Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality — there is no audience…. Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.
– The Pale King, p. 229
I’m sure everyone else has already mined this irony: We’re reading a book about the extremes of boredom because we loved a book about the extremes of entertainment. At first, it was tempting to me to imagine The Pale King, with its I.R.S. employees doing literally rote work, as a study-in-contrasts companion to Infinite Jest, a story about anything but ordinary people. But the more we read of The Pale King, the more I’m thinking about the possibility of a more nuanced dynamic between the two novels. I think The Pale King might be the antidote to Infinite Jest.
One of the many powers of the Internet is its ability to stick a nice, sharp pin of non-originality into a person’s little thought balloons, so I’ll note immediately that D.T. Max’s masterful March 2009 New Yorker piece about Wallace, and about what would become The Pale King, observed that “properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests.” But I think there’s a way to unpack/explore/pointlessly riff off that concept and the synergy between the novels, if you’re in the mood. Which is already seeming like something of a sophomore-English-discussion-section mood, I know.
I’m thinking not only of Infinite Jest, the novel, but “Infinite Jest,” the monstrously entertaining opiate of a movie lurking just outside the narrative’s reach. There’s a smattering of talk in the novel about a potential “‘anti‘-Entertainment the film’s director supposedly made to counter the lethality: does it really also exist…. As some kind of remedy or antidote.” (p. 126). But Joelle, one of few characters in a position to know, suggests there’s no such thing: James O. Incandenza made the thing in (infinite) jest, and “even in jokes he never talked about an anti-version or antidote for God’s sake,” she says (p. 940). So we have to imagine that if there’s a way even to try to resist this fatally compelling movie, it’s by sheer force of will and concentration — by choosing to pay attention to something else. Something, comparatively, boring.
If only there were a book about people managing to knuckle down and concentrate on something boring.
Of course, Infinite Jest itself has plenty to say about the importance and difficulty of choosing what to pay attention to, from Marathe’s warning to “choose your attachments carefully” (p. 107) to the hospitalized Gately’s realization that “he could choose not to listen” to his fears (p. 860).
But The Pale King goes farther: It’s important not only to choose what you devote your mind to, but to be able to choose something that’s not compelling, seductive, interesting — in a word, not entertaining — at all. As the “substitute Jesuit” puts it in the thoroughly kick-ass “called to account” speech, which strikes me as ripe for comparison to the sermon in Moby-Dick by someone who’s got more Melville game than I do*:
Exacting? Prosaic? Banausic to the point of drudgery? Sometimes. Often tedious? Perhaps. But brave? Worthy? Fitting, sweet? Romantic? Chivalric? Heroic?…. gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” (p. 229)
Of course, there’s an obvious, probably-shouldn’t-have-waited-until-the-eighth-paragraph hitch in this notion. For all that it extols boredom, The Pale King is damned entertaining. Even when it’s stuck in traffic for 12 pages. Even Section 25, in which characters do little more than turn pages, becomes, well, a page-turner. (“Rosellen Brown turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Devils are actually angels.” Excuse me?) As Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, put it in an interview with Canada’s National Post, Wallace aimed “to write a novel that looks straight at all of life’s most difficult, repetitious, tedious, overly complex minutiae, and try to make a novel that is powerful and hilarious and moving that’s about the subject matter that almost all writers just brush aside in order to get at the drama.”
I keep coming back to the passage in the Author’s Forward positing that “dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there … and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling….” (p. 85). It doesn’t seem like an accident that this latent pain sounds a lot like the “great transcendent horror (of) loneliness” that Infinite Jest’s characters are eternally giving themselves away to something to avoid. I do think The Pale King is pointing to an antidote — a prescription for plugging your ears against the siren call of Too Much Fun in all its forms, a formula for making the difficult choice to focus instead on the dull, the necessary, the real. It’s just that, being Wallace, he’s making it easy for us.
*No pressure, Daren.
…on one side and the other a huge colored outline of a human foot.
(p. 163, §22).
3668 = FOOT
I just realized this today.
