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The Pale King

The Pale King - David Foster Wallace, Michael Pietsch Bear with me; this first part actually does have something to do with The Pale King.This is going to sound weird as hell, if you haven’t experienced it, but here goes: Occasionally (really, it's “rarely”) I will (unintentionally, mind you) get to thinking in a sort of feedback loop where I am kind of struck by the reality and details of my surroundings and myself. Everything around me seems completely familiar.. a lamp, a table, a window, etc. I know what all those things are, yet if I think about them too intently, they have an alien quality about them. Manmade things are just not arranged in the same way that naturally-formed things are, and there's something inauthentic about them, if you think about them. The lamp (and I just use that as an example; it may be some other object) has all sorts of clues about the technology and the culture and the history it comes from… but it’s more than that. There’s something about looking at the lamp, and thinking about it, which makes it seem really odd, and the more I think about it, the odder it becomes, until the whole idea of the lamp and everything about it seem kind of ridiculous... or if not ridiculous, then at least extremely improbable. And inevitably (and I say that because it happens enough that I know how it will go), I start to get thinking about how odd it is that I’m sitting there thinking about how odd the lamp is. Then I’ll start to get caught up in the unreality of kind of looking at myself from the outside, passing judgment on how odd it is that I’m thinking about said lamp (which, at that point, I’m actually not thinking about any more, because I'm really thinking about thinking about the lamp). Then things become much stranger, because I get to thinking about thinking about thinking about something, which is a very removed point of view, but of course I am very much myself, so I start playing games like looking at my fingers as I move them, kind of thinking about how I control my volitional movement, and the fact that I am deciding which fingers I move, etc. At that point, I’m thinking about volition and the moment I am in, and how I can decide what my next thought will be… and I can’t help but ask myself “so what will your next thought be“? But of course when you put pressure on yourself like that (or if somebody else does that to you), you frequently are at a loss for words (or thoughts)… which in the context of what I’ve said up to now, tends to play weird havoc with the whole idea that I am the one deciding what I will think next! Now I’ve wasted a long paragraph explaining this quirky little "thought trap" (or maybe like "philosophical loop"), so you may have the impression that this is a long psycho trance kind of thing that I fall into, but actually it's just sitting there thinking all philosophical-like for maybe 30 seconds. Eventually, I get tired of thinking that hard about things, or something external (my wife asking me “what are you thinking about?”) snaps me out of it. The Pale King is a little bit like this experience. In fact, there is one character who becomes hyperaware when he's under the influence of a drug, and that reminded me of my own (drug-free) thoughts about objects and reality and such. So I guess part of the book spoke to me, in that sense, but what really hit me was the writing style. Normally, I’d rather not write about writing, if I could instead be writing about plot or characters… but this is a book which in every way is about writing, and which only very peripherally is about plot and characters. You could say there isn’t a plot, but that would be going a bit too far. It’s more like there are a lot of subplots with no main plot… like real life, because we all think our life is the main plot, and everybody else’s is a subplot… but really we’re all subplots. There are some interesting characters, including the author himself, but there isn’t a lot of character development. None of them has a structured arc where they start off one way, and then a set of experiences changes them in some profound manner. And in some ways that is like reality, and some ways it isn’t. People definitely change as they grow and collect different experiences, but often it is a slow process, so even though one may look back at various people one knows, and reflect on how they’ve changed over the years, our daily perception is that the people around us - for the most part- are not changing significantly in real-time. The Pale King is like this too, which is remarkable for a book, because most fiction makes a point of describing a character arc, and most books describe a time frame broad enough for a character arc to reasonably take place in… and usually that is a timeframe much longer than it actually takes to actually read the book. The Pale King feels more like it is set in real-time. It isn’t quite, because there is some backstory which goes back decades, but once you get to the core part of the story- the part where young David Foster Wallace goes to work at the Internal Revenue Service- that part feels very real-timey. I wouldn’t want to read