the same focus that allows him to excel at work can also be applied to anything else that initially comes across as strictly uninteresting -- it's this intense focus that can invest absolutely anything with meaning or value. And by some miracle, as he becomes more intent, I found myself becoming increasingly captivated as well. Though I found Rand's story initially humdrum, the steady accumulation of details eventually rendered it fascinating in its complexity. Through Wallace's prose, both Rand's story and Drinion's levitation progress from slightly ridiculous to profound by the end of the chapter. In effect, Wallace gives the reader the chance to participate in the very same transcendence of the mundane that Drinion experiences, merely through the act of reading about what Drinion experiences. This is no small accomplishment, and is proof positive of Wallace's main thematic argument:
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, a 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.
This particular passage from The Pale King
isn't to be found in the text proper, but rather in the series of notes that the editor included at the end of the book taken from Wallace's brainstorming around various chapters. But, after all, the novel was unfinished, so who's to say it wouldn't have made its way into the final product one day? At any rate, I feel it sums up the book's purpose best -- for by reading The Pale King
, you can actively participate in the exhilarating process of pushing past surface boredom to plumb the enthralling depths hidden within. I make no promises about levitation.