The Pale King – Chapter 2

Dear Dave,

“The flight took fifty minutes and seemed much longer.  There was nothing to do and nothing would hold still in his head in all the confined noise and after the nuts were gone there was nothing for Sylvanshine to do to occupy his mind…” (page 6).  That first sentence describes exactly how I felt in reading chapter 2.  It probably took me just under an hour to get through it, but it felt so much longer as I bounced along inside the turbulence of Claude Sylvanshine’s muddled mind.  Like Sylvanshine, I would look up from the text at some distraction, then have to search the page for my lost place, often rereading the same couple of sentences several times as I regained my bearings.

The chapter seemed a big incoherent mess until I realized you simply provided us a transcript of Sylvanshine’s thoughts as he travels the last leg to Peoria to sit for his CPA exam.  His observations of the interior of the plane mix with his observations out the rain-laced window mix with his memories of the Rome REC debacle of 1982 mix with his trying to remember equations and information that will be on the CPA exam that awaits him.  His line of thinking is a tangled, knotted mess, a reflection of the rest of his life.

Claude Sylvanshine is the very embodiment of a person running on the “default setting,” a “slave to the terrible master” which is his mind, a person with a “tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside [his] head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of [him], paying attention to what is going on inside [him]” (This is Water).  He is what you warned the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College they would become if they did not break free from their default setting and exercise the conscientious ability to choose how to view and interpret one’s surroundings that brings real freedom.

This short plane ride is a microcosm of his entire life.  He has been studying[1] for his third attempt at the CPA exam for three and a half years, something that his roommate, Reynolds, was able to do with little trouble in a much less time.  He finds himself distracted by the claw-like hands of the woman sitting next to him or by the pimples on the back of the pilot’s neck.  He even worries about whether worrying about the exam will cause him too much stress, and therefore sabotage his attempt that the exam.  He has tried various anti-stress coping mechanisms to overcome this anxiety, but he can’t even seem to do those right.

The entropy that is his life seems to reach its climax in the last sentence[2] of the story in which he is rendered nearly catatonic with worry about how exactly he will get to the testing location and whether he packed his alarm clock or not.  He is frozen on the tarmac, unable to move, all but sealing his disastrous fate.  He is, in your words from the Kenyon speech, “totally hosed.”

[1] “Studying” might be too strong a word here.  He has been worrying about the exam and trying to get himself organized so that he can prepare to study for the exam, but it seems that he does very little actual studying for the exam.

[2] A sentence that goes on for nearly three pages, mind you.

4 thoughts on “The Pale King – Chapter 2

  1. Ryan,

    I enjoyed your response to Chap. 2. I like your diagnosis of Sylvanshine and the ways you related it to the Kenyon address. To me it is a masterful presentation of the stream of consciousness that goes on in all of us, usually unawares, as you point out.

    A small quibble: I think he’s going to Peoria to be “eyes on the ground” at the Peoria REC for Merrill Errol Lehrl, p. 19. In that same long and convoluted sentence, he says “if he passed the exam this spring and acquitted himself well in this post . . . through March 15 corporate [still winter] and the April 15 storms of 1040s and ESTs . . .” So at some point later, he’ll sit for the CPA exam a third time. While he is anxious about the exam, he’s also worried about his performance at the post and how that will affect his career, about getting there on time, etc.

    Regarding his anti-stress coping mechanisms, I recently ran across some of these in the curriculum for a course called “Seeking Safety” by Lisa Najavits (2002): “Mental Grounding. >Describe your environment in detail, using all your senses . . .” p. 134. This course is designed for those dealing with PTSD.


  2. Brian,
    Thanks for keeping me honest. I guess I missed the part about him being relocated to Peoria, but looking at it again, that does make a lot of sense.
    And thanks for the info on the coping mechanisms. That makes a lot of sense as well, both for the character and for the narrative. But I wonder how that fits in with the “Thought Stopping” technique (pages 15 & 24). Is what you describe a form of this “Thought Stopping”? On page 15 there is the statement that “There is an anti-stress technique called Thought Stopping,” then on 24 it says that he was forced to do it there on the tarmac, but no mention (from my readings) of what it is exactly. I’ll have to look it up.

    • Ryan,

      I don’t know much about Thought Stopping. From something I read online after seeing it in chap. 2, it is now a discredited technique. It does seem that this character could use something to dampen down his wide-ranging and constant flow of thoughts. And so maybe that’s why DFW used it here. From the meditation exercises I have learned, we don’t try to stop our thoughts. We just recognize them, let them float on by, and return to whatever our chosen focus is, be it the breath, a sacred word, or something else. In this way, we develop our concentration “muscles” and are not ruled by our unbidden thoughts. This seems to relate to the ideas in This Is Water, e.g., “The mind is a terrible master . . .”


  3. Hello. I haven’t read the whole book yet. I’ve read one chapter though– the one where the pretty woman was talking with the weird guy about how she met her husband in a mental hospital.

    I’ll go back to your blog once I’m done with the whole book. Currently looking for second hand-sellers of of David Foster Wallace books.

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