“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.”
“Every love story is a ghost story.”
I’m not into ghost stories. I’ve never had the reputed pleasure of being freaked out by tales of psychotic spirits, or spirited psychotics, who are about to lop my head off with a power tool as soon as I drift off to sleep at this backwoods campsite right here. I’ve got a long history, dating to Heaven Can Wait or arguably “Thriller,” of failing to see movies about people who come back from the dead, zombies, mummies, vampires, ghouls, hulking corpses or anyone else on this list of the types of the undead.
Yet I really dug the wraith in Infinite Jest, and not just for telling us what James O. Incandenza’s fatally enjoyable film was really made for. Whatever you make of that, I’ve never thought about TV scenes in public places — or actual scenes in public places, for that matter — the same way since reading the wraith’s lament about life as a figurant. And the image of the spectral father explaining the horror of seeing “a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant” (p. 837) is, well, haunting. #nootherwaytosayit (A presentation I’d like to find out more about apparently posited that the wraith is in fact the narrator of the entire novel.)
I felt quite clever figuring that IJ’s ghost was there as a Hamlet echo, so I was intrigued to see the spirit world return in The Pale King, starting with the phantom, half-glimpsed references in the workaday litany of Section 25 (“Jay Landauer feels absently at his face. Every love story is a ghost story”).
I could blow an entire weekend thinking about that last line alone, and did. Spent some of it canvassing for wisdom on the function of ghost stories in literature (#therewentSaturday). Suffice it to say you can run into ghosts that teach religious lessons in stories written by medieval European monks, horny women ghosts in 17th-century Chinese literature who have something to say about female freedom and the power of desire, some 18th-century Japanese stories with spirits who agitate for language reforms, and ghosts that allow oppressed people to reclaim and recreate their cultural history in modern literature by minority American writers and writers in post-Franco Spain. But perhaps overall, according to people who teach classes in these matters, literary ghosts serve to prompt reflection on the soul, the afterlife, and how life should be lived. As a University of Georgia English professor put it in a 1999 story in the Charlotte Observer, “Ghost stories explain the values of the groups telling the stories.”
For his part, Wallace takes pains to distinguish the tax-return examiners’ “phantoms” from the wiggle room’s two true ghosts. The phantoms, we learn, are Freudian taunts from the subconscious, while the ghosts are straight-up folkloric ghosts, the spirits of on-the-job forebears. This would be a great place for a savvy footnote instead of what’s going to top out at an arm-waving allusion to the parallels between this phantom/ghost dichotomy and Gately’s/the reader’s struggle to distinguish among reality/hallucination/the apparently, possibly or at least in-some-sense “real” wraith in I.J., but #movingon.
Among The Pale King’s true ghosts, then, one is a paranormal pain in the ass straight out of an office-park version of The Amityville Horror: Garrity, the implacable echo of the decorative-mirror quality-control inspector who killed himself at work after 18 years of staring into his own face to look for distortions. (I have to guess we’re supposed to note that even in its prior incarnation as a factory, this IRS post housed workers doing detailed, draining but rote examinations. And that Garrity, who writhes repetitively in “a complex system of squares and butterfly shapes” to scrutinize every part of the mirrors, could plausibly be described as a “wiggler” himself. #anotherunderdevelopedaside) “Chatty and distracting” to the examiners, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side,” (p. 316) Garrity is the cynical spirit who later proves that etymology of “boredom” is far more diverting than boredom itself.
The other ghost, Blumquist, is the soul of the blameless employee — the one so “focused and diligent,” we learned back in Section 4, that no one noticed he had died at his desk. (If you think such stories are the stuff of workplace legend, take a look at this California TV station news report about a county auditor who perished in her cubicle about a day before anyone realized she had died). Blumquist haunts as he had lived: Silent and unassuming, “he’s no bother…. You get the sense that he just likes to be there. This sense is ever so slightly sad.” Accepted or even welcomed by most of the examiners, he is perhaps more appreciated in death than in life; certainly, no less so.
I think it’s fairly safe to imagine The Pale King’s ghosts aren’t subtly getting at medieval religious values, Japanese language reform or burying Franco’s regime. What I think they’re trying to tell us is something about the values of the teller of the story. About how not to die, for one thing, and so a bit about how to live.
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.