Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

I have discovered the key to David Foster Wallace's work, and it lies solely with the reader. Give it the time it deserves. His writing is so deeply layered, with ranging perspectives and a raft of information, many of which seem to bear little connection to the plot. Time and patience, however, reveal the tapestry. I truly didn't want the book ever to end, because this novel about the IRS, of all things, became the exploration of so many conundrums of modern life that it seemed that it might in the end explain everything.

This is a posthumous work, painstakingly stitched together from the papers Wallace left upon his untimely death. The editor, Michael Pietsch, describes it as a labor of love, but it must have been Herculean. One can only imagine how great the novel would have been if finished; as it is, we are lucky to have it in this form, and it is fantastic despite its lack of polish.

Think IRS: I immediately conjure gray walls, tens of thousands of smudged, tear-stained pages, pen protectors, ashen complexions. Monotony piled upon boredom. Step into the halls of the Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, and you'll find all of that, plus interminable lines, endless, incomprehensible regulations, crushing bureaucracy, and Machiavellian office politics, for starters.

The minutiae of tedium - sounds like a great subject for a novel, no? And yet... it is endlessly fascinating. Sitting cramped in my airplane seat, hours from either departure or destination, I read about characters caught in a perpetual traffic jam, and felt remarkably unconstricted. There was that sense of familiarity, the sorrow at the futility of hours spent wasted on mundane chores, combined with relief at knowing that my life (your life) could never be this banal. Though, described in exhaustive detail to the outside world, who knows?

What is the book about? Lots and lots of people working at the IRS. It could be subtitled: A Human Anthill. Depictions of childhoods both traumatic and run-of-the-mill are echoed in descriptions of adult lives both mundane and poignant. There's an awful lot in this book; really you just have to read it to begin to see its depth and breadth and yes, I'll say it, genius.

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