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“Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.” So we are warned, by David Foster Wallace. His novel, The Pale King, is a clerical epic, set in the catacombs of the Internal Revenue Service, where men and women fight against the “soul murdering” nature of their dreary, repetitive jobs, and the “true heroes” embrace boredom, as a path to bliss. Wallace believes in enlightenment through wilful attention to complexity. The enemy here is not tedium but the idea that the majority of life is tedious. Boredom is the coward’s way out. A hero welcomes monotony.
Leonard Stecyk, Claude Sylvanshine, David Cusk, Shane Drinion, Lane Dean Jr., Chris Fogle, Challa Neti-Neti, Toni Ware, and two David Wallaces (the author, and another man with the author’s name) all worked for the IRS in 1985 – at least, according to this book. One of them was pathologically nice as a child, one of them is a “fact psychic”, one of them can levitate when in a state of profound concentration…one of them can fake being dead. Most of them had difficulties in childhood. In the course of their lives, 1985 was not an especially eventful year. David Wallace writes about this period only because this is when, according to him, he worked for the IRS, briefly. Nothing happened that shook the world.
The book is exhilarating to read not because of content, but because of form. David Foster Wallace could describe a toilet seat in such a way as to make your heart swell. His goal in writing The Pale King is to use the English language like the Large Hadron Collider: as a means of revealing, in the minutiae, the goddamn secrets of the universe. He rejects the whole notion of “the epiphany” because it’s antithetical to his aims; he wants his readers to understand not the moment of change, but the unseen process by which “irrelevant” details inform what we choose to pay attention to. This is why he focuses on the dullest job he can imagine. When immersed in what other people ignore, his characters discover ecstatic truth.
Sadness is just one of the details of life, in this book. We assume these office drones are depressed by their work. But that isn’t the sum total of their experience, any more than a lottery winner is always full of joy. The Pale King asks us to look beyond lazy assumptions. It’s unusual for a reason: to stop you from being blasé. In the longest chapter in the book, “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle describes, in mind-bending detail, how he came to work for the IRS. Fogle’s epiphany came while watching daytime TV, when he realised the double entendre in the announcement “You’re watching As the World Turns”. He suddenly recognised that he has been wasting his life up until that moment, and that he had been depressed without even knowing it. The point of Fogle’s story, however, isn’t for us to understand why he changed, but to understand that his conventional life, and its changes, can be seen as a beautiful mystery.
To prevent the danger of settling for a glib apercu, or “the Paulo Coelho approach”, David Wallace is careful not to make Chris Fogle the novel’s hero. This isn’t a story about how one man triumphs over the system using Zen. As Fogle admits to the reader, he’s “a cog, not a sparkplug”. Enlightenment, in his case, only leads to greater efficacy at work. He doesn’t inspire anyone around him. You could equally resent him for being a non-entity. He’s like the hero of a play one character describes, where a man sits at a desk, working, and working, and working, until the audience leaves, and “the real action of the play can start”. It’s never explained to us what bliss feels like. We’re meant to be challenged, to struggle for insight.
“What we need now to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war; something heroic that will speak to man as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved to be incompatible.” So wrote William James (in a passage taken as a rallying cry by David Foster Wallace). The Pale King is about a kind of heroism that seems meek in contrast with dying for a just cause. We don’t associate gallantry with office work. We expect bravery to be conspicuous. Our heroes are a breed apart. A life of routine is deemed pale, tragic, unadventurous, and unlived. It’s deathly to be dull, “soul murdering” to be bored. Madness to live like that, or else, sublime heroism.