cambridge book review

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown 2011

Reviewed by Dwight Allen

 How to Levitate

It is almost impossible to read David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Pale King, and put his death out of your mind. The awful fact of his suicide (in 2008, when he was forty-six) has been “incised” (to use a word twice used in the opening two-page chapter, a kind of Midwestern aubade full of death, an anti-pastoral pastoral) in the forefront of your head long before the author, in the second chapter, introduces us to the first of his crew of Internal Revenue Service employees, a low-level auditor named Claude Sylvanshine, who is flying from Chicago to an IRS post in Peoria on “a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck.”

And then there is the problem, if one is the sort of reader who might want to attempt strict textual analysis, of the presence of two “David Wallace”s in the novel, both IRS employees in the Peoria office, one of whom is also the “author” and who is said to have, in addition to other afflictions, a “severe/disfiguring” skin condition, which, of course, causes people to stare at him. (The actual Wallace was somewhat ambivalent about the attention paid to him.) Wallace may have come to regard metafiction as a “permanent migraine,” but he made extensive and often hilarious use of it in The Pale King. It’s even possible to imagine that he took some pleasure in writing the long “Author, here” chapters, in which he does, among other so-called tricks, coruscating send-ups of memoirists and some wonderful bits of slapstick comedy (see, for instance, in Chapter 24, a scene in which an IRS employee tumbles from a parking lot road into a drainage ditch outside Peoria headquarters, a moment observed by the “author” from within an AMC Gremlin packed with other sweating IRS personnel). The notion that Wallace died of boredom with himself, advanced by his friend Jonathan Franzen in a 2011 New Yorker article (reprinted this spring in an essay collection called Farther Away), seems off, if the pleasure that Wallace gives us is any sign of how he felt about his work. (It is a more serious misperception to assert, as some admirers [not Franzen] wishing to confer sainthood on him have, that late-period Wallace—they are thinking mostly of the Wallace who gave the Kenyon College commencement speech—was “against” irony; it could be said that he was “against” snarkiness and cruelty, but nothing he wrote, especially The Pale King, could have been written without a highly developed sense of irony.) Wallace was an honest writer, honest about the demons that pop up in every corner of his work, and despite his public modesty and private self-loathing, it’s difficult to imagine that he didn’t experience, during the many years of his struggle to write The Pale King, any of the joy his writing so often gives his readers.

The Pale King was lovingly and painstakingly assembled by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, from, in Pietsch’s words, “an unorganized [i.e., unsequenced] heap of writings” found on Wallace’s desk and on computer disks. Two hundred and fifty manuscript pages, or twelve of the fifty chapters, Pietsch considered to be polished and finished. (Among these were the two “Author, here” chapters, and the near-one-hundred pages of Chapter 22, a kind of conversion story about a Chicagoland “wastoid” named Chris Fogle who is moved by a Jesuit professor’s lecture on Advanced Tax accounting to join the “Service.”) About a fifth of the novel Pietsch took from handwritten drafts, and to all of this, he appended some of the notes Wallace had made regarding characters and plot matters. In the paperback edition of the novel, published this spring, Pietsch, with the help of Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell, has added four drafts of chapters not included in the hardcover version. Pietsch told me that he had decided that these four pieces, while “interesting enough,” were too “confusing or provisional” to fit into the hardcover edition, and he has not now attempted to shoehorn them into the body of the novel.

In one of these newly added scenes there is a reference to a revenue officer named Shane Drinion, a character who does not appear at all until Chapter 46, almost 450 pages into the book. Though Chapter 46 is one of the longest chapters in the book, it was not among the dozen chapters that Pietsch considered polished and finished. Pietsch told me that even though Wallace had done some editing on a typescript of the chapter, he concluded that the chapter was “still pretty raw for [Wallace]” and “definitely not finished and polished by his standards.”

Chapter 46 is set during a Happy Hour in a Peoria bar that attracts a certain grade of revenue officer, including Shane (Mr. X) Drinion, whose dweebish, blank exterior leads some of his co-workers to refer to him as “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” (Mr. X is short for Mr. Excitement.) He is “a bit of a mouth-breather” and “there is a kind of ambient unsonic hum about him.” During the Friday afternoon Happy Hour (drink specials are “indexed to the approximate cost of gasoline and vehicle depreciation involved in the 2.3 mile drive” from the IRS office to the bar, Wallace writes with a straight face), Drinion sits across from an officer named Meredith Rand, one of the two central female characters in the novel. (The other, Toni Ware, the child of a trailer park liaison who is “begat in one car and born in another” and raped in yet others and who, like every other damaged character in the novel, eventually finds work in the IRS’s Peoria branch, inspired Wallace to write perhaps the weirdest chapter in the novel, set at a Peoria Quik Stop, and also the most brutally violent one.) Rand, who is said to be “wrist-bitingly attractive,” sees more in Drinion than others do. What she sees is a version of her husband, Ed, who worked as a “ward attendant” in a mental institution where Rand had landed as a teenager because she was a “cutter.” Rand regarded her prettiness as an affliction, a box she believed she couldn’t escape, and in response she repeatedly cut herself.

