Why David Foster Wallace Couldn't Finish
The Pale King reveals the secrets of boredom.
Also in Slate, Matt Feeney explores boredom in The Pale King.
Boredom, then—produced by a superabundance of unnecessarily technical information—is what stands between us and the truth. Being incapable of dealing with tedium long enough to get to the other side of it isn't just our undoing, though. It's also, for Wallace, our character flaw, proof of American callowness. It's the flip side of needing always to be entertained, which Wallace equated with the infantilizing machinations of pop culture. Our fatal addiction to distraction is a condition Wallace diagnosed in many forms over the course of his career, particularly in his epic and, I should add, often much more boring novel Infinite Jest. (I should also add that Infinite Jest is brilliant and at other times enthralling; it's one of the memorable American novels.) In Pale King—which is shorter and almost never boring—Wallace breaks boredom into its component parts: routine, repetition, pointless formalism, frustration, claustrophobia, the fear of being alone with oneself, the experience of being overwhelmed by irrelevant detail, the nagging sense of being inadequate to the task, the endlessness of it all.
As that list suggests, just because Wallace thought it necessary to tolerate boredom doesn't mean he thought it easy to do so. He may have had a cultural critique to advance, but he was still a novelist, and a very funny one at that. So some of the shorter pieces here amount to case studies in endurance. One very short chapter is a list of "syndromes/symptoms" associated with having been required to examine tax returns for more than 36 months in a row: "Chronic paraplegia, Temporary paraplegia, Temporary paralysis agitans, Paracatatonic fugues," and so on. You aren't required actually to read this list—it's more a typographic joke than a text to be parsed. Another chapter is a brief news item about a tax return examiner who died at his desk on a Tuesday and went unnoticed till Saturday night. A three-page chapter consists of the cumulatively droll repetition of sentences like these, meant to describe a day at the tax center: "'Irrelevant' Chris Fogle turns a page. Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page… 'Groovy' Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file." Phantoms visit those who concentrate too hard for too long on tax returns. One such ghost natters on wittily about philosophy and literature to a tormented young examiner whom one doubts has read Pascal's Penseesor La Rouchefoucauld's letters to Horace Walpole, so he probably didn't just hallucinate his visitant into being. Extreme boredom, in Wallace's hands, is more than just an existential condition; it's a conduit to the supernatural.
At another level, though, braving boredom is, for Wallace, the last remaining form of heroism. One hero of Pale King, insofar as there are any, is a low-level IRS employee named Chris Fogle who describes at great but entertaining length the epiphany that turned him from a college-student "wastoid" in the late 1970s into a sober accountant with a sense of having been called to his profession. Fogle's monologue has the chastened intensity of one of Philip Roth's late-in-life recantations, and Pietsch has tellingly placed it at the heart of the novel.
Fogle relates what has to be the most unusual conversion experience in confessional narrative. It begins with an amphetamine called Obetrol under whose influence he homes in on "the little embedded strings and clots" on his dorm room wall that "painters tend to leave when they're paid by the job and not by the hour," which leads to the druggy revelation that "if you really look at something, you can almost always tell what type of wage structure the person who made it was on." Obetrol introduces Fogle to the sensation of being self-aware, "doubled," he calls it, such that some time later, while wasting time watching As The World Turns,he is able to see himself well enough to realize that the repeated announcement, "You're watching As the World Turns," is horribly, literally true: "It was beyond being feckless or a wastoid—it's like I wasn't even there." Fogle's sense of vocation is awakened a few days later, when he mistakenly wanders into an Advanced Tax seminar whose Jesuit accounting professor is delivering a powerfully persuasive summation on the last day of class. His message also happens to be the novel's Big Message.
Heroism, this father tells his students, "by which I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or tales of childhood … is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer." The man of courage in the age of prolixity sifts relevant from irrelevant data. He stanches their anarchic flow. "Yesterday's hero … penetrated, tamed, hewed, shaped, made, brought things into being. Yesterday's hero generated facts," the accounting professor proclaims. "Gentleman, the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts."
This is Wallace in full prophetic mode, announcing and denouncing the advent of the Internet (even though the Internet hadn't been named in Fogle's time). The author's observations about the indispensability of sitzfleisch may be as apt for novelists as they are for IRS employees, but, luckily for readers, it is the employees themselves who advance them, with surprising plausibility. Wallace's organization men aren't the bumbling, malign time-servers we expect to see in contemporary literature and cinema, where we are usually treated to a knee-jerk hatred of big institutions. Though we know that the obsolescence of these men (it is mostly men) is upon them, they don't know that, and they care deeply about what they do, have thought hard about it, and talk about it uncommonly well. The Jesuit father appears to be a former IRS official. In the chapter involving the stuck elevator, three top brass at the regional examination center trapped in that small, dark space—the lights have also gone out—hold an impromptu, graduate-level civics seminar on the Republican tax revolt, the rise of corporations, and the phenomenon of politicians who run against the government. Maybe it's the 1960s that has made people hate the government, one of them speculates. Perhaps it's the elevation of the corporate principle of "individual reward without individual obligation" ("the worker's obligations are to the executives, and the executives' obligations are to the CEO," and so on up to the stockholders: "It's a fugue of evaded responsibility"). In any case, their position at the helm of a tax-return center allows the officials to see "civic attitudes close up" ("there's nothing more concrete than a tax payment"), and they grasp that "that something queer is going on in terms of civics and selfishness in this country."
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.