The paperback version of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, is set to come out April 10th with four new supplemental scenes, but to my surprise I already found a stack of them in a book store. Here’s a preview of what the four pieces offer.
The first part portrays an entry-level staffer providing his background. He begins by giving his view of the IRS. “One of the biggest services the Service provides consists in acting as antidote or antagonist to people’s natural selfishness. We are there—liberally empowered—to remind Americans that they are part of something larger than themselves or their families….” Consequently, the staffer explains, you can choose to see the service one of two ways: bloodsucking, which still plays an important role because “blood…moves or there is death”; or “the people’s heart…as the forceful contractions of the heart.”
From there, he goes on to expound his viewpoint of life:
The lives of most people are small tight pallid and sad, more to be mourned than their deaths. We starve at the banquet: We cannot see that there is a banquet because seeing the banquet requires that we see also ourselves sitting there starving–seeing ourselves clearly, even for a moment, is shattering…we are not dead but asleep, dreaming of ourselves. I do not exempt myself from this but I have tossed and turned. I have, every so often, come briefly awake.
Consequently, the narrator briefly describes the first moment he awoke from the slumber of life after a frat party, walking home, seeing himself drunk in a in the reflection of a window. As noted, there is a heavy hint here of DFW’s short story “A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life” i.e. an essential Wallace theme found in numerous stories (“The Depressed Person,” “Good Old Neon”), namely that our obsession with the impression we make inhibits our ability to truly connect. This section also fits in, and perhaps repeats a lot of the larger themes of The Pale King, in which previously sleeping people wake up, or learn to start paying attention to their lives. Overall, of the four, I find this piece to be the most beautiful, poignant, and insightful of the additional fragments.
Part two follows a similar structure to part one. A new character, unnamed, starts first with his philosophy of life, then tells us the story of his life. The editors themselves tell us that this snippet looks like a polar opposite of the previous character in that this character shuns paralyzing recursive thought. This is a fair surface assessment, but this character is also unreliable, like all DFW characters, and partly unaware of his limitations or contradictions. The staffer begins:
I am a thug. Was nothing more. This must be made clear from the outset. The world is an atrocious place, a self-consuming flame, all vs. all. I doubt you are ignorant of this – given that you have the leisure and resources to read this memoir–that you have not yet made an accommodation with the brutal facts of life – that life preserves itself by consuming other life. That one either feeds or is foods.
The thug then goes on to explain that we forget that the IRS needs collection agents, which amounts to sanctioned bullying, though the idea of a thug in the IRS might not fit with your schema of IRS dorks seeking to get revenge on bullies through the horrors of audits. As with the first part, the character tells you about the Service, then his essential viewpoint on life, and only then tells his own personal story, but here the thug who hates overthinking explains, “I could tell my own story. I will not. You know me. As an infant I was ‘colicky’ a feeder so rapacious my mother weaned me early to save herself.” From this hilarious tidbit he details his bullying exploits with no shame. Ultimately, he ends on a slightly contradictory note, one that undercuts much of what he has said up until this point:
This is not my story. I do not care whether you like me – I myself dislike storytellers whose chief concern is that they themselves be liked or thought a clever storyteller. The pretty language and observations and fun at the expense of their story’s characters–they are show offs the lowest form of manipulators.
The narrator turns unreliable the moment he invokes his dislike of pretty language because of his description of the world as a, “self consuming flame, all vs. all.” He also does tell us his story leaving us in a bind as to how to relate to this humorous character, again similar to the fraud of DFW’s story “Good Old Neon.” While humorous, this part resonates because it so much sounds like the actual voice of DFW struggling with his eternal struggles between action and thought, between aesthetic complexity and simple truths. Also, another great sentence: “All bureaucracies are microcosms of the world. As such they are composed of the world’s two types, devourers and food. Abstract people vs. men of action.”
The third part, in my mind the weakest, is more of a classical narrative exposition akin to what we remember from Infinite Jest. This scene describes the character Charles Lehrl, his background, and how and why he became friends with one of the protagonists, Claude Sylvanshine. The narrative is heavy with descriptions of squalor and comes with this stellar sentence, “What had kept his father from being an actual alcoholic was that being an actual alcoholic would have taken too much of an effort,” which is both heart-shattering and hilarious, as usual. Much of the narrative revolves around Lehrl’s childhood, his deadbeat dad, and his hours spent with his brother and his tiny sister watching a large family of albinos, “eighty seven of them,” who work on a small rendering plant. Overall, this piece, besides offering background, hints at the general theme of awareness.
By far the funniest of the pack, the fourth snippet finds DFW not only breaking down the politics of an office lunchroom, but also setting up a raucously absurd scene with over eight characters in one large conversation. The conversations center on the efforts of one of the workers, T. Hovatter, to work overtime in order to take a year off to watch every TV program aired in May 1986. The scene consists of pitch perfect characterizations (“Carol Pulte’s face was round and freckled but her lips were large and perfectly formed and swollen as if they would almost burst like yolks if you kissed them too hard….”), riotous nerdy conversations on how someone might set up twelve VCRs to continuously record twelve channels, and a talmudic discussion of the potential rules of this contest. (Can he sleep or pee? Does he actually need to pay attention?)
The heart of this piece lies in a phrase from Infinite Jest: “Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.” Singh, the observer of this scene, insists on knowing why. Here’s the answer he receives:
Hottaver removed his hand from his chin and looked in Singh’s general area, though not directly at him, as if to deny him the privilege of complete engagement. “Why did people climb K2?”
“Because it was there, you’re saying?” Pethwich said
“To show it could be done.”
Which of course is as evasive as it is dull. The idea of someone consuming so much TV as a challenge, as the last form of rebellion, though funny, feels more fitting for Infinite Jest than The Pale King. While these fragments provide just a little more of the voice we lost, they ultimately and inevitably highlight the sadly fractured nature of the book.