Saturday, May 5, 2012

David Foster Wallace's "The Pale King": Book Review

I never thought I'd finish a hefty novel about the IRS in three sittings. Unfinished as it is, I enjoyed most of this and closed it disappointed by its unfulfilled promise. I've read (and reviewed on Amazon years ago) his essay collection Consider the Lobster, and like A Supposedly Fun Thing..... his essays were my way into Wallace's formidable work. However, unlike most readers of this last novel, I haven't navigated the depths, annotated and intricate, of his fiction. So, I came to this story curiously, to see if it'd sustain itself in its recovered and necessarily incomplete state.

With no knowledge of accounting and little of taxes, I learned a lot about both. Wallace includes plenty of expository detail in a deft manner, difficult when it's discussed (as is mentioned in a telling footnote) by characters who deal with its minutiae every boring day. The parking lot at the Peoria center, the confusion of the two David Wallaces in the bureaucratic snafu, and the Midwestern sunrise that comes like a light switched on with ten degrees increase at once: such scenes enliven the plot

Two characters stand out, signs of how the novel if completed might have succeeded if they had been allowed to develop more. Toni Ware's coming of age in a trailer-park hell, told in a faintly archaic, British style of prose, sears. Likewise, Leonard Stecyk's cringeworthy do-goodism early on segues into a dramatic voc-ed scene which the author handles masterfully to enrich this difficult character. Wallace does not flinch from the challenges of constructing the novel, and his notes let us in on the process in a less-preening, more informative manner than post-modern authors often assume. 

I transcribe a few passages that reveal the potential novel of ideas that underlies the storyline of many characters and different perspectives. The story is surprisingly coherent in its assemblage, and the brief notes Wallace left about the shape of its foreshortened arc shows the control he had over it. 

Chapter 19 is masterful as it maps out, with Glendenning as the titular figure involved in a three-way conversation about the transition of the IRS from an ethical purpose--to run the country fairly by requiring all to contribute their fair share--to a profitable entity which seeks to maximize revenue by monitoring with newfangled (as of circa 1984) technology designed to minimize human and maximize computer scrutiny of "noncompliant" returns from those audited who will pay more in penalties to please a Reagan-era shift in tax laws and loopholes and income and power-shifting. 

"'Sometimes what's important is dull. Sometimes it's work. Sometimes the important things aren't works of art for your entertainment.'" (138) This speaks for the novel's serious intentions. 

A few pages later, in a prescient passage worthy of far more quoting, this key chapter predicts what not only Bush-Reagan represents for our current state of the nation no matter who's in charge. For, we elect "a symbolic Rebel against his own power whose election was underwritten by inhuman soulless profit-machines whose takeover of American civic and spiritual life will convince Americans that rebellion against the soulless humanity of corporate life will consist in buying products from corporations that do the best job of representing corporate life as empty and soulless. We'll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very election depended on our deep conviction that his persona is utter bullshit. A rule of image, which because it's so empty it makes one terrified--they're small and going to die, after all--'" (149)

Further on, "Wallace" wonders whether "real memory is fragmentary; I think it's also that overall relevance and meaning are conceptual, while the experiential bits that get locked down and are easiest, years later, to retrieve tend to be sensory. We live in bodies, after all." (289) Wallace evokes the predicament of entrapment in an office, a job, a routine that snags many of us, and his own vision darkens, as does that of a nation as it shifts, mid-1980s, from producing to consuming things. What comforts or torments some, as in Toni and Leonard and the narrative Wallace's cases, are memories.

While being "immune to boredom" is an essential condition for one's success in a bureaucracy (and the happy hour conversation between Meredith Bond and Shane Drinion wears on me as it did on them), and while a bureaucracy famously represents a daily challenge in representing these states of mind and body and spirit for many of us "TPs," Wallace keeps the humanity in the dialogue and monologue. He means to plunge into reality at (near-)modern work, and few novels dare to do this well. He does not opt for mockery, but a more nuanced, reflective humor that leavens the serious message. Immersion in the moment, suspended like the massive clock's hand, symbolizes our response to our choice or our fate.

(P.S. One persistent if minor mistake if I may mention it, given the draft state: Jesuits do not staff the Catholic university of DePaul, which by its name derives from St. Vincent, and it was founded by Vincentian priests.) (Amazon US 1-24-12)

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