Dear The Pale King by David Foster Wallace,
I have a tendency to enjoy books that many readers deem boring, dull, longwinded, and painstakingly meticulous. (Examples? Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Grant by Ron Chernow, etc.) There’s just something about an author putting in an enormous amount of time and effort to include an exorbitant amount of details that makes me desperately want to know why. Certainly there must be some point to it all; why else would they bother writing such a book?
Knowing this little tidbit about my reading preferences, you can imagine my intrigue and delight when I stumbled upon you while scrolling through audiobooks on the Libby app. A 548-page book about a fictional David Foster Wallace being a new trainee at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois?? You seemed like exactly the kind of bizarrely mundane book I would enjoy. You also have a very interesting backstory–unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace’s death, you were published posthumously after being compiled and put into the order that it was thought Wallace’s various parts should go in by someone else. It seemed strange to me but also sort of fitting that my first David Foster Wallace book was his last.
I love novels that have a sort of double-meaning to them, where the meaning on its face is deepened and really brought to life by the extrapolated contextualized meaning underneath. Here, on the surface you seem to be merely a book about a new IRS accountant trying to get his professional bearing. However, that facade is broken about a third of the way through you when David Foster Wallace suddenly speaks to the reader directly as the novelist. Not only did Wallace put himself in the story as a character, but he also asserts himself as a writer.
In this brilliant chapter, I began to understand just the point that Wallace was trying to make in your many, many pages. On the surface, you’re about the boredom of being an accountant; however, there’s a larger point to be made here about the nature and role that boredom plays in society. Boredom, Wallace asserts, is essential. Without certain rather mundane work, such as accounting, society as we know it would not function as it does today. He argues that over time we have come to see these dull tasks as less valuable despite their vital role in our lives.
“We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?”
You made me think about the role that social media and other online platforms have played a role in this shift. Suddenly everyone wants to do something exciting and entertaining for their job, and that’s all well and good–until no one is doing the mundane tasks that keep our society actually running smoothly. To be quite honest, I questioned my own habits online while reading you. For instance, why do I love blogging and bookstagram so much? Does it have anything to do with this new societal desire to leave boredom in the dust forever? I think it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. What’s really important to us and to the world at large? What is actually necessary?
Strangely, you also motivated and inspired me to work even harder. As someone currently in their first year of law school, I’m no stranger to the rote and the mundane. While much of my law school work is fascinating and thought-provoking, there are inevitably subjects that I find more interesting than others. However, you helped remind me why those rather dull topics and tasks are equally as important–if not even more so–than the exciting, dynamic ones. But you assert that finding determination and even a kind of enjoyment in the mundane may be a key to unlocking countless doors in the future. This idea is perfectly summed up in this quote that you deliver later on in the story:
“It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
All in all, you are both an odd and oddly satisfying novel. It’s not every day that you read about such a specific, narrow subject matter with such relevant abstract point behind it. The amount of detail you possess is absolutely extraordinary and, at some points, overwhelming. Listening to the audiobook version of you was like standing in the midst of a waterfall–just a constant flood of information, a stream of consciousness like no other. And while you did seem to drag on and become a bit dull at times, I can hardly fault you for that. After all, isn’t that in line with the very point you’re trying to make?
You’re one of a kind, The Pale King. And although you were David Foster Wallace’s last novel, you certainly won’t be the last novel of his that I read.
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