David Foster Wallace

Reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and breathing afterward

Melencolia I, engraving, Dürer, 1514

Melencolia I, engraving, Dürer, 1514

After three months of fitful but intense reading, I finally got through David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, feeling drained by the whole experience but kind of sad the journey is over. DFW, as one is tempted to call him given the writer’s fondness for acronyms, is not your middle-of-the road contemporary fiction writer and the topics of his writing as they appear on back cover blurbs are not exactly, well, inviting. His is a world plagued by social alienation and moral disarray where a cast of messed-up individuals incessantly obsess over their own obsessions. There is a certainly a line of continuity from Joyce through Kafka and Pynchon to Wallace, but somehow in the way he bridges the most distasteful aspects of mainstream pop culture with incredibly erudite and philosophical insights on why humanity acts the way it does, DFW has left behind an unparalleled literary oeuvre.

Consider this. A man, ironically named David Foster Wallace for even more polyphonic confusion, shows up for his first day at the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. Posted as a GS-9 rote examiner (an employee tasked to examining accuracy in tax returns), a.k.a. a “wiggler”, DFW works alongside a variety of dehumanized colleagues (drones) diligently going about their repetitive tasks as if their lives depended on it.  Beyond the convolutions of bureaucratic life through the microcosm of US taxation (described in excruciating detail), boredom survival seems to be the connective thread of this book. In chapter 44, DFW learns an eye-opening lesson from his experience in tax land: “The key is (…) to be, in a word, unborable (…). It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish”.

Granted, who would want to read through a 700-page monster novel about the inner workings of the American tax system and a bunch of subservient employees zealously devoted to it? Well, one major strength of DFW is his ability to turn the most esoteric topic into a gripping take on contemporary Western culture. Though the main story line revolves around a man’s survival in the mind-numbingly dull world of tax management, addressed in Wallace’s signature serpentine style, the book is interspersed with small and long chapters documenting the backstories of the personalities that will eventually work for the REC (Regional Examination Center). One boy suffers from uncontrollable sweating attacks, another one is a ‘fact psychic’ remembering intricate details such as “the population of Brunei (…), the difference between mucus and sputum, how long a piece of gum has resided on the underside of the third-row fourth-from-left seat of the Virginia Theater, Cranston RI, but not who put it there or why (…) the amount of undigested red meat in the colon of the average forty-three-year-old male resident of Ghent, Belgium, in grams,etc.” DFW has a way of probing human idiosyncrasies with devastating humor without seeming complacent or derisive about it. Clearly, humor works as an efficient foil for the massive attack of dullness Wallace dumps on us unflinchingly.  It’s hard to overstate the seriousness of the incurable mess Wallace sees people caught in but to his credit he takes humor very very seriously. The passage when Wallace explains that examiners have their own “phantom” or “ghost” moment, a kind of hallucination occurring “at a certain threshold of concentrated boredom”, cracked me up to tears. Regrettably, I can’t summarize it adequately…

In another hilarious section, Wallace relates the “cluster-fuck” (basically a computer error) that resulted in his being misassigned to a higher-level posting and confused with another DFW. This episode gets the customary Wallace treatment of sprawling digressions and page-long footnotes! I cannot resist quoting an excerpt from his encounter with Chala Neti-Neti (later nicknamed “The Iranian Crisis”), the woman who greets him at the REC and escorts him through the hallways with confusing hospitality:

Mrs. F. Chala Neti-Neti (according to her ID badge)’s expression changed, actually several times, as I approached her with bags and a degree of direct eye contact that would have been inappropriate if she hadn’t been holding a sign with my name on it. Here, if I haven’t already done so, I should explain that in this period of what was basically late adolescence I had very bad skin – very very bad, as in the dermatological category ‘severe/disfiguring.’ On meeting or encountering me for the first time, most people either (a) looked only briefly at my face and then looked away, or (b) looked involuntarily stricken or pitying, or repelled, then could be seen struggling with themselves to superimpose on that expression another one that signified they either didn’t see the bad skin or weren’t especially bothered by it. The whole skin thing is a long story and for the most part not worth mentioning, except to emphasize again that by that time I was more or less reconciled to the skin thing and it didn’t much bother me anymore, although it did make it difficult to shave with any precision, and I did tend to be very aware of whether I was standing in direct light and, if so, from just what angle that light originated—because in certain kinds of light the problem was very, very bad indeed, I knew. On this first encounter, I don’t remember whether Ms Neti-Neti was an (a) or a (b), perhaps because my attention/memory was occupied by the way the Service ID badge clipped to her Personnel jacket’s breast pocket had a head-shot photo that looked taken in very bright, almost magnesium-looking light, and I remember instantly calculating what this sort of photo’s hideous light was going to do in terms of my face’s blebular cysts and scabs, just as it had made this creamily dark Persian woman’s complexion look dark gray, and had exaggerated the wide-setness of her eyes so that in the ID photo she looked almost like a puma or some other strange kind of feline predator, along with the badge’s displaying her first initial and surname, GS grade, Personnel affiliation, and a series of nine digits that I would only later understand to be her internally generated SS, which also functions as one’s Service ID number.

The reason for even taking the time to mention the (a) or (b) reaction thing is that it is the only way to make sense of the fact that Ms. Neti-Neti’s greeting was so verbally effusive and deferential—‘Your reputation precedes you’; ‘On behalf of Mr. Glendenning and Mr. Tate, we’re just so extremely pleased to have you on board’; ‘We’re extremely pleased you were willing to take this posting’—without her face and eyes registering any such enthusiasm or even displaying any affect or interest in me or in why I was so late in arriving and I had forced her to stand there holding up a sign for God only knew how long, which I personally would very much have wanted some kind of explanation of.


Are you still breathing? I left out the footnotes for clarity’s sake but their cumulative impact should not be missed. They are in there for a reason. The devil is in the details, the phrase goes, and in Wallace’s case, the details accumulate with an almost mathematical logic, drifting in and out of the narrative like an annoying insect buzzing around. They’ll drive you crazy.

It’s not clear what definitive form Wallace would have given to this posthumous novel but the editor did a good job of pulling the disparate pieces together, giving us a chance to read DFW’s last breath on paper. Next time you go shopping at the store and wonder how many more years we are going to have to stand some terribly insipid music playing overhead without an incensed employee tearing off the sound system, or whenever you feel bored to death or labor over your tax return, have a thought for DFW. He would commiserate with you. Think about what he must have gone through to write so effusively about boredom and not get bored with it. He understood its terrifying power.  “This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do”.

The Pale King (Little, Brown and Company, 2011; Back Bay Books, 2012)

Le Roi Pâle ( traduit de l’anglais par Charles Recoursé, Au Diable Vauvert, 2012)