The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Shane's book 12, 2011)

The Pale King was to have been David Foster Wallace's third novel. He spent about 10 years working on the book, having begun researching it in the late 90s, after finishing Infinite Jest. He was still working on it at the time of his suicide in 2008. [amtap book:isbn=0241144809]

What would have become of it had he lived is something we can only guess at. He had been struggling with the book for some time, according to those who knew him. Perhaps he would have abandoned it or re-worked it into something else entirely. Either way, what we have here is an assemblage of fragments and not an unfinished novel like, for example, those of Kafka. "Having read these draft pages and notes, I wanted those who appreciate David's work to be able to see what he had created - to be allowed to look once more inside that extraordinary mind," writes Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor, in his introduction. Later, he adds: "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?"

There are some who feel that the work should not have been published. Clearly, I don't agree otherwise I wouldn't have read the book. The important thing is to accept the work as it is. Its incompleteness means that it doesn't bear comparison to Infinite Jest. That doesn't mean that the book can't be critiqued, obviously, or even criticised, but any assessment must be tempered by the state of the work.

Pietsch began with around 1,000 pages and ditched half that material in an attempt to make the work clearer and more focused. In the introduction, Pietsch talks about pages and pages of 'free-writing' - Wallace's first drafts - that were mostly excised.

What remains is not particularly focused but that's probably more of a reflection of what Pietsch had to work with than the quality of the editing job he did. The themes of the novel come through but the book is episodic and it's hard to tell how Wallace would have integrated some themes or developed others.

The Pale King centres on the staff of an IRS tax office in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1980s. Some chapters detail the mundane existence of the agents, while others delve back into the past to tell you how they came to be there. Another strand of the novel concerns “David Wallace”, the author of the book, who claims that the book is the true story of his years working for the IRS but has to be presented as fiction for legal reasons.

The chapters set in the past are almost self-contained short stories and the most successful sections of the book. Some are grotesque, such as the one about the boy who makes it his mission to touch his lips to every part of his body, and others are more ordinary, such as the story of a teenage couple trying to decide what to do about an unplanned pregnancy.

Some elements will be familiar from Infinite Jest. There is a ghost, a dead father, and there are lots of footnotes. The footnotes, or more precisely, endnotes, are almost exclusively used by “David Wallace” and it is he who writes most like the Wallace we know of old. Wallace’s letters suggest that he was trying to leave behind his familiar style. Perhaps that's why, according to a note included at the end of The Pale King, it was intended that “David Wallace” would disappear as the novel advanced.

Much of the writing is unpolished. In the final draft, Pietsch writes, “the terms ‘titty-pinching’ and ‘squeezing his shoes’, for example, would probably not be repeated as often as they are”. Nevertheless, there is plenty that is brilliant. Here’s just one example:

“One of the window shades was canted slightly in its own roller, and through the resultant gap a plane of light from the southern exposure empaled the screen’s right side.”

The word ‘empaled’ is a wonderful choice. He means ‘to make pale’, of course, but it also suggests ‘impale’ - offering a striking image - and echoes the title of the novel.

There are hints at several events that could be the spark of a plot but none of them is. This is partly because the novel is unfinished but there is also a suggestion, based on Wallace's notes, that he wanted the book to be a series of set-ups for things that threatened to happen but never actually did.

That, and the fact that much of the novel deals with boredom, has led many reviewers to assume that the novel is about boredom. In fact, some have suggested that Wallace deliberately tried to make the novel boring in a bid to have form emulate content.

I think that, in fact, Wallace uses boredom to get at his real theme: paying attention. A few examples:

"The entire ballgame, in terms of both exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself not to."

"He was trying to pay close attention to his surroundings as a way to avert thought and anxiety."

"...the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention."

"It was in public school that this boy learned the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to."

"It had something to do with paying attention and the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it's a choice."

I could go on. The word attention appears in the novel 139 times - about once every four pages. That's more than instances of the words bored, boredom, dull, dullness, tedious and tedium combined.

It's a theme that runs through Wallace's work: the idea of paying attention to what's around you and staying in the present as a way of dealing with anything from stress to mental anguish. It's something that Gately works at in the hospital in Infinite Jest and it's a skill that Wallace talks about in This Is Water, his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College:

"The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop."

The opening section of The Pale King is a detailed pastoral scene in which Wallace exhorts you to pay attention. “Look around you,” he writes. “Read these.”

This same theme appears earlier in Wallace's work too, such as in his 1994 essay about tennis player Tracy Austin. After wondering how an athlete can "shut off the Iago-like voice of the self" and just take one ball, one moment, at a time, Wallace asks:

"Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there's nothing she can do about something bad and so she'd better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound, enlightened in the childlike way some saints and monks are enlightened?"

Which brings us back to The Pale King. Some of the agents and their activities are portrayed as quasi-religious, monk-like even, and it's no accident that the lecturer who fires one character's passion for accountancy is also a Jesuit priest. Another character levitates when he becomes absorbed in something. There is, Wallace seems to be saying, something profound in the stillness and focus required to deal with this task. There is heroism in their facing down tedium and surrendering to it.

Attention is, for me, the central theme of the book but Wallace has other concerns too. The IRS is becoming profit-focused, giving Wallace an opportunity to consider the corrosive conflict between the need to serve the public while also generating revenue. The IRS turns increasingly to machines, algorithms and processes and away from what is human, something perhaps reflected in the scene in which an assessor is dead at his desk for days before anyone notices.

Another theme, again familiar in Wallace’s work, is the transition to adulthood. Numerous characters have typically ‘adolescent’ problems - uncontrollable sweating, for example, and acne - and several of the childhood chapters deal with the challenge of accepting adult responsibilities.

While not as prominent as in Infinite Jest, ideas of art and performance also surface in The Pale King. “David Wallace” talks about his reasons for disguising his work as fiction and laments the fact that memoirs command such large literary advances. Elsewhere, it is noted that part of the ‘heroism’ of the tax agents’ work is that it is done without an audience. This recalls James Incandenza’s films in Infinite Jest, many of which were deliberately banal or focused on the bureaucratic. Finally, there is the character who has an idea for a play in which a man sits on stage working at a desk until the audience gets bored and leaves.

He concludes: “Then, once the audience have all left, the real action of the play can start.”

Of course, in life, it is the author who is gone, as it always is. The audience remains. The action will never start.