Posthumous novel on tedium is anything but boring
Author manages to both parody and satirise the popularity of the misery-memoir genre, says Desmond Traynor
The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Hamish Hamilton, €14.99
As many book-lovers will know, David Foster Wallace died in September 2008, aged 46, by his own hand. Thus, The Pale King is a posthumous publication, and an unfinished work. As Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch explains in his editor's note, it was assembled from " ... a neat stack of manuscript, 12 chapters totalling nearly 250 pages", found on Wallace's desk by his widow Karen Green and his agent Bonnie Nadell, two months after his death, plus "hundreds and hundreds of pages of his novel in progress", discovered on further exploration of his office, or on hard drives and floppy disks. In the absence of a detailed outline projecting scenes and stories yet to be written, it is impossible to know just how unfinished what we now have is, or how much more there might have been. Never has Roland Barthes' concept of The Death of the Author displacing authorial intentionality been more ably demonstrated, in the most literal of ways.
Publication in this format does give rise to a certain ethical queasiness. The sound of barrels being scraped has been loud since Wallace's demise, with 2009 seeing the publication of his 2005 Commencement Address to students at Kenyon College as This is Water, followed last year by his undergraduate philosophy thesis Richard Taylor's 'Fatalism' and the Semantics of Physical Modality as Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will. Well, if there's an audience ... More worrying is that Wallace was, as Pietsch acknowledges, "a perfectionist of the highest order", and would probably have been excruciatingly embarrassed at something "not refined to his exacting standard" hitting the shelves. Pietsch justifies the publication, however, arguing: "Given the choice between working to make this less-than-final text available as a book and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn't have a second's hesitation," adding: "David, alas, isn't here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to."
Yet the irony is that, while the proper comparison should probably be with his previous novel Infinite Jest rather than, say, the short-story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace's short fiction can often be fragmented and impressionistic, and all of his work has a certain improvisatory, trial-piece feel. You are at least a third of the way into the "finished" Infinite Jest before starting to make the connections which hang disparate elements together. ("A book is never finished, it is only abandoned" -- Balzac; to which can be added: sometimes in the most irrevocable of ways.)
So, what's The Pale King about? To telescope drastically, its professed theme is boredom, allied to the notion that mortal tedium can be overcome by developing our quality of attention. Learn how to concentrate, even on dull stuff, and bliss will be achieved. Wallace grounds his abstract speculations in a story about practitioners of the most boring profession (accountancy), who work for the most feared and loathed federal agency (no, not the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but the Internal Revenue Service), set in the Mid-West, during the Reagan era. There are sub-plots about the old guard in the IRS, who see tax payment and collection as civic virtue, versus the new guard, who want to run the service like any private business -- maximising profits; and also about the efficiency of computers versus employees in processing tax returns. It's a bit like a reality TV show, where no contestants get voted out, or an episode of The Office with fewer cringeworthy laughs. While such a truncated synopsis may make The Pale King seem like the flip side to Infinite Jest's expansive exuberance, just because it's about boredom doesn't mean it's boring. Because, perhaps rather than boredom, it would be more accurate to say that Wallace's themes here are what Benjamin Franklin called the only certainties in life: death and taxes. Or, more humanly, how we move money around, supposedly to help each other.
Wallace performs a neat trick in chapter nine, titled Author's Foreword, in which he introduces the character of David Wallace, who claims The Pale King "is basically a non-fiction memoir". It seems this David Wallace got thrown out of an Ivy League college for writing term papers for privileged but lazy fellow students, to finance his studies, and so wound up taking an entry level IRS job back in his home town of Peoria, Illinois, which provided him with his material. Thus, Wallace gets to both parody and satirise the popularity of the misery-memoir genre, "popularity" ultimately being " ... a synonym for profitability ... in 2003, the average author's advance for a memoir was almost 2.5 times that paid for a work of fiction". Purveyors of "reality hunger", trumpeting the death of the novel, are simultaneously placated and exposed.
Regarding continuity, there are other recognisably Wallacian metaphysical/metaliterary conceits. His penchant for moral dilemmas concerning motivation (cf, The Devil is a Busy Man from Brief Interviews) is still much in evidence: born again Christians Lane Dean Jr and his pregnant girlfriend Sheri agonise about abortion; Leonard Stecyk, whose childhood niceness "was actually sadistic, pathological, selfish". Similarly, stylistically, chapter 14 reads like Brief Interviews with Disgruntled Tax-Return Processors.
David Foster Wallace battled depression for most of his adult life, but he will be remembered as a/the writer of, if not quite a fellow of, infinite jest/Infinite Jest. Did The Pale King kill him? Or was it just plain old tedium vitae? It's hard to separate the two, or to judge.
But boring it definitely ain't -- unless intentionally so.
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