The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

Review published on July 25, 2012. Reviewed by Stephen Joyce

Where does power lie in the modern world? Popular culture likes to show us ruthless titans of industry, Machiavellian political kingmakers, and heroic grassroots organizations resisting the twin pressures of corporate capitalism and Big Brother. But we know these images are false. That’s why they appear so often in fiction.

The grotesque truth is that power resides in the tedious work of labyrinthine bureaucracies, work both crucial and excruciatingly dull that is carried out by those who either hate the job or are too obtuse to recognize its enervating boredom.

This banal reality never appears in fiction because it is widely assumed to be impossible to write an interesting yet truthful book about bureaucracy. The only people who have come close are Franz Kafka and the writers of Yes, Minister, and even then they refused to tackle the issue of boredom. (Of course, Tom Clancy’s novels profoundly stimulate the study of boredom, but I suspect this is just an unfortunate by-product of his writing.) Is it even possible for a good novel to tackle the issue of dullness without being itself dull?

In his final unfinished masterpiece, The Pale King, David Foster Wallace attempts the impossible: He tries to write a profound and artistic novel about the nexus between power and mind-numbing tedium. Before I read The Pale King I would have said this was impossible; now I know it is possible, but only if done by a genius.

Wallace sets his novel at an IRS facility in Peoria, Illinois, in the mid-1980s, when, as the author explains, the IRS was undergoing a profound change, a mental reimagining from a necessary if disliked bulwark of civic society to a more business-oriented organization determined to maximize revenues by squeezing the public:

But here’s the thing. Both then and now, very few ordinary Americans know anything about all this. Nor much about the deep changes the Service underwent in the mid-1980s, changes that today directly affect the way citizens’ tax obligations are determined and enforced. And the reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. Despite the IRS’ well-documented paranoia and aversion to publicity, secrecy has nothing to do with it. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.

This is the great paradox of our age. Decisions of serious importance, which affect everyone’s lives, happen in plain sight yet remain invisible behind a shield of soul-destroying boredom. Why is dullness so repellent? Why, even when thousands of our own money may rest on it, can we not muster the will to actually read the fine print? Why do we ignore profound social changes happening before our eyes if they are couched in bureaucratic language? These questions form the core of Wallace’s investigation of tedium and power.

Nor does he shrink from the challenge. Large passages of the text are full of accounting jargon and bureaucratic terminology. This prolix and obscure language rapidly infects the narration, often to humorous effect:

At this point, it’s probably best to keep the explanations as terse and compressed as possible, for realism’s sake. The longer-term truth is that since I eventually came to be employed here – or, rather, it’s better to say that I came to rest here, like a racquetball or caroming projectile, after the series of administrative mix-ups that almost resulted in disciplinary charges and/or Termination For Cause in the following weeks had been cleared up – it would be easy to impose on the Level 1 layout and Personnel office a whole welter of detail, explanation, and background that was actually gleaned only later and not part of my arrival and dazed scurrying around with the Iranian Crisis at all.

Like any good bureaucrat, even the injunction to keep it short leads to sentences of astonishing length and complexity. (I have deliberately left out the 17-line footnote explaining the Level 1 layout, so the whole thing is actually four times longer than the passage suggests.) Of course, such language is necessary for the subject. Even when narrating as himself, Wallace is forced to explain how he (the narrator) can describe things that David Foster Wallace (the character) couldn’t have known at the time he was experiencing them, thus forcing him to write long justifications – and as such arse-covering is the primary obsession of every bureaucrat, his prose often ends up reading like a tax policy document.

Of course, bureaucratic life is not simply tedious because of the work; it is also tedious because of the people drawn to it. The Pale King features a variety of characters and points of view. The reader is gradually able to piece together which random fragments and memories belong to which character. There is a younger version of the author beginning a thirteen-month stint at the IRS at a time when a serious skin disease renders him rather repulsive. There is David Cusk, who suffers from profuse sweating attacks and obsessively monitors his own body heat, all the while terrified of something exciting triggering a shirt-drenching attack. A one-hundred page chapter gives the first-person back story of how one employee joined the IRS; while interesting, this chapter feels rather long-winded and stuffed with pointless asides. Only after the chapter do we find out it was told by ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle, an employee routinely mocked for his rambling digressions. Every character has some obscure tic that prevents them ever connecting or even feeling comfortable with others.

Some chapters feature nothing but unattributed dialogue and showcase Wallace’s erudition and humour. A long, multi-voiced debate on the importance of taxation and bureaucracy in modern society impartially and entertainingly presents a spectrum of political views that is not mere caricature of conservative/radical opinions but a profound study of their moral roots and accompanying worldviews. It is Wallace’s intellectual depth that marks him out from his contemporaries, and his ability to wear his vast learning lightly.

The Pale King ingeniously avoids having a plot. I say ingeniously because not having a plot is easy. Anyone can be that boring. The Pale King manages instead to imply a plot that never really happens. The convergence of characters on one spot at the same time sets the stage for a play that never begins. Time and again a new character or insight is introduced that sets up a line of drama that is never explored. A character bringing change, Dr. Mel Lehrl, never arrives even though his advance men are everywhere. A conflict is hinted at but never erupts. In the IRS Centre in Peoria, things threaten to happen but the only thing that ever really happens is that tax documents are examined, day after day, in an atmosphere of spirit-crushing monotony. The novel’s fragmented style, with no linear development and clashing viewpoints and chapters, help obscure the gradually emerging truth, that every day in Peoria is the same shade of grey.

That the novel remained unfinished is a pity but not a disaster. It feels substantially complete. The main themes and ideas are profound and clearly worked out. I suspect the author intended more work on polishing and arranging the narrative, but the editor has done a fine job drawing the manuscript together in a meaningful way. Its unfinished nature is an apt complement to the theme; you know no one is going anywhere anyway, that they will remained forever trapped in hell, which in the modern world is being in a quiet room in a large government building wielding a great power you are too numb with boredom to feel or understand or control.

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