Skipping briefly ahead to the novella-length §22, we spend time with a first-person narrator who is suddenly struck by his ability to “double”; that is, to not only perceive the world around him, but to be aware of his own participation in that activity, of his choosing to do so. We’ll save deeper discussion of this for the upcoming weeks, but there’s a crucial observation on p. 180 that links the boredom of rote exams to the importance of “the ability to choose what one concentrates on versus ignoring” and which pillories the use of marijuana, an active choice that leads to a passive mental state. Here’s the frightening part: is there a connection, then, between being aware and being bored? That is, does the very act of exerting ourselves to be present exhaust us to the point of being miserable in that present? I hate to consider it, given Wallace’s self-awareness and eventual suicide, but can one know too much (i.e., the curse of the Tree of Knowledge)?
Let’s drop back, then, to the subject of this week’s title: the unlucky §13 protagonist, a k a, The Sweater: “As a child, he’d always been a heavy sweater. he had sweated a lot when playing sports or when it was hot, but it didn’t especially bother him.” That innocence, that “something particular about him” is soon lost, however: “In his seventeenth year, though, it started to bother him; he became self-conscious about the sweating thing.” Mirrors (and the “doubling” they suggest) begin to pop up; our hero begins to find himself influenced not by his own thoughts, but by his thoughts regarding other people’s thoughts — the reflections of his peers upon himself. (This is a common theme of many of the stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, particularly regarding the adjective “hideous,” a totally relational term that means nothing without comparators.) Whereas he was fine before, it is his awareness of his own place in context to others that is so self-shattering. Note, too, that this “didn’t happen in private, at home in his room, reading — in his room with the door closed it often didn’t even occur to him” and that his inability to verify the appearance he dreads — “he could never get a real attack to happen when he wanted it to, only when he totally, totally did not” — is what causes him to assume the worst.
It is here that he sucks himself into that common David Foster Wallace nightmare: the self-fulfilling cycle. (No surprise to hear that Adult World (I) and (II) were intended as parts of The Pale King: those stories focus on a woman so concerned with giving a proper blow-job that she becomes incapable of giving a proper blow-job; meanwhile, her husband becomes so obsessed with self-pleasure that he becomes incapable of receiving pleasure.) The Sweater attempts to become “unself-conscious” — mindlessness at its most literal — and instead ends up infecting his subconscious: “Without letting himself be wholly aware of it, he had started hurrying a little bit between periods to get to the next class early enough that he wouldn’t get stuck in a desk by a radiator, which was hot enough to jump-start a sweat.” He is doomed by consciousness, and again, Wallace warns us that while we are born to repress certain truths, the expenditure of psychic energy — i.e., focused awareness — allows it to break free. And once free, you cannot “re-repress” it; it cannot be shaken: “Consciousness just doesn’t work this way.” As this circular trap pinches shut around him, he has gotten to a point at which he is trying “to keep from conscious thought as much as possible without being wholly aware of why he was doing this.”
[If you'd like to go out on a limb here -- and I'd argue that there's little point in blogging a book into the collective unconscious (pun intended) unless you intend to do just that -- then we could loop this closed system back to the ambiguous conclusion of §10, which defines things as closed (bad) and worlds as unclosed (good). Facts/things are dangerous in that they limit us; worlds/words are wonderful in that they are open to exploration/interpretation.]
The more we enter and participate with the world around us, the harder it becomes to no longer care what others think about us. For instance, when I was bullied in elementary school and felt alone, it was easy to shut out a world that seemed to reject me, but when I started feeling comfortable enough in college to have a reputation, a set of responsibilities, it was impossible for me to not care. And so the Sweater “absorbs” himself in other activities — similar to the distraction technique in which one pinches themselves to temporarily shut out the persisting itch of a mosquito bite — in an attempt to blot his consciousness and unconsciousness, though the “greebles” of awareness persist in him perspiring. Wallace ends with a bleakly hopeful premise: that although the Sweater’s condition has been provoked, arguably, by his doubling, it is actually “his true self trying to leak out,” and that the only cure or balance for awareness may be acceptance.