The Pale King – Chapter 14


Dear Dave,

Last April I shared a special moment with a handful of Wallace-l listers at Skylight Books in Hollywood.  To celebrate the release of The Pale King we took turns reading our favorite passages from our favorite of your books.  We shared laughs and smiles as we heard excerpts from Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews, A Supposedly Fun Thing, even Everything and More.  Then to close the party, one of the hosts read from §14 of The Pale King, the brief interview in which the nameless narrator tells of the play he wants to write.

He[1] describes it as “a totally real, true-to-life play.  It would be unperformable, that was part of the point” (106).  It’s about an IRS wiggler going over tax returns.  “He 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” (106).

Reflecting on this passage – one of the many gems in this great unfinished work – in light of my reading and rereading of the novel and the many discussions I have had about the book, it seems to me that this single page is perhaps one of the best summaries of the entire novel.  This unwritten play in which the wiggler just sits there and nothing really happens is a sort of microcosm of the rest of the book.  The novel is all back story and set-up with no real payoff.[2]  Like the fictional audience, we’re waiting and waiting for something to happen, but it never does.[3]

Further reflection got me to thinking about how if this play is a sort of microcosm of the novel, then perhaps the novel is a sort of microcosm of the human experience.  Isn’t most of life just a lot of waiting around for something to happen?  As you say in “This is Water,” “There happen to be whole large parts of American life that… involve boredom, routine, and petty frustration” (64-65).  Like the audience, we wait and wait and nothing happens, and we get restless, and we get up and move on to other things.

It’s like that borderline-cliché John Lennon line that says, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”[4]  We get antsy and bored and frustrated with the “day-in-day-out” of adult life and don’t realize the things right in front of us that we’re missing out on.  Like the fish in the “didactic little parable-ish story,” we are left asking, “What the hell is water?”

There is so much more to the play, there is so much more to the novel, and there is so much more to our human experience if we will just pause long enough to take notice.


[1] The nameless narrator, #917229047, is also genderless, but I’m going to use the third person male pronoun here for simplicity’s sake.  I hope everyone’s ok with that.

[2] There’s plenty of payoff in a literary and aesthetic sense, but not so much in terms of plot.  We read about where everyone comes from and how and why they enlisted in the Service, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere after that.  It seems more of a character study and thematic exploration than it does your typical plot-driven novel.

[3] In Antwerp, during our many post-conference-proceedings discussions while enjoying a wide variety of delicious Belgian beers, I posited once or twice that I wonder if the novel was really finishable.  Tragic death aside, is this a story that could be finished?  Can a novel about mind-numbing boredom ever be brought to a conclusion?  If so, what would that ending look like?  Like the play, is the novel “unperformable”?

[4] Well not exactly like it, but kinda close.

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2 thoughts on “The Pale King – Chapter 14

  1. And Wallace has always crafted his fiction to have this unfinished quality. He builds up a stream of details and anticipation towards a crisis moment and then ends the narrative or (in his novels) jumps away to another narrative. If he returns to the original narrative, it picks up after the crisis moment.

    • Thanks for the comment and insight, Greg. As I have been working my way through Wallace’s canon, I’ve found this very thing to be one of the most frustrating, but also must satisfying things about his fiction. It frustrates me because the rising action is supposed to build to something. The story needs a climax and resolution. But I find it satisfying and even refreshing at the same time because it is so much more true to life. Life doesn’t follow the standard plot diagram we all learned in middle school. Things will build and build and then just end, or things happen for no good reason, or “A” rarely ever actually causes “B”, and so forth.
      He had that figured out and was able to replicate it in his fiction perfectly.

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