The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

July 12th, 2013

palekingIf I had trouble articulating my thoughts on One Hundred Years of Solitude due to my insecure grasp of the plot, you can imagine my struggle to talk about The Pale King, which is literally an unfinished novel.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace is kind of a fictional memoir about life working at the IRS, and this provides the setting for an exploration of the neutral state of human existence: agonizing boredom. But the book is very, very unfinished, published to give the world a glimpse of a relic lost due to the tragic death of its creator. It's a scattered collection of pretty things and interesting ideas, a thorough but rambling brainstorm that was arranged in a way to resemble the beginnings of a novel.

Reading an unfinished novel is a somewhat noteworthy experience, but I found the unfinished aspect mostly a distraction. I start slipping into archaeologist mode, asking myself which parts of the novel are "done," which parts would embarrass DFW if he knew we were reading them, how much was edited, etc. And there's the other morbid distraction, the temptation to read every joyless side story as a clue to the author's suicidal depression. I'll try to put these distractions aside, though, and focus on what was written.


DFW states his thesis forthright in one of the early chapters:

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 is 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 directly or with our full attention. […S]urely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUVs' backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-call "information society" is just about information. Everyone knows that it's about something else, way down.

How I wish I could have a conversation with you, Mr. Wallace! Because such an interesting premise seems so easily refutable. The notion that all idleness is suffering seems pretty clearly false. Why do people love to lie on a beach for hours, or go fishing, or sleep in? If part of the human condition was to feel an ambient low-level pain, why would meditation turn out to be such an effective relaxation technique?

But actually, I don't think DFW was necessarily arguing that dullness is the intrinsic pain of an idle mind. He mentions pain and the need for distraction later in the book, in a slightly different context. In Chapter 19, the employees are having a debate about civics in America, and one employee brings up the fear of mortality and the passage of time:

I'm talking about the individual US citizen's deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it […] Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing we that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we've lost one more day that will never come back […] that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, […] whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than "die," "pass away," […]

He then ties it back to the need for distraction to distract ourselves from our meaninglessness:

That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can bring ourselves to imagine, in fact, probably that's why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.

It's not so much the state of being idle that we find so painful nowadays, but the feeling of wasting time, the feeling of being stuck and waiting for something to happen. Perhaps, then, DFW's earlier point was not so much that idleness causes pain, but that the pain of dullness is the materialization of the unconscious deep-rooted overwhelming fear of mortality.

But this doesn't explain another detail hinted at in this book. DFW also notes that this boredom, and our growing information obsession, is recent. Why are we suddenly so concerned with distraction? Fear of mortality has existed since existence, so if that's the something else, way down, that drives our growing information obsession, why is our information obsession happening now?

I think we get a glimpse of this answer in Chapter 22. Chapter 22 is a loooong chapter narrated by a guy who recalls his life as a college student. Somewhere in the middle of the chapter, the character begins an aside by distinguishing "awareness" from "thinking", and he mentions that he does his important thinking when his mind wanders:

I am similar to most other people, I believe, in that I do not really do my most important thinking in large, intentional blocks where I sit down uninterrupted in a chair and know in advance what it is I'm going to think about — as in, for instance, 'I am going to think about life and my place in it and what's truly important to me, so that I can start forming concrete, focused goals and plans for my adult career' — and then sit there and think about it until I reach a conclusion.

He realizes, though, that these big life questions, whose pondering he considers his "important thinking," are questions his dad probably never really thought about:

As for my father, I have to admit that I don't know how he did any of the major thinking that led him in the directions he followed all his life. I don't even know whether there was any major, conscious thinking in his case. His attitude toward life was that there are certain things that had to be done and you simply have to do them[…] He had a family to support, this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, and everything else is self-indulgent nonsense.

This is a great characterization of what I think is the defining hallmark of this generation.

Deep in the heart of American culture is the American Dream. The American Dream is the goal to give everyone an opportunity to live a life as full as their abilities can take them. It's an ideal whose scrutiny has been the subject of a significant portion of American literature since the nation's commencement.

The narrator's dad is content with his life because he's content with this dream. He is living to the best of his abilities, and doesn't face an existential quandary because he's living his ideal already.

The "larger" questions that the narrator speaks of, the "Am I really happy?" or the "What is my impact on this world?" alludes to this generation's dissatisfaction with the American Dream. It is no longer enough just to live a life as full as your abilities can take you. The goal now is to live a life as full as humanly possible. There should be no regret and no wasted time. Providing for a family is not enough; one must make a permanent mark on the world. And when this doesn't happen, there's a stunning disappointment, a sudden, urgent reevaluation of self-worth.

In other words, America's having a midlife crisis.

From the bits and pieces of this novel, I think DFW was intending to connect this change of American expectations to the rise in prevalence of existential fear, and therefore to the consciousness of boredom, and therefore to the need of distraction.

It's an interesting and important idea, but it's a premise without a point — not unexpected in a half-written book. What does it mean that the American Dream has evolved into the American Demands? As an optimist, I'm inclined to think it's simply a new unreachable ideal that we created when the American Dream became too easy. But perhaps DFW was trying to argue that this crippling fear of mortality — or expectation of immortality — is a universal quality of the human condition, one that was exposed when the American Dream was no longer a sufficient distraction.

I can't help but wonder what the "answer" is. If DFW were around today, would he say that I've got the gist of it? Or would he have said, "That is not it, at all"? I guess that's for the archaeologists to decide.

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