Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

His unfinished final novel. Sad, depressing, brilliant. Endlessly self-conscious (even about self-consciousness), one feels Wallace creating an unfinishable tapestry that he's not able to complete. "I'm not putting this very well" is one narrator's ("Irrelevant" Chris Fagle) repeated motif.

The afterword and Notes sections give more plot information than one gets in the entire novel, so he was not very far along, 500+ pages notwithstanding. In the Notes, one finds out Wallace's plan for a Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow-like twist, where the IRS plans to gather a group of unusual workers -- some with psychic powers, some with bloodless staggering logical and intellectual abilities -- in order to maximize revenue.

It's sad because it's clearly unfinished. The organization of the material was largely done by the editor, and it's raggedy in places and too thick in others.

The several extended pieces all point to different hefts the novel might have fulfilled had Wallace finished it: the chapter that appeared in The New Yorker as the story "Backbone," about a boy training himself to lick his entire body, the 100 page high school/college memoir by "Irrelevant" Chris Fagle," the brutal 60-page late chapter IRS staff Happy Hour conversation between emotionless and uber-logical Drinian and foxy former-cutter Rand, where she opens up to him about falling in love with her husband.

Along the way, there's detailed history of the IRS, a lush, brand-named 1970s setting that sets the decade in stone, another paen to Pynchon in a capsule history of 1960s drug use, and several mesmerizing IRS worker characters who are brilliantly sketched but who never quite assume their rightful place in the narrative thrust: Steyck, the manger who as a boy is so nice and kind and fairminded he literally drives those around him to violence, Cusk, who in high school develops an unusually heavy sweating problem, Sylvanshire, a "fact psychic" who infers facts out of thin air about the history and background of people he meets, a lonely mistreated girl with psychotic tendences who has been brought up by her mother in a series of trailer parks, the author/narrator "David Foster Wallace" who is constantly arriving for his first day at the IRS Examining Center in Peoria, IL.

"The Pale King" is mentioned briefly as one of the IRS examiners' "desk names," where they have the option of a nameplate for their desks that is not their real name.

"It is the key to modern life: If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish."

"Enduring tedium over real time in a confined place is what real courage is."

"Squeezing my shoes."

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