Book Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

4/5 Stars.

David Foster Wallace’s final, incomplete novel is literally a book about boredom, dullness and the IRS. Why would anyone ever bother reading about that? Well, partly because Wallace had an knack for making anything transcendent. But the main reason, perhaps, is one that Wallace presents as one of the books main theses: there’s virtue in enduring dullness.

“To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe 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’s always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.”

The Pale King is comprised of a series of anecdotes about employees at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. It’s disjointed and unfinished, with not a whole lot of narrative cohesion. In some ways, it’s an interesting companion piece to Infinite Jest: where Infinite Jest focuses on the problems of a modern American culture saturated in mind-numbing entertainment and distraction, The Pale King offers somewhat of a solution to living a meaningful life within this reality.

If you’ve ever read or listened to Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water,” it’s sort of a hyper-condensed version of the solution offered in The Pale King. We’re each tasked with constructing meaning out of experience and choosing what and how we pay attention to the world around us. What Wallace seems to be suggesting is that we must have the self-discipline to deliberately endure the inevitable tedium and dullness of day-to-day adult life without succumbing to endless distraction.

“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, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you can’t accomplish.”

Wallace loved playing around with form, and The Pale King is a testament to this. It’s a book about boredom and dullness, and so Wallace made it intentionally boring and dull. There are entire chapters dedicated to IRS codes. There’s 50+ pages of a man showing up for his first day of work. And yet there’s such brilliance within these pages. Take, for example, the beautiful phrase “every love story is a ghost story” sandwiched arbitrarily in between dozens of sentences about IRS agents turning pages. Or the chapter-long anecdote about a little boy whose goal “was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”—a passage that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The novel itself proves Wallace’s point: that if you discipline yourself to pay attention and endure tedium, you will be deeply rewarded.

“Almost everything you pay close direct attention to becomes interesting,” says one character, Wallace’s equivalent of a modern-day hero, toward the end of the book. We live in an age where we’re constantly bombarded with information, entertainment and stimuli. If, as Wallace suggests, “almost everything” has the potential to be interesting, this is even further incentive to make smart, disciplined choices about where we direct our attention.

I highly recommend this book for fans of David Foster Wallace who want further insight into where his mind was at in the later part of his life.

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