crown

After David Foster Wallace’s untimely death, a partially completed manuscript was discovered in his office. His editor undertook the difficult task of sifting through the mess of scattered pages and notes and assembling them into the unfinished novel The Pale King. The editor had to decide what to leave in and what to leave out, how to edit the pages with a light hand so as to preserve as much of DFW’s voice as possible, and how to arrange the chapters into a meaningful sequence.

It was a long, tedious job. Which is fitting, because the novel itself is about long, tedious work. DFW, always the genius in the room, manages to make this topic interesting.

The novel is centered loosely around a branch of the IRS located in Peoria, Illinois. It reads more like a collection of short stories than a coherent narrative. But, honestly, DFW’s completed novel Infinite Jest is not so very different. (See my blog posts on Infinite Jest.) Infinite Jest reads like a series of short stories centered loosely around a tennis academy and a halfway house. Its narrative arc only barely and partially resolves at the end. So perhaps The Pale King isn’t so unfinished, after all.

To give you the flavor of a sample chapter from The Pale King, here is a scenario whereby a group of people are having a detailed intellectual discussion about an obscure topic, and the discussion is going on and on, and suddenly someone says something and the reader realizes where the people are. They are there?? the reader thinks. And no one is talking about it?? It’s a shocking revelation, as the discussion goes on and on, and finally someone says,

“Anybody got the time? How long we been in here, three hours?”

And the reader realizes that this is yet another instance of people getting caught in a tedious situation. Just as working for the IRS is presumably tedious, so is the situation of being forced to listen to a long, discursive discussion with no way to escape. (I am leaving out the detail of where they are to eschew spoilers.)

And so we have a novel—perhaps mercifully unfinished!—that explores tedium in all of its manifestations.

What’s the wisdom here? There is a fine line between boredom and being totally immersed in something. In the above situation, are the participants bored by the discussion or immersed in it? Are IRS employees bored or immersed? DFW died in 2008, but he seems to have anticipated our ever more distractable age. There’s a power in being able to turn boredom into enthrallment, and this is shown through his always fascinating and diverse characters, who wrestle with this in various ways.

In the end, while not every chapter enthralled me—a novel about boredom must inevitably include some boring chapters, right?—I believe that The Pale King is a masterpiece worthy of being valiantly marched through.

We miss you dearly, DFW.

How can you turn your own moments of boredom into moments of enthrallment?

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