Sam Leith is enthralled by a masterpiece on monotony, but is devastated by its author’s death
When David Foster Wallace took his own life two and a half years ago, we lost someone for whom I don’t think the word genius was an empty superlative. He was an overpowering stylist, and a dazzling comedian of ideas. He could be gasp-makingly funny, but had an agonising moral seriousness. There’s more on one page of Wallace than on ten of most of his contemporaries. His mind seemed to have more buzzing in it than the rest of us could imagine being able to cope with, and perhaps than he could.
The Pale King, assembled from his notes and papers by his editor Michael Pietsch, is an unfinished novel of more than 500 pages about the American IRS. It’s about tax-inspectors, basically — specifically, a dozen or so recruits to the Service who arrive at the same training and induction centre in Peoria, Illinois, on the same day in 1985. Among them is one David Wallace, who, in an author’s foreword that appears 66 pages in, is at pains to assure us that everything in the book is the literal truth, and that it is only for reasons of publisher indemnity that he’s presenting it as fiction.
It’s very hard to know how unfinished this book is. Wallace was never a straight- forward writer, and the notes he left suggest — which is entirely in keeping with his line of attack in this book — that a plot wasn’t intended to manifest itself at all: ‘Central deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.’
It’s also very hard, given the digressive and fragmentary nature of his approach, to have the first idea whether what there is of it is in anything like the right order. Pietsch has made what seems to me to be a sensible stab at following the clues, and has given it some sort of shape by, for instance, putting chapters that tell the first half of a given character’s back-story near the beginning and those telling the second half near the end.
And, of course, there are weak, unfinished parts. Some passages don’t seem to fit anywhere. An episode of hallucinatory horror comedy involving some drug-spiked iced tea at a company picnic, for instance, is bunged in near the end, but seems to belong to a part of the story that Wallace hadn’t yet connected to the rest. But that’s all cool. With Wallace the story, usually, is a shaggy-dog story anyway.
What is in conventional terms a shortcoming is that, while Wallace’s characters often speak of their own preoccupations in stream-of-consciousness format, they all sound a good bit like David Foster Wallace. Somehow, I don’t find this annoying: I don’t think he’s quite in that free-indirect game. In his books I feel I’m in the hands of a strong and compassionate author that gathers his characters in, rather than being manipulated by a ventriloquist. But each to their own: some people hate it.
The comic set pieces Wallace excels in are here: the story of a disastrous experiment in applying a progressive sales tax; IRS employees riding round in requisitioned ice-cream vans; the employee who dies at his desk and goes unnoticed for four days; the antic tale of an epidemic of ridiculously pure crystal meth on a college campus.
As a taster of the way his sentences can go on forever — without you noticing, incidentally — here’s the one that ends the story of a frat-boy prank:
And I’m not talking a lover-nip here, I’m talking a full front Doberman-type sinking of his whole frontal set of teeth into the buttock arc of Marcus’s ass, so that even down by his ankle I can see blood going down the Surrealist’s chin and see Fat Marcus the Moneylender’s ass flexing as he reared back and let out a scream that made the windows shiver and knocked the two guys holding Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist’s shoulders back against the row of no-eye masks the spic’s got on his wall that all fell and made a racket and could see the horrible thing of this unbelievably obese guy rearing back and up and trying with all his weight to get his ass out of the teeth of Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist, who gentlemen just let me say wasn’t letting go, the kid was a Gila monster, even as Fat Marcus had both hands hooked in the kid’s nose’s nostrils trying to peel him off his ass and Fat Marcus’s main stooge Marvin ‘The Stooge’ Flotkoetter actually bent in and was biting Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist’s ear and cheek, trying to make him let go, and both him and Diablo were growling and Diablo was shaking his head trying to tear the mouthful of ass clear out of Fat Marcus’s ass and his nose and ear were bleeding and blood was just shooting I mean arterially shooting in all directions out of Marcus’s ass and into the mattress and his pants and Fat Marcus took a shit in fear and pain and his screams brought everyone in pajamas and underwear and pimple cream and retainers to the still-open door, looking in at what looked of course later though none of us realised it at the time like a prison-type gang-type sexual assault gone wrong.
That Wallace’s long, capering, underpunctuated sentences give you too much information is at the heart of what he’s about. The business of accountancy is, paradigmatically, making sense of an unimaginable amount of information: finding patterns in it, and identifying what, amid the overwhelming mass of data, might be worth paying attention to. For Wallace, that is a whopping great metaphor for the business not only of writing, but of being alive in the world.
The theme of The Pale King, simply, is attention. As one character puts it very early on indeed: ‘The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.’
To confront and master boredom is not, in The Pale King’s account, to be boring. It is to be an existential hero. One character declares: ‘Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.’ Tax accountancy, for these purposes, delivers. The weak find themselves floundering: ‘This was boredom beyond any boredom he had ever felt. This made the routing desk at UPS feel like a day at Six Flags.’ But to fight through it is the great thing: ‘It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.’
There are even suggestions that the ability to concentrate intensively on tax returns is analogous to priesthood or even sainthood: a negative theology of dullness. The Service is known as ‘the Three-Personed God’, and nicknamed ‘Triple Six’; characters in the story attest to vocation and conversion; the truly bored-out-of-their-skulls suffer visions; a bare list of the bodily diseases and afflictions suffered by these modern-day Jobs is supplied (‘we live inside bodies, after all’).
He’s joking, but he’s serious. The obvious paradox, and it is not just a triumph of style but a vindication of his moral project, is that Wallace was writing a book about boredom that is not in the least boring. It is frequently — though seldom for long — demanding. It wants you to pay attention (you often learn in a footnote or an aside who the subject of a given chapter is). And it rewards you abundantly for doing so.
Its promise is the promise realised in one of the notes towards its composition that Wallace’s editor has printed as an appendix:
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.
If you’re looking in this book for biographical clues — as I guess you can’t help but do, crass though it might be, knowing what happened — you won’t find them. Infinite Jest, Wallace’s 1996 novel, was saturated with the idea of suicide. In The Pale King it’s a very marginal concern — I noticed, I think, three references. And that, in a weird way, is all the sadder for the reader. This is a hopeful book, not completed. It really is such a damn shame, properly heartbreaking, that Wallace didn’t hang on in there; that he didn’t ride it out. Gosh I miss him.