Wednesday, June 01, 2011

At the mid-point of my journey through The Pale King

Wallace's workbook pages for what would eventually become Chapter 9 of The Pale King. Click on the image to enlarge. Image found here.

(I promise that this blog isn't turning into an "All David Foster Wallace, all the time" blog. Something other will follow this post.)

The Pale King is going to be a hard novel to discuss coherently, once I finish it; I can't imagine what it would be like to teach it. It's also going to be a tough sell to the Wallace-curious among you--even harder than Infinite Jest. At least that novel has plot lines to it. This thing, so far, is remaining true to Wallace's stated goals (which I've referred to before) of “Realism. Monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”

NB: The above is not to be read as my indictment of the novel. On the contrary: It's succeeding in its intention of, well, describing boring things in a way that is appropriately tedious and yet makes you want to keep reading. It is to say, though, that The Pale King will not, I predict, appeal even to every already-confirmed DFW fan--and that, too, is very much part of its point. More about that below.

I'm afraid even to try to offer brief comments on what I've read so far--not because I'm afraid of spoiling anything (so far, there's nothing to spoil, which is also part of the novel's point as far as I can tell) but because I fear becoming trapped like Sisyphus (or like some of the novel's narrators) in comments that lead to explanation upon explanation. Or, Hamlet-like, that I'm about to cross a bourn of an undiscovered country from which no traveller returns. Wish me luck . . . or journey with me . . .

First of all, a quick explanation of the Dante reference in this post's title: I'm presently in "David Wallace"'s second section, in which he is one of three passengers in the back seat of a Gremlin with barely-functioning air conditioning (it's a warm, humid central Illinois afternoon). He'd finally been picked up at the Peoria bus terminal, after several IRS vehicles had come to pick up other new arrivals and "Wallace" had been passed over. He and his fellow passengers, all of them new IRS employees except for the driver, have just arrived at the IRS's Peoria facility and are in search of a parking space. Pages 274-281 are taken up with a description of said arrival, chiefly consisting of, of all things, a description (and elaborate criticism and footnotes, natch) of the parking areas and traffic flow around the facility itself, though he also throws in a passing mention of three signs; these read in their entirety, "Entrance", "Exit", and "It's spring, think farm safety" (this last sign put up by a 4-H Club).

Dante and Charon, you may be thinking. Yes (I suspect). So far, though, "Wallace" has no Virgil, but it looks as though he will be our Dante.

One has to be careful in pushing that idea too hard, though, and for this reason: Dante is describing a System, too, and all Systems (and journeys into and through them) will have shared attributes. One of those attributes is that when Systems work, they are tedious. We don't get that sense when reading Dante because, after all, our narrator isn't confined to any of the realms he visits; for those whom he converses with, though, well, eternity is a long time, isn't it?

The characters Dante describes, of course, can't opt out of the circle of Hell in which they find themselves . . . which is part of Dante's point: Choose well in this life, he is saying to his readers. Wallace (our author, not the character in the novel), though, is describing our encounters with and participation in Systems in this life. In this life, most of us don't actively choose those Systems whose machinations affect our daily lives--like the IRS and other such government agencies, yes, but also things like a city's infrastructure; mostly, that's because we feel as though we have no choice in the matter. (Well, we do, collectively, but Systems are belated responses to the ways we've collectively fallen into living our lives.) By the same token, though, certain types are drawn to or are best suited for working within certain Systems. So, Wallace's "Wallace" can on the one hand curse the stupidity of Peoria's planning department and, on the other, look forward anxiously to working for the IRS. (Well--up to the point I've read so far, he is an eager would-be IRS employee. He still has to get into the building . . .)

In short, to modify Sartre a bit: "The IRS is hell for other people."

As for Hamlet being a point of reference for this novel: well, maybe. Here and there, we get overt nods in the play's direction, such as in this list of Peoria's "other little outlying communities[:] Peoria Heights, Bartonville, Sicklied Ore, Eunice, &c" (256n.2) and this list of IRS Regional Examination Centers: "Philadelphia PA, Peoria IL, Rotting Flesh LA, St. George UT, La Junta CA, and Federal Way WA" (266). More subtly, though (or maybe this is a case of over-reading), one way to think about Hamlet is that its titular character is trying to understand Systems that have defined him as both a public and a private person but have now failed him, and then deciding whether or not to opt out of the most crucial System of all, Being Alive. ("Sicklied o'er," just to remind you, comes toward the end of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Act 3 scene 1:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

From that point on, it's pretty much downhill for Hamlet. Whether one is a lawyer or Yorick or the noble Alexander, one's just going to end up in the graveyard anyway. What will be, will be; "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow," he tells Horatio shortly before his fateful duel with Laertes.

