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.
Of course, Wallace could never not make fun of his own high-mindedness, nor does he let the IRS bureaucracy come off as an unequivocal force for good. (This is the 360 degree view.) "David Foster Wallace" has a delightfully nasty riff in which he depicts the Peoria office as a place of "squat, institutional ugliness" and stupendous inefficiency. "Wallace," who gets suspended from college for selling his services as a term-paper-writer and lands a job as an entry-level tax-returns examiner, devotes his impressive analytical faculties to the logistical difficulties he experiences just getting from the airport to the center. The traffic around the place is so bad it becomes darkly comical—at one point we see employees struggling to get to the center from distant parking lots by trudging along a strip of grass that's so narrow they slip and fall into ditches. At fault is awesomely terrible parking lot design, engineered by the IRS. "Wallace"'s efforts to get himself processed as a new employee subject him to even more outrageous, if amusing, snafus.
The character who embodies the virtues and horrors of bureaucracy and yet, appealingly, seems equally uneasy with both, is Claude Sylvanshine, one of the most layered creations in the book. Sylvanshine is simultaneously a high-level and a low-level bureaucrat, and, as his name seems to suggest, a man trapped in the forest looking for light between the trees. A special assistant to an important human resources director, he gets sent to the tax center to lay the groundwork for big changes—probably layoffs—yet he's stymied by a repeated failure to pass the CPA exam he needs to advance in the IRS's ranks. The reason for this, despite his command of office politics and administrative esoterica, is an inability to concentrate, and the reason for that is a marvelous disorder: Random-Fact Intuition, whose victims are cruelly haunted by irrelevant data. Here is Wallace on the kind of random facts that disturb such people, also called "fact psychics": "The middle name of the childhood friend of a stranger they pass in a hallway. The fact that someone they sit near in a movie was once 16 cars behind them on I-5 near McKittrick CA on a warm rainy October day in 1971."
These minutiae, of course, are also the novelist's material. Sylvanshine is a man being destroyed by the mad plenitude of his world and his inability to make the right kind of sense of it. (At 8 years old, Sylvanshine had data on a medical condition that would ultimately kill his father—his "liver enzymes and rate of cortical atrophy" —but "didn't know what these data meant.") As such, he strikes me as a stand-in for the author. Sylvanshine has the panicked hyper-acuity of a man who can never process information fast enough. So does Wallace's prose style. At the end of the Jesuit's stemwinder to the accounting students, he concludes dramatically: "Gentlemen, you are called to account." Neither Sylvanshine nor Wallace can force themselves to "account" as they may have felt called to, Sylvanshine because of his disorder, Wallace—well, who knows why. Maybe the material defeated him. Then again, maybe it didn't. Maybe his failure to tie things together was a reasonable response to an age so overrun by facts that their neat integration seemed nearly impossible, and even—for Wallace—dishonest.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.