Heroism of the Mundane



The Pale King

by David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown and Company, 2011, 560 pp.



It would be almost impossible to write on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King without mentioning something about the context in which it was published. I take it, however, that these details are fairly well-known: having de-mapped himself in 2008, what we are left with is a book compiled by his editor, Michael Pietsch, based on papers found after his death, which included a stack of some 250 pages that he had apparently put together with the thought of sending them out to receive an advance. As such, it is an unfinished novel, and the door is, of course, open to anyone who wishes to argue that it should not even have been released. To my mind, however, this would be like arguing that Max Brod ought to have carried out Kafka’s wishes to burn his papers. However unfinished The Pale King is, however different it would have looked had Wallace gone on living to its completion, what we’ve been given is nonetheless a beautiful and poignant work; a work that is both deeply personal and political, setting itself in the past (Peoria, 1985, for the most part) in order to explore something about our shared present.


But, it is an unfinished work, and, though Wallace’s other novels were also fragmented and incomplete, one cannot help but imagine what The Pale King could have been. It is not just fragmented, but fragmentary, with many of its sections offering merely a glimpse at an idea or a character, which certainly would have been more developed if this were a “finished” work. Pietsch has done a laudable job, however, of editing the work in a way that accords with Wallace’s style, and I wanted to argue—I thought it would be terribly witty and clever—that this unfinished work of an author who operated in fragments, and ended his first novel (The Broom of the System) in the middle of a sentence, was nonetheless as “finished” as his other books, and perhaps worked all the better for being all the more fragmentary. In other words, I wanted to make the kind of pretentious argument that DFW himself would almost certainly have loathed, so perhaps it is better in the end that I cannot bring myself to do so. This book would have been better if he had lived to finish it; of this I am certain.


The fact is, however, that it would have also been a fundamentally different text, and not just because it would have been longer, edited differently and more, etc.  The experience of reading it would itself have been quite different. Wallace liked to say that a novel was a form of communication, thus an interaction between author and audience, and this has perhaps never been truer than in the case of The Pale King. But the communication would be different were he still alive, if the text weren’t haunted by the specter of his death.


This is because Wallace did something quite interesting in The Pale King: he placed himself in the text, in two ways: as a character and as the author. Rather than accepting the kind of distance that usually exists between author and text—a distance that Wallace perhaps thought was in cohorts with irony—he attempted to break this down; to break through the wall that usually separates the reader from the writer, to deny himself the kinds of structuring fictions that usually operate as presuppositions for any work of fiction. And he tells us that he wished to refrain from these things as: “(e.g., having one character inform another of stuff they both actually already know, in order to get this information across to the reader.”  Instead, we see here an attempt on Wallace’s part to be faithful to the reality of, and the quirks of, things like human memory.


To do this, he made one big move: he wrote an “Author’s Foreword,” which was to appear 79 pages into the text (it actually begins on p. 66 of the published work), which begins: “Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona.” Herein, he claims that The Pale King is not actually a work of fiction, but is rather a memoir based on his own experience in 1985 when he worked for the IRS.  He draws the reader’s attention to the disclaimer at the front of the book, that “All characters and events in this book are fictitious,” and claims that it is, in fact, the fiction, there simply for legal reasons, which have also resulted in the book’s structure and ellipses. He places himself in the text as the author of the text, chiming in on more than one occasion to inform us that it is now Himself, David Foster Wallace, who is speaking.


The ambiguity of this move should be obvious, and was certainly part of Wallace’s point: in whom do we place our trust, ultimately, or in what? The words on the page, communicating to us in that deeply private way that only the written word can accomplish—a form of communication that may be at a certain level a commune with the self—which tell us that what we are reading is, in fact, true, and which present themselves with a kind of intimacy and vulnerability? Or, do we trust the publishers, the disclaimer, the lawyers, the institution of the novel as a commodity, structured by a set of social relations with their concomitant presuppositions? Can we believe the avowal of this “author here” who claims to be letting us into his self-consciousness, or will we interpret this instead as the ultimate post-modern gesture of taking an ironic distance from oneself, making oneself, and even reality a “fiction?” Wallace is certainly blurring the lines between fact and fiction, but how do we choose to read this blurring? Do we, in the end, even have a choice?


