Vividly Pale: How David Foster Wallace Made Me A Better Person

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Illustration: Phil McAndrew

By Monica Westin

F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” David Foster Wallace (it’s nearly impossible to separate the man from his writing—more on that later) embodied this last sentence more than any popular contemporary fiction writer I can think of: one who knew how profoundly degenerate social life had become, yet in every piece of his writing was determined not to give into easy irony and hip nihilism. “Infinite Jest” proved him to be a master satirist and serious novelist; in his essays he anatomized the absurdity of contemporary America; and “The Pale King,” his posthumous novel about achieving transcendence through drudgery, anchors his place as the consummate “postmodern” writer who cared far more for earnestness than sarcasm, and about being good and being human, whatever that means now, than being edgy. Other contemporary writers like Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders attempt to restore morality and humanism in their fiction, but nobody has done it with as much ambition, as much deadly serious enthusiasm in the face of despair.

Despite his almost obscene brilliance and talent with language, despite his wit, energy and fun that sprawls through the novels and essays and his famous epic footnotes, it’s the sincerity of his writing that makes me feel—as many others in my generation—the deepest kind of personal connection to Wallace the person, one that makes me latch onto the ways that my life has overlapped with his own. We both studied English at Amherst College, where we wrote our senior year theses in the same C-level of the Frost Library; and sophomore year, when Professor Andrew Parker turned me onto Thomas Pynchon in a class that touched on postmodernism, I read Wallace’s English thesis (he also famously wrote an analytic philosophy thesis at the same time), published as “The Broom of the System,” in my dorm room one weekend, marveling at how his heroine Lenore’s deconstructive crisis—her identity may turn out to be a language game—remained thoroughly human, a character to care about, in a way that Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas never did. Though he owes a huge debt to Pynchon, there’s no coldness to Wallace, who uses the same encyclopediac style and brilliant powers of observation to take on serious tasks about how to remain a person. His wit never damns—or lets us off the hook.

Even Wallace’s sports writing is infused with ethics: Michael Joyce’s discipline, Roger Federer’s magnanimous beauty of form. I can’t watch Federer play now without hearing Wallace narrating “the Federer moment” from his New York Times article “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”: “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

Being reconciled to having an animal body, so often at odds with social mores, runs through Wallace’s work. I teach “Consider the Lobster” in all of my arts-writing classes at DePaul as an example of how we can transcend any writing situation, any journalistic assignment, to make art. How else to describe an article, assigned (and, commendably, later printed) by Gourmet magazine to cover the Maine Lobster Festival that asks whether eating lobster is barbaric and ends as a meditation on pain and compassion—a call to consider the simple truth that the lobster is trying to escape the pot when we put him in to boil alive.

But even more, Wallace tries to reconcile us to having both bodies and minds that are often totally ill-equipped to handle the demands and traumas of modern life. Critics focus on the sprawling, ingenious challenge and pleasure of “Infinite Jest,” but even as it provides the ultimate dystopian satire of American life, it’s a story of characters in immense psychic and often bodily pain: within a family, in a halfway house, at a tennis school. “Infinite Jest” is immensely entertaining to read, but if we miss its simple, even boring message about losing our humanity in the face of entertainment (here a video cartridge that, when viewed, renders the spectator lifeless), we’re missing the entire central conflict of the novel, which is, I think, how to live through the hurt of being a person without giving into either mind-numbing entertainment or shoulder-shrugging cynicism. He taught me how to deploy the politics of enthusiasm with intelligence in the face of hopelessness.

Wallace both entertained and instructed in all his work prior to the “The Pale King.” Did he think he was entertaining us too much? His unfinished posthumous novel, assembled by his longtime editor from hundreds of pages of manuscript, notes, outlines and electronic files, is a study of boredom, and most early reviews have concentrated on that aspect of it—admitting that passages are boring (the plot is almost nonexistent as well), and making connections between the darker tone of “The Pale King” and Wallace’s suicide. But I think that this novel of melancholy and loss, which narrates in fragments the lives, and painful childhoods, of a group of IRS agents facing intense, daily, mind-numbing boredom in a Peoria examination center, is both about boredom (and transcending it) and about ethics as such. In other words, how boring and draining it can be to be good and honorable. If “Infinite Jest” is a comedy about pain, then “The Pale King” is a tragedy about being good.

“The Pale King” takes place during the mid 1980s, and it focuses in part on the 1986 tax reform act, which raised revenue in basically a good way, but also brought up serious questions about what kind of entity the IRS is. During the eighties’ shift to neoliberalism as we know it, the IRS faced a decision (slightly exaggerated in the novel) of whether to act more like a for-profit corporation; as Wallace explains: ”Distilled to its essence, the question was whether and to what extent the IRS should be operated like a for-profit business.” Wallace took accounting classes and corresponded with experts during the writing of “The Pale King,” and he fully grasped the place of the IRS as an important moral entity in the US: civilization depends upon taxes. The citizen who takes the benefits of civilization but refuses to pay taxes is a traitor compared to the citizen who does pay his taxes. Therefore, the IRS exists to enforce a moral obligation. And in truth, the IRS is an organization that adheres to very high standards of behavior when it interacts with the citizen.

It’s easy for me, as always, to find a probably-overly-personal connection to “The Pale King,” as with much of Wallace’s work. Here it’s the focus on tax law; my father is a tax law professor, and I have spent endless time while growing up talking about the morality of tax codes and environmental taxation ethics, (often bored out of my mind as a kid) with my dad. That Wallace uses tax law to get at morality is testament to his imagination, but it’s true that, as is remarked in an aside at one point in the novel, tax codes contain all of human morality and feelings: greed, ethics, jealously—but honor most of all.

