Boredom as Religious Experience: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King


Reviewing The Pale King is a difficult process, for a number of reasons. The most obvious of which include that it is a last novel (though we wish it weren’t) whose author isn’t alive to see its publication (though we wish that weren’t true) and it is an unfinished novel, whose author’s own intended shape is unknown.

It is at once a novel and also, we understand, a collection of pages, drafts, chapters, and notes, carefully placed and edited and shaped by Michael Pietsch, whose efforts seem to have been pretty successful in tracing certain narrative threads and giving the sense of progression, despite lots of open ends being left.

Polyphonic and shifting through a host of characters, The Pale King recalls both Infinite Jest and Broom of the System in its “structural fragmentation, willed incongruities.” The novel is, as has been much talked about, about boredom and the IRS.

It is also supposed to function as a portrait of a bureaucracy―arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American life―at a time of enormous internal struggle and soul-searching, the birth pains of what’s come to be known among tax professionals as the New IRS.

It is set in a Wallace-world version of the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examinations Center in Peoria, IL to which an assemblage of characters from disparate backgrounds but all (or most) having some degree of damage―psychological or physical or both―are drawn.

As for plot, there is a subtle and developing takeover effort on the part of “Systems icon Merrill Errol (‘Mel’) Lehrl” and his spies/attendants “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine and Reynolds against the extant Peoria IL REC director of personnel, DeWitt Glendenning (whose own predecessor was known, and is only ever identified, by the eponymous moniker “the Pale King”). Other narrative strings are developed to various levels of fullness and completion: the story of tearless and tragic Toni Ware, the backstory of hate-inspiringly good and kind Len Stecyk, the vicious circles of uncontrollable sweating suffered by David Cusk, as well as the story of the New IRS and the Spackman Initiative that birthed it during the Reagan administration.

There are some classic Wallace imaginative moves here – the transformation of physical spaces into abstract or personal spaces (the transformation of the IRS’s RECs’ facades into giant 1040 forms), the exploration of institutions (the mazelike and disorienting structure of the Peoria REC) and dorm-style gossipy conversations (the wigglers at their communal home, Angler’s Cove). There is a transcript of a video, which comes with interviews using Qs in the place of articulated questions; there are footnotes, acronyms, wild names, early setups of characters and situations that take hundreds of pages to return, and a consideration of naming and identity, as well as the permeability of truth and fiction.

This last idea is developed through a character David Foster Wallace, “the real author…not some abstract narrative persona,” who intervenes to narrate the story of an administrative mixup with another David F. Wallace. This includes an explanation of the IRS’s process of changing the Social Security numbers of its agents, such that once they’ve joined they are altered and identified as part of the IRS forever after (including our “author” who served in 1985 for a short period). In the IRS’s attempt to eliminate redundancy in its records, this leads to the two Wallaces essentially swallowing each other up into one identity.

There are also various versions of tedium and boredom that come in via content and occasionally via form. For example, in §25, the text splits into two columns to emulate the columns of forms being scanned by rote examiners, making the reader undergo the same scanning, the same process of taking in repeated and arguably non-ampliative information. The formal examples also include the lengthy autobiographical chapter narrated by “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle, who is later remarked as a character who goes on endlessly with even the slightest prompt.

The story of how Fogle accidentally slipped into an advanced accounting class and was through this transformed, his life given new meaning, seems to be the heart of Wallace’s ideas regarding transcending boredom. In Fogle’s story, a Jesuit substitute describes accountants as today’s cowboys, saying,

True heroism is a priori incompatible with audience or applause or even the bare notice of the common run of man. In fact…the less conventionally heroic or exciting or adverting or even interesting or engaging a labor appears to be, the greater its potential as an arena for actual heroism, and therefore as a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.

Fogle parallels his accidental experience being “called to account” with a religious moment. He discovers a life of Service and purpose, the importance of doing the job nonetheless (the IRS’s Latin motto here being approximately Nonetheless, it must be done).

Earlier, in the Tristram Shandy-style imbedded Foreword, the author character sets up the boredom 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…surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore 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.

As with our unhealthy, infantilizing craving for entertainment in Infinite Jest, the root of our inability to handle boredom becomes here existential, something like silencing the fears of death, meaninglessness, and so on. In §44, the idea of being able to surpass boredom, to become unborable, is described as “the key to modern life”.

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom…To breathe, so to speak, without air. 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…If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

Where Wallace saw the profundity in the clichés of AA in Infinite Jest, he was likewise after this idea of how we should live our lives, how sometimes something as simple as realizing the value of service, of purpose, of doing the work nonetheless can make all the difference. Although this novel is incomplete, it achieves Wallace’s purpose, I think. That is to say, as with Infinite Jest, it pulls the reader insuperably into its pages, its mysteries, only to ultimately leave the reader off without fully resolving the questions raised, questions without answers, questions Wallace wants us to investigate and do the work to answer. Albeit the product of piecing together fragments of a fragmentary novel, The Pale King manages nonetheless to bring that sense of reaching the end only to discover how much more there is. In that way, the novel comes not as a postscript to Wallace’s other works, to his ideas, but rather as a clear reminder why we fell in love with his words in the first place.

Michael Sheehan is a former editor-in-chief of Sonora Review, where he edited a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His fiction has appeared recently in DIAGRAM and Conjunctions. He lives and writes in Washington DC. More from this author →