What follows is very provisional: The Pale King seems to be about something like the inverse of Hamlet's despair, of finding and perhaps even insisting that there be meaning within the system within which one finds oneself and--and this is crucial--which one one finds to be bigger than oneself; that is, that while within it, one feels as though one is in service to something larger and more profound than one's self-gratification. One character, describing the day of his epiphany that he should work for the IRS (a student at DePaul University, he wandered into an Advanced Accounting class by mistake), recounts the class's sub, a "substitute Jesuit," concluding the class by saying, "Gentlemen, you are called to account" (233). A clever pun, sure, but that simple line pretty neatly summarizes what I've read thus far.

There's (much) more to say about the (apparent) paradox that those things (and people) we feel most called to serve often involve--indeed, demand, as Wallace put it in his Kenyon College commencement address, "attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day." For "petty little unsexy ways," read "boring" or, less pejoratively, "tedious." Yet, therein lies "the really important kind of freedom": in deliberately choosing to embrace that calling.

That seems to be where this novel is headed--if "headed" is the right verb. We'll see. I mean, it was Wallace's intention for this novel that "nothing actually [happen]."


Doc said...

I'm but a couple hundred pages in and will withhold judgement 'til finished. Having said that, I easily recogise a few "types" in the book - after 20+ years with the Feds, it would be hard not to.

I am perhaps unseemingly interested in where Pale King is headed, mostly because I can not envision that the quiet desperation he has so far chronicled is not unrelated to his own state of mind as his meds failed him.

John B. said...

Hey there, Doc--good to hear from you.

I came very close in this post to addressing the very issue you raise in your second paragraph, but I pulled out of that particular swan dive. I don't want to go there, either. I've already said that I'm not that kind of critic, for one thing; but let's just say that I can see where others would get that idea from reading it. Having said that, though, I do think it's possible to read it as something other, and something more, than an indirect suicide note. I'll (probably) go into further detail after I finish reading, but one positive way of thinking about this novel is that it's a novelizing (and perhaps affirmation) of "the really important kind of freedom" I mentioned at the end of my post. I happen to think he truly believed that, as opposed to feeling he had to believe it, if that makes sense.

And all that reminds me of Keats' insistence, in stanzas 2 and 3 of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," on Art's superiority to real life because of Art's unchanging nature, all while he's coughing up blood from the TB that would soon kill him. Art didn't save him from dying, nor did DFW's beliefs save him. But they are no less true for all that.

[Aside to Cordelia: The Keats angle may just be there, too, in light of my comment above. I'll be thinking on it more.]

Nick said...

"I happen to think he truly believed that, as opposed to feeling he had to believe it, if that makes sense."

Well put, John. And yes it makes sense. Nor am I that kind of critic, either. Indeed I am not a critic at all, just a fan. And if I had not intimate experience with two depressives over a number of years, I would probably believe as you.

In fact, I want to believe the same, just as I did with those earlier individuals. But a true clinical depressive is run by the depression (I painfully discovered); that ideation is their world view and - when not on their meds - taints all thought, regardless of talent/genius.

Even Keat's bloody insistence, in that light, stains the "truth".

It's just personally hard for me to draw a clean line. Rather like life, I guess.

R. Sherman said...

You had at "backseat of Gremlin with malfunctioning air conditioning." Been there, done that, as they say.

How can you not read this novel without wondering about the history of Wallace the man? I'll reserve judgment until I read it, but I'm intrigued enough to buy it, I think.


John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by, Nick and Randall.

Nick, here is not the place to elaborate, but I will say that I do know whereof you speak. That could be why I've tried to avoid reading this thing too autobiographically.

I suppose the above is a partial response to you as well, Randall. As a result of reading this article, I've had to acknowledge that DFW draws on the particulars of his life as sources for his writing more than I had thought. But, no matter the writer, I personally just naturally tend not to wonder too much about how a writer's biography informs his/her work as I'm reading it. It's good to know things about a writer's life, no question; I just try to keep that knowledge from becoming the lens through which I read the work.