It is nearly impossible to read ‘The Pale King’ (Hamish Hamilton 2011) without simultaneously ruminating about its brilliant author committing suicide before the novel was completed. David Foster Wallace was forty-eight when he died in 2008 and there are several indications in this and previous work he was a troubled man with a tortuous mind that occasionally went into the fast rewind mode and ran the risk of exhaustion. From this perspective his suicide was as absurd as any other accidental death, and, therefore, should not obscure our reading of his book. The book did not kill him, he died while writing it.
‘The Pale King’ contains all that for which David Foster Wallace was known and admired: the ability to extract and demarcate meaning out of fragmented thoughts; the mastery of meta-narrative; the deep understanding of mental and physical pain; the best-ever descriptions of how a compulsive-obsessive mind works; the unveiling of humor behind horrifying, tragic or boring scenes; sharp analysis of our modern condition; not least, idealism and the search for truth.
It is also, like ‘Infinite Jest’, difficult reading material. It does not subscribe to the rules of conventional story-telling as it treats language as an autonomous character and an experimental field. In ‘The Pale King’ this includes the additional hardship of the idiom of taxation and accounting, since the story takes place at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
A key theme running through the book is that of boredom, on the one hand, and concentration, as opposed to distraction, on the other. It is possible and even tempting, to read ‘The Pale King’ as a philosophical and/or psychological treatise on these mental states. However, the notes appended at its end suggest a larger objective, namely that of matching George Orwell’s ‘1984’ dystopian future of communism with an equally dystopian future for capitalism.
In ‘1984’ society is governed by ‘The Party’ with ‘big brother watching you’ all the time. Surveillance is necessary whilst anticipating the change of hearts and minds—to be achieved through the re-writing of all texts in the Party’s new artificial language called ‘Newspeak’, the ultimate objective being to eliminate free and contrarian thought (“Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness”, 1984, p.61). Against this background, ‘1984’ is the story of Winston and Julia, two civil servants who fall in love, attempt to escape their predicament—and fail.
In Wallace’s dystopian future there is no longer any need for surveillance. Big Brother has been replaced by the Pale King, who does not need to resort to the use of force or old-tech telescreens in order to keep an eye on his subjects. Boredom, and the anxiety that flows from it, are powerful substitutes:
“The birth agonies of the new IRS [Internal Revenue Service] 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 …” (p.84)
Against this all-pervading dullness, corporations have emerged to offer us means of distraction:
“Just wait for the tidal wave of ads and PR that promote this or that corporate product as the way to escape the gray 1984 totalitarianisms of the Orwellian present … the corporations will be able to represent consumption-patterns as the way to break out—use this type of calculator, listen to this type of music, wear this type of show because everyone else is wearing conformist shoes. It’ll be this era of incredible prosperity and conformity and mass-demographics in which all the symbols and rhetoric will involve revolution and crisis and bold forward-looking individuals who dare to march to their own drummer by allying themselves with brands that invest heavily in the image of rebellion.” (p.146)
So far so good, except that in order to work efficiently, the IRS needs individuals who are able to do precisely that which the majority of the populace is, in the meantime, unable to do, namely, work with concentration on tedious tasks such as controlling tax declaration forms in order to identify those households which should be audited and/or forced to make additional payments. The long-term plan is, of course, to make also such individuals obsolete by replacing them with computers.
What we already have of ‘The Pale King’ are the back stories of the individuals selected to work for the IRS: these are invariably persons with strong cognition but emotionally weak, burdened by panic attacks or compulsive-obsessive behavioral patterns. For them, the IRS becomes ‘home’ just like the ‘Party’ was home to civil servants of the likes of Winston and Julia in ‘1984’. They love it and hate it at the same time. They think they are doing ‘heroic’ work [“You have wondered perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats? They are today’s cowboys”, p.233] but are hunted by existential crises. In this environment, and unlike in ‘1984’, even sexual attraction loses its meaning and its subversive potential. Drinion and Meredith, the matching parts for Winston and Julia, do not manage to get past a very intense discussion.
At the stage it was arrested, ‘The Pale King’ was moving in as dark and pessimistic a direction as ‘1984’. The good thing however about unfinished novels, is that a reader is free to imagine their own end—and perhaps there will even be writers who dare take up the challenge and concur a different biography for Wallace’s characters. These are now left to wander through the literary space in search of an author.