David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished novel, The Pale King – a book about an IRS Regional Examination Center and its trainee, “David Foster Wallace,” who goes through boredom-survival training to cope with the endlessly tedious work – was reviewed today by Tom McCarthy in The New York Times Book Review.
McCarthy compares Wallace to the bored clerk in the novel by “America’s greatest writer, the author of ‘Moby-Dick,’ [who] spent his final 19 years as a customs officer – that is, a tax inspector.” Bartleby is a character who “ends up dead, leaving a stack of undeliverable papers,” fighting a battle McCarthy terms both brilliant and sad.
It is a penetrating point, but there may be a better way to understand and appreciate the novel. It may be Wallace’s fictional exploration of the issues he described in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, in which he told the students that:
The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.
The Pale King is a meditation on overcoming the apparent pointlessness of life, by a person tragically unable to survive it even at the pinnacle of his success as the most extraordinary writer of his generation. He would probably view attempts by reviewers to find an ultimate meaning in it an example of the Kafkaesque humor he understood so well (see “Mouse Walks Into a Bar . . . ”).
Rather than trying to push through the book to an overriding message, it may be better simply to appreciate its flashes of extraordinary writing and insights into the maze in which we live.
Consider this sentence, from the final paragraph of a chapter describing Leonard Stecyk -- a sixth-grade kid who helps younger kids across crosswalks, creates a fund for those who spent their milk money but “feel they need more milk,” collects money for UNICEF, kindly issues warnings instead of citations as hall monitor, starts three recycling programs, politely raises his hand in class but only if he can help advance the discussion, sends out birthday party invitations with notes saying no presents are required, etc.:
Right before 1965’s big Halloween UNICEF collection three six-graders accost the boy in the southeast restroom after fourth period and do unspeakable things to him, leaving him hanging from a stall’s hook by his underpants’ elastic; and after being treated and released from the hospital . . . the boy refuses to identify his assailants and later circumspectly delivers to them individualized notes detailing his renunciation of any and all hard feelings about the incident, apologizing for whatever unwitting offense he might have given to provoke it, exhorting his attackers to please put the whole thing behind them and not in any way self-recriminate over it – especially down the line, because the boy’s understanding was that these were the sorts of things that could sometimes really haunt you later on down the line in adulthood, citing one or two journal articles the attackers might have a look at if they wanted documentation on the long-term psychological effects of self-recrimination – and, in the notes, professing his personal hope that an actual friendship might conceivably result from the whole regrettable incident, along which lines he was also enclosing an invitation to attend a short no-questions-asked Conflict Resolution Roundtable the boy has persuaded a local community services outreach organization to sponsor after school the following Tuesday . . . after which the boy’s PE locker along with the four on either side are destroyed in an act of pyrotechnic vandalism that everyone on both sides in the subsequent court trial agrees got totally out of hand and was not a premeditated attempt to injure the night custodian or to do anything like the amount of structural damage to the Boys’ locker room it ended up doing, and at which trial Leonard Stecyk appeals repeatedly to both sides’ counsel for the opportunity to testify for the defense, if only as a character witness.
The concluding sentence (all of 13 words long) of the chapter subtly delivers a message that neither the chapter nor this post need make explicit. It is a remarkable chapter in a book that has more than one.