“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unboreable…. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
- p. 438
What you’ve just finished is an unfinished novel. Says so right on the title page, though at least one astute reader has a problem with calling it even that. Essentially, you’ve just read 500-odd pages of middle.
But after reading through the “Notes and Asides,” I kept coming back to this one line: “Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”
So a Frankensteinian thought experiment: If this book had been finished, might it still, deliberately, have felt unfinished? Given an author who wrote one novel that ends in the middle of a sentence and another in which the end is, if anything, the beginning, and still leaves pretty elephantine blanks for readers to fill in. (Never mind how much The Pale King’s hypnotic final section feels like the way Infinite Jest calmly but ominously slipped away.) In other words, might The Pale King have as much of an “ending” — though surely not as much complexity, texture, dimension — as it was ever going to get?
After all, nothing actually happens.
Though we can pretty much guess, given Wallace’s appetite for dystopia and the fact that we’re talking about the trajectory of computing in the 1980s, how the story ends.
Still, if The Pale King ends up being only a series of set-ups for stuff happening, it’s an intricate and elegant set-up. I kept noticing how many of the wheels Wallace set in motion locked snugly into gear, from the footnote in Section 24 that casually identifies the monologuist of Section 22 as “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle to the way we find out in the final notes what makes Drinion the way he is.
Sometimes I sit around and imagine, especially when I’m stuck on a bus for 2 ½ hours or something like that, that however The Pale King might ultimately have ended, it still would have ended up being about being in the middle. About being able to pay attention to the fullness of the world right now in front of you, instead of sort of jiggling your leg and looking ahead to the end. I still do think this book was to some extent meant to be, for readers and maybe its author as well, an antidote to the relentless jones for entertainment that drives Infinite Jest. I’m thinking of the levitating Drinion, with his unboreable lightness of being _ his ability to look past externalities and pay true attention, to be happy. To overpower boredom to get to the “second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.”
Me, though, I’m still on the bus. Bored. Watching cars roll rotely down a highway through somewhere not worth noticing. I start thinking about The Pale King. About the middle, since there’s no real end. Sort of mentally stare at it like a magic eye poster, waiting for the picture within the picture to present itself.
And while I’m waiting, I notice that the guy in the Lexus is passing people on the right like a guy who either doesn’t realize he’s a stereotype or doesn’t care, and about 50 percent of the people are texting while driving, and I’m willing to bet that at least some of them are texting about driving…
And the picture that presents itself is that scene in American Beauty of the plastic bag blowing in the breeze. You remember: the intense stoner-aesthete kid videotaped this bag, he’s showing it to the hot-and-susceptible girl next door. He says, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world.” And you said stuff like this in high school, too, when you were trying to get over, but the thing is, he’s right.
And so is Wallace, I’d like to think, in the very last words of The Pale King’s notes: “It’s the ability to be immersed.”
It’s Bloomsday. Literary New Year’s Eve for some of us in the macronovel fan community. (Yes, I know, certainly only some.) Season’s greetings from the Dept. of Great Minds Thinking Alike:
“Although of course you end up becoming yourself.”
– David Foster Wallace (see Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky)
“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”
–James Joyce, Ulysses (in a passage about, of all things, Hamlet)
Q: What on Earth do you do to follow up when somebody hits it out of the park?
A: You play small-ball.
Genno Kane seems to have taken a cue from her new interest and our national pastime and drilled one over the left-field fence with her post ‘The Antidote To Infinite Jest?‘*. People are just now sitting back down in their seats.
I had heard a lot about The Pale King in the months leading up to its release. I read all about its major themes and ideas, and because of this, I had a lot to say early on. Lately, however, I’ve been struggling to put together a post that’s thought provoking and that isn’t repetitive. When I expressed this to my friend Daren a couple of weeks ago at one of our Pale Ale / Pale Spring meet-ups, he suggested that not every post has to be some elaborate, metaphor filled, interpretive essay of what I had just read. Play small-ball. Just put something up worth reading and don’t worry about its scope.
So for this entry, I’ve decided to simply let The Man himself speak and list some of my favorite quotes from the book thus far. Hopefully I’ll get on first and someone will be kind enough to move me over.
“It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave your attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.”
“Men who cannot bear to wait or stand still forced to stand still all together and wait.”
“One of these, Mother Tia, told fortunes, leathery and tremorous and her face like a shucked pecan fully cowled in black and two isolate teeth like a spare at the Show Me Lanes, and owned her own cards and tray on which what ash collected showed white, calling her chulla and charging her no tariff on terms of the Evil Eye she claimed to fear when the girl looked at her through the screen’s hole with the telescope of a rolled magazine. Two ribby and yelloweyed dogs lay throbbing in the smoke tree’s shade and rose only sometimes to bay at the planes as they harried the fires.”
“The Sun overhead like a peephole into hell’s own self-consuming heart.”
“…at which there was no answer after three rings and a shave-and-haircut knock.”
“The average molecular weight of peat.”
“If you think of the locusts as actually screaming, the whole thing becomes much more unsettling.”
“Doesn’t the term corporation itself come from body, like “made into a body”? These were artificial people being created.”
“He stood very still–noticeably stiller than most people stand when they stand still.”
“For those who’ve never experienced a sunrise in the rural Midwest, it’s about as soft and romantic as someone’s abruptly hitting the lights in a dark room.”
“The bus had a lavatory in the wayback rear, which no one ever made any attempt to use, and I remember consciously deciding to trust that the passengers had good reason for not using it instead of venturing in and discovering that reason for myself.”
“I can remember hearing one middle-aged man who sat nearby saying ‘Simmer down, boyo’ to another older man seated kitty-corner to me across the doorway to one of the hallways extending out from the waiting area, except when I looked up from the book both these men were staring straight ahead, expressionless, with no sign of anyone needing to ‘simmer down’ in any conceivable way.”
“Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist”
“Gaines blinked slowly in a stony mindless way that reminded Hurd of a lizard whose rock wasn’t hot enough.”
*At the time this was written, her latest post, ‘The Ghost in Wallace’s Machine‘ wasn’t up yet, but having now read it confirms my suspicions that she’s ‘juicing’ in the locker room. Genno, Genno, Genno, please turn me on to your connection.