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A book of hope
on 5 June 2011
How do you review a book that was never meant to be read in its current form? Where do you start? How do you know? "The Pale King" was left as a neat pile of papers as a final gift by DFW to his wife Karen; a kind legacy, a bitter suicide `gift'. The manuscript was by no means a coherent, complete piece of work and as we learn from the introduction to "The Pale King", Michael Pietsch, DFW's editor, had to sift through the debris in an attempt to join the dots. So this is what we have: "The Pale King: A Book that DFW, Maybe".
Revolving around the world of the IRS - the US tax office - "The Pale King" is fundamentally a book about boredom. For over 500 pages, this novel deals with the endless tedium of the modern worker; the alienation, the total absence of meaning. Even the luckiest among us will have, at some point, have experienced the soul-crushing effects of being trapped into the time-reversing vortex of boring work. For some of you, it might now only be the distant memory of a summer job; for others, and I sadly belong to the latter category, the above is a description of pretty much our entire working life.
If the thought of reading about Tax Assessors is already filling you with terror, I would call it a justified reaction. There are parts of this novel that are undeniably boring - making "The Pale King" a sort of `meta-novel' that bores the reader into understanding boredom. Characters describe long and abstruse administrative procedures; a handful of pages are devoted to explaining the intricate, arcane mechanisms of taxation.
Other parts - starting with the opening Section 1- are of pure, undiluted lyrical beauty. Others, still, are seemingly self-contained stories about characters who, had Wallace lived to complete the novel, might have played a big role within the narrative. Even in their embryonic state, characters like Leonard Stecyk, `Irrelevant' Chris Fogle and Shane `Mr X.' Drinion, the levitating Utility Examiner, will probably be etched in my memory forever.
It must be relatively easy, for any half-decent writer, to entertain a reader with stories of wizards, lost symbols, love triangles and unsolved mysteries. Instead, Wallace chose the tax examiner as his unsung hero; the dragon-slaying weapon of choice is a mindful state, the sense of being present in the moment to pay close attention to the `now'.
Mindfulness, as it gradually emerges as one progresses through the book, is the antithesis to boredom; a state of awareness, we are shown, is the only way to transcend the tedium of modern working life. This is clearly the `big' message that TPK would have carried, had it been completed. In one of the notes left with the manuscript - published as the "Notes and Asides" of the book, Wallace wrote:
"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".
So this is it; there is no resolution, no plot line that really develops. The `tornadic' nature of the novel was only beginning to take shape by the time I turned page 538 - "Section 50", the final chapter; as a result, I felt as if the story was only just beginning. If "Infinite Jest" was 1079 pages long, who knows how many pages would have been filled to contain a full, completed (albeit in relative, DFW terms for `completed') "Pale King"?
Giving this novel a `star' rating feels inappropriate, somehow; it was at the same time a great read, a dull read, a sad read, a funny read. At times, it had me want to shout `that's it! that's it!'. At others, I struggled to keep my attention focused on the page, all the time knowing that Wallace was testing me, putting me in the shoes of the IRS Examiners. When I got to the end, as if struck by momentary amnesia about the fact that I had been reading an unfinished piece of work, I felt the disappointment of realising that nothing was going to even remotely be given the chance evolve, let alone be resolved.
And yet, nothing I have ever read has ever felt so hard-hitting and relevant to my life. Am I, too, one of the modern life's unsung heros? Will I, too, be able to `step from black and white into color'? Can a mindful state save me, will I, too, metaphorically levitate above the humdrum of 9-to-5 living and find bliss?
Maybe. Despite the inevitable sadness associated to its posthumous form, this is a book of hope. For this, I thank you, and rest in peace, David Foster Wallace.