Review of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

No matter how unfinished this may be, it is nonetheless a book DFW spent years on.

How much vaster, greater, or more polished it might have become had he seen it to completion is inestimable. But as it stands, it is impressive in a number of ways. At bottom a challenging document, not quite on the level of I. J., but still worthy of the man, the myth, the one and only DFW.

One notices a lot of “titty-pinching,” “shoe-squeezing,” footnote indulgence, sweating, examining, and people who are “primed.” The repetitions appear blatant at first glance, but deeper resonances emerge toward the thrilling closing, albeit inconclusive chapters.

A main thrust of the work is: Our interaction with the world is in large part an effort to understand ourselves. A commonality in much of his oeuvre.

Many parallels with I. J. draw attention to themselves, in terms of motifs, themes, and stylistic choices, such as the coping mechanisms we contrive to deal with modern life’s challenges, the psyche’s games and gymnastics in service to our perilous mental heath, the inevitability of pain, discomfort, and the fear of said states. – We are all tragically mortal, the world is much larger than our dreams – all dramatized in scenes which will accompany you in memory for a long time.

It could be that the source of DFW’s mental aberrations were traced throughout the course of his writing in the form of his characters, detailed and scrutinized and thinly disguised, but one cannot know the full extent of this theory unless one were inside his head at the time.

It can be a difficult task indeed to separate the author from his work. His presence as a character does not aid you in this. His authority is always difficult to ignore, and wondering how much of the amplified social anxiety, paranoia, crippling doubt, OCD, overanalysis, etc. was a direct reflection of his typical thoughts and how much was put on, exaggerated, etc. is another futile speculation. The “demons of ordinary life” are nonignorable in his estimation. They are the whole of life.

Most sections of the novel could be viewed as successful short stories, which, when united, form a cohesive collage, a dense, rich, enigmatic, immersive, elaborate, unpredictable and not quite perfect whole. The poignancy of boredom is a central gravity well, drawing in and trapping the characters. The inescapable sadness of modern existence patterns the fabric of the pages. The myriad things we do to deal with stress take up so much of this liminal space that they define the boundaries of this vision.

Key players are Claude Sylvanshine (the fact psychic), Stecyk (the courteous), Cusk (the sweaty), the 2 David Wallaces (the pseudo-doppelganger), Drinion (the levitator), Toni Ware (the unblinking), and several more minor individuals, who drag along half-concealed heartbreaks and tragic flaws.

Society’s tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator runs through the whole. The official obligations which arise as a result lead to no end of tributaries. The author exerts effort to bore the reader on almost every page. For some this will mark a major downfall. But note, this should not be read as an anodyne to I. J. It is a complementary corollary of well-expressed meta-narrative. Much more symbolism and satire than I detail below could be derived from a careful chapter guide, which I almost composed in the margins but gave up eventually in the process of doing.

There are also these things to look out for: Status as a determination of self-worth, recognition, validation, being a cog in the system, cognitive systems, the unintended betrayal of true intentions through benignity, many breeches of propriety, the stress-inducing backlog of work as this looming prefiguration of Death, the remedies which must be devised for combatting the physical and mental demands of bureaucratic existence, the obsessions everywhere rampant in our day-to-day grind, the routines, the little pleasures, the tics, how we are plagued by a sense of failure, and one’s efforts suggest progress in one direction while necessitating lack of progress in another, this always running to catch up and yet falling so many steps behind, in multiform personification of failure and hopelessness, while subliminal cues trigger knee-jerk reactions, and the analysis of scrum principles can be a creative form of procrastination, how we bury the unfaceable truths of our unfinished lives, how the recurring images life composes during our attentive efforts, applied to constituent activities result in insecurities manifesting along the way, even given our weary stoicism, the trudge-factor, the essential powerlessness, the illusion of movement, progress, the thought of failure which leads to stress, which creates the anticipation of failure, the meticulous internalization of exterior observation, the ceaseless double binds, inevitable hypochondria, information overload, until he discusses the techniques to regulate harmful thoughts and unproductive methodologies ad nauseum and you begin to feel the tarnish on this man’s soul. Extract from this what meaning you will.

Perception in terms of the all-consuming microcosm of accounting terminology, the entropic details unraveling a lack of connection with others – with no soul-entaglement what are we but isolated animals scrounging in the wild? hunting for importance in a sea of data, which is the analogue of life, in the form of the archetypal businessman, how the lack of variance in successful human beings, the constraints, restrictions, codes, and the dependable fear of wrongness within people leads us down the rabbit hole. How indulgence in nostalgic reminiscence by proxy constitutes this storytelling mania, this water cooler gossip craving, how observation often allays anxiety, and wild extrapolations of conceivable complications arising from our imagination’s proposed alternative propositions slowly console us into acceptance. These are a series of improbable events in the form of cogwheels cyconling out of control in the mind, and somehow assembling into the jetplane of reality.

Some chapters have a more universal quality, and he employs unassigned pronouns. Later, we might infer which characters are speaking, but direct handholding does not exist in this book. Comedy abounds if you read between the lines. He every so often pinpoints a precise sensation so well: such as the uncomfortable sensation which arises when a complete stranger violates social etiquette, crosses the line, and provokes our disgust.

