The Pale King

For the sake of convenience, let's call this a book review of David Foster Wallace's posthumous unfinished novel, The Pale King. Wallace didn't die a nice, easy-to-get death like cancer or plowed over by someone asleep at the wheel of a defunct school bus. He hanged himself after a protracted battle with depression. People go to books to learn things, and the thing they go to novels to learn is how to be in the world. So the natural question is what should or can we learn from a guy that ended up hanging himself? This is the existential question suicide lends to the work of a person's life. It's the first question, and no others can come before it.

First off: despite what we think about big hearted and deep souled writers, great writing doesn't make a great person. A great writer is just someone who's worked out a really good method for figuring out what word comes next. Nothing else in their life has to work. Second, yes, I believe there is a lot to learn about how to be in the world in the works of David Foster Wallace, including his posthumous unfinished novel, even if it wasn't enough to stop him from dying.

In the summer of 2000 I went down alone to my garage. I slid a beer fridge out to the center, underneath bare rafters. I took a length of rope and got up on the fridge, and standing on my tip toes tied it to a rafter. I tied a knot in the other end at the level of my neck. I stood on the fridge holding the loop about a foot from my face.

I can't quite fit in words what was running through my mind or what I was feeling, although I remember it well. Certainly a terrible disappointment, one that suffused not just me but seemed to spread out through the cosmos. I was sad, but I was also angry. If I'd failed (and I had) it was just as true that existence had failed me. I had judged the world and found it wanting. And on top of that, there was the unending pain, of walking through my days feeling as if meathooks rose from the ground with every step and tried to pull me into the earth. Major depression is like that, and major depression had me atop the beer fridge.

I thought of the people in my life, my work, my history, the functioning of my body. I was working up my courage.0 Whoever says this is an act of cowardice either never tried or doesn't remember that part. The next two movements were obvious and fluid: put it around my neck, and step off the fridge. It would hurt a little more, then not at all.

My mind was running through so much that I stood there transfixed for I don't know how long, makeshift noose in my hands at 9 and 3 o'clock. I was taking my time searching for the quiet place where I could act to stop the hurting. No one had any reason to come looking for me. It happened that someone did, and caught me before I could take that step.

In the time since I've done many things. I've had a child since then, changed my career, gotten married, gotten divorced, eaten, traveled, defecated, fucked, cried, slept, danced, and read The Pale King, all instead of decomposing.

The Pale King takes place at an IRS processing center in Peoria, IL during the 1980s. It covers the lives of the IRS employees working there, how they got there, and what their lives as tax agents are like1. The name is, fairly obviously, a reference to death. The book (The Pale King) is about death and taxes, yes. But that all served to talk about boredom and attention, and what it means to pay attention. We who love David Foster Wallace's work must admit to the world up front that The Pale King is not a good place for the untroubled lover of literature to start. The Pale King is a book you read because you already know and love DFW's work, or because you need to read it.2 If you want to start with a novel, you start with the >1000 page Infinite Jest, which is both a wonderful book and excellent trebuchet ammunition.3 This one weighing in at a paltry 500 pages was pieced together by his editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch, since his death in 2008.

This book is his (Wallace's) most grotesque, and this is a guy that really goes for the grotesque. He doesn't settle for mere physical and behavioral grotesque, but economic and policy grotesque piled on top. Nearly every page is unsettling in some new direction. It's pornographically rich in description. This is why it was never actually boring for me, I could sink into the images, spiral down into the specific details and feel the feelings they were supposed to evoke in a dreamy, hazy state.4

There is a character name David Wallace, who narrates. He opens with "I, the living author…" a few times. That hurt, and then I realized it was true. David Wallace the character, by fiat of postmodernism, didn't have to die with David Foster Wallace, the guy who taught at Pomona College in Claremont, CA.

The explorations of boredom and the grotesque must have been informed by his time in AA. I know this because of my two decades+ in AA's sisters program, Al-Anon5, for the families and friends of alcoholics and addicts. I have sipped bad coffee in uncountable basements of churches and rec centers in my life, listening to the same insipid, and yes, often boring, ritual words intoned week after week. After that, I've heard so many stories of wrecked lives that you could write characters for 50 DFW novels out of them, each page more shocking than the last. I go because I have to in order to stay alive. Every time I stop going, I end up crawling back barely hanging on and dragging the smoking remains of my life with me.

Years ago, before he (Wallace) died, a friend read a passage from Infinite Jest to me. I looked at my friend and said "That man is an alcoholic in recovery." My friend said no, he did a lot of research and he's just a great writer, but I would not be shaken. I knew him in this one small way; there is a certain kind of pain that is our shibboleth. When I read Infinite Jest myself I was rocked by it, and it helped me not feel so alone. At the same time, I understood why so many people I knew wanted to burn it and stomp on the ashes. It was messy and difficult, and it never tried to be easy enough to be clean. The ending had a few of my friends ready to stop speaking to me.6

Like Infinite Jest, DFW left things messy in Pale King. It's frustrating. Nothing was neatly tied up, he left too much for us to do ourselves. Nothing is whole, and catharsis isn't delivered to you, you have to go in and grab it and tear it out of the text. Maybe people have a right to be angry about his suicide, the pieces of The Pale King and even the fragmented end of Infinite Jest, I don't know. I probably don't. I know why people are angry, I know they are betrayed. Maybe he just ran out of the thread that wraps up packages, and left his gift to us in an exhausted heap on the floor.

