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.
One small tragedy that follows on the big tragedy of a great writer's suicide is that the act undercuts whatever he was writing at the time. By killing himself before he has turned in his book, the author implies not only that he hasn't finished it, but that he despaired about finishing it, that he found it unfinishable. So yes, The Pale King is unfinished, and yes, it may have been unfinishable. But these weren't reasons to despair—not that we know why David Foster Wallace despaired. (He had a history of horrific depressions.) Incomplete or not, The Pale King is whole enough, a fully imagined, often exquisitely fleshed-out novel about a dreary Midwestern tax-return processing center that he has caused to swarm with life. By the time you're done, you may want to know more about the fates of particular characters, but you won't need to know more. He may have been planning to tell us more, but he may not have been. According to an introductory "editor's note" by Michael Pietsch, who edited the manuscript that Wallace's wife and agent found after his death, three notes in Wallace's desk suggest that we were never going to get anything like a traditional plot or ending: "One note says the novel is 'a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens.' … Still another suggests that throughout the novel 'something big threatens to happen but doesn't actually happen.'"
What does happen is a series of bravura literary performances—soliloquies; dialogues; video interview fragments; short stories with the sweep and feel of novellas; a searching political discussion in a stalled elevator; a cringingly self-congratulatory postmodernist pseudo-memoir, replete with footnotes, from an unpleasant character who calls himself "David Foster Wallace" but isn't quite the author; and more. These add up to a vivid group portrait of people who work at or live near the Internal Revenue Service Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Ill. The events of the novel occur during the Reagan administration. That is, they occur at a time when the IRS, to the dismay of some, was about to be automated and also, more controversially, to be turned into something more like a for-profit business than a simple arm of government, with an attendant reduction of interest in the niceties of social justice. This is an old-school bureaucracy on the brink of the computer revolution and privatization. Having announced that the novel will address these changes, I should say that Wallace never really gives us a clear sense of how they will affect his characters. In the end, he's less interested in the history of the agency than in what it must have felt like to work there at the end of the era that came before ours.
Each of these set pieces is complete in itself, though some are broken up and scattered the length of the novel. Each is steeped deeply in the personality of its narrator or protagonist, as if each character deserved his or her own genre as well as his or her own voice. More revision might have smoothed the surfaces of these pieces slightly, but most of them feel done to me. We don't know what order Wallace would have published them in. They were arranged after his death by Pietsch, who took his cues from other notes in the desk that described the novel as having a " 'tornado feeling'—suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high-speed swirl." Pietsch gets credit for the book's carefully constructed ramp up to that feeling, but it's Wallace's explosive inventiveness, his stylistic variability, that give the tornado its propulsive force. This is what 360-degree storytelling looks like, and if it doesn't come to a climax or end, exactly, that may not be a defect.
Anyway, Wallace had to find some way to keep us reading a novel about boredom, which is not an easy emotion to dramatize, obviously, but one he accorded enormous social significance. For one thing, boredom has a political dimension. As the character who is called "David Foster Wallace" (but isn't) explains in a thumbnail account of the IRS and the Peoria center, the reason few Americans know about the important changes made in the mid-1980s, "changes that today directly affect the way citizens' tax obligations are determined and enforced," is that tax policy and administration is "dull. Massively, spectacularly, dull":
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider from the service's perspective the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help to insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than secrecy.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.