Why David Foster Wallace Couldn’t Finish

The Pale King reveals the secrets of boredom.

Also in Slate, Matt Feeney explores boredom in The Pale King.

David Foster Wallace

One small tragedy that follows on the big tragedy of a great writer’s suicide is that the act undercuts whatever he was writing at the time. By killing himself before he has turned in his book, the author implies not only that he hasn’t finished it, but that he despaired about finishing it, that he found it unfinishable. So yes, The Pale King is unfinished, and yes, it may have been unfinishable. But these weren’t reasons to despair—not that we know why David Foster Wallace despaired. (He had a history of horrific depressions.) Incomplete or not, The Pale King is whole enough, a fully imagined, often exquisitely fleshed-out novel about a dreary Midwestern tax-return processing center that he has caused to swarm with life. By the time you’re done, you may want to know more about the fates of particular characters, but you won’t need to know more. He may have been planning to tell us more, but he may not have been. According to an introductory “editor’s note” by Michael Pietsch, who edited the manuscript that Wallace’s wife and agent found after his death, three notes in Wallace’s desk suggest that we were never going to get anything like a traditional plot or ending: “One note says the novel is ‘a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens.’ … Still another suggests that throughout the novel ‘something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen.’”

What does happen is a series of bravura literary performances—soliloquies; dialogues; video interview fragments; short stories with the sweep and feel of novellas; a searching political discussion in a stalled elevator; a cringingly self-congratulatory postmodernist pseudo-memoir, replete with footnotes, from an unpleasant character who calls himself “David Foster Wallace” but isn’t quite the author; and more. These add up to a vivid group portrait of people who work at or live near the Internal Revenue Service Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Ill. The events of the novel occur during the Reagan administration. That is, they occur at a time when the IRS, to the dismay of some, was about to be automated and also, more controversially, to be turned into something more like a for-profit business than a simple arm of government, with an attendant reduction of interest in the niceties of social justice. This is an old-school bureaucracy on the brink of the computer revolution and privatization. Having announced that the novel will address these changes, I should say that Wallace never really gives us a clear sense of how they will affect his characters. In the end, he’s less interested in the history of the agency than in what it must have felt like to work there at the end of the era that came before ours.

Each of these set pieces is complete in itself, though some are broken up and scattered the length of the novel. Each is steeped deeply in the personality of its narrator or protagonist, as if each character deserved his or her own genre as well as his or her own voice. More revision might have smoothed the surfaces of these pieces slightly, but most of them feel done to me. We don’t know what order Wallace would have published them in. They were arranged after his death by Pietsch, who took his cues from other notes in the desk that described the novel as having a ” ‘tornado feeling’—suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high-speed swirl.” Pietsch gets credit for the book’s carefully constructed ramp up to that feeling, but it’s Wallace’s explosive inventiveness, his stylistic variability, that give the tornado its propulsive force. This is what 360-degree storytelling looks like, and if it doesn’t come to a climax or end, exactly, that may not be a defect.

Anyway, Wallace had to find some way to keep us reading a novel about boredom, which is not an easy emotion to dramatize, obviously, but one he accorded enormous social significance. For one thing, boredom has a political dimension. As the character who is called “David Foster Wallace” (but isn’t) explains in a thumbnail account of the IRS and the Peoria center, the reason few Americans know about the important changes made in the mid-1980s, “changes that today directly affect the way citizens’ tax obligations are determined and enforced,” is that tax policy and administration is “dull. Massively, spectacularly, dull”:

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider from the service’s perspective the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help to insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than secrecy.

