The Pale King
David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, focused on the IRS, offers us the chance “to look once more inside that beautiful mind.”
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The book has been called “mock memoir”; Wallace called it “vocational memoir.” But I’d call it “fictional ethnography,” a recounting of the work, lives, and lore of the men and women of “the Service,” as they struggle to make the unbearable bearable.Skip to next paragraph
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In writing about boredom – about the mind-numbing capacity of numbers and auditing and taxation – might Wallace have inadvertently produced a book that is, in fact, boring?
Most definitely not. The miracle is that Wallace created a book of genius proportion out of something proportionally so uninteresting.
But then again David Foster Wallace could write a book about doorknobs and make it interesting.
“To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish,” writes Wallace, in this book that’s every bit as brilliant and daring as “Infinite Jest,” with a deftness and maturity of writing that exceed it.
In “Infinite Jest” we see the addictive nature of entertainment; here we see the effects of lack of entertainment or distraction. But in this cast of intricately drawn characters Wallace offers up the rare administrator, Glendenning – dubbed by his co-workers “the pale king” – whom everyone likes and who seems “not so much to subvert the stereotypes as to transcend them.”
In turns satiric and sad, thought-provoking and funny, “The Pale King” is ultimately a compassionate view of the individuals who make up the IRS, the institution we have all grown to hate. It’s awe-inspiring that David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest writers and social critics of our time, should make the IRS the subject of his final novel, and that a man for whom no institution was sacred, in essence found the sacred in human beings struggling to survive that institution: the machinations, the promotions, the fear of demotion, the craziness, and paleness that it breeds, along with the humor. Pages turned endlessly, workers taught to clinch their bottoms to avoid discomfort, tedium tolerated to support a child, and yes, in the face of all this, contemplation of suicide.
There is every reason to believe that Wallace struggled with his own boredom – (show me a writer who doesn’t) – but in his infinite generosity, he also shows us how to lift ourselves above it.