At the end of Infinite Jest I fell silent. It seemed to drop with a thud into my unconscious, and leave me with a story about how people learned to care. The Pale King has made me talkative. It seems to be about enlightenment, about the heroism of meticulous attention. It reminds me of someone who said to me once, you don't work for the light, you work, and find out one day the light's been shining on you for a while.7

Like Wallace I am a science nerd and writer. Like him, I have struggled with depression my whole life. Like him, few of the drugs ever seemed to help. Like him, I have tried a hell of a lot of things. Like him, I have been in the program for many years. Really, the big life story difference between Wallace and I, and it's a difference I am keenly aware of, is that someone happened to walk in.

People keep asking me if somehow DFW's suicide invalidates the message his writing, if it casts doubt on all his life's work. I can't say no strongly enough. No no no, it doesn't. And I say this in part out of my own need to survive. Had someone not walked in and seen me certainly my life would have still been more than a prelude to that arbitrary moment. If someday my disease takes me, it takes me, but it can't take away a single precious moment I have fought it off, a single moment I have shared with you, or a single moment he shared with us. Please forgive us our trips to the rafters, and don't reduce us to that moment.

"It's all inside me, but to you it's just words." —from The Pale King

0. Selfish, yes. Maybe the most selfish thing, but it's not cowardly. Dying is scary as fuck.

1. I'd like to think that had he lived, Wallace would have thrown a fit about the inaccuracy of releasing the book on April 15th in a year when Tax Day actually fell on April 18th.

2. I have one of the syndromes/symptoms associated with Examinations postings in excess of 36 months, according to author David Wallace, an illness of the type with grotesque tics DFW liked to afflict his characters with: Spasmodic Torticollis. It's a nerve disorder in which some nerves fire off muscles for no good reason. My case is mild, but still painful. I don't visibly twitch, my muscles are just sore and mysteriously hypertrophied. According to my doctor's notes, my chin deviates slightly to the left. It doesn't make me a visual horror or uncomfortable to be in a room with; you'd never know I had it if you met me. But it does make it impossible for me to read a hefty book like The Pale King without becoming sore and falling into terrible illiteracy-inducing headaches. So a friend read The Pale King to me. It was my reading friend who found a reference to Spasmodic Torticollis, and cheerfully announced that I had one of DFW's diseases. I said no, upset and confused and a little grossed out. We went back and forth looking at Wikipedia and The Mayo Clinic websites, and my medical history. My doctor's notes said Cervical Dystonia in addition to the chin thing, which turns out to be Spasmodic Torticollis by another name.

I surrendered into the sullen silence of the recently proved wrong and possibly insufficiently grateful and let my friend continue to read to me.

The Pale King kept putting me to sleep. Mostly in the long, luridly beautiful passages of description where nothing much happened, except possibly in the past, in the childhood of the characters. I would drift away with the words interwoven into a decohered dream, just coming out the fog of the transitions between worlds, and occasionally my friend would elbow me or slap me behind the head a bit, and I'd declare a little too loud, "I'm awake!" Eventually I developed painful rituals of moving around and uncomfortable positions to stay awake, and I listened even when I didn't want to. I concentrated as best I could, and tried to snap back my concentration when it wandered. Sometimes I dug my fingernails into my palm, or pitched one hand with the other to keep my attention from wondering. It felt right to do that.

I never fell asleep out of boredom, or at least not out of boredom as I think of it. I think of boredom as annoying like an itchy sweater. Wallace sees it differently, as a state of torture, as a state of spiritual threat, as a state of grace, bliss, and enlightenment.

3. But, if you're like most people, you'll probably want to start with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

4. See footnote two again about the whole accidentally sleeping thing.

5. Now you know why this is published anonymously.

6. Spoilers. Seriously, badass spoilers.

Nothing is certain at the end of Infinite Jest, nothing is wrapped up. Pemulis is heading for a bottom. Gately might die, might not. Joelle is starting the hard work of living, and it looks hopeful, but she barely has any sober time. She and Gately might get together. Gately might sponsor Hal. JOI is still struggling to find peace, even death hasn't saved him. Hal is still isolated, but at least he's in there now, and finally, he cares. O.N.A.N. may end after YG, Orin may have survived, and the Entertainment may be threatening the world. John Wayne may be dead or run away with AFR. But now we know all of that plot stuff wasn't really the point. These stories will keep telling themselves over and over again fiercely, unceasingly, and will always end in death. DFW is too good a story teller to keep that from us. The end is not the point. The fulfillment of wrapping everything up neatly will be empty. Make it up. Whatever. The end is just an arbitrary point where we stop telling this one story.

Like its author, it is huge, messy, incomplete, and made of stardust. It is made of the stuff that gives life vitality and takes it away in awful silence. My final thought on Infinite Jest was another one of those insipid and annoyingly true slogans of the program:

Take what you like and leave the rest.

7. It's probably fair to say there's an element of writerly fantasy to the whole thing (By which I mean The Pale King). We writer types constantly battle to stay on topic, being to the last of us undisciplined slobs of some stripe who are also obsessed with what everyone else is thinking all the time. The elevation of someone that can sit still and do something that looks a lot like what we're supposed to be doing most of the time while we're playing with pets, picking our noses, or trying to figure out what everyone thinks about our writing– all instead of writing; that's pretty easy for writers to fetishize.