The Pale King. David Foster Wallace.

The Pale King. David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown, New York, published (posthumously) 2011. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. (F, 04/14.)

This is in some ways the most profoundly strange piece of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s magnificent, but fragmented like any unfinished thing. In context of the rest of Wallace’s work themes it’s not so hard to find the ideas and the strength and humour of his writing — they fly off the page at you — but everything comes in larger or smaller discrete chunks. You need imagination to see even symbolic or ideologic bridges among the chapters. Wallace’s suicide clarifies both the brokenness (he didn’t finish it) and for me some of its depth. What a struggle.

As it might eventually have been completed, the story is of a relatively bland Wallace who gets a job with the American income tax agency. Characters with whom he works are presented, some of them, both in the massively banal setting of their work but also in their formative years. There are events including higher-executive intrigue and possibly some sort of catharsis at a professional social event, but (for me at least) the story is the psychological (I guess we’d call it) development of the characters and terribly serious unavoidable human troubles they face, and we have to face (or at least think about) in reading about them, so transparently described as to be sitting with us in the same room.

To wit: In chapter 6 Lane Dean, a religious young man, and his equally religious girlfriend are sitting together trying to come to terms with her pregnancy. Lane is frozen in helpless inability to take action, knowing that the girl is taking a terrible gamble in the emotional lie of offering to release him from responsibility. It’s about the frozen fearful abdication, not the pregnancy, religious belief, or even the relationship.

It dawns on a teenage boy who sweats in public and is fearfully self-conscious about it that he can be trapped in the classroom into becoming the hideous spectacle he most dreads. Not only can be but repeatedly must be. He can’t escape spiraling into exaggerated and reinforcing sweat and ridicule, even though he knows perfectly well it’s just him doing it to himself, he’s for some reason unable to stop. There is no point of view as we contemplate this boy: it could be him, the popular girl watching him (or unaware he exists), or just a quietly disinterested objectivity. Having lived more than a few of those waking nightmares myself I find the description so dead-accurately rendered it could only have been made by someone who has experienced it.

Underneath the caricature, always the trapped or troubled human being. The perfect self-effacing kindly boy whom everybody hates. The resourceful vindictive girl raised by psychotic trailer trash relatives and regularly abused, growing up to defend herself with vicious effectiveness. The queen of office male fantasy whose husband is dying loving him because he understands the wicked trap of her prettiness, how it prevents emotional insight into people including herself. All of them further constrained in the gray uniformity of the government’s financial bureaucracy.

Wallace is disinterestedly balanced in his analysis of what’s going on at the IRS, and in the financial world in general. Government accomplishes the most outrageously offensive things by making them entirely publicly accessible but always impenetrably boring. Nobody pays any attention. Corporations tell us that as individuals we are the center of the universe. We believe it because it’s what we need to hear not to face our awful insignificance.

I woke up through all this relevance, humour, and depth to a device Wallace uses in cataloguing for example the IRS’ vast tax rules and procedures. It sounds like straight-up support of factual credibility. We know he spent time in the IRS, which must’ve been terrible but for him grist for the mill. But then he discusses in similar overwhelming detail technical descriptions of body parts, and these contain enough misunderstanding and errors to call the whole credibility enterprise in question, like I suppose the optics and math in Infinite Jest.

Finally though the transparent style with its self-parody, and that convincing focus on fear, courage, and personal insignificance are too compelling to ignore. It’s just a great story or set of stories you can take anywhere you like. And then BAM, the book just ends. Who were all these people, how were they connected to one another and which ones to which childhoods? And of course what does it all mean?

Wallace hung himself in September 2008 at age 46. We are told he suffered from depression, severe enough to use medication and shock treatments so he could be productive, and then side effects and finally ineffectiveness of treatment apparently made his despair unbearable. He says of psychiatric conventional wisdom, in discussing the awful accidental death of a character’s father (for which the character blames himself) that just possibly psychology’s views on parents and children are wrong, and that there may be exceptions.

I say maybe there is nothing but exception. 9.4/9.6


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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