(continued from pt. one)
The Pale King is about a group of IRS examiners (“wigglers”) who spend hour after hour, day after day, hunched over their desks poring over tax returns, hunting for audit-worthy material. It’s a work that demands amazing levels of concentration and mental stamina, and which gives no discernible reward: not status, not money, not even the feeling of something worthwhile accomplished. Beyond one possibly audit-worthy return lies another, and another, and so on, millions of them in a never-ending avalanche of paper that never stops. One feels it is the spearhead of an apocalyptic bureaucratic deluge which looms somewhere in the near future, moving towards us in an unstoppable glacial pace. But don’t let anybody tell you that the Pale King’s subject is boredom. Its core subject is the existential pain induced by boredom. Let the reader beware of this not-so-subtle distinction. The novel deals with (among numerous other things, of course, after all this is David Foster Wallace) the arrival of a newly appointed examiner, “David Foster Wallace”, in one of the IRS’s processing centers in Peoria, IL. Wallace (the writer) humorously sets it up as a memoir (pg. 81: “Consider that in 2003 the average author’s advance for a memoir was almost 2.5 times that paid for a work of fiction”) and even tries to dispel various memoiristic illusions about how memory works, hence how memoirs are not strictly memoirs, but include a good measure of fiction. But he also assumes in the better part of the book his distinctly omniscient, and supremely detailed voice which keeps track of everything, from beer glasses’ condensation’s patterns’ afterimages on a bar table to neurotic tics, ghosts beneficent to wiggler productivity (this is called “throughput”) and page upon page of diverse peoples’ histories (plus their voices, perfectly constructed). Although the published part deals mainly with “David Foster Wallace”’s arrival to the Peoria Regional Examination Center (henceforth: REC) and the attending mix-up that results from the simultaneous arrival of another David F. Wallace, an elite examiner posted to a specialized and pretty intense group (the “Immersives”), it also sets the stage for the rest of the book (i.e. the unpublished, unwritten, forever hidden part of the book). It’s as if we’re going to the theater to see just the curtain go up, glimpse the scenery and the actors on their initial positions, before the curtain comes back down with a final whisper, never to come up again.
And that’s what the Pale King is about, in a few words. This summary is completely inexact since Wallace, as he is wont to do, fits in amazing amounts of detail, irrelevancies that gradually become poignantly relevant, and voices, voices, voices talking about the past, about memory and history and character and what will come in the future when we are wholly unprepared even though we knew that at some point something will hit the fan, the nature of which we suspect to be fecal; and of course that nothing is ever pure or happy.
Plus we can see the shadows of his maximalist plan, which has been exemplified, even exalted in IJ, rife with meaningless vignettes thrown in the mix, which bloom into sense when the whole, or part of the whole, has been made clear, or at any rate its view from afar has been made less obstructed, 400 pages down the road. Take for example §48, Toni Ware’s inexplicable, bizarre and highly detailed act of planned-out cruelty, which on its own stands for nothing. Without the horrible structure of the finished and majestic Pale King wrapped around it like a womb, §48 becomes just a stillborn reminder of just how huge this book would have been. Now that I think about it, Ware’s act could be one of revenge, dog-related.
But is the book worth it, at the end of the day?
Short answer: yeah, the Pale King can be classified in the Major Book category. Type of thing.
And the story? The story itself, what you bought the book for if you are the plot-driven reader? Is it engaging, daring, courageous, touching, transcendent, gripping, page-turning, tender and illuminating, intelligent as only a “defining voice of [a] generation” can make it? It’s difficult to say. There’s too much detail, angst and tedious minutiae, no doubt in keeping with the whole theme of existential boredom, to make any sense of the story. If he had been able to finish it the story would have shone, undoubtedly, a bioluminescent flora-bound floor beneath the currentless waters of an underground lake. But he wasn’t, and the story has eloped with whatever ending Wallace had or hadn’t in mind; it has taken your $27.99, or your C$29.99 if you live in the Great Concavity and environs, to frolic probably somewhere in Acapulco. We only get what we deserve for our substandard and pathetic efforts (i.e. simple reading): the fragments of what would (but couldn’t) be a defining work on the pains of the human condition, the penalties we all must incur just for existing.
(the third part is scheduled to appear on or around Saturday, 17 September 2011)