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The Banality of Good: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

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David Foster Wallace’s last work, the unfinished novel  The Pale King, is fractured, disjointed, and incomplete; and so too will this review be fractured, disjointed, and incomplete.  As with many incomplete works, roughness adds to the novel’s mystique, and unfinished plot lines stimulate the reader’s imaginative faculties in ways polished and completed works of fiction cannot.  It is a rare chance that we readers get to invade the mind of a master so fully as to behold his thoughts frozen in progress.  [NOTE: For totally anal readers, the passages below may contain spoilers, but I don't think knowing some of this stuff really takes anything away.]

David Foster Wallace is a relatively new discovery for me.  When  Infinite Jest was published in 1997, I was thirteen years old.  When Wallace’s groundbreaking essay on television, e unibus pluram, was published in 1993, I was nine.  Wallace’s work was beyond me and still remains beyond me more often than sometimes.  Since becoming an adult and a writer, I had been vaguely following Wallace’s work throughout the years, often stumbling across a piece in the New Yorker or Harpers, always making mental notes that I’d have to get around to checking out his catalogue someday.

Since Wallace’s suicide in 2008, I have paid much closer attention to his posthumous publications.  The Pale King is the first full-length work of Wallace’s that I have read.  He is, for me, the first writer since Victor Hugo whose works I have immediately wanted to consume in their entirety after reading just one.  (The others are Jorge Luis Borges from my adult life; nothing from college since reading for pleasure is anathema to university curricula; Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka from high school; and from my childhood: the writers of wild fantasy C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Brian Jacques, Dr. Seuss, and Michael Crichton.)

The premise of The Pale King as unfinished novel (or what may have been the intended premise – Wallace’s last work reads like 500 pages of exposition.) is that it’s 1985 and there is a WAR going on within the IRS.  On one side are idealists who believe in enforcement of the tax code as patriotic duty: the IRS is a moral entity, and IRS examiners are the modern equivalent of heroes.  (There is something about the 1980s in particular that elevates the banal to heroic.)  On the other side are pragmatists who believe the IRS should be run like a business: its sole job is to generate revenue as efficiently as possible.  The pragmatists want to replace human examiners with a computer, and they are preparing for a demonstration – a la Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue or Ken Jennings vs. Watson – where they pit the most productive human tax examiners (some of whom possess superpowers, such as the ability to maintain total concentration in the face of pure boredom or the ability to keep one’s eyes open and unblinking for several minutes) against the computer A/NADA.  (From my reading, I interpret the idealists as protagonists – or, the team we are supposed to route for, but this may just be projection; the pragmatists are, of course, “correct” in the sense that they win and necessarily so, which would make The Pale King a tragedy in the classical sense, albeit without a catharsis.  Although I can perceive the irony of having tax-payers forfeit a percentage of their earnings to a machine vis-a-vis the pragmatist position.)

As I mentioned before in parenthesis, The Pale King reads like 500 pages of exposition (I was reminded of  Winesburg, Ohio at several points.), so this theme of humans vs. machines is not the only one – and perhaps not even the main theme – that Wallace develops.  Notes from the appendix and elsewhere suggest paying attention, boredom, loneliness, being an individual vs. being part of larger things, and the nature of altruism and selfishness were to have been explored in depth.  To this I would add the tension between complete concentration and complete self-awareness.  Appropriately, the text contains sections of utterly boring, jargon-laden, and ambiguous prose puntuated by passages of manic and penetrative staccato.  From §9, the (fictional) author’s forward (chapters are signified by the signum sectionis of legalese):