It has been often said that The Pale King is “about” boredom—Wallace’s IRS employees, each laboring in total obscurity and each beset with one wound or another, are us—but boredom is a given for Wallace, a given that he nonetheless anatomizes with brilliant, hilarious, clinical precision. (The novel is set in the mid-eighties, prior to the digital revolution, which freed Wallace from having to write about contemporary IRS agents who might, for instance, fall into drainage ditches as the result of trying to play Angry Birds while walking narrow access roads. It could be said that Wallace’s pre-iPad characters experience more varieties of boredom, including the sort that Bartleby the Scrivener experienced a century and a half ago, than do those of us glued to our screens today.) The question for every bored but somewhat self-aware character in the novel is how to come unstuck from boredom (or terminal self-absorption).

To some degree, the conversation between Rand and Drinion—in which Rand (“a yammerer of the most dire kind,” in the estimation of her colleagues) is, at various moments, charming and snarky and clever and needling—resembles a dialogue between a patient and a model therapist. The nerdy, seemingly affectless, unjudgmental Drinion pays “close, intense attention” to whatever Rand says, an attention that, as Rand sees it, has nothing to do with any romantic aspirations on his part. Drinion has the qualities that her husband, Ed, her uncredentialed mental ward “therapist” whose own special burden is cardiomyopathy, has—the capacity to listen closely and “immerse” himself in someone who is not himself or something that is not about him. This is a capacity that the extremely intelligent and extremely self-conscious Rand—a person whose defenses are elaborate but not so rigid or labyrinthine that she can’t see beyond them—recognizes in others but doesn’t fully embody herself. Like almost every other character in the novel (the “pathologically nice” Leonard Steyck, the phobic “sweater” David Cusk, the “locked-up” Christian believer Lane Dean, Jr., the logorrheic Chris Fogle, Claude Sylvanshine of the machinelike brilliance, the “author”), Rand is unhappily stuck inside herself, despite having, after her tete-a-tetes with Ed Rand, “grown up” and ceased to cut herself. She notices, for instance, that Drinion seems to get taller during the course of their conversation, but she doesn’t really pursue this observation.

Drinion is the only character in the book whom Wallace describes as “happy.” He says this in one of the notes to the novel, however, not in the body of the text. Wallace trusted his readers enough to see what it might mean if, for instance, he gave Drinion the literal ability to levitate when immersed. Drinion rises a couple of centimeters above his chair when listening to Meredith Rand, and he occasionally gets a little higher while at work. “One night someone comes into the office and sees Drinion floating upside down over his desk with his eyes glued to a complex return, Drinion himself unaware of the levitating thing by definition, since it is only when his attention is completely on something else that the levitation happens.”

Drinion has something of the Holy Fool (or Holy Nerd) about him, and he is clearly meant to be an exemplary human being, but it may be a mistake to think that he carries the moral weight of the novel, particularly in light of the fact that he is absent from the book ninety percent of the time.

At least one reviewer, Jonathan Raban in the New York Review of Books (May 12, 2011), has said that Wallace resorted to “a supernatural trick” in giving Drinion an ability to levitate. Raban went on to say that Wallace’s “basic idea of penetrating the drudgery of the grown-up world and emerging on its far side in possession of transcendent revelation” was clearly “unrealized” and that “when it came to morals, [Wallace] had a deep fundamentalist streak.”

Underlying Raban’s criticism is the assumption that a novelist such as Wallace begins with an “idea” and then simply illustrates it (or fails to). This seems like a narrow, schematic view of fiction writing and doesn’t allow for the possibility that even if a writer begins a novel with a controlling or “basic” idea—but how many novelists actually say to themselves something like, Now I will write a novel about boredom and happiness?—he can be led off in many different and contradictory directions in the course of writing. Fiction writing is surely more improvisation than it is engineering from a blueprint, and I’d guess that to most writers it is also more about scenes, characters, weather, details, jokes, and the rhythms of the sentences than it is about whatever lofty ideas can supposedly be extracted ex post facto from those more elemental things. Writers, whether avant-gardists or social realists, who are most interested in illustrating ideas are likely to be propagandists (and bores), and Wallace was neither. Wallace said somewhere that fiction writing should be “passionately moral, morally passionate,” but he was not a blowhard moralist or a Capital W writer with an agenda. He spends hardly any time in Chapter 46 writing about Drinion’s capacity to levitate. (Elsewhere in the novel, little direct attention is paid to the “idea” of transcendence, even though the possibility of it is implicit in the many scenes in which Wallace shows us the myriad, funny, heart-rending ways his characters suffer in their preoccupation with themselves.) In fact, the three moments in which Drinion levitates are set down almost in passing and with no or only minimal comment, and like Rand, we barely notice them. It may be that Wallace wished them to be barely noticed, and it may also be that, given the “definitely” unfinished state of this chapter, Wallace may have refined those brief passages further, had he continued on.

