Paul L. Caron

Monday, March 2, 2009

Posthumous The Pale King to Focus on IRS Agents

The New Yorker (March 9, 2009): The Unfinished; David Foster Wallace’s Struggle to Surpass “Infinite Jest,” by D. T. Max:

The writer David Foster Wallace [author of Infinite Jest] committed suicide on September 12th of last year. ... 

The Pale King ... continues Wallace’s preoccupation with mindfulness. It is about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter, and centers on a group of several dozen IRS agents working in the Midwest. Their job is tedious, but dullness, The Pale King suggests, ultimately sets them free. A typed note that Wallace left in his papers laid out the novel’s idea: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. 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. Instant bliss in every atom.” On another draft sheet, Wallace typed a possible epigraph for the book from “Borges and I,” a prose poem by Frank Bidart: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”

The problem was how to dramatize the idea. As Michael Pietsch points out, in choosing the IRS as a subject Wallace had “posed himself the task that is almost the opposite of how fiction works,” which is “leaving out the things that are not of much interest.” Wallace’s solution was to overwhelm his seemingly inert subject with the full movement of his thought. His characters might be low-level bureaucrats, but the robust sincerity of his writing—his willingness to die for the reader—would keep you from condescending to them. ...

See also Washington Post:  New Yorker Publishes Part of Unfinished Wallace Novel, by Ben Thompson. (Hat Tip: Sam Young.)

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