“The Pale King”’s morality is thus based on a sensible (and now, disturbingly, oddly outdated) sense of civics, but it’s chilling to read his cry against civic selfishness, voiced by an IRS auditor who muses that “something queer is going on in terms of civics and selfishness in this country, and we here in the Service get to see it in some of its most extreme manifestations. We now, as citizens and businessmen and consumers and whatall, we expect government and law to function as our conscience.” Set thirty years ago, the message is clearly played out in the world in which Wallace wrote the novel.

So it’s against this backdrop of civic duty that the novel’s drama unfolds. And the drama is the kind of writing we’re used to from Wallace in certain ways: deeply funny but poignant stories of desperate characters who are now both messed up and bored, with backstories of terrible deaths, traumatic childhoods, lost adolescences and a present of spirit-crushing labor. Only, unlike in “Infinite Jest,” nothing actually happens in the novel, and it’s really, really sad almost all the way through. It’s also the most spiritual of any of Wallace’s work, even his work that compares his favorite tennis players to religious figures. An element of magical realism pervades the novel, with ghosts in an auditing booth and a character who unknowingly levitates when he’s concentrating very very hard.

That boredom can be a path to nirvana is the core of the book—the character who levitates is the one happy figure in the novel, an auditor named Drinion who achieves transcendent ecstasy through giving himself completely to utter concentration on the mundane. As Wallace writes to himself in the appendix of “The Pale King,” which contains outlines, unfinished fragments and notes by the author: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

Several reviewers have noted the analogue of IRS tax examination to writing as an all-consuming, dull task, and it’s hard not to see Wallace as trying to convince himself when he writes that “The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. 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…. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

So to do the boring thing, the civic thing, and the good thing, is often dull: “Sometimes it’s work.” And just as with “Infinite Jest,” the fight is against the kind of entertaining distractions that would keep us from doing the boring things we have to do to remain human. But Wallace is too obsessive and analytical to let this thesis rest. And it’s hard not to read a slightly caustic tone into a substitute accounting professor’s hyperbolic speech about the heroism of crunching numbers: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is… true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood… Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

Yes, it’s true that the hardest work goes unnoticed, and in that way the speech is easily about the task of writing too, but there’s more psychic pain to the dullness itself that makes up the most chilling passage of “The Pale King”— especially if we’re given to psychologizing Wallace the man (as I obviously am) too easily: “To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful… But there might be more to it. 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, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling… This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

What makes it especially easy to read Wallace’s pain into the novel is his appearance in it, in probably the clunkiest device of the work: a character named David Foster Wallace appears, explains that the sections of the book about him are autobiographical (which it is obviously not, as are many of the “facts” about the IRS he puts forth in other sections), then disappears a hundred pages in. Wallace haunts the text as much as the ghosts in the auditing booth. It’s hard for me to read “The Pale King” without thinking about Wallace facing its epic tasks (learning tax code, creating characters to whom nothing happens, writing endless scenes of crushing boredom, all of it) and imagining Wallace trying to figure out how to be happy while writing it, and giving up. How can we read his mid-writing suicide, or more importantly, not read it into the book—especially when he’s written himself in to disappear? And: the big question in my mind: What if we didn’t know anything about his biography? What if we imagine this text appearing out of nowhere? It would be a truly moral piece of fiction. Could it be a contestant for the great American novel?

It’s certainly a novel that will come to be studied for its observations about the writing process. While Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch, the man who ultimately assembled the book, left a somewhat slim appendix culled from hundreds of pages of notes, they nonetheless are helpful at understanding Wallace’s writing process. As Chicago writer Kyle Beachy’s review of “The Pale King,” one of the first to come out, noted, this novel might be most valuable in a way for its explication of the craft of writing. But if you read the disconnected notes after the novel as I did, instead of flipping back and forth, they come across as Joycean epiphanies and near-religious calls to be good in Wallace’s fairly simple conception of morality as being decent to other people and sacrificing for them. It also calls for us to be present in the difficult labor that we do (including reading Wallace’s epic prose). The final sentences of the book: ‘Woman on assembly line counting number of visible loops of twine on outside of bale of twine. Counting, over and over. When the whistle blows, every other worker practically runs for the door. She stays briefly, immersed in her work. It’s the ability to be immersed.” For those of us still mourning the loss of Wallace, the best gesture we can make might be to read this demanding text slowly and attentively, filling in the gaps and finding meaning there to help us go on where he ultimately could not.

“The Pale King”
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company, 560 pages, $27.99

4 Responses to “Vividly Pale: How David Foster Wallace Made Me A Better Person”

  1. Sidney Smirke Says:

    Nice long clumsy sentences here–a purposely “pale” mimicry of DFW? Deep!

  2. Monica Westin Says:

    It’s definitely hard to write about Wallace without falling into his style at times, but unfortunately, if you read any of my other writing, you’ll se that long clumsy sentences are my MO. Thanks for the comment and hope you find some articles about DFW more to your stylistic liking!

  3. David D Says:

    I know it’s been more than a year since this piece was posted, but to see that the only feedback this lovely essay received happen to be harsh and churlish makes me feel compelled to respond. Contrary to what Ms. Smirke suggests, it’s obvious that you’re a very graceful writer, and I found your words on DFW very moving, not to mention thoughtful and very insightful. Thank you very much for your post.

  4. cully24 Says:

    Well, I’m making David D. look timely because it’s now been four years since this article was written, but I too was indignant about the rude — and frankly inaccurate — criticism of the first comment. Monica, you’ll probably never see this comment, but I would like to say that this was a moving review. The line about IJ as a comedy about pain and TPK as a tragedy about being good is the most incisive brief description I have heard of either book, and has been stuck in my head since I first read it.

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