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Boredom Is An Energy: David Foster Wallace's The Pale King Reviewed
Siobhan McKeown , June 5th, 2012 05:35

David Foster Wallace's last novel introduced the idea of boredom as a tool of anti-capitalism and a state to be relished in, says Siobhan McKeown

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The Pale King is a book about boredom. The Pale King is boring. It’s so boring, and I am so averse to being bored, that when I told my husband that I was reviewing it he laughed and said that by the time I was a quarter through I’d be kicking myself.

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, first published in 2011 and republished in paperback recently with four additional chapters. It comprises of twelve complete chapters that were left on Foster Wallace’s writing desk, along with other drafts and notes. It is about a group of people who work at the IRS in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985. In his introduction, the editor Michael Pietsch, admits that The Pale King is not the novel that Foster Wallace would have published had be still been alive, but it’s all that we have. Nevertheless, had Foster Wallace finished the novel it would still be boring.

There’s little narrative to the book, things happen, but nothing really happens. Even the most intense event, involving a gruesome death, has already happened, and is only recalled.

To judge The Pale King on its own terms, its boringness is what makes it so successful. The Pale King isn’t just boring accidentally, it is boring intentionally; and that makes it interesting. Reading the book, my experience of boredom changed. The first few chapters feel scattered, and it’s hard to get a purchase on what’s going on. But there are already hints. A character talks about a play in which a rote examiner “sits there longer and longer until the audience gets more and more bored and restless, and finally they start leaving, first just a few and then the whole audience, whispering to each other how boring and terrible the play is. Then, once the audience have all left, the real action of the play can start.”

It takes commitment to continue, especially due to the book’s fragmentary form. But soon I looked forward to reading it. Sitting down with The Pale King is an extraction from the everyday flow of the world. It isn’t simply a book about boredom. It’s a book in which boredom is enacted upon the reader in a meaningful way, such that the very experience of boredom itself is changed. This may sound like a pointless enterprise - after all, who cares about boring? Boring is so… boring. “Sometimes,” writes Foster Wallace, “what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment.”

We live in a time of instant communication and consumption, where information passes in a steady stream, with barely a moment to pause. Time has become a homogenous mass of tiny satisfactions. The Pale King is an antidote. And it doesn’t simply give you answers, it enacts the possibility of a different way of being upon you.

This is an enormous feat for a book to pull off. Ryan Alexander Diduck’s Quietus article earlier this year talked about slow music and art, but slow literature? Surely no one wants to dedicate themselves to a 549 page book that is not only about boring, but about boredom.

Paradoxically, the boredom itself becomes immersive. By the time I reached a chapter that was only (seriously) about people turning pages, “’Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle turns a page. Howard Cardwell turns a page.,” etc etc., I thought “Yes! I have arrived! This is where I want to be.” Every word read carefully, wanting to be part of the page turning and the tedium. It is a breathless moment. It’s commonplace to overwhelm readers with writing about love, tragedy, or deep, earth-shattering emotion, but boredom? Not so much.

Pietsch, the editor, has done a fantastic job giving the book a cyclical structure. The original hardback version finishes in a way that makes you feel like returning to the beginning with renewed vigor, embracing the boredom rather than simply enduring it.

This cyclical element forms a key part of the book. Sisyphus is returned to repeatedly. A character dreams of being a stick that breaks over and over again but never gets any smaller; another divides his lawn into 17 sections, mowing them one at a time so that by the time he finishes the last the first has grown again; the IRS returns never stop, there will always be another.

This cyclical time is contrasted to the notion of progress. “Corporations are getting better at seducing us into thinking the way they think – of profit as telos.” It is in repetition, tedium and boredom that true resistance lies; the never-ending slog as resistance to capitalism’s injunction to “enjoy!”. Non-conformity, being a hippy-dippy free-agent, or “wastoid” as a way of rebelling against the system, is a lie sold by corporations who “convince Americans that rebellion against the soulless inhumanity of corporate life will consist in buying products from corporations that do the best job of representing corporate life as empty and soulless.” Resistance does not consist of a straight line; it is a repetitious circle.

The Pale King is not a call for us all to go into the tax service or become bureaucrats, but for a more dedicated, single-minded and persistent way of being. To do things no matter how boring they are, because the product is better, more powerful, than the easy non-conformity spoon fed by the underside of the system. In many places it feels like a book about writing, about spending all of one’s time in a small room, doing repetitive, boring tasks.

In the notes, David Foster Wallace remarks that “priming” is the word that the IRS uses to make its rote examiners able to cope with extreme boredom. The Pale King is a primer, it primes us to resist the homogeneity of the present, our constant quest for consumption and satisfaction, to immerse ourselves in boredom, and so become more interesting.

In the latest paperback edition of The Pale King, the publishers have decided to attach four previously unpublished chapters. This is to the detriment of the book. The structure as it stood in the original version worked. While there are definite chapters that feel lacking, and others that shine immensely, Pietsche made it feel like a whole, if not complete, object. The last few lines of the notes he did include are beautiful, and a perfect ending. Appending these additional chapters adds nothing to the book, and detracts from the overall sense of completion and elation that one has when finishing. The publishers could have published these chapters as part of a collection, or farmed them out to literary magazine. One chapter was published on The Millions, so why not do that with all of them? If you do buy the paperback version, I recommend returning to these additional chapters later.

It’s hard to write a review of The Pale King and not mention sadness at Foster Wallace’s death. It is a book rich with ideas – many other writers would feel privileged to come up with just one of his insights. It is a book worth reading whether you’re a Foster Wallace fan or not, but there is an inevitable feeling of what could have been, that is difficult to escape.

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Jun 5, 2012 7:38pm

The book itself is not 'boring', though challenging in places and stylistically tedious when trying to make some aesthetic point. The book, however, is about boredom - or more properly, it's about the experience of banality, and living with tedium. I think the review confuses the reviewer's subjective reaction (to be bored) with the books thematic concerns (the philosophical notion of boredom). It comes across as confused... and it's a confusion that is harmful to the book, also (which is excellent and is far from boring to read).

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Jun 5, 2012 7:53pm

In reply to aaroninky:

I also disagree with the statement that Pietsche's editing made the book feel like a whole - much less one with a successfully cyclical structure (a la Infinite Jest's annular obsession). TPK in comparison feels like a series of vignettes and sketches - successfully arranged to give a vaguely narrative main-story arc, but nothing more. There are plenty of sub-plots and characters that are introduced who were clearly meant to assume a much fuller role (DFW's own notes are testament to this, now available at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas). It's a great read, as all of DFW's tornadic prose is, but you really get the feeling he intended it to be an opus 2x the length of Infinite Jest, even. The 600 or so pages we have here are but a teasing glimpse into the arcane complexities and shuddering banalities of life in 1980's America.

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Sam Diamond
Jun 10, 2012 6:37pm

Yeah, I gotta say that the book itself isn't 'boring'. It's actually very similar to the short story collection Oblivion and there are some infinite jest style plot mechanisms in the background. If this is boring so is all of DFW's work (it's not). I thought the political aspect was brave. It's not exactly a popular perspective, surrendering oneself to soul destroying boredom because it doesn't cause the damage of free market capitalism. Also the opening chapter is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.

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George Street
Jan 19, 2017 4:49pm

Bit late but nice piece :) I hadn't read it until now but there are similarities with something I wrote recently

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Miguel Eduardo Gomez
Jun 14, 2017 9:18pm

I, of all people, am looking toward Accounting as a new career after having read The Pale King.

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