Not to mention the threat of death from exhaustion, burn out, the fanatical devotion to work, the disturbing lack of humanity in the workplace, the human automatons, amid the surprising humbleness, the humility, the meekness of those specific characters who manage to come out the other side, turning the other cheek, yet burdened with the servile mentality, believing kindness is its own reward, drowning in mindless obedience – an astute use of maximalism is everywhere in evidence – all the while insinuating, ingratiating, until dark fantasies inspired by twisted perception consume their puerile efforts.

The disturbing undercurrent of disappointment inherent in all forms of good intentions is all too clear. The startling effect aberrant behavior has on those nearby. (I’m just rattling off my notes at this point, self-aware, and not even believing any of you have read this far – but if you give up on endless sentences and paragraphs before they resolve, you are bound to founder in this books tangled Charybdis.) Where was I? Doubt, the precipice of emerging adulthood, the slide from safe, mundane, and clean life to darker living, into tense atmosphere encumbered by moral obligations. He builds tension in these relationships, subtly portrayed with heartbreaking elegance. The conformity and the accumulating guilt and adversity, the hell on earth crafted by the human mind, the intimacy, the sincerity. Deciding between fear and responsibility, young love’s complications, so much subtext in all this, even though a lot of it is simply stated, right up front. Hyperbolic literary descriptions as good as anything else he wrote, plenty of wild, figurative language, jargon-heavy musings, crucial metaphorical concepts are bandied about, bizarro-absurdity situations compound into goofy, surreal commentary. Quite a few factoids like: Remaindered ice cream trucks were used to transport IRS personnel – to the point where you can’t tell when he is making shit up. Malleable time and constant smirk-worthy details, free associative reminiscence, sentences encompassing several molten layers of description, through osmosis absorbing psychic scenery, inner landscapes. Virtuosic prose, warped syntax, self-referential deceptive intermissions, service speak, the internalized lingo of the Service as its own language leaking into the narrative.
DFW’s backstory offered as an explanation for some of the manuscript decisions, as a digressive essay on institutional hypocrisy, telling us escapism is necessary in a life rife with painful, irrelevant complexity. All of this parallels the overwrought sophistication of DFW’s style, the judgmental gaze, the repetitive double-bind mentality, how we are always trying to understand our personal compulsions, in many pieces hearkening back to sections in Brief Interviews. The art of mimesis and spoof, mixing up rhetorical approaches constantly, he brings down his institutional study to the personal level, trying the reader’s patience by minutely describing the inflexible rules of life which engender madness.

Magical realism intrudes, so does dry meaningless prattle, white noise conversations, hyperrealism, contemplation of abstract freedom, American paradoxes, autonomy, perception of civic responsibilities, governmental interference, corporate zombieism, Nationalistic fervor, by turns didactic, scholarly, civics-minded, historical, philosophical, psychological, economical, consumerist, but always maximalist. The obsession with productivity, the politics of change management, how to outrace insignificance, the ins and outs of groupthink, sickening family dynamics, a satire of period clothing and mores, recreational drug use, catalogues of character quirks, cultural references passing into obsolescence, conjuring that demon of nostalgia. Self-analyzing through reflection on the past, regret at time lost and relationships destroyed, desk life, being a tax auditor as an allegory to being a writer, the state of hyper awareness also described in I. J., i. e. “doubling,” several convoluted backstories about love, death, solitude, powerlessness, meditations on familial damage, divorce, litigation, madness, aging, wisdom, nihilism, maturity, locating realistic expectations, disappointment, self-delusion, narcissism, compassion, faith, directionlessness, apathy, “wastoid” existence, choosing to use one’s time well, television addiction, discernible epiphanies, respect for authority, and finally, the interminable bus ride chapter mirroring the bus ride itself, the minutiae of traffic logistics, slowly bringing isolated characters together, but ending like a choked off climax, just when it was nearing incredible heights of insanity. The grueling and breathtaking chapter which is meant to catch you off guard by inserting a sexual encounter into footnote 67 was amusing. But we have to sit through the IRS Training course chapter thereafter. The accumulation of irrelevant data becomes necessary to create holistic value, as info acquires significance in combo with other info.

Chapter 46 might be my favorite. It depicts the stunted sexual development of yes-men males, within complex social hierarchies and the intricacies of teenage development. The pseudo-intimate undercurrent of the unromantic conversation is relaxing, the analysis of conventions and behavior within the tete-a-tete, all of the desperate, crazy things we do in life are loneliness avoidance tactics. Meredith (the ephemeral beauty) expresses her inner desire to be recognized for something other than her prettiness. Drinion’ s inhuman aspect facilitates this. Above all it startles through the elaborate defense networks constructed within the human mind, toward the discovery of the abyssal self, and how in this instance body image bias in a tavern confessional setting can be as moving as the greater part of life. As a summation, it stands out as the one irreplaceable moment in the whole unforgettable book.

Book Signing

If you’re in Denver and free on 9/12, come see us at our book signing. We’d love to meet you!

Illustration Sneak Peek

Here is one of the illustrations from our upcoming book, drawn by LS Popovich