Boredom, then—produced by a superabundance of unnecessarily technical information—is what stands between us and the truth. Being incapable of dealing with tedium long enough to get to the other side of it isn’t just our undoing, though. It’s also, for Wallace, our character flaw, proof of American callowness. It’s the flip side of needing always to be entertained, which Wallace equated with the infantilizing machinations of pop culture. Our fatal addiction to distraction is a condition Wallace diagnosed in many forms over the course of his career, particularly in his epic and, I should add, often much more boring novel Infinite Jest. (I should also add that Infinite Jest is brilliant and at other times enthralling; it’s one of the memorable American novels.) In Pale King—which is shorter and almost never boring—Wallace breaks boredom into its component parts: routine, repetition, pointless formalism, frustration, claustrophobia, the fear of being alone with oneself, the experience of being overwhelmed by irrelevant detail, the nagging sense of being inadequate to the task, the endlessness of it all.

As that list suggests, just because Wallace thought it necessary to tolerate boredom doesn’t mean he thought it easy to do so. He may have had a cultural critique to advance, but he was still a novelist, and a very funny one at that. So some of the shorter pieces here amount to case studies in endurance. One very short chapter is a list of “syndromes/symptoms” associated with having been required to examine tax returns for more than 36 months in a row: “Chronic paraplegia, Temporary paraplegia, Temporary paralysis agitans, Paracatatonic fugues,” and so on. You aren’t required actually to read this list—it’s more a typographic joke than a text to be parsed. Another chapter is a brief news item about a tax return examiner who died at his desk on a Tuesday and went unnoticed till Saturday night. A three-page chapter consists of the cumulatively droll repetition of sentences like these, meant to describe a day at the tax center: “‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle turns a page. Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page… ‘Groovy’ Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file.” Phantoms visit those who concentrate too hard for too long on tax returns. One such ghost natters on wittily about philosophy and literature to a tormented young examiner whom one doubts has read Pascal’s Penseesor La Rouchefoucauld’s letters to Horace Walpole, so he probably didn’t just hallucinate his visitant into being. Extreme boredom, in Wallace’s hands, is more than just an existential condition; it’s a conduit to the supernatural. 

At another level, though, braving boredom is, for Wallace, the last remaining form of heroism. One hero of Pale King, insofar as there are any, is a low-level IRS employee named Chris Fogle who describes at great but entertaining length the epiphany that turned him from a college-student “wastoid” in the late 1970s into a sober accountant with a sense of having been called to his profession. Fogle’s monologue has the chastened intensity of one of Philip Roth’s late-in-life recantations, and Pietsch has tellingly placed it at the heart of the novel.

Fogle relates what has to be the most unusual conversion experience in confessional narrative. It begins with an amphetamine called Obetrol under whose influence he homes in on “the little embedded strings and clots” on his dorm room wall that “painters tend to leave when they’re paid by the job and not by the hour,” which leads to the druggy revelation that “if you really look at something, you can almost always tell what type of wage structure the person who made it was on.” Obetrol introduces Fogle to the sensation of being self-aware, “doubled,” he calls it, such that some time later, while wasting time watching As The World Turns,he is able to see himself well enough to realize that the repeated announcement, “You’re watching As the World Turns,” is horribly, literally true: “It was beyond being feckless or a wastoid—it’s like I wasn’t even there.” Fogle’s sense of vocation is awakened a few days later, when he mistakenly wanders into an Advanced Tax seminar whose Jesuit accounting professor is delivering a powerfully persuasive summation on the last day of class. His message also happens to be the novel’s Big Message.

Heroism, this father tells his students, “by which I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or tales of childhood … is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.” The man of courage in the age of prolixity sifts relevant from irrelevant data. He stanches their anarchic flow. “Yesterday’s hero …  penetrated, tamed, hewed, shaped, made, brought things into being. Yesterday’s hero generated facts,” the accounting professor proclaims. “Gentleman, the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts.” 