many books written this way, but it is an amazing experience, at least once, to see how real realistic fiction can feel. Let me try to describe it another way. In a movie, when characters want to go to a meeting in an office building, the camera frequently shows them enter the lobby, and maybe press the button for the elevator, and then cuts to them entering the conference room. You know they waited a while for the elevator, and endured the ride up, with people getting on and off at intervening floors until they got to the floor they wanted… the movie just doesn’t show it. But David Foster Wallace does show those parts.. And doing so, makes the book feel freakishly real… because we don’t live our lives like movies, where we just cut from one scene to another… we actually have to experience every second of that elevator ride. On one hand this sounds boring…who would watch a movie made up almost exclusively of the filler material that usually winds up on the editing room floor? We read books to be entertained. We just want the good stuff, right? Most of the time, that would be my feeling 100%… but in some ways, that’s like eating all frosting and no cake. When David Foster Wallace gives you an unfrosted cake in The Pale King, it’s not a bad experience at all… in some ways, it’s more filling, because (my opinion) the most interesting fiction is the stuff that seems to have something to say about me and my life, or at least the world as I see it. This book is in some ways more like my own life than perhaps any other book I’ve read. Not the specific details of who I am and what I think, but the subjective experience of what it feels like to be alive in the world, moving around as we do, and interacting the way we (in 1980’s America) [do]. That’s funny to hear, speaking as I am about a book which has one character who can levitate, and another whose mind is constantly being interrupted by completely true, but absolutely irrelevant facts about the world around him [e.g.- when speaking to his supervisor, he knows not only what brand of shaving cream he (the supervisor) used to shave with that morning, but the name of the fellow at the shaving cream factory who worked the shift the day his supervisor’s can of shaving cream was manufactured, as well as the names of the factory worker’s kids’, and their shoe sizes.] Of course, in our information-overloaded society, the commentary function of this character isn’t hard to guess at. Some of the other characters are also quite enjoyable. For some reason, I became very engrossed in the barroom (“Happy Hour”) conversation between an IRS examiner who used to cut herself as a teenager, and her extremely socially inept supervisor. Wallace really is a master of dialogue here; it’s just so fluid, I don’t think I could’ve heard the conversation any faster than I read it; and was probably just as engrossed! There is some other commentary I feel like I should comment on (oh dear), and that is the infamous Chapter 19. This chapter takes the form of a conversation between several auditors at the IRS during a coffee break. It’s one of those deep conversations we all occasionally find ourselves in, talking with friends and colleagues about how we think the world works, and what the key factors are behind certain events, or the real significance behind certain historical trends. Some of it is close to some things I’ve written in my reviews of other books. None of the ideas are unique to me, but a lot of it is stuff I like to think about, and several people recommended the book to me because they thought I’d like this chapter in particular. I do like it, and I thank anybody who recommended The Pale King to me. Chapter 19 talks about the infantilizing and trivializing of our consumer culture- trends which have only been accelerated by the internet. It’s also about the gradual abdication of civil responsibilities, and how loss of civil rights inevitably follows. It’s about checks and balances, and how America resembles the Roman Empire in some ways, but not others. Since the characters all work for the IRS, the issues of taxes creeps into all of this, and I of course love that too. I didn’t quite feel like David Foster Wallace was talking to me specifically, as MFSO did, but I did feel a sort of kinship… like maybe DFW and I could’ve had an interesting conversation about it all, because we seem to share opinions about several things, but with enough minor differences that examining these differences, and refining each other’s ideas would have been very gratifying and probably bonding… as those sorts of conversations usually are, when both participants have given the same subject a lot of thought independently, before meeting and discussing together.Does all this sound very experimental? It isn’t. It’s unfinished, is what it is. David Foster Wallace worked on the draft for this book almost ten years before he committed suicide in 2008. The manuscript was pieced together posthumously. Since this book was in development for such a long time before his death, I am very reluctant to declare any of its contents as “clues” to what drove DFW to take his own life. If Chapter 19 had anything to do with it, I don’t want to know.