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David Foster Wallace: The Pale King

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

DFW, as it seems fashionable to call him, died before completing this novel. After he killed himself, his literary agent and his widow went through his office and found nearly 250 pages of manuscript as well as numerous other pages, both printed out and on his computer and on discs, as well as lots of notes. Michael Pietsch, then Executive Vice President and Publisher of Little, Brown and Company, was given the task of putting all of this data into a coherent whole. Her tried to follow what he thought was DFW’s plan but this was not always possible as the work was clearly incomplete. More particularly, there did not seem to be an obvious plot or an obvious ending. He claims to have edited obvious factual matters and grammatical errors but allowing such errors as different than and Saachi and Saachi shows that he was far from perfect at this task. However, he willingly admits that the novel would have been different had DFW lived and finished it, so this is the best we are going to get and it is probably unfair to judge it as a finished novel.

In his notes, DFW says that the novel is a series of setups for thing to happen but nothing ever happens. Pietsch posits that it was possibly the intent of DFW to leave a sense of incompleteness. Flaubert once stated that he wanted to write a book about nothing. It could be argued that Beckett almost succeeded. While this book is not about nothing, it is clearly an attempt to describe a life of utter triviality and boredom and, while not Flaubert and Beckett, DFW just about manages to succeed in creating this perception while not over-boring the reader. I say just about because I feel that there are parts, e.g. in describing IRS regulations, where he very nearly does bore us to death but you feel that, had he lived, this would have been altered.

The basic plot, if we can call it that, is the story of a group of IRS agents, both in their early, pre-employment days and while they are working for an IRS Examinations Centre in what is generally agreed to be a very boring place, namely Peoria, Illinois. Virtually all of these people are not only in themselves very boring but, in most cases, have personal problems. One sweats profusely for no apparent reason. Another, called David Foster Wallace, who, he claims, is the author himself though, of course, the real DFW was not an IRS employee, has very severe skin problems. One, who later will become the Deputy Head of Personnel at the Peoria Centre, is so obsequious that people seem to have an irrational and extreme dislike of him which they can neither explain nor justify. We learn a lot, sometimes too much, about the early lives of these people. We also learn about the IRS, much of which really is boring, though we do glean some interesting facts. For example, all new IRS staff get a new Social Security number which they will keep for the rest of their life, even if they leave the IRS soon after. And we also learn about their working life, again with amusing anecdotes, such as the story of the man, who worked in an open-plan office with lots of other staff, who died on the job and whose death was not noticed for four days and then only by the cleaners who found him on Sunday.

However, much of the story is recounting in great detail matters which are, as I said, very boring. For example, when the David Foster Wallace character first arrives at Peoria (having been transferred from Rome – it is not clear whether it is Rome, Georgia or Rome, New York), we get a very detailed account of his journey from the airport to the IRS Centre. There is a huge traffic problem and the DFW character gives us a detailed examination of what he sees as the problem (road works, traffic lights, selfish drivers and so on) as well as his plans for improving the situation. As he arrives at the Centre, he then goes into some detail with his criticisms of the new employee induction process. This is soon followed by a detailed outline of the orientation process, with the various trainers interrupting one another but also using a whole range of jargon, acronyms and procedures which might have made sense to the agents but certainly will not make sense to the average reader. As I said this could be very boring and sometimes is but, on the whole, DFW’s skill makes it a convincing and non-boring way to describe boring, just as Flaubert’s book on nothing would doubtless have been fascinating.

Ultimately, and perhaps unfairly, we have to judge the book on what we get. As I said, there is no plot. Pietsch has assembled what he found and all too often what he found looks like miscellaneous sections whose only unifying thread is the Peoria IRS Centre, so that we might jump from one section involving an IRS audit to the next involving a set of different IRS agents chatting in a bar, without any obvious link. Of course, this might be the point – that it is random and boring because life is random and boring and DFW wants to illustrate this. Sadly, we will be never know whether there was to be more, such as a plot, a more or less conventional ending or even an identifiable hero. None of the IRS agents we meet are people we would wish to meet in real life, IRS agents or not. Despite these remarks, I do feel that it was an interesting and creditable work and it can only make us regret that it was never finished and make us regret that, with DFW’s death, a great talent was lost.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Viking