Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tweedledee, Tedium

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.

THE PALE KING David Foster Wallace

Towards the middle of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished The Pale King, a character identified as “David Wallace” pops up to assure the reader that he’s the author of the novel, asserting that it’s a true story, a “vocation-based memoir” about “negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes”.  If his earlier Infinite Jest, then, was about the ways we distract ourselves with entertainment, this one was planned as a counterweight, the ability to deal with tedium.

It’s evident that this  is a work in progress; Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, points out in his introduction that he sifted through a morass of material to assemble “the best version” he could find, despite there being no “outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters”. As such, fully realized pieces co-exist with fragments, repetitions and narrative strands that aren’t fleshed out.

Despite this, there is ample evidence of Wallace’s trademark, prodigious talent. That means plenty of hyperkinetic sentences, arcane knowledge, meditations on the changing shape of American culture, sly, occasionally bawdy, humour, sections with footnotes and acute visual observations. (A paperback has “a bookmark's tongue”, car seat headrests possess “the dull shine of unwashed hair”, and the knot of a man's tie is “as tight as a knuckle”.)

The plot, such as it is, comprises the coming together of a disparate set of characters at the American revenue services’ Regional Examination Centre in Peoria, Illinois, and reactions to the monotony of life there. As such, there is much taxation jargon – surely intended to make the reader work though some of the boredom himself – such as, “RA ’78 revised the expansionist tendencies of the ’76 provisions by removing both long-term capital gains deduction and excess itemized deductions from the index of relevant preferences”. Phew.

Of note are evocative set pieces, some of which have been published earlier. There’s an account of the growing years of David Wallace before he came to join “the Service”, for example, as well as the tale of a boy whose aim was “to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”.

Overall, the novel works towards the merits of transcending boredom and Sisyphean tasks, “to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex”. As he’s mentioned in one of his notes: “Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” That, intentionally or not, is what The Pale King in its current form lives up to.

Those new to David Foster Wallace may wonder what the fuss is all about. For the devotee, there’s much to mull over here. Yet, the best way to remember the man would be to return to his earlier essays, short stories and novels -- the ones he finished, that is.

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