David Wallace appears in this book not only as the author (or the author as dramatic persona, if you will) but also as a character. He arrives at the IRS center in Peoria, is mistaken for another David F. Wallace, and eventually becomes one IRS employee amongst others. Some of this is told to us in first person, and some in third. One of the “Notes and Asides” Pietsch has given us at the end of the text reads: “David Wallace disappears—becomes creature of the system.” This suggests that Wallace may have wanted to show the way a self can become lost in the societal structures of identification, reduced in a way to series of numbers; to show that the modern individual is at once a privileged center and a de-centered node in a complex system, from the perspective of which he or she is simply a 1040 form.


All of this would read much differently were the man himself still alive. I can only imagine how he would have responded to annoying interviewers (annoying to him, not me, mind you) pressing him on the relationship between fact and fiction in his work, asking him to comment on the significance of the distance he’d taken toward himself, describing the text with words like “meta” (taken as a word, and not merely a prefix) and “ironic”—in other words, with critics who entirely missed the point.


What Wallace wants to expose us to is the very ambiguity I outlined in my either/or questions above; this is an inclusive disjunction and not one to be resolved. Of course, we will ultimately trust the publishers and the lawyers—this is a work of fiction and not a memoir—but this should not (and, indeed, if Wallace has achieved his goal, could not) erase the impression that it is truly David revealing himself to us; trying as he might to be genuine. And this is the very difficulty he is staging for us: how to be a genuine person in this bureaucratic world? Is it even possible? Which is more real: 1) my inner monologue, or 2) my tax return? Which says more about me?


The mistake would be to resolve this problem in one direction at the expense of the other. Modern identity is neither the inwardly drawn soul apart from the world, nor just the system of references externally determining it in the world, but the interplay between these two. And it is more complex than that, even, because there are more than two, since, “it’s possible for very different kinds of motives and emotions to coexist in the human soul.” The self is a multiplicity; the world is a multiplicity. The problem subsists in the variety of ways they are folded into one another.


And this is what Wallace is really exploring in The Pale King: how to live when “the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy.” He takes this to be an obvious claim, the ignorance of which can lead to great suffering. The Pale King is thus an exposition of this world; of bureaucracy itself – through an engagement with the IRS – and of what it means to live inside of it.


It is also a book about boredom and the power of the dull and opaque, both as a political tool.


Fact: The birth agonies of the New IRS led to one of the great and terrible PR discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble.


And an existential issue: “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.”


Wallace suggests that the issue—perhaps the most important issue of modern life—is one of what one pays attention to, of what one is able to pay attention to. He thus attempts to cast a new kind of hero, a hero of the mundane, who can not only tolerate the tedium of bureaucratic life, but who can actually take a certain joy in it. Ignoring the bureaucracy will lead to suffering. Railing against it will bring one nothing but frustration. Changing it would require delving into its depths to work it from the inside. To live in it effectively is to gain a power over one’s attention, to have courage in the face of the dull and the psychic pain it brings with it; which means to have courage in the face of the deeper pain that is always there beneath the surface: the pain of being alive.


All of which brings Wallace’s suicide to bear on the text in another, deeper way. If Infinite Jest (1996) was a sad book, as Wallace himself said,1 The Pale King seems to have been his attempt to write an ultimately joyful one. It wants to be a great affirmation of the picayune, a celebration of a heroism that is “a priori incompatible with audience or applause or even the bare notice of the common run of man,” a heroism in the face of “Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui:” the dangers one confronts in engaging with the facts of modern life. It is a struggle to accept this world on its own terms, and one can feel, through the words on the page, that this was not a fictional struggle for Wallace, but a very real one; and that this memoir that is not a memoir is in fact even more personal than the “memoirs” you have read, because it is in these that the author has taken a distance from himself, and Wallace who has not, but who has rather written a work from the very border between the inner self and its social identification, the intersection between the soul and the world—from the nexus of the problem of living in (our) time.


And where the text is evidence that he had found, or at least sketched, a solution, his death is evidence that he failed. David Foster Wallace could not find a way to live in this world. And so, he erased his own cartography.


This is a cause for sadness, and I must admit feeling a great deal of it as I closed the back cover of The Pale King, which “ends” with a series of “Notes and Asides” gleaned from the pages Michael Pietsch was left to assemble a text from, bringing into stark relief that this is an unfinished project, and that there will be no more. Or, at least, no more from David Foster Wallace; the book will remain unfinished, as a life remains unfinished even though it ends, but Wallace has set us a challenge that continues.





1. Laura Miller. “Interview with David Foster Wallace,” Salon.com (March 9, 1996): http://www.salon.com/09/features/wallace1.html.




David Foster Wallace