In his New Yorker article, Jonathan Franzen says that for Wallace, “Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him . . . he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.” Twelve years ago, Michael Pietsch (a longtime friend of mine) told me that Wallace had compared the writing of The Pale King to trying to carry a big sheet of plywood through a windstorm. (In this image, one may see again Wallace’s great gift as a writer of comic pathos; he could do with words what Chaplin or Keaton could do with their bodies.) More recently, Pietsch wrote to say that he sometimes sees Wallace’s book as “a journal of his struggle to live, and an attempt to get at what makes life worthwhile.”

Franzen believes that the novel Wallace left behind was a failure, and he believes that Wallace had regarded it as such, too, and that, in effect, Wallace had come to believe that writing was no longer worthwhile. I didn’t know Wallace at all, but based on the evidence of this novel, I’d take Pietsch’s more hopeful view, that Wallace was trying to come unstuck and believed it was worth his while to try to do so and thought of his writing as a way of understanding how to do it.

And is it really true, as Franzen suggests, that Wallace saw his writing as the single source of his salvation, as “the best solution to the existential problem of solitude?” (Can there be such a thing as a “solution” to an “existential problem”? Solitude is a condition that will persist whether we are happy or severely depressed, whether we write a great, finished novel or fail at whatever task we set for ourselves. Wallace’s problem seemed to be the actual human being named David Foster Wallace.) Or is Franzen’s opinion more that of another writer trying to describe the value of his own work to himself? In her conversation with Drinion, Rand points out that it is “a child’s fantasy” to “deep down expect somebody else to gallop up and save you” from yourself. Surely Wallace understood that his writing wasn’t going to save him from himself, even if he was able to “immerse” himself in it periodically. It is Rand, rather than Drinion, of course, whom Wallace most resembles. Rand stops cutting herself because she simply stops doing it, not because someone has explained to her why she does it. (“All that matters is to not do it,” she says. “Only I can decide to stop it.”) Wallace couldn’t stop cutting himself.

But what Wallace has given us in The Pale King—however incomplete it is and whatever he may have thought of the “heap” of writing that the book was when he left it on his desk—is far from a “failure.” Despite the holes and contradictions and repetitions and narrative lines unfollowed, despite the presence of certain ingrained Wallace tics, The Pale King is full of the sort of life that we find in the books of only our greatest writers. It is imaginative, brainy, funny, beautiful, and humane. Deep into the Rand-Drinion chapter, Wallace jumps ahead to show Rand remembering (as her husband drives her home from the bar) what she felt like during the tete-a-tete with Drinion. What Rand remembers is a bit like what it sometimes feels like to read The Pale King—that happy sensation of immersion, a sensation that comes over us even as the ghost of the author swims in the air about us. Here is a part of what Rand remembers:

At one or two points she’d even felt she could feel the exact shape of her eyeballs against her lids’ insides when she blinked—she was aware when she blinked. The only kind of experience she could associate with it involved their cat that she’d had when she was a girl before it got hit by a car and the way she could sit with the cat in her lap and stroke the cat and feel the rumble of the cat’s purring and feel every bit of the texture of the cat’s warm fur and the muscle and bone beneath that, and that she could sit for long periods of time stroking the cat and feeling it with her eyes half-shut as if she was spaced out or stuporous-looking but had felt, in fact, like she was the opposite of stuporous—she felt totally aware and alive, and at the same time when she sat slowly stroking the cat with the same motion over and over it was like she forgot her name and address and almost everything else about her life for ten or twenty minutes, even though it wasn’t like spacing out at all, and she loved that cat. She missed the feel of its weight, which was like nothing else, neither heavy nor light, and at times for almost the next two or three days she felt like she feels now, like a cat.


Dwight Allen is the author of two novels, Judge (Algonquin 2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (University of Wisconsin Press 2009). His first book, The Green Suit: Stories, was reissued, with a new story, in 2011, by the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Madison.

June 1, 2012 - Posted by | fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] is the link to an essay I wrote for Bob Wake’s Cambridge Book Review about David Foster Wallace’s posthumously […]

    Pingback by Dwight Allen » How to Levitate (an essay about David Foster Wallace’s THE PALE KING) | June 4, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] Pale King David Foster Wallace Reviewed by Dwight […]

    Pingback by cbr 19 / summer 2012 « cambridge book review | June 20, 2013 | Reply

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