This is Wallace in full prophetic mode, announcing and denouncing the advent of the Internet (even though the Internet hadn’t been named in Fogle’s time). The author’s observations about the indispensability of sitzfleisch may be as apt for novelists as they are for IRS employees, but, luckily for readers, it is the employees themselves who advance them, with surprising plausibility. Wallace’s organization men aren’t the bumbling, malign time-servers we expect to see in contemporary literature and cinema, where we are usually treated to a knee-jerk hatred of big institutions. Though we know that the obsolescence of these men (it is mostly men) is upon them, they don’t know that, and they care deeply about what they do, have thought hard about it, and talk about it uncommonly well. The Jesuit father appears to be a former IRS official. In the chapter involving the stuck elevator, three top brass at the regional examination center trapped in that small, dark space—the lights have also gone out—hold an impromptu, graduate-level civics seminar on the Republican tax revolt, the rise of corporations, and the phenomenon of politicians who run against the government. Maybe it’s the 1960s that has made people hate the government, one of them speculates. Perhaps it’s the elevation of the corporate principle of “individual reward without individual obligation” (“the worker’s obligations are to the executives, and the executives’ obligations are to the CEO,” and so on up to the stockholders: “It’s a fugue of evaded responsibility”). In any case, their position at the helm of a tax-return center allows the officials to see “civic attitudes close up” (“there’s nothing more concrete than a tax payment”), and they grasp that “that something queer is going on in terms of civics and selfishness in this country.”

Of course, Wallace could never not make fun of his own high-mindedness, nor does he let the IRS bureaucracy come off as an unequivocal force for good. (This is the 360 degree view.) “David Foster Wallace” has a delightfully nasty riff in which he depicts the Peoria office as a place of “squat, institutional ugliness” and stupendous inefficiency. “Wallace,” who gets suspended from college for selling his services as a term-paper-writer and lands a job as an entry-level tax-returns examiner, devotes his impressive analytical faculties to the logistical difficulties he experiences just getting from the airport to the center. The traffic around the place is so bad it becomes darkly comical—at one point we see employees struggling to get to the center from distant parking lots by trudging along a strip of grass that’s so narrow they slip and fall into ditches. At fault is awesomely terrible parking lot design, engineered by the IRS. “Wallace“‘s efforts to get himself processed as a new employee subject him to even more outrageous, if amusing, snafus.

The character who embodies the virtues and horrors of bureaucracy and yet, appealingly, seems equally uneasy with both, is Claude Sylvanshine, one of the most layered  creations in the book. Sylvanshine is simultaneously a high-level and a low-level bureaucrat, and, as his name seems to suggest, a man trapped in the forest looking for light between the trees. A special assistant to an important human resources director, he gets sent to the tax center to lay the groundwork for big changes—probably layoffs—yet he’s stymied by a repeated failure to pass the CPA exam he needs to advance in the IRS’s ranks. The reason for this, despite his command of office politics and administrative esoterica, is an inability to concentrate, and the reason for that is a marvelous disorder: Random-Fact Intuition, whose victims are cruelly haunted by irrelevant data. Here is Wallace on the kind of random facts that disturb such people, also called “fact psychics”: “The middle name of the childhood friend of a stranger they pass in a hallway. The fact that someone they sit near in a movie was once 16 cars behind them on I-5 near McKittrick CA on a warm rainy October day in 1971.”

These minutiae, of course, are also the novelist’s material. Sylvanshine is a man being destroyed by the mad plenitude of his world and his inability to make the right kind of sense of it. (At 8 years old, Sylvanshine had data on a medical condition that would ultimately kill his father—his “liver enzymes and rate of cortical atrophy” —but “didn’t know what these data meant.”) As such, he strikes me as a stand-in for the author. Sylvanshine has the panicked hyper-acuity of a man who can never process information fast enough. So does Wallace’s prose style. At the end of the Jesuit’s stemwinder to the accounting students, he concludes dramatically: “Gentlemen, you are called to account.” Neither Sylvanshine nor Wallace can force themselves to “account” as they may have felt called to, Sylvanshine because of his disorder, Wallace—well, who knows why. Maybe the material defeated him. Then again, maybe it didn’t. Maybe his failure to tie things together was a reasonable response to an age so overrun by facts that their neat integration seemed nearly impossible, and even—for Wallace—dishonest.