…(C)onsider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex.  The IRS was one of the first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy.  For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it is interesting.  People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it…  (M)uch of the high-level policy debate played out for two years in full public view, e.g., in open hearings of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate Treasury Procedures and Statutes Subcommittee, and the IRS’s Deputy and Assistant Commissioner’s Council.  These hearings were collections of anaerobic men in drab suits who spoke a verbless bureaucratese – terms like ‘strategic utilization template’ and ‘revenue vector’ in place of ‘plan’ and ‘tax’ – and took days just to reach consensus on the order of items for discussion.  Even in the financial press, there was hardly any coverage; can you guess why?  If not, consider the fact that just about every last transcript, record, study, white paper, code amendment, revenue-ruling, and procedural memo has been available for public perusal since date of issue.  No FOIA filing even required.  But not one journalist seems ever to have checked them out, and with good reason.  This stuff is solid rock.  The eyes roll up white by the third or fourth ¶.  You just have no idea. [to footnote] I’m reasonably sure that I’m the only living American who’s actually read all these archives all the way through.  I’m not sure I can express how I did it.  Mr. Chris Acquistipace, one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exams group, and a man of no small intuition or sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddhas that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer.  These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value – they were too huge and heavy to move.  Something about this sustained me…

The Pale King is driven by these themes, but it is also character-driven, as some of the greatest works in the canon are.  Particularly interesting are descriptions of certain characters couched within a variety of creative and unpredictable narrative devices – these segments sort of come upon the reader, and suddenly we are confronted with profiles of characters like Leonard Stecyk, Chris Fogle, Shane Drinion, and Meredith Rand.  Stecyk is a character who is generous for selfish reasons: we meet him as a young child who wants to please everybody and is universally hated for it, again as a high school nerd and recipient of “Stecyk specials”, where all the hard boys who regularly partake of hard drugs and take beatings from hard step-fathers urinate on Stecyk’s person; we find him again as a senior-level administrator at the IRS REC in Peoria, Illinois, where he shows compasison towards a fictionalized David Foster Wallace ravaged by unsightly facial lesions.

Chris Fogle narrates his transformation from nihilist to mystic in the hundred-page §22, one of what I would say are four character-driven highlights in the whole text (I assume §36, published in the New Yorker as “Backbone”, is about Shane Drinion’s childhood).  Here is Chris Fogle’s road-to-Damascus moment:

Admittedly, though, however alert and aware I felt, I was probably more aware of the effects the lecture seemed to be having on me than of the lecture itself, much of which was over my head – understandably, as I hadn’t even finished Intro Accounting yet – and yet was almost impossible to look away from or not feel stirred by. This was partly due to the substitute’s presentation, which was rapid, organized, undramatic, and dry in the way of people who know that what they are saying is too valuable in its own right to cheapen with concern about delivery or ‘connecting’ with the students.  In other words, the presentation had a kind of zealous integrity that manifested not as style but as the lack of it.  I felt that I suddenly, for the first time, understood the meaning of my father’s term ‘no-nonsense’, and why it was a term of approval.

Chris Fogle is apparently one of the “savants” being groomed by pragmatist Big Man Merrill Errol Lehrl to lose to A/NADA.  Wallace reveals in the notes published in the appendix that he intended Chris Fogle to be in possession of a magic number that when recited gives the reciter the power of perfect concentration.

Another obvious savant is Shane Drinion, who levitates when he acheives perfect concentration (but of course doesn’t know this because it would necessitate diverting concentration towards self-awareness); Drinion’s character is revealed along with that of Meredith Rand, who is remarkably self-aware and empathetic because of her excessive prettiness.  These two characters engage in a sixty-five page t?te-?-t?te in §49, which is interesting throughout since the two characters are binary opposites in many senses but somehow have a fairly natural dialogue.  (I kept imagining the same dialogue taking place between Data and Counselor Troi).  I read §49 in one sitting at the beach and got a terrible sunburn.  Regarding Meredith Rand’s teenage propensity for “cutting”:

‘Does it hurt?’ Shane Drinion asks.

