One of the silliest things that is actually deeply important to me for reasons I do not understand is the absurd hypothetical of “desert island” books or movies, or “stuck on the moon” books or movies. Something about this question really makes me think about what books I truly love and find perpetually interesting and sustaining. I think it makes a person go beyond simple favorites and into something deeper. The question is really asking this: If you knew you were going to be utterly and absolutely alone for the rest of your life, what art would you take with you to make sure you don’t forget that you’re a human being? What would you take to remind you how endlessly and irreducibly complex you are? Many people answer this question dishonestly, hoping to sound profound. I’m guilty of that as well, I would point out. I believe the last time I discussed this question I answered something along the lines of Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, East of Eden, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and The Instructions. I can’t help but feel that my falls into the category of a dishonest attempt at profundity. When I look at the list I can’t honestly say I could actually take five. I know I would take East of Eden and I know I would take A Brief History of Seven Killings, but beyond that I’m not sure anymore. When I asked one of my good friends he mentioned that he would definitely take The Pale King.
“Over Infinite Jest?” I said.
“Definitely. What DFW is getting at in King is just… really real.”
I know what he meant by that now. Before I read the first page of The Pale King I knew that Infinite Jest was a Desert Island novel. (Not that I can’t take two novels by Wallace, I’m just not sure if I want to be that guy). After reading the first chapter of The Pale King, I was floored by how clearly superior it was to Jest.
The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, any reading of which is colored deeply by the reason why it is unfinished, namely his suicide. Perhaps this could be ignored if it were not for the fact that The Pale King could be briefly described as a novel about how to survive life. How to deal with monotony and boredom. Considering that what a novel primarily fights against in the age of easy entertainment is boredom itself, The Pale King attempts the impossible: to be a successful novel about boredom. Yet it not only attempts it, it succeeds wildly. And as the follow-up novel to Infinite Jest, it makes what is a masterpiece seem immature and cute. For a writer obsessed with empathy and deconstructing all things that make us cynical, in comparison to The Pale King, Infinite Jest may as well have not been written by the same person. King, despite being unfinished, comes off as more careful, better crafted, and highly focused. One must simply try their damndest to not remind themselves that it is not what Wallace actually had in mind. And may even be radically incomplete compared to what his notes reveal that desired it to become.
Set in Peoria, Illinois, surrounding the lives of several “wigglers,” which are essentially low-ranking IRS Agents, The Pale King reads more as a series of short stories and vignettes than it does as a narrative. What hints of an actual plot existing are negligible, and really are only noticeable due to the fantastic introduction by Michael Pietsch and the notes and asides that were published at the end of the novel. This is perhaps what makes the novel Wallace’s most extraordinary achievement as a writer; that he has earnestly created a novel about everyday people and developed in them a fullness that sustains a large novel to the point where having a plot may have even detracted from what makes the book great. Mary Karr’s thoughts on Infinite Jest come to mind: that she believes the novel to be great, but 400 pages too long, and the entirety of the “Quebecois shit” needs to be taken out. Which is to say that the plot should have been removed and we should have never left Hal or Gately for even a spare page. While I think doing so would lose some of the magic of the novel, I cannot deny that it would bring Infinite Jest closer to the level of The Pale King, which never loses its way in spite of spending less than 100 pages on every character with the exception of one (One large section that is arguably the highlight of the novel).
All of these characters are dealing with boredom in their own ways, some managing to never feel it and others constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Moving on from the theme of depression, Wallace treats boredom as this quality of life that we most desperately need to avoid in order to be happy. Yet, the world forces you into boredom by forcing 99% of people to work jobs that are by nature tedious and repetitive. It is how one reacts to this boredom that saves or kills them. And the greatest person, the happiest person, is the person who can live so perpetually in the moment that he or she never feels it. To feel it, to feel bored, is to begin to die. It is to feel yourself slip away under relentless bureaucracy that is more practiced at subduing you than you could ever hope to overcome. How do we save ourselves from it? If Wallace’s characters that enjoy their lives are any indication, it is either to find the dull full of wonder and excitement, or to be unable to feel boredom or feelings from the beginning.
The Pale King is a masterpiece, but in a different way that most novels. There is no moment in the story that drops your jaw, no plot point that blows your mind, no character that you idolize and hope to be. It instead it is a slow burn that you read through your gut. It has the power to change perspectives and reorient its reader. Despite its incompleteness, it’s difficult to ask for more out of it. One is struck by the sheer potential of what could have been if it is this good now.
Recommended to: Those who feel nothing but tedium all day and night. The novel has within it an empathy I think you are looking for.
Avoid as if it were a live raccoon inside your bedroom while you were vacuuming: I don’t know if I can recommend that first-time DFW readers go for this one. I believe one of the things that made it all the more enjoyable and readable was the fact that I had read both The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest beforehand. It takes approximately one chapter to realize just how much evolution Wallace had in his writing between Jest and King.