Meredith Rand exhales sharply and looks right at him.  ‘What do you mean does it?  I don’t do it anymore.  I never have, since I met him.  Because he more or less told me all this and told me the truth, that it doesn’t ultimately matter why I do it or what it, like, represents or what it’s about.’  Her gaze is very level and matter-of-fact.  ‘All that matters is that I was doing it and to stop doing it.  That was it.  Unlike the doctors and small groups that were all about your feelings and why, as though if you knew why you did it you’d magically be able to stop.  Which he said was the big lie they all bought that made doctors and standard therapy such a waste of time for people like us – they thought that diagnosis was the same as cure.  That if you knew why, it would stop.  Which is bullshit,’ Meredith Rand says.  ‘You only stop if you stop.  Not if you wait for somebody to explain it in some magic way that will presto change-o make you stop.’  She makes a sardonic flourish with her cigarette hand as she says presto change-o…

…Rand shakes her head as she extinguishes the Benson and Hedges cigarette. ‘They weren’t therapy sessions.  He hated that term, all that terminology.  They were just  t?te-?-t?tes, talking.’  Again she uses the same number of stabs and partial rolls to extinguish it, although with less force than when she’s appeared impatient or angry with Shane Drinion.  She says: “That was all he said it seemed like I needed, just to talk to somebody with no bullshit, which is what the Zeller Center doctors didn’t realize, or like they couldn’t realize it because then the whole structure would come down, that here the doctors had spent four million years in medical school and residency and the insurance companies were paying all this for diagnosis and OT and therapy protocols, and it was all an institutionalized structure, and once things became institutionalized then it all became this artificial, like, organism and started trying to survive and serve its own needs just like a person, because there was nothing inside it except the will to survive and grow as an institution – he said just look at Christianity and the whole Christian Church.

§19 remains the most compelling simple description of our polity’s fundamental battle of ideas that I’ve ever read (maybe with the exception of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; Tocqueville gets extra credit because he wrote about it before it happened.)  Wallace’s version is a dialogue between several characters holding wildly divergent opinions and an attempt to sublimate what we’ll call Porcherism with existentialism:

…Here’s something worth throwing out there.  It was in the 1830s and ’40s that states started granting charters of incorporation to larger and regulated companies.  And it was 1840 or ’41 that de Tocqueville published his book about Americans, and he says somewhere that one thing about democracies and their individualism is that they by their very nature corrode the citizen’s sense of true community, of having no real fellow citizens whose interests and concerns were the same as his.  This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers.

De Toqueville is also talking about capitalism and markets, which pretty much go hand in hand with democracy.

I just don’t think this is what I was trying to talk about.  It’s easy to blame corporations.  DeWitt’s saying if you think the corporations are evil and it’s the government’s job to make them moral, you’re deflecting your own responsibility to civics.  You’re making the government your big brother and the corporation the evil bully your big brother’s supposed to keep off you at recess.

De Toqueville’s thrust is that it’s in the democratic citizen’s nature to be like the leaf that doesn’t believe in the tree it’s part of…

Emergent properties of institutions and the symbolism thereof is one of the text’s more cerebral motifs (although I’ll admit that my assertion here treads dangerous close to bullshit).  For instance, ghosts appear to more than one character and one of Wallace’s notes suggests that Stecyk eventually makes the discovery that human examiners’s efficiency increases when the ghost called Blumquist visits and sits beside them while they work.  Around page 400, I began feeling angry at Wallace for taking his own life.  Here is where the reader feels like exposition is just finishing up and we’re about to get on to the big showdown between man and machine and the rest of what will inevitably be the War and Peace of our generation; but that showdown never comes, there is none of the intrigue that Wallace suggests there will be, none of the political manuevering, and so the reader must stretch his withered and atrophied imagination.

In short, The Pale King is more an experience than a simple book.  In true existentialist fashion, Wallace’s soul lives on in the text.  The book has its dull parts, appropriately; and editor Michael Pietsch manages to space out the particularly riveting episodes, flooding the reader with oceans of sensuousness just when the detailed descriptions of IRS intra-institutional structure become too much.  In one of the very last notes on the text, the author mentions that the character Shane Drinion has found a way to sheer bliss:

Drinion is happy…  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.

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